A couple of days ago I gave the second presentation in The Annenberg Foundation seminar, “Urban Ecology and Our Cities Future”. I spoke on ethics and urban ecology, with a particular focus on our relationships and responsibilities to urban domestic and wild animals.
I’d like to focus here on something I said in the introduction to Eric Strauss’ prior talk, something that formed the background to my presentation — the ecological view and what that means for the science and ethics of urban ecology.
Historically the ecological worldview first arose in ancient geography. Geography is more than mapping or looking at the spatial dimensions of natural and social phenomenon (as important as these are). Geography is also the elder tradition of environmental studies, emphasizing the relationship between people and their environmental contexts.
For the ancients, this outlook was structured around three concepts — the relationship between people and their built habitats (oikos), the connections between nature and society in the inhabited world (ecumene), and the flourishing of individuals and communities in these twin contexts (eudaimonia). As one can see, the ecological worldview was always one involving the natural and social sciences, as well as ethics and the humanities.
Today the ecological worldview has come to emphasized three themes — science, ethics and public policy. The science of ecology studies the relationships between organisms and their environments. The ethics of ecology draws and apples ethical lesson from both human and natural phenomena. The public policy of ecology identifies the best public policies to promote the well being of people, animals and nature.
Many people are nervous of ethical discussions, fearing they will be judged and hectored about their beliefs and conduct. Yet ethics is not about rigid rules or absolute moral truths by which to brow-beat and shame people. Rather it is a search for moral insights that help us answer questions about “how we ought to live” as individuals and communities. In this sense, ethics is an open and welcoming dialogue about the moral values, responsibilities and consequences of our individual and collective lives.
There are many, complimentary interpretations of urban ecology. Some of these include studying the urban wildlife and ecological communities within cities, analyzing cities as socio-ecological systems in and of themselves, learning how to make cities sustainable and resilient in the face of population growth, global warming and resource constraints, and creating biophilia cities that nurture both humans, other animals and the rest of nature.
From an ethical perspective, it is crucial to note that all these meanings of urban ecology rest, to one degree or another, on a normative foundation that cares about the well being nature and society. It is also important to note that science, ethics and public policy compliment one another in urban ecology. The science helps describe the ecological dynamics between social systems, natural systems and the built landscape. Ethics complements this science by exploring the values we hold about social justice, animal protection, and ecological integrity. And when taken together, the science and ethics help communities like Los Angeles make better policy decisions for the benefit of its residents and their urban environment.