“Man the Conqueror” or “Man the Biotic Citizen”

Unit 2, which I began in week 2 and which will continue into week 3, was titled Deep Ecology. Now, a good bit of discussion on the concept of Deep Ecology was reviewed in unit one, but I have indeed begun to get a bit more involved with the morality of the subject. While this unit is not yet complete, I’ll review some of the readings I’ve investigated thus far.

The commons, here, is just a shared residential open space. The idea of the commons, however, can be much more.

The commons, here, is just a shared residential open space. The idea of the commons, however, can be much more.

From Commons to Commons | Platt, Rutherford H. From Commons to Commons: Evolving concepts of open space in North American cities. In H. Platt Rutherford, Rowan Rowntree, & Pamela C. Muick (Eds.). (1994). The Ecological City: preserving and restoring urban biodiversity (p.21). Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press.

This reading was from a book I can’t wait to read fully. It was interesting, providing a very thorough review of planning movements (in very few pages) which have impacted urban open space, particularly in North America. It moves from the idea of the “commons,” resources or land held in common by all of a society, all the way to a very intriguing idea of residual natural patches, and every concept in between – offering a criticism of the successes and failures of each. Platt notes key figures and dates, making this a great source for planning history investigations (I’ve pulled this information and am in the process of constructing a timeline of paramount events influencing the field of ecological sustainability). He also goes into the idea of value, how society views nature, much in the same way that many of the readings before this have. Often, as Platt notes, nature is seen as a resource to be drawn upon; only occasionally cherished as something sacred but, even still, those feelings are always extremely localized or concentrated, based mostly on personal ties or emotions (think of how the “cute” endangered animals always get the most attention). What I liked most about Platt’s piece was the concept of residual spaces. Explored in more detail by the environmental author David Nicholson-Lord, this concept suggests that the unused urban spaces offer many ecological surprises. And while such spaces certainly aren’t the answer to our urban-ecological problems, they not only continue to produce their eco-benefits, but they are a reminder to urbanites of the larger whole of which the city belongs. Though it wasn’t described by Platt, I was constantly thinking of the resilience of nature here, considering the perseverance a nature to grow wild again in places where humans either forget or dare not venture. From a study I conducted along Baltimore City’s Howard Street, I have become quite familiar with this omnipresent wildness lingering in the cracks and corners, and I am very much in love with this concept! Thankfully, I was to read more of it…

A vacant building on Howard Street in Baltimore was overtaken by some resilient flora- aka weeds!

A vacant building on Howard Street in Baltimore was overtaken by some resilient flora- aka weeds!

Design with City Nature: An Overview of Some Issue | Hough, Michael. Design with City Nature: An Overview of Some Issues. In H. Platt Rutherford, Rowan Rowntree, & Pamela C. Muick (Eds.). (1994). The Ecological City: preserving and restoring urban biodiversity (p.40). Amherst, MA: The University of Massachusetts Press.

I went on to read the next chapter, titled Design with City Nature: An overview of some issues, of this same book. If you’ll recall, I read some of Michael Hough’s writings last week from his book, City Form and Natural Process. Alas, he segment included in this book was a bit of a recap, but did indeed cover some more ground than I had already read. It was a great review of Hough’s key ideas, and like the Platt reading before it, this segment also mentioned the forgotten, “waste” spaces of the city.  Unlike Platt, however, Hough’s reading went into more depth, suggesting the resilience and regeneration of urban landscapes within these spaces. Going back to the recurrent discussion of how society views nature, Hough sites our failure to recognize the ecological value of such spaces as a fundamental hindrance to ecological progress. Furthermore, with the ever more universal schema of open space within cities, our sense of identity is fading without our native/natural context. On this topic, Hough actually mentioned Tucson, AZ and their story about renouncing the short grass lawn bandwagon they previously jumped on. Hough commends the city for its shift after recognizing this universal ideal landscape as a contributing factor of water scarcity. Since the transition back towards native plants, there has been a renewed sense of belonging to the land. That phrasing really got to me: rather than the land belonging to the people, the people are now seen as belonging to the land…how amazing is that!? However, though stories like Tucson’s are encouraging they only prove, as Hough explains, that our society will not, or cannot, adopt rational environmental practices until they are absolutely necessary for our own survival. Arguing that the very same technological advances which have made our lives more comfortable (sanitary and storm water management, for example) are also degrading our environment (I agree), Hough ends with a few sections describing alternatives to our conventional design; suggesting there are better ways to organize our food, park, resource, and development systems.

The Land Ethic | Leopold, Aldo. (1948). The Land Ethic. In Andrew Light & Holmes Rolston, III. (Eds.) (2003). Environmental Ethics: An Anthology (p. 38-46). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

To end my reviews for this post, I turn to Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic. If you’ll recall, I jumped into this anthology, Environmental Ethics, last week when I read Clare Palmer’s “What is Environmental Ethics?” In that introductory chapter, Palmer mentioned Leopold’s Land Ethic. This week, I re-read Leopold’s piece, which I read about 5 or 6 years ago. Leopold’s piece was the first reading of this study which really pushed for, and emphasized, the moral need for an environmental ethic. While I’ve read of this need for environmental ethics already, and the various sects of such, no author has yet spoken of the moral significance so profoundly as Leopold. Having read this before, I think I was more receptive this time around. Leopold begins by reviewing the evolution of ethics: from the individual/individual relationship, on to the individual/society relationship, and the final individual/land relationship. Defining such relationships is integral to the concept of ethics, which Leopold explains “rests on a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts” (p.39). Whereas our instincts push us to compete with these parts, it is our ethic which encourages us to cooperate (as Leopold says, perhaps this cooperation ensures the competition will continue). A land ethic, as Leopold defines it, is an “ethic dealing with human’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.” Land, as Leopold emphasizes, is not just soil but the entire biotic community. This community, however, has conventionally been a slave and servant to society, who plays the role of the conqueror. Alas, we should have learned by now, as Leopold hopes, that the conqueror role is self-defeating.

Leopold goes on to criticize the trends of conservationism. Based wholly on economic value, the conservationist system does not address the unrecognized economic value of the land. The word unrecognized was used here because the profitability of something is sometimes only realized once it is gone (to clarify, everything is profitable, but we don’t always see that on the surface). Leopold also strongly believes than an organism has a biotic right to survival, regardless of its perceived lack of economic advantage to us. Furthermore, Leopold notes how conservation measures are usually relegated to the government, which often lacks the resources necessary to adequately conserve the land. To sum up his ideas here, I’d like to share the following quote:

“Conservation is paved with good intentions which prove to be futile, or even dangerous, because they are devoid of critical understanding either of the land, or of economic land-use.”

This matter of economic value is intriguing because, as we are coming to realize, all organisms play some essential role in the ecosystem, However, until we see how each role can impact us as humans, we’re quick to let one “un-economic part” disappear as if the “economic parts” will function just as well (p. 42). This inter-connectivity leads to Leopold’s discussion of the Land Pyramid. As we still barely understand the natural mechanisms which operate to maintain the land, Leopold discredits the common phrase, “the balance of nature.” Instead of this idea of a balance, he opts for the biotic pyramid, representing the hierarchy (for lack of a better term) of all living units and the food chains that link them together. As a vegan, I’m not entirely sure where I fit in! Connecting the flow of energy between these links is an open-circuit. However, as humans have moved about and disrupted the native systems of the land, these circuits are no longer localized or self-contained. And so, Leopold asks, is the land able to adjust itself to this new order> Here, we have the issue of resiliency once more. Leopold suggests the land’s ability to regenerate depends on local biota, and while some regions have already shown their robust flexibility, other have been more disorganized.

Leopold ends with his very more idea of the land ethic, saying that such an ethic requires an ecological conscience, which requires a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Since this piece was published, more and more individuals have adopted this sense of stewardship – or so I believe. Rather than be “man the conqueror” we can be “man the biotic citizen.”

Conclusion

If I may be a bit open about my personal life, I’d like to express some thoughts which came to mind during Leopold’s reading. I relate most to the idea of a “whole,” as well as to Leopold’s almost spiritual appreciation of the land. A few years ago, disappointed with modern organized religion, I decided to investigate some of the older or more natural religions. I became fascinated mostly with pagan regions honoring and respecting the earth. Many of the earth-based religions which I studied view our spirits as being a part of a larger whole. It is in this idea that I truly feel connected to Leopold’s ethic, and it is the same fundamental idea which has encouraged me to approach my own health, and that of our cities, in a holistic manner. The whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. Really, though, Leopold, as well as a few other authors which I’ve read thus far, have been preaching to the choir. I’m a vegan for the very reason that I think all organisms are entitled a right to survive; I don’t kill an animal for food because I don’t see them as resources solely for my benefit. And this same outlook is what has led me to become a steward of the planet, an environmentalist.

While these ideals are already underlying within me, I still am not sure how to apply them to my work as an urban planner/designer. Hopefully, the coming units will help the solution to evolve.

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2 thoughts on ““Man the Conqueror” or “Man the Biotic Citizen”

    • I have not actually. However, I read a blog post recently about whether or not preserving “wild” spaces is a realistic vision or an unattainable ideal and that post mentioned the same book. I’ll definitely have to read it.

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