Stepping into the Moral Terrains of an Other Environmental Identity

Robert Melchior Figueroa, philosopher—environmental justice studies–collaborator on the CSID funded interdisciplinary project on the Mesa Verde Story.

Philosophers tend to approach their questions and subject matter from several angles.  They have an area of study within a discipline that must somehow speak back to the already existing literature and questions of the discipline.  They have a methodological approach that speaks to broader points of legitimacy and problems of the discipline.  They try to provide a set of insights on their take on philosophy and their subject matter and their methodology.

Interdisciplinary philosophers are no less generalized in this way.  They provide insights on the subject matter and the nature of interdisciplinarity, they offer a discourse on the problems and values of interdisciplinary methods, and they argue to establish a legitimacy of interdisciplinary study without reducing back a strictly disciplinary approach.  An irony is that unless they opt to dissolve the mystique of disciplines altogether by ceasing to refer to themselves as anything but “one who inquires” (as sometimes I do when the dogma of discipline is too thick around me), they remain interdisciplinary philosophers; thus, while philosophy gets a new set of clothes, that something that makes a philosopher what a philosopher is, still remains.  This is a circular, or perhaps more appropriately a hermeneutical condition, because I believe I’ve always been under the spell of interdisciplinary philosophy and therefore indentify with what it means to do “interdisciplinary philosophy”.

Transdisciplinary and field philosophy are now more the signature of my work in environmental justice studies.  An earmark of environmental justice—the study of social justice in environmental issues– fundamentally requires some interaction with the people facing the struggles.  Scholarship must be influenced by the voices engaging the struggles.  That is what makes environmental justice a transdisciplinary practice: it must draw its sources from outside of the academy and likewise produce results that reach beyond the academy.  The latter concept, field philosophy, is one which resonates through the UNT department of interdisciplinary philosophers, reinforces the approach to work out in the field while engaging the interdisciplinary activity.  However, one could be in the field, and still, oddly, not work outside of academia, not be working the transdisciplinary method.  Thus, I take on the two approaches in this Mesa Verde story.

In 1992, I began this journey of the Mesa Verde region and environmental justice when I investigated a case for my environmental law brief research in the neighboring Ute Indian region; specifically, the Animas-La Plata Dam project near.  That is when I learned I had been struggling to work through my environmental identity and heritage through environmental justice approaches for about the length of my social life.  In 2005, I took on more field philosophy working on the environmental identity and environmental heritage of global tourists at Uluru- Kata Tjuta National Park in Australia.  There I team with Gordon Waitt, a cultural geographer at the University of Wollongong, in order to study and rethink tourist practices that would more genuinely respect the reconciliation efforts of the Park—in effect, to close the climb of the Rock (Uluru) at the request of the traditional Aboriginal owners.  The critical questions at Uluru have pertinence to my shared work with the Mesa Verde Story team of scholars here:

What are the conditions of environmental identity and environmental heritage around these cultural sites of interest?  What are the moral terrains traversing the moral landscape of the place; that is, how do different moral agents approach and generate moral conflicts and resolutions intermediated with and through the place?  Who represent the voices of the most impacted peoples?  What obligations do visitors have to those voices?  And, in what ways are the multiplicity of temporal conditions of people en-placed expressed through the heritage(s) and identity(s) of the human and non-human actors and agents?  Heritage, most importantly, is a community expression, an expression of the environmental identity of a community over time.  Heritage is about taking the experiences, stories, and values we inherit as a community from the past, and then how we choose to bring those to affect the future of our community.

In our Mesa Verde interdisciplinary field study, I am sifting through these questions as an agent engaged along multiple moral terrains.  The moral landscape will often be along the soils and structures of time, to which I will enjoin with my archaeologist colleague.  The storied moral terrains will be multiple: visual, poetic/literary, indigenous memory and heritage, and multi-cultural.  The verticality of these approaches, from the ground up, will permit me to engage in environmental justice studies that traverse the time and space of the moral terrains.  As both visitor and observer of visitors I will work on detecting, describing, and questioning the layers of environmental identity this place and culture has inherited.  As a transdisciplinary thinker, I will listen for all the voices in the struggle to make sense of the disappeared and present Pueblo peoples, the travelers who chose to make meaning of their precious time to visit this place, and the style in which our current commercial efforts shield the visitor from the deeper meanings and moral inconveniences of the place, such as the eerie suspicion that our own civilization is tempted along a similar brink.  As a field philosopher, I get the privilege that allows me to be there and think there.  My first step onto this new moral terrain signifies reflection upon the ways in which I must remake my own environmental identity, my own environmental heritage.

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