Saturday, May 14, 2011

What does it mean to be a "pragmatist"?

I apologise for not having posted for the past few days; time with a computer has been minimal (awesome!) over these past few days.

We have been in Detroit for around a week now, and we have had a wonderful time exploring Delray, Boynton, Hubbard-Richard, Southwest Detroit/Mexicantown, and Springwells, all neighbourhoods in southwest Detroit. The neighbourhoods range from burgeoning, cohesive and lively (Hubbard-Richard and Mexicantown) to fragmented, downtrodden and terribly polluted (Delray).

During this time, we have also been able to listen to and learn from people that live in Delray and the surrounding neighbourhoods through two community meetings. The community meetings have been powerful experiences for the students and I; the rawness of people’s emotions is evident, and the love of their neighbourhood nuanced by their understanding of history is plain to see. What we have tried to do is get these people’s input on what they would like to see happen after the new trade bridge between the US and Canada goes through (which more likely than not will). As I mentioned in my last post, this new bridge will not only displace people living in the one hundred and sixty acre footprint of the bridge plaza and onramps, but will also significantly degrade the already degraded environment in Delray, and southwest Detroit in general. This bridge will carry tens of thousands of trucks per day, and (who knows?) may increase trade of unsustainability. As reparations, the State of Michigan would like to “help” the residents by planting a few trees here and there, and “minimise” the pollution breathed in by people by placing filters on trucks and homes.

We have time to reflect on our experiences every day, in a group, and what has been on my mind, and the minds of some of the students, is that the bridge should not be built. Reasons in my mind are of course that fundamentally, it represents, legitmises, and propagates the current ethic of dominance of nature and consequently less-than-fortunate people. However, some people feel that the time to oppose the building of the bridge has passed, and that it is our job now to empower the people affected with information that will allow them to mitigate the impacts of the bridge. This job is the job of the “pragmatist.”

This argument, “the time has passed,” seems to be the hegemonic mindset of elites that will of course, make money off of a project like the bridge. With everything related to the environment, as evinced by the action around climate change, society has chosen to skirt the issues by saying that “we’ve invested too much in our structure to let it go.” And the ways we’ve invested in the way we’ve modified nature necessitates the continued investment of nature, time and energy in the maintenance of these structures. The book I am reading, The World Without Us, speaks to just this.

What I have felt is that the position of our students and instructors is a difficult one, but a position that other people find themselves in, too. It seems to me that our role is kind of the role of the disinterested scientist - we find out information people, come up with some neat theory, and then leave it to them to make the choice of how to use that information. Of course, information about pollution and injustice is empowering. But what is truly sad is that it is only the people that are benefitting most from the bridge that have the power to tell people to leave (i.e. the people who live within the proposed footprint of the bridge plaza). Yet us, who sincerely care for the wellness of those people, and the people who will be left behind, do not have the authority or the position to tell people to leave.

So “pragmatism” as many interpret it means at times bowing to pressure that continues to demand the violent destruction of nature, and consequently continued injustice towards people. Yet to me, the “pragmatic” thing to do is to nurture what nurtures us. In no way does degrading air quality sound like a “pragmatic” thing to do, particularly because it is difficult to trust any change in how these people have been treated for the past five decades. Of course, as Professor Larsen has mentioned, we mustn’t trample on some people’s choice to live in Delray, given its history and their ties to it. Yet there is absolutely no evidence to me that the government will “think” of the people it has neglected to far. I hope I am wrong, I really do, but I do feel terribly conflicted in my role right now; rather than empowering citizens to take a stand against the bridge, I am empowering them to accept the bridge under certain conditions.

I met Mary Szawala the other day, an eighty-four year-old activist, who has lived in southwest Detroit for her whole life. She has run for city council (losing by just six-hundred votes to I. Henderson), and has constantly advocated for the people affected by projects like rail lines and bridges. She said to me that the stress of moving because of the bridge is too much for senior citizens to take. She said, “Rather than building them homes, might as well get their grave plots all lined up. The importance of one life is greater than any bridge.”

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