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The Existential Self and the Politics of Place: Environmental Racism as a Philosophical Problem

Veröffentlicht am 16. Juni 2015

When we think of the notion of the “self,” we tend to think of “it” as a thing that has internal states, physical characteristics, history, “identity,” relations, and so on. One important feature that is often overlooked is the fact that a living self is, existentially speaking, always placed. I am who I am in a particular place, which may define the language I speak, the culture I am a part of, a particular history that may define my worldview; I am and become who I am through being placed, with its features that make up my surroundings. The place of the self is also its natural environment. I live in a certain climate and environmental conditions—it might be in extreme heat or cold, or with or without clean air and water, etc. The natural environment of the earth provides the ultimate horizon within which all human beings live and survive. If we continuously live in a polluted place, our health becomes compromised. The children grow up sick. Generations suffer bad health effects. In short, our well-being is very much affected by the kind of place we live in. In this short paper I would like to start from the explication of this premise—that our being and flourishing are grounded in place—and bring our attention to a newly emerging field of study, environmental racism.

Heidegger’s notion of In-der-Welt-sein was one of the more robust phenomenological-existential analyses of how our selves (“Dasein”) are intrinsically and ontologically interconnected to our world and its workings. Beyond the explication of the existential inseparability between the self and its world, Heidegger went on to analyze the notion of the Dasein and Welt in terms of its historicity and temporality. A Japanese philosopher, Tetsuro Watsuji (1889-1960), who studied under Heidegger in the late 1920s, criticized Heidegger’s overemphasis on temporality (and the relative lack of analyses on spatiality and place) as well as the hyper-individuality of Dasein. Based on this criticism, Watsuji developed his theories of Milieu (Fudo, 1935), a theory of Dasein and its place/spatiality, and Being-Between (Aidagara) as an ethic, a theory of interrelationality of human beings.

According to Watsuji’s notion of Milieu („Fudo“ means literally „wind-earth“), human beings are existentially and literally made of the natural environment throughout the history. We developed the entire civilization and most likely language through thousands of years of living with and through nature, through hunting and gathering to developing agriculture to waging wars for resources and geographically expanding urban cities and civilizations. None of it would have been possible without our robust and intrinsic relations to and manipulations of the natural environment. Needless to say, this process of manipulating the environment continues today. Beyond the natural environment, our place and climate have also made the particularities of our cultural environment. Different climate conditions (at the equator, the more moderate regions, or in extreme cold) produce different cultural practices (such as rituals related to the weather), ways of controlling the environment (technology), and ways of living, such as choices in clothing, types of housing, seasonal practices, and food and cooking—all of which make up what we know to be “cultural practices” of a place. In our everyday dealings with our environment, too, “I am cold” does not simply mean that I sense a particular temperature, but it means that I put on a jacket, and according to Watsuji’s example we put on jackets on children, push old folks to the fire, go buy coal, and the coal producers make coal according to certain technologies that have been developed, and such technologies would not have developed had we not needed coal in the first place, etc. Thus “being cold” does not simply indicate an internal feeling but rather the self is already “out in the world,” related to a host of actions and nexus of cultural and civilizational practices. In short, our history cannot be conceived without its groundedness in place, and our existence cannot be separated from our concrete embodiment in place.

Human beings in place, moreover, are not simply a collection of individuals, according to Watsuji. Our concrete selves become who they are through particular relations with others. Babies come to the world through mothers, and parents and caretakers become the essential existential connection of the babies to the world—this is how we all begin, and the process of growing up, which is the process of becoming who we are, are also continuously influenced by others who become a part of our lives. Loving parents and family, abusive parents, depressive, sick, or dysfunctional parents, having no parents, having good friends and social ties, encouraging teachers, having bad friends, being abandoned, ostracized, all these are profoundly interpersonal and influential in forming not only our personalities but also the overall sense of who we are as persons. Thus, human beings are not atomic selves but rather a Being-Between, a nexus of relations that make them up. Together with the place of one’s being, the totality of one’s existence is an ontological mixture of Milieu and Being-Between. Particular selves are in particular places, communities, histories, physical environment.

To expand on the example: The most immediate place one comes to inhabit as one is born, is the family—it could be a traditional one, or it could be in any of the alternative forms, but at least in order for a baby to survive at all, it needs caretakers and safe/appropriate surroundings for flourishing. Such a family-unit does not exist in a vacuum; it too is placed in a home “somewhere,” in a neighborhood, a community, at a physical location in a society/culture/nation, and ultimately, occupying a specific place on the earth. At any of these levels, the qualities of the surroundings matter or influence one’s being. A family could be loving or abusive; the neighborhood affluent, poor, urban, rural, safe or dangerous; the culture liberal, conservative, religious, tribal; the nation in peace or at war; the natural environment polluted or clean.

In this way, when one thinks of the nature of the self or one’s existence, the notion of place, robustly conceived as socio-cultural surroundings as well as physical/natural place, is an integral part of its meaning. Philosophy of Place, then, could analyze such existential components regarding the self (as Watsuji does), or focus on the ontological meanings of the “place” in its various aspects. One could also analyze ethics of place, as in environmental ethics, or aesthetics of place, focusing on the various sensible aspects of place. One could also develop a philosophical history of place, tying the geographical-cultural locations to the development of particular philosophies (the Greek, the Roman, the European, the Asian, etc.), or of course, a socio-political philosophy of place. What might that look like?

As with the existential analyses of the self, the notion of place is a missing element in political philosophy. However, if politics deal with relations among human beings or societies, and if human beings are always placed, then politics is also placed. One could of course develop at the abstract level the analyses of the meaning of justice, fairness, government, distribution, equity, the nature of democracy, and such, but ultimately they must be about human societies and people, if they are to have efficacy at all. And if they are supposed to be about societies and people, then the places of such societies and people are also integral to the whole picture, as there are no such thing as “societies and people” simply in the abstract. The questions of democratic governance would have to be looked at in a particular nation and its history, and such history entails a long development in a particular geopolitical location. A principle which might be applicable in one case may not be in another, because they may not share the same geopolitical development.

Let me now focus on one particular issue in this context. The dark side of the story in the politics of place. As we noted, we “come to be” within a family, in a neighborhood, a community, in a physical location. What if the home is utterly disintegrated, the family poor, the neighborhood in ruins, the community highly polluted because it is right next to a waste processing plant? You have asthma because the air quality has always been terrible and the school says you are developmentally challenged because you have not received proper nutrition as you grew up. Your mother drinks and has chronic depression because she is poor and cannot find work, and the whole neighborhood is at the “bad end of town” that is avoided by the city and no funding is allocated and the gangs hang out because most folks are unemployed and frustrated and there appears to be no hope of change or improvement. Everyone appears to be sick with one thing or another, but no one can afford to go to the doctor—for one thing, there are no doctors in the community, and even if there were, one cannot pay for it. This is not a made-up scenario—it actually comes from the outskirts of San Francisco, the Bayview Hunters Point. This is not an isolated case but it describes what hundreds of communities are like in the U.S. And most such communities are poor communities of color.

The term “environmental racism” is relatively new, coming out of the environmental justice movements in the 1970s, and it deals with these problems—the connections between racism, environmental health issues, justice, and place. The fact is that most, if not all, of the highly polluting and environmentally harmful factories, facilities, processing plants, dumps, etc., in the U.S. are placed in poor communities of color—where the land is cheap and the citizens are powerless. Professor of Environmental Sociology Dorceta Taylor’s 2014 book, Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, Residential Mobility, discusses several examples. The development of uranium mining can be described as a process of “internal colonization”; Indian reservations are rich in natural resources, and 90% of the mining sites are located in or near the Indian reservations (the Navajo Nation is the hardest hit), as the U.S. Department of Energy and various corporations took over the land and relocated thousands of Native Americans and established highly polluting mining facilities in their communities. The book also chronicles the history of zoning laws—there are clearly traceable connections from the actually racially segregated zoning laws of the 40s and 50s to the current zoning laws (which are no longer overtly racially segregated yet de facto function in a similar way) that still determine which areas can be developed for which purposes (for example where the polluting chemical processing plant should be built), controlling the development of urban planning. In a similar way, housing discriminations that can be traced back to the racially segregated era of Jim Crow are still unofficially very much a reality in most areas of the nation (everyone knows which areas are “for the black folks” and covert real estate and loaning practices that discriminate against African-Americans are commonplace, so that their residential mobility is curtailed).

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services maintains a database (now a website called Toxmap) that keeps track of the facilities that handle any of the 600 registered “hazardous chemicals”, coal emission, agricultural by-products and water pollution. Their locations and areas overlap significantly with the “povery map” that tracks the income-levels of the communities in the U.S. As of 2013, one in five children live in poverty (the official definition and calculation of “poverty” see the U.S. Census Bureau’s website); 35% are African-American children (43% in Ohio), 28% Latino, 29% Native American, 11% Asian-American, and 10% white. 90% of the children living in poverty are children of color. There is undeniable geographical correlation between the places of environmentally polluting (and health-damaging) facilities and the poor communities of color. As the income gap increases, the middle-class moves further away from such depressed and polluted communities, as the color-line (and “health-line”) becomes more and more obvious.

To return to the example of San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point, the area of public housing, south of San Francisco, is home to about 27,500 residents. The community is predominantly African-American, and poverty and unemployment are the norm. The public housing project was established on the land of former naval shipyard, with residual carcinogenic pollutants (such as asbestos). Hunters Point has the city’s largest waste-water treatment plant, two power plants, and a hazardous waste storage. Many of the residents suffer chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma and the area has higher rates of cancer.

On the beautiful island of Oahu in Hawaii, the southwest part, the area of Wai`anae, is another example. The area has about 40,000 residents, 60% of whom are Native Hawaiian, and the rate of poverty is double of the average. The area has 11 of the 18 sewage treatment plants, two oil refineries, one construction material landfill, and several illegal dumping sites. It has the highest rates of asthma, cancers, and diabetes among all of Hawaii islands. The isolated area has access problems (the roads are ill maintained and the residents do not travel out of the area to the rest of the island) as well as lack of adequate grocery stores, schools, medical facilities. The bad economic, social, and environmental factors on health are clearly documented. (Source:; Rachel Harvey and Anette Koh, „Landfill in Paradise“)

These are examples that show that politics can very much be about place—“where one lives” and racism, environmental degradation, power and powerlessness, political representation, justice. To return to the original issue of the existential self, if the self comes to be in a place, and if the place is itself qualitatively affected by such politics, the self that comes to be is also necessarily affected by the concrete effects—health, mobility, racism—that constitute the overall environment. This is not to argue for a depressing sort of geopolitical determinism, however. As the self is always in the making, the awareness should serve as a starting point; if we cared about justice, the concrete justice of place that affects millions of disenfranchised folks should not escape our analyses.

Finally, a corollary that follows to this discussion is this: A philosophy of place entails also that doing philosophy is also placed. We philosophize as individuals who are placed (in the above sense), in a concrete place in real time, in a certain environment, socio-cultural, political, and natural. If we lived in a badly polluted area, we would probably suffer one ailment or another and would not be able to philosophize as effectively as living in a clean environment. If we are constantly degraded, ostracized, persecuted, oppressed, we would probably philosophize in rage, if allowed to think at all. If we had to fight for life or barely make a living, we would probably not be able to philosophize at all. The fact that we can philosophize is indeed an enormous privilege. Those of us philosophers who are interested in justice could now look at our feet and see where we stand and look up and face where we could go from here.

Taylor, Dorceta (2014): Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, Residential Mobility. NYU Press.
Watsuji, Tetsuro (1997): Fudo, Wind und Erde. Primus Verlag.
Watsuji, Tetsuro (2005): Ethik als Wissenschaft vom Menschen: Moderne japanische Philosophie. WBG.

 (c) Yoko Arisaka

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