Friday, February 25, 2011

More thoughts on ownership and "development"

I have been hearing the word "development" more and more recently, not only because I have been reading how the concept of "sustainable development" has co-opted more deeper understandings of sustainability, but also in class and in various discussions I've been having. When I say "development," I mean the human undertaking of modifying the environment, building buildings, constructing colonies, and producing products, necessarily involving the violent use of nature. I feel that many people my age also think about sustainability and environmentalism in terms of "development" - how might we be able to continue along trends historically dictated, but more efficiently? This of course is a natural tendency of our society, and does nothing to stem the environmental onslaught we've been undertaking for centuries now. I want to focus this post on human modifications of the environment, particularly by people who "own" that environment.

It seems to me that notions of ownership stem from notions of freedom, which allow us to do potentially ecologically degrading things, in general for personal, i.e. monetary benefit. While getting dressed yesterday morning, I heard a little story about Aubrey McClendon, the Chairman and CEO of Chesapeake Energy. A billionaire, McClendon owns several hundred acres of fragile dunes on Lake Michigan, in the postcard town of Saugatuck. (This is where the Kalamazoo River feeds Lake Michigan.) As I heard on the Environment Report, McClendon is planning a "development" of a marina, condos, houses, and a golf course. I don't know about the politics of this ordeal; there are people better equipped to understand the environment around Lake Michigan than I. But in all of the news stories I've read, McClendon is called a "developer," and Singapore Dunes is called a "development." 

As I have written about previously, it is fascinating how we feel like we can "own" things that have existed long before we walked the surface of the Earth. The political boundaries we have drawn for our communities and states and nations follow no particular boundaries of nature, except in the cases of mountains and rivers. Maybe more thoughtful boundaries may be watersheds. Regardless, the boundaries we define also bind us to place such that we can "own." But ownership is one thing, and doesn't necessarily imply ecological degradation. Ownership can in fact be leveraged to protect tracts of land and water from human influence. But when ownership is coupled with "development," the coupling necessarily involves modifications to the environment, which imply monetary gain. Very few people are interested in "developing" anything if it doesn't make them money. "Development" itself is a very anthropocentric concept. It implies that everything the "development" takes place on is useless and worthless, and bears no mark of complexity and time. It also presumes that humans know what is better than an undisturbed dune formation, or old growth forests. Yet, Lake Michigan existed long before Michigan was colonised, and the forces that have resulted in each grain of sand on those dunes of the Lake have been acting for much longer than we can comprehend, in ways we will never be able to know fully. Notions of ownership have in fact produced just the opposite of what we would want - what we would want is for our nature to sustain us for as long as possible, but in our quest to own, we have degraded. Just the reverse of how we think is what might be more logical - we are owned by this land, this air and this water, and our fate is tied to our respect to those forces.

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