Thursday, June 28, 2012

Philosophy: Rethinking Land Use and Ethics in Newcomb

What follows is a guest essay by Ian Werkheiser, a PhD student in the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University whose primary research interests are in the environment, communities, social justice, and epistemology. Werkheiser attended the recent symposium in Newcomb on Land Use and Ethics organized by Adirondack philosopher and regular Adirondack Almanack contributor Marianne Patinelli-Dubay.

This spring I had the pleasure of attending SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry’s (SUNY-ESF) inaugural Symposium on Land Use and Ethics. Despite taking place in SUNY-ESF’s Adirondack Ecological Center, with miles of hiking trails around Rich Lake, people were still willing to sit inside and listen to the talks. The conference was a great success, in no small part because it did something that is unfortunately all-too-rare: it brought together philosophical theory with practical experience, for the improvement of both. Philosophers have a tendency to reason with hypothetical examples and abstract problems they devise themselves.

A classic example is the question of whether or not it is ethical to steal medicine from your town’s pharmacy to save your sick child if you don’t have enough money to buy it. As the philosopher and psychologist Carol Gilligan has pointed out, these abstractions leads us to have certain kinds of thoughts, and close off others. For instance, posing this as a “yes” or “no” problem closes off questions about whether it is ethical for the pharmacist to refuse help to someone in her community, or whether our society should let children die when there is readily available medicine because their parents can’t afford to buy it. By using a hypothetical question, we oversimplify. Real-world problems are far messier, and require deeper and better thinking.

At this conference, non-philosophers presented on real-world issues like the different competing interests in land use on the waterfront in Portland, Maine; the impacts of pollution in Lagos, Nigeria; how to improve group homes for adolescents in inner cities; issues concerning Native American tribal sovereignty; re-imagining urban landscapes as agriculturally productive resources; the struggle against displacement by indigenous people in South America; the response of ranchers to wolf-reintroduction around Yellowstone Park; and many other such wicked problems.

Of particular value were the presentations and issues surrounding the Adirondacks specifically. These presentations were made much stronger by the very welcome presence of locals from Newcomb and nearby towns who brought their perspectives and questions to the discussions afterward. These presentations touched on issues like how houses in the Adirondacks will need to adapt to an era of oil shortage; how the Adirondacks and poor African-American children growing up in Harlem can enrich and help each other; how New York state land use management decisions have affected community self-determination; how residents of the Adirondacks can and ought to have a voice in the changing uses of land on the borders of the park; and more. These real-world issues give a sharper focus to philosophy, close off overly simplistic answers, and make philosophers’ intuitions and conclusions better.

While concrete questions can better philosophy, as a philosopher I also believe that philosophical theory can help these same practical concerns by deepening the issue and making us question our biases and assumptions. For example, the panel I was on looked at international development, and how supposedly neutral ideas in theory can have very politicized effects in practice. My talk looked at the idea of “resources.” When a development agency comes into an area to help the people there, one of the first things it does is determine what resources the community has, and then decides how best to exploit these.

While “resources” might seem like a neutral term used for a positive goal, for many people conceiving of something as a resource is itself insulting, and will lead to outcomes the local people do not want. In my talk I used examples from India, but we can see this just as easily in the context of the Adirondacks. If I list the board-feet of timber, cubic meters of water, amount of arable land (once those board-feet of timber are utilized), and so on in these mountains, many residents would be insulted, and not think I had captured the value of this area. Further, my attempt to help the locals exploit these “resources” would be met with fierce resistance. Looking at the ethics of the concepts we use, and their power to shape how we see the world, can be a useful service of theoretical analysis that people engaged in practical efforts might not step back and think about on their own.

At the conference there were many fascinating theoretical talks which caused attendees to reexamine the ways they looked at the world. These included an analysis of the “North American Model of conservation” (state parks like the Adirondacks, limits on hunting, etc.) both for its values and unrealized problems; a look at how science and the wider culture interact in ways that make some stakeholders silent and invisible in discussions about the environment and how this could be addressed; a deep look at the meaning of fences for the environment and our own world view; an argument in favor of criminology growing to include crimes against the environment and how this could address questions of social justice; how the way we learn about the world can be an important part of defining our community; how place, identity, and our bodies all interact; and many other challenging ideas.

The conference concluded with a talk by the President of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where he showed the useful interaction of philosophical theory and practice by discussing the ethical necessity of responding to the demands of students at that university by taking specific steps to be more environmentally aware and sustainable. This inaugural symposium was powerful because it brought together the often unrelated worlds of the abstract and the concrete, and I can only hope it will continue and grow in the following years, and that even more people from the Adirondack community come and participate.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

2 Responses

  1. Dave Gibson says:

    I am, simply, very sorry I did not attend. This write-up is terrific, and thank you to the author and to Marianne, conference sponsor.

    • Marianne says:

      Hi Dave and thanks for your support, as ever. We’re already looking forward to next year!

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