James W. Sheppard (SUNY, Binghamton)

"The Road Less Traveled: Cities, Wilderness, and Environmentalism
in the Pragmatic Corridor"

1. At a Crossroads

"The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land" (Leopold 1970: 239). 

Ever since Aldo Leopold wrote these words in his Sand County Almanac, a majority of environmentalists have been working to realize what we now know to be the land ethic.  They often concentrate on Leopold’s central moral maxim as the cornerstone of any mature environmental ethic: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise" (262).  These words about the value of the land have served as a framework for guiding our relations with the natural world.  When environmentalists talk about the value of the land they are not talking only about the philosophical concept of natural value, but also what we are to value or what has value.[1]  Thus, certain contextual frameworks always serve as the background for accounts of natural value.  No matter how logically sound our conceptions of natural value might be, we still need to say that it is this individual organism, species, ecosystem, or landscape that we value or that is of value.  In other words, accounts of value depend on there being foci of value.  Most environmentalists have consistently ignored one focus of value: urban areas.  They have been working with an incomplete set of natural value kinds.  While the natural world consists of urban, rural, and wilderness places, many environmentalists have been content with focusing on the last primarily, the second somewhat and the first not at all.  There is a clear anti-urban bias in environmentalism.  Referring to environmental ethics, Andrew Light recently called this the field’s urban blindspot (Light Forthcoming).  One might reply to this charge of exclusion with skepticism.  First, urban areas are suspect ecologically because they contain less ecosystemic complexity and diversity than non-urban areas.  Second, they are suspect metaphysically – urban areas represent all that is unnatural.  Third, they are suspect politically.  Out of control urban growth suggests that urban areas are beyond management and thus not a viable focus of the environmentalist’s political energies.  However, I would argue that the very reasoning utilized here to justify the exclusion of urban areas from environmentalism, be it explicitly, tacitly, or implicitly, is itself suspect, and moreover, serves as the justification for their inclusion.

            Before I explain why urban areas ought to be included, let us return to Leopold.  His words help to illustrate how environmentalists have gone astray – how they have placed themselves at a crossroads by insisting on not accounting and correcting for their urban blindspot.  For Leopold, the ultimate ethic views the land as a community to which we are a part.  Nowhere does Leopold say, "the land as community save urban areas."  The land is the community, the community the land, meaning that all of the land is worthy of consideration and will have to be understood if we are to grasp the complexity of natural processes.  In fact, far from delimiting the land ethic to non-urban areas, Leopold affirms the natural value lessons present in all types of land when he writes: "The weeds in a city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods" (292).  That Leopold could recognize this is telling.  The question is: will environmentalists who find themselves at a crossroads continue down the exclusionary road that does not include urban areas, or will they, echoing the words of Robert Frost, take the road less traveled and begin to work on including urban areas in their efforts?[2]  I am inclined to argue that this is a crucial crossroads for environmentalism.  If environmentalists continue down the same well-worn road working with a limited set of foci for their natural value accounts that does not include urban areas, they will also be working with a predetermined, delimited set of environmental policies limited in its ability to meet environmental objectives that span diverse environments.  However, if environmentalists advance down the less traveled road, and begin to work with a more complete set of foci for their natural value accounts that includes urban areas, they will have a richer ability to meet environmental objectives that span diverse environments.  I argue that the less traveled road is the wiser choice.  The totality of the land deserves our concerted efforts if we are to understand the various means of conserving and preserving nature.  It is time for the weeds in the city lot to be recognized – it is time, as Wendell Berry tells us, to hear the "earth singing beneath the streets" (1985:123)

2. Excluded Urban Areas?  Limited Resources and the Necessity of Tough Decisions

On a regular basis, environmentalists make tough decisions about what should and should not to be included in their theorizing and action.  Take theory to begin with.  One example is environmental ethics.  While having grown considerably over the last three decades, it is still considered only an applied area of philosophical ethics.  Even though more departments are now hiring environmental philosophers than ever before, environmental ethics does not enjoy the same type of mainstream acceptance and support as other applied areas.  As a result, there is still only a handful of systematic works in environmental philosophy.[3]  Environmental philosophers are charged with the task of not only continuing the project of laying the groundwork in what is still a new field, but also with the task of attempting to break new ground.  All the while, they must also try to remain politically viable and theoretically useful to the wider environmental movement.  Because of this, they make tough decisions and delimit their field to areas generally considered non-urban.  I offer this only as a suggestion and a partial explanation for the exclusion of urban areas.  Surely, there are exceptions to the way I have portrayed environmental ethics.[4]  Still, many environmental philosophers do exclude certain types of land, leaving the work to be done by other scholars that they take to be more qualified such as urbanists or environmental planners. 

Now consider environmental activism.  The Nature Conservancy, a leading preservation and conservation organization, for example, has for its motto, "Saving the Last Great Places."  The success of the group’s acquisition of numerous acres of land has meant a great deal to the environmental movement.  But, in the process, certain places have been deemed not as great and left not saved.  So while a section of land in the inner city of Detroit might be culturally interesting and a nice home to many human and non-human animals, for the time being it is neither great nor worth saving.  For political, economic, and ideological reasons, environmentalists choose places like Oregon’s Blind Sough, the White Mountains Complex of Arizona, or the Chihuahua Woods Preserve in Texas first, deeming them to be great natural places worth saving.[5]  And so they should, within certain limits.  What I want to question here is the continual tendency to always have non-urban places be considered the great natural places.  In the process, urban areas must wait indefinitely for such a label and also for the care, economic funds, and general attention that organizations like the Nature Conservancy make possible. 

3. Monism: The Real Problem

Where then does this leave us?  Is it just a question of redirecting our theoretical and activist energies so that they include urban areas, or is there something deeper at issue?  I think what is at issue is the manner in which many environmentalists approach questions of natural value, not at the abstract theoretical level but at the level of actually saying what we are to value or is of value.  Typically, when environmentalists argue for what ought to be the focus of value, they do so in monistic terms.  When operating from within a monistic framework, they necessarily act as if there were only one focus for their investigations.  Not every environmentalist operates this way, but it is worth noting that a number of the most prominent and influential ones (including Rolston and Callicott) do work from a monistic framework and toward monistic understandings of what ought to be the focus of our conceptions of value. 

Take Holmes Rolston, for example.  According to Rolston, there are two types of natural value.  There are biocentric spontaneous natural values, which are the intrinsic values nature possesses, independent of humans, and there are secondary natural values that are anthropocentric or anthropogenic (1988: 2ff. and 1994: Ch. 1-6).  While Rolston does not explicitly tell us, it is possible to conclude what types of areas might be the focus of each type of natural value.  Secondary natural values will exist in areas where spontaneous natural values are most obviously present.  A wilderness preserve visited twice a year by ecologists would have both spontaneous and secondary natural value – the secondary value being the scientific value the preserve provides for visiting scientists.  What about a more ambiguous case like urban areas?  Are they loci of spontaneous natural value, secondary natural value? 

According to Rolston, while humans can ascribe a secondary type of value to nature, they can only do this by entering into a unique relationship with spontaneous wild nature.  When Rolston speaks of humans beings being "let in" to the world of nature, and of being able to assign value to that nature, he is talking about humans returning to what he calls their "aboriginal source" in wild nature, or wilderness (1986: 224).  When he writes: "Society is crucial for one aspect of persons, wilderness for another," (230) and "to forgo human company frees us to engage the natural order," (223) it is clear that civilized society and urban areas are the things to get away from.  We cannot arrive at a sense of our own essential ecological identity until we "escape from the secular city" and plunge into the wilderness (1988: 25).  Thus, secondary valuing of nature requires experience in wild nature, not in urban areas that represent "synthetic life filled with plastic everything from teeth to trees" (36).  This tendency to position urban areas as plagued and synthetic signals the presence of a strong anti-urban bias in Rolston’s theory and also tells us that urban areas will most likely not be the focus of his theoretical conception of natural value.  Rolston’s suggestion that all we find in urban areas are "tatterdemalion scraps of nature" is unfortunately representative of much of the wider environmental movement (1994: 200).

4. The Limits of Monism

At this point, an objection to the manner in which I have presented Rolston might be that I have glossed over his admission that some cultural values present in urban areas can compliment natural values (328ff.).[6]  This admission, however, still separates the world into cultural urban areas and natural non-urban areas which I argue is suspect.  First, there are ecological reasons for permitting urban areas to be the focus of natural value accounts.  Rolston himself writes that, "Anything is of value here that has a good story to it [,] …has intense harmony, or is a project of quality" (1986, 112).  Those who have studied the history of urbanism, urban planning or urban ecology recognize that urban areas do tell a natural story (Beatley and Manning 1997; Inoguchi, et al. 1999).  Even though urban ecosystems are less complex and diverse than non-urban ecosystems, they still operate on the same basic ecological principles (Garber 1987; Gilbert 1991; Platt, et al. 1994).  There is a harmony present not only within the urban ecosystems themselves, but also, as the first law of ecology ("everything is inter-connected") reminds us, between urban and non-urban ecosystems (Commoner, 41).  To neglect the ecological operations of urban ecosystems is to work with an incomplete ecological set.

Metaphysically, representations of urban areas as unnatural have been predominant in the United States for at least two centuries, if not more.[7]  While urban areas do contain much that might be considered unnatural, even the harshest skeptic cannot deny the presence of urban flora and fauna.  In differing degrees, urban areas are situated in natural contexts.  It is a flawed metaphysical conception that holds nature to somehow stop at the city limits.  In reality, nature does respect some boundaries.  But surely, the natural world is never kept out of urban areas entirely.[8]  It may be easier to assume that nature stops at the city limits, but it is simply an indefensible metaphysical position – there are no clear divisions in the natural world.[9]  A less question-begging metaphysical alternative would be to position urban and non-urban areas on a continuum of naturalness that recognizes, for example, pristine wilderness areas as more natural than perhaps urban parks.    

Finally, it only makes political sense to recognize the environments within which most people live – urban areas.  Not recognizing that more than half of the entities that can bear duties to and for the natural world live in urban areas threatens to leave them out of the political equation.  The environmental historian William Cronon argues that the habit of dividing the world into wilderness places and urban places has close ties to the levels and types of responsibility that are ultimately ascribed to humans.  He writes: "…To the extent that we live in urban-industrial civilization but at the same time pretend to ourselves that our real home is in the wilderness, to just that extent we give ourselves permission to evade responsibility for the lives we actually lead" (1996: 81).  Since human beings tend to identify with and care for what they know, only focusing on non-urban areas would prove inadequate for the task of politically motivating people to do things for their own environment or their home places.  Recognizing urban areas as foci of natural value accounts might better motivate people to participate in and ground responsibility for such urban environmental actions as recycling, walking, and living in co-housing projects. 

How then might theorists begin the work of including urban areas in their work?  How can accounts that recognize urban and non-urban areas merge into a more complete and inclusive environmentalism?[10]  It has been said that part of the very core of pragmatism is that the "pragmatic temper or outlook is vague enough to embrace a multitude of philosophies that are profoundly inconsistent at the operating level" (Posner 1991: 36).  Partly because of this, I am inclined to argue that the pragmatic temper can serve as a methodological tool for locating consensus within the current situation in environmentalism.

5. The Pragmatic Corridor

In Pragmatism William James writes that the pragmatic methodology,

Lies in the midst of our theories, like a corridor in a hotel.  Innumerable chambers open out of it.  In one you may find a man writing an atheistic volume; in the next some one on his knees praying for faith and strength; in a third a chemist investigating a body’s properties.  In a fourth a system of idealistic metaphysics is being excogitated; in a fifth the impossibility of metaphysics is being shown.  But they all own the corridor, and all must pass through it if they want a practicable way of getting into and out of their respective rooms (1987: 510).

James uses the metaphor of a hotel corridor as a way to illuminate the problem of conflicting worldviews.  For him, those worldviews were the rational and empirical mindsets in philosophy.  For us, those worldviews are the urban and the non-urban mindsets in environmentalism.  James’ pragmatic hunch that the adherents of conflicting worldviews usually "have a hankering for the good things on both sides" and his methodological reasoning for why there are good practical reasons for forging a middle ground are useful tools for navigating environmentalism at the crossroads (491-492).

Note that James’ hotel is filled with occupants who are both suspicious and scornful of their neighbors (491).  Most environmentalists do view urban areas with trepidation.  For the environmentalist that excludes urban areas, it might seem that she must fortify her theoretical room to protect against manipulation and infiltration by the other.  A wilderness advocate might argue that once the admission is made that natural value exists in urban areas, the uniqueness and irreplaceability of the value of spontaneous natural properties is threatened by an over-generalization of the concept of natural value.  They might argue that if natural value occurs everywhere, why ought we to protect any one part of the earth more than another?  It seems best to remain suspicious of alternative positions if for no other reason than for self-preservation.  Given this, why does James speak of a common corridor not through which participants can pass, but through which participants must pass?

James writes that the pragmatist "turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins [and] …turns toward concreteness and adequacy, toward facts, toward action and towards power" (Ibid.).  Pragmatism is about action and power because it aims to put words, ideas, and intellectual theories to "work within the stream of your experience" (509).[11]  Pragmatism, as a result, calls into question those who wish to remain in their theoretical rooms.  Surely, to leave our rooms will include sacrificing particular things including a certain sense of security.  More significant though is what might be gained from opening our doors and entering into a common corridor.  Since a pragmatic methodology recognizes the importance of action derived from convergence, the possibilities for new forms of power and action to be actualized in the corridor are the best reasons for beginning the project of locating common ground between the urban and the non-urban.

6. Conclusion: Toward a More Complete Environmentalism

Imagine that two very different environmentalists – one that recognizes urban areas as foci of natural value accounts and one that does not – have decided to come out of their rooms and enter into the pragmatic corridor.  I think that it would be naïve of us to argue that the two parties, as is, are discursively equipped to find the common ground needed to spur inclusive and productive environmental discourse and action.  Something more is needed to fuel consensus decision making.  The geographer David Harvey has argued that consensus can be reached in highly contested postmodern public space by appealing to higher order arguments.[12]  Higher order arguments are the tools that can be used to unify and ground consensus thinking and decision-making.  All positions appeal to higher order arguments either explicitly or implicitly in their claims.  For example, in the case of the non-urbanist the basic claim is that non-urban areas ought to be the foci of natural value accounts.  This basic claim is supported by a higher order rationale; in this case, that rationale resembles the wilderness ideal which, put simply, holds humans to be the despoilers of nature and pristine wilderness to be the ideal that we should all aspire to (Cronon 1996: 69-90; Oelschlaeger 1991).  In the case of the urbanist, the basic claim is that the urban world is a possible focus of natural value accounts.  The higher order rationale here might come from the main principles of environmental justice such as: "Environmental justice affirms the need for urban and rural ecological policies to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature" ("Principles of Environmental Justice" 1993).  Thus, the key to arriving at a pluralistic value methodology and decision-making frame that produces inclusive and productive environmental action is determining what consensus exists not in the basic claims being made, claims that are highly contentious, but instead in the operative higher order arguments.[13] 

Community welfare is the common higher order rationale that can allow both urban and non-urban areas to be recognized.  Even though different definitions of community are advanced, the idea of community is central.  The non-urbanist defines the ideal natural community in biocentric terms first, and then admits of a human presence that is secondary in nature.  The urbanist may define natural community anthropocentrically.  The different foci of natural value does not change the fact that they are meant to ground duties to and for the natural communities.  Pursuing the welfare of natural communities is what Norton has called a common-denominator objective – a goal that "virtually all environmentalists would support" (1991: 92).  Community welfare will take on different meanings.[14]  But these different meanings are "complimentary routes to the same conclusion" (97).  In both cases, responsible environmental behavior that leads to the flourishing of natural communities is the desired conclusion.  Since urban and non-urban natural communities are interconnected, there is little reason to argue for the superiority of any one position.  In fact, the convergence established in a pragmatic framework rests on the ecological, metaphysical and political interrelatedness of urban and non-urban areas (240).  In the end it becomes clear that by acknowledging various foci of natural value, and working to find the consensus that exists, we are more likely to address the myriad of ecological problems that exist. 


[1] Conceptions of natural value typically make reference to individual organisms, species, ecosystems or types of land.  For example, animal welfare theorists such as Peter Singer and Tom Regan write about the value of sentient individuals and centers-of-life, respectively, by writing about non-human entities (Singer 1975; Regan 1983).  Callicott and Rolston write about the value of wilderness by writing about wilderness places such as those found in the Western United States (Callicott 1989 and 1999; Rolston 1988 and 1994).  Bryan Norton defines the value of diversity by writing about actual total species diversity (1986 and 1991).

[2] I have paraphrased Robert Frost’s poem "The Road Not Taken" for the title and for this section of this paper.  The actual passage from the poem reads:

"I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:                       
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

For the complete poem, see Frost 1995.

[3] Here I mean a small number relative to other applied areas in philosophical ethics such as business ethics or medical ethics.

[4] There is a small group of environmental ethicists beginning the project of developing an urban-friendly environmental ethic.  Andrew Light’s work on environmental pragmatism regularly focuses on urban areas (See Light 1995 and Forthcoming, for example).  Dale Jamieson’s piece on including the preservation of urban historical landmarks in an environmental ethic is useful (1984).  Avner de-Shalit discusses urban areas in his paper on the history of ruralist thought in environmental philosophy (1996).  And, finally, Alastair S. Gunn’s "Rethinking Communities: Environmental Ethics in an Urbanized World" is a useful survey of some of the relevant issues (1998).

[5] These three recent examples of the Nature Conservancy’s efforts illustrate this point.  The Blind Sough in Oregon contains nearly 400 acres of spruce hummocks and marshy hollows, but it is the swamp ecosystem that distinguishes this area.  The White Mountains Complex of Arizona is one of 52 sites that the Nature Conservancy has set out to protect in a 46,428 square-mile breadth of the Arizona-New Mexico Mountains.  Finally, the 243-acre Chihuahua Woods Preserve in the Rio Grand Valley of Texas supports a abundant cactus community and is known as a birding mecca.  For more on these and other efforts, see Nature Conservancy 1998, pp. 8-9, 12-18, and 31.

[6] Rolston does seem to hold out some optimism as to the role and place of urban areas when he discusses what he calls the arena of values, but this role and place relies on a traditional dichotomous model of nature versus culture.  Rolston argues that values can be divided into two types - wild values (nature) and urban values (culture).  Wild values exist independent of the second type of value, urban or cultural values.  Urban values are a type of social good found in urban areas.  The treatment of urban values that Rolston therefore offers is not concerned at all with the possibility that natural value might exist in urban areas, but instead with a type of value that he sees as on the culture side of the nature/culture divide.  Nonetheless, he suggests that we should aim for a synthesis of the two, what he calls a hybrid approach.  By combining the best parts of the natural value world and the best parts of the urban value world, according to Rolston, we can move toward "culture situated in nature" (330).  Aside from the obvious similarities here to the Garden City ideas advanced by the urban theorist Ebenezer Howard nearly a century ago, Rolston’s ideas are interesting in that they at least admit of somewhat of a positive urban influence (Howard 1898).  So while he does argue that urban areas should be an important component of the hybrid value system that results from the synthesis of urban and wild values, he stops short of admitting that natural value exists in urban areas.  When he writes that humans "should live in a cosmos, a world, and in a polis, a city," urban areas emerge as one component of our attempts to give an account of value, taken generally, so as to fortify our duties to the natural world that are grounded in an account of natural value (1988: 329).

[7] For more on negative interpretations and representations of urban areas and the effect they have on the way humans cognitively engage those places including the affect such interpretations and representations have on practice, ideology, and policy see, Lees 1985; Lawson 1995; and Light 1995.

[8] Rolston does write that "even in town we never cease to reside in nature" (1988:332).  However, what he has in mind here are the natural properties that can be recognized in cultural activities.  He gives the example of the muscles that move the violinist’s arm at a symphony as a sign of the presence of the natural world in urban areas.  I would argue, of course, that the natural world can be recognized in much richer urban contexts than simply human physiology.

[9] This, of course, is a highly contentious point for many environmentalists.  Eric Katz, for example, prefers to demarcate the world into nature and artifact.  For Katz, humans and what they produce (i.e. urban areas) are artifactual and thus are not genuine parts of natural communities.  Since it would take a revision of traditional moral practice to include humans as members and also since humans have shown themselves to be capable of devastating domination of the natural world, he argues that such an idea is implausible (1997: 18-19).  However, if we return to Leopold’s land ethic, it becomes clear that a genuine and complete land ethic will have to work to change "the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it" (Leopold 1970: 240).   

[10] Norton asks a similar question in Toward Unity among Environmentalists, but his approach is focused on the convergence of different value frameworks.  He calls for a more inclusive, objective-driven value framework (1991: 83, 90, 91).  I am more concerned with how environmentalists working with different accounts of value might begin to recognize how the foci of those value accounts merge.  Thus, unlike Norton, I see no reason to rule out the possibility that radically different value accounts, if admitting of urban and non-urban areas, could help satisfy environmental objectives.

[11] Norton refers to this in his writing on environmental pragmatism as working with a "action-oriented model" (1991:98).

[12] He uses a postmodern critical approach to analyze the public battle that took place over a public park in New York City in 1988.  He takes Tompkins Square Park to be a paradigmatic example of highly contested postmodern public space.  A diverse range of inhabitants from skateboarders and homeless people to drug dealers and prostitutes characterized the park itself.  After a number of incidents that required police intervention, the city of New York decided to address the problems of the park.  Eventually, the New York City police department closed the park down.  Using the contested space of the park as his backdrop, Harvey sets out to outline what a productive and common discourse might look like in such an atmosphere.  In the end, he argues that urban policy makers can learn from the Tompkins Square Park incident and work to incorporate a postmodern understanding of discourse communities into their practice and theories (1992).

[13] Coincidentally, Harvey examined the possibility that the notions of social rationality and social justice might serve as consensus higher order arguments in postmodern discourse environments, such as the Tompkins Square Park case.  Social rationality and social justice, as ideas, were based on the understanding that diverse groups, despite differences, advance rational arguments and share a common concern for social justice.  The problem, Harvey concluded, was that the notions of rationality and justice were themselves relativistic notions that provided little common ground with which to work.  For more on Harvey’s treatment of the Tompkins Square Park case see Harvey 1992.

[14] For the non-urbanist, the welfare of the community might primarily be ecological.  For the urbanist, the welfare of the community might not primarily be ecological.  It might also include considerations of human communities.  So, when an urbanist works to develop an account of natural value, she is aiming to engender ethical duties that contribute to the ecological welfare of the natural world and to the cultural welfare of the social world.


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