Terry Fowler

Heidegger in Hamilton

The idea of living sustainably has been around as long as human language has been there to express it.  Unfortunately, having the idea is a far cry from putting it into practice.  For thousands of years, humans have been far more effective at trashing their environs than looking after them.  Much of the abundant forests on hills sloping down to the Mediterranean had been destroyed by human farming and herding long before the Roman Empire.

The publication of Our Common Future, by the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, put the concept of sustainable development into the forefront of philosophical controversies, of policy formulation and decision making, and of political maneuvering.  Sustainable development, defined by the WCED as development that meets present human needs without compromising the needs of future generations, ended up influencing attempts all over the world to build sensibly, while at the same time prompting vigorous criticisms of it as an excuse for business as usual.

Ingrid Leman Stefanovic’s purpose in her book Sustaining Our Common Future is to show how insights derived from phenomenology, in particular the thinking of Martin Heidegger, can help us to arrive at a critical, balanced view of what sustainability really means.  I was especially interested in her analysis because she uses urban sprawl to illustrate some of her arguments.

Right at the start, Stefanovic declares that phenomenology’s utility lies in its ability to “expose taken-for-granted assumptions, value judgments, and even cultural paradigms and language structures that condition our way of seeing the world.”(xvi) Her book comes back to this theme again and again, most particularly in the context of how westerners impose their narrow concept of development and their mechanistic methods on Third World Societies.  For instance, the book has an excellent section that critiques the whole notion of sustainable development indicators (SDIs) which, while they are an attempt to focus our energy on development that is ecologically friendly, are still stuck in what Stefanovic calls our calculative mindset.

She applies this critical stance to two major themes in the sustainability literature – ethics, and our sense of place – and then proceeds, quite appropriately, to intertwine those themes.  Her discussion wrestles constantly with the problem of transcending such western dualities as those of aggressive manipulation of Nature versus fatalism before its power, of the general versus the particular, of the cosmic versus the local, of rules versus spontaneity.  For example, there is an articulate discussion of a reconciliation between the totalitarianism of top down moral precepts and the anarchy of pure cultural relativism.  That discussion argues that there are some universals – not so much specific rules, as ways of engaging ourselves in an ethical process.  More on this below.

In this context, place becomes crucial for Stefanovic.  We are always in some place at some time, and that “implacement,” as she calls it, helps define us as well as our ranges of ethical alternatives.  Our places are inside as well as around us (rendering the term “environment” peculiarly clumsy); and they are not static but always changing.  Ethics thus becomes a moral process interwoven into our daily life, in our own place, not some abstract set of guidelines for us to follow anywhere at any time, nor an arcane academic discipline relegated to specialized journals and books.  From this perspective, instead of being a technical fix, sustainability turns into a graceful symbiosis between presence in a place and ethical behaviour in that place.  These are solid and important arguments, but they are thoroughly abstract.

From time to time, the theoretical points are illustrated with case studies.  For example, Stefanovic writes about her experience of being hired by a multi-disciplinary research project on sustainable practices in Hamilton Harbour.  Her job was to provide an integrative framework for the disparate research teams, grouped into four categories: Human Values and Perceptions, Contaminants, Biotic Recovery, and Policy Analysis and Economics.  Her method was to use a “phenomenological interview process” that involved extensive open-ended conversations with all the researchers.  They were asked, for instance, to imagine describing Hamilton to a friend unfamiliar with the city and then were prompted, in this context, to identify important development issues facing the area.  Key words and concepts from the interviews were tabulated and “ordered.”  Stefanovic argues that what emerged from this process was neither a simple addition of different research perspectives nor an attempt to force them all into one Procrustean paradigm.

Instead, she writes, “the interactions between these descriptors were mapped on a four-dimensional, computerized matrix, constituting an interdisciplinary, integrative overview of key elements of the Hamilton Harbour ecosystem.”(156)  The heuristic result, apparently, was to indicate that the collective perceptions of the teams had some significant blind spots, which skewed the focus of the research programme.

This last example can be used as a jumping off point to raise a few questions about some core arguments of the book.  While the interview exercise was surely useful to the Hamilton research project, the particular contribution of phenomenology and its four-dimensional matrix is less than clear, at least from Stefanovic’s description of them.  My strongest reservations about the book revolve around this point: whether phenomenology is needed by the author to make her arguments, arguments that need to be made and with which I generally agree.  Maybe, as in the case of the bourgeois gentilhomme who didn’t know he was speaking prose, many of us are phenomenologists without knowing it.  But do we need to?

An extremely important question raised in the book is an apparent paradox concerning urban sprawl.  We have known for three or four decades that North American suburban development is outrageously expensive for both governments and individuals, that its need for the automobile has produced massive amounts of deadly pollution, and that its social and political culture is somewhat suspect.  This last characteristic – the culture of suburbs – pushes many buttons, of course, because more than 50% of us now live there.  It might also be delicately mentioned that government majorities are based on suburban support, so political authority flows from inhabitants of this form of development.

Stefanovic wants to know, as do many of us, why suburban development continues unabated when it seems undesirable from so many vantage points — when it is, in fact, completely unsustainable.  Her application of phenomenological thinking to the problem produces a couple of points.  First, she refers to a theme in the phenomenological literature that stresses the fundamental significance to humans of a natural rootedness to home places, of the home as haven or even as primordial cradle.  Suburban living is focussed essentially on individual homes and on the cocoon experience of the car and is therefore expressing (I would say taking to an extreme) “the most concrete reality of all: the need of a place that will nurture and protect its inhabitants from instrusion.”(114)

Second, she provides what she calls a “a phenomenological reading” of a suburban community.  This seems to involve identifying half a dozen spatial and psychological dimensions to the experience of suburban living, such as “the rural ideal preserved,” or “privacy and enclosure.”  Another one is described as follows:

Reflective of time as the present: The past is secured in architectural features reminiscent of a past era, frozen in discrete images. The future as sheer possibility and openness implies risk that is absent, overall, from this community, which projects an image of security in full presence. (163)

This “reading” exercise, she says, will help us “understand the foundations of residents’ lived experiences of the places wherein they seek to dwell,” basically as a guide to planners. (164)

There is not a lot to grab onto with this kind of language.  While Stefanovic’s impressionistic description of the suburb is perceptive, and while it may give us some clues as to the actual content of suburban culture, the whole approach doesn’t get us much closer to understanding the suburban paradox.  One might note that suburbs have been around long enough for so many of us that we are likely to accept them as a normal model for home place and cradle.  In phenomenology’s terms, they are now the ground of North Americans’ being.  This is the landscape we know and accept, identify with, and even rejoice in – Stefanovic cites research to this effect.  Sprawl’s dysfunctional aspects become invisible to us.  (My own biases must by now be crystal clear!)

If phenomenology is “a way of seeing what is right before us,”(164) it should help us become more aware of these dysfunctions.  Furthermore, another of the book’s major themes, on the primacy of ethics and ethics as a process rather than a set of rules, could be fruitfully applied to the suburban paradox.

The argument could be developed as follows.  As mentioned above, Stefanovic points out that “ethical discernment is less a matter of intellectual construction than it is one of attunement to a particular way of being-in-place.”(128) An example from my own life involves diet.  When my wife and I were starting a family, we began paying more attention to what our children ate than we ever had to our own food habits.  This sensitivity led us to investigate alternative books, journals, and food sources.  It was a self-reinforcing process, so that little by little we were eating less meat and more organic food, as it became available.  We joined a food co-op whose other members had embarked on a similar exploration.  We did not become vegetarians overnight, but each decision led us to other ones, in a recursive manner.  It was an ethical process, closely related to where and when we were living: a young family in rural Alberta, downtown Frankfurt, or Panama City might well have gone through the same sort of ethical process, but clearly with different results.

But we are concerned with the suburbs as a place, in 2002.  They are a superb example of monoculture: the dwellings, and their siting vis-à-vis each other, are all pretty much the same. Our biological need to be rooted in a home place is now being met by developments devoid of any personality except the desperately evocative names given by their builders: Deer Glade, Highgate Hill, or River Run.  The architecture of sprawl, in other words, is the concretization of placelessness.  We have constructed places that numb us to any sensitivity to place.  If these places are supposed to give us our identity, as the phenomenologists contend, then their placelessness guarantees that we have no identity – or, perhaps, we have one fabricated by housing marketers.

More significantly, if thoughtful interaction with our home places is at the core of ethics, then our placelessness also makes us unethical.  We are incapable of making choices that will sustain us in the biosphere.

The description Stefanovic makes of the ethical process could also offer some solace to those of us who feel defeated by the inevitability of suburban development. As a reflective, recursive, self-reinforcing enterprise, the ethical process is one that “reject[s] the usual science model which ‘explains’ every event by constructing it out of the forms and pieces of earlier events.”(124) The science model is an example of what Stefanovic defined early in her book as calculative thinking: “In calculation, one studies, organizes, and computes explicitly given, empirical realities without pausing to inquire originatively about the essential meanings that sustain these investigations.”(23) The cause and effect thinking of the scientific model directly informs most urban planning and therefore directly informs Stefanovic’s continuing references to how phenomenology can help planning policy.  In many places in her book, she suggests that policies for sustainable development, presumably formulated and passed into law by governments, can be improved by attention to phenomenology’s epistemology

Yet policies and planning are the clearest possible examples of calculative thinking and the antithesis of the ethical process she defines.  Urban sprawl occurs because most of us are supporting it with our daily behaviour.  Raising one’s consciousness about sprawl and changing one’s behaviour accordingly can’t be planned.  The process, as elucidated by the phenomenology literature, doesn’t need any specific starting point or model of causal sequences.  Purposeful action often follows quickly from awareness, and it is interesting to see the many different ways such awareness is arrived at.  In the Toronto area, developers’ assault on the Oak Ridges Moraine seems to have served this function for some suburbanites.  As long as this sort of behaviour is emerging, and emerging from the heart of suburbia, sprawl is not inevitable, even though the power of developers seems to make it so sometimes.

Sustainability implies stasis. Conventionally, it’s not a very exciting term and implies some kind of stolid, long-term good sense.  Development, on the other hand, is normally thought of as dynamic.  Stefanovic, to her credit, sharply questions conventional use of both words.  She specifically links development to education, to unfolding, and to evolution.  She quotes Thomas Langan approvingly in his effort to define development as something other than (not just more than) economic growth: “[T]he condition for the possibility of a healthier strategy of development is some collective advance in ecumenic wisdom.”(142) Even here the language is one of conditions and strategies, but there is a crucial dimension brought in by the word “collective.”  Humans have always lived in communities, not just human ones, but multi-species communities, whose members are intricately interdependent.  John Livingston, in his book Rogue Primate, has a wonderful chapter on how easily other animals move from a sense of self, to a sense of group (others of their species), to a sense of community (all life in the neighbourhood).  Humans, by contrast, are stuck in a self/other duality:

It is the wholeness of the wild animal that makes ethical constructs unnecessary – indeed probably unthinkable.  Why create an abstract set of rules and guidelines when you are already doing all the right social things … ?  Rules and guidelines are for … infantile, self-centred [humans]. (103)

The phenomenology literature, or rather Stefanovic’s exposition of it, contains only glimpses of this dimension of human ontology.  Yet the malaise of our era is connected, in part, to the disappearance of local human communities. At the street level, suburban neighbouring networks are feeble; and we celebrate our numerous placeless communities of interest, made possible by the technology of electronic communication.

Nevertheless, by drawing on Stefanovic’s discussion of sustainability and of phenomenology’s central figure, Heidegger, we can connect the absence of community to our difficulties with living in a sensible way on the planet.  Rather than seeing humans as Hobbesian bundles of needs, a perspective which is still at the core of the WCED’s definition of sustainability, Heidegger says that the meaning of being can be found in the desire to care for all Being.  My own less abstract interpretation of this is that we have an instinct to care for each other and to give to each other – and by extension to the rest of Nature.  This is the care-fulness that “makes ethical constructs unnecessary.”  It also builds community, and always has, at least until now.  Finally, in caring and giving, we are participating and interacting in the world, a dynamic that leads to the unexpected and to the unplanned, which is the source of change and evolution.


“Heidegger in Hamilton” (Ingrid Lemam Stefanovic, Safeguarding Our Common Future) Literary Review of Canada, March 2002, 22-4