A ‘Sense of Place’ is not a Utility: Moving beyond Utilitarian Ethics in Natural Systems


There were two moments in the past when I realised that some people saw the world through distorted lens.  The first was at a conference where a money man discussed forestry finance with me.  He thought all rational decisions relating to forests were financial.  I doubted there was such a thing as a ‘rational’ financial decision.  There are always both a particular world view, and assumptions, which few financiers even recognise explicitly, never mind question.  I suggested that finance rationalises rather stupid strategies, precisely because their world view and assumptions are so incredibly bad.  Just look at the success of most publicly-listed New Zealand forestry companies` … if you should happen to find one anymore.

I added that almost all solely financial decisions relating to what he would have called ‘natural resources’ and I would call ‘natural systems’ ended up with greater loss than gain, and potential social, economic, and environmental collapse.  I may have mentioned complexity and time, and the fact that his approach measured only the short-term feedbacks and the dollars today (more bread tomorrow), whereas the long-term feedbacks he puts in play could actually kill him, or if not him then his children.  Many of those feedbacks are too complex to measure, and defined by uncertainty more than quantified risk.

overallfoodforest.gifThe world is more complex system than machine, so expect tipping points and uncertainty.  Seek the lessons from history.  Easter Island and Sumeria.  Grand Banks cod.  The repeated ecological and social collapses of environmentally-fragile Asia Minor at scales from valley systems to states.  The appeal by the Athenian political revolutionary Solon to control soil erosion in 600 BCE to no avail, repeated by Plato’s lamenting a lost Arcadia through human folly.  But if you are ‘rational’, ‘asocial’, and ‘utility maximising’ – three bizarre tenants of the Chicago School economic church – then the future beyond our life doesn’t really matter.

The forest people.jpgThe upshot is that a professional forester is marinated in a ‘virtue’ or a ‘duty’ ethic to sustain the yield of a forest.  Otherwise, what is the point, where is the need for a first principles understanding of what makes up a forest system?  Just cut, and move on.  Sustainable yield and multiple use are the themes – or were thirty years ago – though even these themes limit the imagination of a forest to a ‘set of resources’ to measure and whose cut is allocated annually.  There are many, many problems with that ‘scientific management’ view.  Thinkers such as Arun Agrawal, Vandana Shiva, James Scott and Ramachandra Guha have done much to challenge that perspective, ironically during a time when the drive to narrow the perspectives to ‘monocultures of the mind’, and to use dollars as justification for exploitation, has probably gained influence.

Many foresters – like Aldo Leopold, and even the arch-protagonist of scientific management, Gifford Pinchot – shifted beyond their own mental thresholds when they realise the limits of such a factory view.  However inadequate the metaphysics, choosing to ‘sustain’ a ‘yield’ within the constraints of a forest’s ecology involves an ethic that goes beyond calculating utility.  Sustaining this admittedly mechanical view of a forest system, rather than the dollar, is the point.  Those forestry companies who lose that point of view of sustaining the forest last a short time in the sun, burning bright, and then they die.  This is a recurring consequence of our continuing and ingrained pathology of resource management, where utility and centralised command and control trumps local institutions and virtues.

The Green Man.jpgPast that threshold view of forests where machines, resources and factories give way to broader systems, and a new ethic applies.  A new duty.  A new virtue.  Do not dare to count today’s dollars here and presume to make the ‘good’ decision.

Forestry, soil, fisheries, the water holding and regulating capacity of landscapes, energy efficiency of healthy soils, greenhouse gases, free money-saving-opportunity-providing ecosystem services, biodiversity; all work within a context of human generations, and across spaces that can never be confined by the economists’ solution of private ‘ownership’.  The complexity and large-scale dimensions of time and space are entirely inconsistent with a self-centred generational view.  Take that society-today view to an individual view – the idea that what is good for the Trumps of this world is good for the world – and self-centred utilitarianism is nothing short of a recipe for annihilation.

I pointed out that the money man’s utilitarian approach justified the simplification and destruction of complex systems and was arguably unethical.  Unethical utilitarianism? – the most popular form of ethics practiced today – at least by the technocrats who worship the god of spreadsheets.  How could that be?


The second moment of realisation was when a young economist said something to the effect: “The free market provides the best environmental solution.”  I responded a little abruptly.  I said something like this:

“Do you know what the ‘best’ thing to do with a forest is if you want to ‘maximise your Net Present Value’, and weight yourself and today more than nature, society and tomorrow?!  Do you manage it within its natural complexity and dynamism?  Or do you simplify it to the ‘useful’ bits, discard all the parts you neither understand nor care about, and with them all the essential functions you don’t know exist, creating an industrial landscape? 

No, it’s neither!  The *best* thing to do for any but the fastest cycling systems is to pillage it and turn it into cash.  Then you find a fishery to driftnet to death.  Then you con some Solomon Island chief out of his forest because he has no idea of its value and you rationalise your vice by saying that it’s just business and arbitrage.  Anything slow-cycling, you destroy.  And once you’ve mined to your heart’s content, wrecked landscapes and communities, you can find a nice place to live in Tuscany, or some New World wine valley where the coffee is good, claim you’re ‘successful’, and donate to your favourite political party.” 


I’m paraphrasing.   And I may have raised my voice.  For faster-cycling systems such as agriculture, a selfish utilitarian may choose to simply industrialise, mining the long-cycling soil, biodiversity and water values as you go.  For long-cycling forests and fisheries, you either shorten the cycles to fit your agronomic utilitarian mind – short rotation plantations and aquaculture – or you rape and move on.

Man belongs to the earth.jpgThe point is, this happens.  It particularly happens when short-term greed and power trumps the local social virtues and duties and meanings of a place.  The justification is almost always utilitarian – the practice of applying ‘utility’ to a system, defined as a dollar (the reference to the referent ‘happiness’ – stifled gag), heavily discounting the future, and assuming that the ‘good’ thing to do is what comes out at the bottom of the spreadsheet, bolstered by the number being at least three significant figures, providing the delusion of truth.

The world is outside ourselves.  It belongs to us, like a thing apart, an uncle’s warehouse.  We do not belong to it.  The earth is a set of ‘resources’, not a functioning system.  Utility appears blind to the immeasurable contingency and complexity of the dance that is our functioning and meaningful life, so let us focus on counting the stores that we can.  Let us presume life is a measurable machine so that we can live within the delusion of life as a predictable march.  Let us, god forbid, ever love.

These are the assumptions.  Expedient and rationalised destruction is the consequence.

Love is a choice Carter HeywardWe live in the age of utility and what is referred to as the ‘rational choice’ theory of policy making, where individuals ought to act as selfish utility maximisers, and we are lead to believe they truly do act this way.  The irony is, of course, that all the rhetoric actually encourages this Ayn Rand world view.  Our love affair with rational choice is in part because Western policy making at least is dominated by the power and ‘thinking’ of a narrow brand of economics, and big finance.  In many contexts, that policy theory is fine.  It can work.  But as a universal approach it leads to unintended consequences that can encourage contrary behaviour to that expected.

Utilitarian ‘rational choice’ approaches are most problematic where complex systems of land and community come together.  This realm is where the long-cycling commons, taking generations to bear fruit and renew, meet communities embedded within their landscape.  And those communities are not a collection of ‘utility maximising, asocial, selfish, dollar-rational’ individuals.  They have deeply felt social values and social ‘institutions’ – norms of behaviour, conventions, what local people consider virtues and duties to each other, to the land, to future generations, and what Pierre Bourdieu referred to as ‘habitus’; actions you do or avoid doing implicitly (like eating or not eating a dog, or one of your own neighbours).  These habits are held together by beliefs about the nature of knowledge, relationships, the universe and your place in it, and the meanings people confer to land and those around them – including those that have passed on or yet to be born, or present in some metaphysical form – that are far beyond any exploitable ‘resource’.

Add to that the work of James Scott’s and other anthropologists that in traditional societies the implicit strategy is not to maximise, but rather to avoid the famine, the killer shock.  These societies closely align with resilience thinking, essentially the strategy of evolution; set up society and its relationship to land in such a way that it will survive the inevitable surprise – diversity, adaptability, fitness to current and future conditions of time and place.


The utilitarian person does the opposite.  They lose the cosmology of the ‘trickster’, always out to play mischief with people who think themselves bigger than the gods, and they lose reverence for the complexity and uncertainty of the physical world.  They lose the ‘sense of place’ and their place within it, and replace it with what is measurable.  They lose the necessary virtues and cosmologies, and that wider sense of what is ‘good’, and by so doing set themselves up to fail.

Utilitarian ‘cap and trade’ policies, as well as privatisation and pricing of commons, have the potential to do more harm than good in many situations.  They can destroy the ethical associations and sense of place necessary for a local functioning landscape – these ‘socio-ecological’ systems.  By reducing the complexities to dollars, they set up new associations and meanings; replacing those that are fit for today and tomorrow, with the ones that suit the individual, today.  They encourage us to see land and people as ‘resource’, and to make decisions not because they are ‘good’ but because they are expedient for us as individuals, today.  With these world views and motivations, we destroyed the amazing Kauri forests of New Zealand by 1920 in an orgy of pillage, and with it all its incredible beauty, value and potential – economic and otherwise.

Lady_Justice01.jpgWe have already seen the perversity of utilitarian policy models with the 2012 reduction in the price of carbon.  Rather than encourage social institutions that recognise land-based carbon in the form of soil humus, wetlands and woodlands as positive from all value sets – ethical, practical, environmental, social and financial; for the present and the future – we narrow the view to the financial and the present.  Then when carbon prices fall, people are perversely incentivised to remove their pesky carbon, which they now ‘see’ as only valuable because they can trade it – not because it confers buffering against shocks, opportunities, reduced costs, improved returns, and happiness.  Utilitarian approaches destroy or fail to build values, virtues, and a sense of duty to land and community – a land ethic – and encourage their very opposite.  Never mind the land and community.  It’s all about my bottom line today, and never mind tomorrow.  Until tomorrow comes.

There is an alternative, or at the very least an additional, approach to the utilitarian rational choice model for ‘incentivising’ and ‘disincentivising’ behaviour – primarily by using ‘market mechanisms’ and regulations.  We can also actively build behavioural change through working with communities and their social institutions – ethics, world views, learning systems.  Such approaches are not new, and many such systems that did actually exist – e.g. the past knowledge systems between science, policy, and land-based interests present in New Zealand – were destroyed by the utilitarian economic reforms of the 1980s and 1990s.  Their history goes back beyond Aldo Leopold, extension theory, and more recently has been developed through the work of Elinor Ostrom, ‘late-modern’ complexity theory, Resilience Theory, Fourth Generation Assessment, Action Research, and Socio-Ecological research such as is presented within the on-line journal Ecology and Society.  These methods are more about mutual learning than linear ‘tech transfer’ from an arrogant authority.  They are about asking engagement, decentralisation, collaboration, questions and listening, mutual agreement, setting frameworks and goals, and building knowledge, adaptability, responsibility, motivation, and a cultural ‘sense of place’.

Build values, virtues and duty ethics then.  People are part of a landscape.  They are part of a community.  The future will surprise.  Things will bite back.  Decisions you make today will impact in the future.  You never do one thing; there are always unforeseen consequences.  Choices are contingent and place-based.  You will make mistakes, so try to make them small ones, and learn.  You cannot know the world through numbers alone.  Take the long-term and the broadly connected view.  It is easy to do something bad, and harder to do something good, so the most important thing to ask is whether it is good.  Never measure ‘good’ through utility alone.  Adapt and learn, look and listen.

You may get a sense of what a place is and how to live within it through active physical engagement – nurturing and harvesting – or by following the wise as they walk, or through listening or writing a poem or a story.

The risk of not getting a sense of place may be the rationalisation of its destruction.

Chris Perley
10th February 2013

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy. 

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2 Responses to A ‘Sense of Place’ is not a Utility: Moving beyond Utilitarian Ethics in Natural Systems

  1. Thanks Chris, a nice blast for a Monday morning heading off to a decision filled week.

  2. Paul Bailey says:

    “set up society and its relationship to land in such a way that it will survive the inevitable surprise – diversity, adaptability, fitness to current and future conditions of time and place” Is a drought in Hawkes Bay a surprise? Don’t think so. Then why does argribusiness just encourage more of the same?

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