Ingrid Stefanovic’s Phenomenological Contribution to Sustainability

safeguarding-our-common-future-rethinking-sustainable-development-ingrid-leman-stefanovic-paperback-cover-artIngrid Stefanovic’s phenomenological examination of sustainability is one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind. One of the themes of her work is how technological societies have lost their sense of belonging to both nature and their towns and cities. Her approach is to reexamine many taken-for-granted assumptions with the goal of developing a new way of seeing the world, a way in which enables people to view the same issues from new perspectives.

The first part of her study is an in-depth analysis of the concept of sustainability and in particularly the notion of “sustainable development” as defined by the World Commission on Environment and Development in their 1987 report “Safeguarding Our Common Futures”. The ethos championed by Sir Francis Bacon still echoes through this report, which Stefanovic notes as “essentially anthropocentric and utilitarian” (Stefanovic, p21). It is this egocentric frame of reference which is one of the key concepts which must be re-evaluated.

Stefanovic draws greatly on the work of Martin Heidegger for her analysis, and therefore spends a great deal of time considering Heidegger’s notion of “being”. What was interesting for me was to see how Stefanovic is able to demonstrate that this is not just some subjective musings of a reified academic, but has very real application for todays problems. Where I have just used the term “thinking” in reference to Jung’s mandala, Stefanovic uses the term calculative thinking, defined as that mode of thinking which calculates, studies, organises and computes explicitly given, empirical realities without any consideration of the deeper meanings behind these investigations. She does so in order to highlight her argument that this form of reductionist thinking is not able to understand Being in a holistic manner.

While this may sound abstract, it has important implications for discussions about sustainability. Stefanovic, like Henri Bortoft and Arthur Koestler, points out a key problem with both atomistic reductionism and some forms of holistic models of ecosystems in their own metaphysical concepts of ‘being’. Their definitions of ‘being’ are both ‘downstream’, where ‘being’ is defined as an object. The danger with the holistic model is one of ecofascism, where the whole ecosystem is seen as a superordinate part, whereby normal parts, including people, must be sacrificed for the greater good of the whole. Stefanovic refers to Bortoft’s concept of the whole as an ‘active absence’, where we understand the whole as something that can not be grasped. What she then attempts to do in the second and third parts of her work are to demonstrate what Bortoft’s concept of “dwelling in the phenomena” means in practice and how can it be achieved.

Stefanovic provides a wonderful example of how a phenomenological way of seeing and thinking informs her investigations of urban areas. She describes a walk through Oak Bay, in Victoria, Columbia, with spectacular houses and gardens. She had just taken up photography, and on her meanderings took many photographs of small details such as leaded windows, fountains, pools and flowers. When viewing the photographs, the whole sense of the place resonated within the unique perspective of each photograph. Her description can be seen a ‘holographic’:

The experience led me realize that, while the camera focussed my attention on specific aspects of my neighbourhood, what made these images special was that they constituted more than an isolated, atomistic parceling up of the neighbourhood through the camera lens. Instead, each image was significant inasmuch as it captured and articulated in a distinct way, the sense of place of the neighbourhood as a whole. On the one hand, I was drawn to notice particular details such that I had missed when I had not sought them out through the lens of my camera. On the other hand, each individual photograph was all the more meaningful to the degree that the broader sense of the place as whole was reflected and even in some sense enriched in each photographic image.

In one case study that Stefanovic presents, her task was to provide an integrative framework for the communication, education and dissemination of research findings in a multi-disciplinary project studying the ecology and sustainability of the Hamilton Harbour Ecosystem, an area of 494 square kilometers with 500,000 inhabitants, which had been found to be suffering from serious industrial and municipal waste pollution. What is interesting is that the researchers in the other four groups in the project “knew” that the inclusion of a study of the human/environment relationship was important, the research was strongly biased towards only considering only the natural environments to the detriment of the urban areas. The solutions being considered were therefore not truly holistic, with only a rehabilitation of the ecosystem being attempted, with the sources of the contamination being given very little attention.

A second example of phenomenology informing environmental planning and policy development is Stefanovic’s study of perceptions of suburbs. Here Stefanovic can be seen to take an almost Goethian perspective, whereby in interviewing residents, the task is one accurate listening (direct sensory perception) during interviews with residents of suburban communities, while not asking leading questions with a view of formulating hypotheses. In addition to interviews, Stefanovic also takes a hermeneutic approach to this study, suggesting that people’s environments can be thought of as texts which can be read. In doing so, the aim is to help urban planners understand how people actually experience their environment.

Stefanovic is explicit in her attempt to avoid the subject/object split characteristic of dualism. People are no longer objectified in her way of thinking, and this allows her to consider the dynamic relationships of how people feel a great sense of belonging and rootedness to their lands and homes, a meaning that has vital importance to their sense of happiness and well-being. Stefanovic cites a surprising example of how this can be taken to extremes. A Canadian planner was working on a land management project in Shanghai, and was told that a certain piece of land was considered to be uninhabited. On checking this area for himself, he found 700,000 inhabitants, and was shocked to discover that their displacement was simply considered to be not significant, only a matter of logistics, a view shaped by the context of having an overall population of 1.2 billion. Westerners too are objectified by urban planners, who in only considering “clock time” conceive people as logistical units to be transported through the environment, with no consideration at all of the embeddedness of place that people experience in their belongingness to their homes and lands.

Overall, Stefanovic provides us with an extremely profound insight as to what we ourselves may experience with this new way of seeing that moves us away from a reductionist and atomistic way of thinking to one that is authentically holistic. With this expanded way of seeing, complex problems can be conceived in new ways, and our eyes become wide open to the destructive tendencies to the “calculative” thinking stuck in ego. The goal, as she concludes, is to move towards “genuine critical thinking” which is not based on memorising rules of logic, but by recognising “relationships, interdependencies, and patterns of interaction that define our complex world”.

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