Ethical Mindfulness, a review of Cloke and Jones

Critical Review of: ‘Grounding Ethical Mindfulness for/in Nature: Trees in their places’ by Paul Cloke and Owain Jones Ethics, Place and Environment, Vol 6, No.3, 195-214


The relationship that society has with trees can be one of enchantment and admiration to straightforward utilitarian resource value and, as such, Cloke and Jones suggest, ethical considerations towards trees are also multi-faceted. This is a discussion on how, through moral and deontological perspectives, through forms of interaction , relationship and inclusivity within Actor Network Theories (ANT), that perceptions of trees may be part of an revised ethical framework. Three case studies in Bristol and Somerset are chosen for this paper: Firstly, a square or urban greenspace, second the cemetery and third an orchard in the rural environment, all provide differing interconnections between trees and places.

Throughout the paper themes of agency, relational theory and both intrinsic and instrumental value provide a rich seam uncovered for debate. An analysis of the social construction of the co-constituents within the three case study areas allows Cloke and Jones to explain how ethical mindfulness can be developed.

Background philosophy

Assumptions based on a superiority of humans over nature have through time provided a deontological base for the destruction of natural resources, and the advancement of a ‘globally capitalist culture’ (C&J pg 196) has perpetuated this view of human ‘rights’. Pepper’s (1986) view that there has been a general abandonment of hope of reconciliation with nature, despite a growing concern for environmental issues over the last fifty years, is perhaps unduly negative. Cloke and Jones believe there is hope if new moral relationships can be developed and a revised ethical position can be found. Two important dimensions of nature-society relations are therefore worthy of discussion. Firstly, the position of agency with regard to non-humans has often concentrated on animals and not trees, as animals most clearly define the nature-society divide, and second, that a relational encounter with trees in their places allows for different social constructions of nature and different formulations of ethical mindfulness. In analysing Krebs’ (1999) assertion that a shift from anthropocentricism to ecocentricism is necessary to allow an ethical shift towards nature, Cloke and Jones suggest that even that gives rise to the sense that humans are still ‘reviewing the case for inclusion’ (C&J pg 197) of all other nature and only begrudgingly extend moral respect to lower animals and plant life. Callicott (1994) notes that the differing behavioural rules, adopted by anthropocentric philosophy of Western European environmental values, ignore the obligations of stewardship and citizenship to be found in the scriptures of the Bible, and the Commandments in particular, and tend instead to assume that a Christian traditional leaning toward exploitation is prevalent. The utilitarianism of Bentham suggested that individual activity should promote human welfare while a Kantian emphasis on deontology advocated human rights and both, claim Cloke and Jones (pg 197), cast tree-related issues in a different light in terms of intrinsic and instrumental value. Callicott (1994) argues that in the case of deforestation, from a utilitarian (Bentham) perspective, few benefit while many suffer, such as the displacement of indigenous people, while from a human rights perspective (Kant) the wrongs of deforestation are less clear because it is a human right to own property and engage in free enterprise regardless of the consequences.

Therefore the fate of trees depends of human decision about their utility and resource value. At different scales trees have been cut down, valued as a living resource or cherished. What is not discussed here is the potential for deontological liberalism as developed by Rawls (1971) where an immovable human right can be manipulated to incorporate concern for the other, in other words a more developed view of ethical consideration. The discussion of morality and the moral community moves on to discuss ‘non-human agency’ and the social constructions of the natural world citing Latour’s (1993) ‘simple mute forces’ as a commonly held view of nature. Latour continued in ‘Politics and Nature’, published a year after Cloke and Jones, stating that there is no place for nature either within the modernised Western world or within other cultures that have lived in nature for centuries and aspire to modernisation (2004, 46). The idea that agency can only exist within language and intention creates a view that any non-sentient being, or non-human actor, is therefore without agency and only operates under the ‘laws of nature’ (McPhail & Ward, 1988 p.72). However it is the fluidity of relations between human and non-human actors that allows the acknowledgement of contextual forces, as Whatmore (2002, 14) states: ‘The manoeuvre involves animating the creatures in (actor) networks as active subjects in the geographies they help to fashion’. Cloke and Jones agree that is it an acknowledgement of the creative capabilities and intentionalities of non human actors that enables them to be included in the moral community. Callon (1986) included scallops and scallop fishermen within an ANT framework after research revealed that scallops had intentionality and Plumwood (2002, 177) believes this ‘re-animation’ can present the non-human as a ‘potentially communicative other’. Indeed the creativeness of trees in the synthesis of chlorophyll, the expanding of root structures in moisture-gathering and the balance of the evapotranspiration process make them perfect partners within an ANT framework. They exercise both transformative and purposive agency, the acorn/oak tree, for example, demonstrates reproduction in both spatial as well as temporal terms. This recognition is supported by Roger Deakin’s visit to sculptor Paul Nash, he observed: ‘As in any collaboration the trees have their own ideas, and Nash must continually work his hedgerow skills to influence them as a sculptor, or choreographer. He admires the sense of purpose in each tree, its stroppiness. Again it is a question of resistance, of arm-wrestling the muscular trees. “The tree has a purpose, and it will keep trying to fulfil its purpose whatever happens,” states Nash.’ (Deakin, 2007, 159)

Cloke and Jones claim that a ‘postmodern turn’ is required to rework the normative  frameworks of a collective morality founded in the Enlightenment, this alteration of perceptions allows for a ‘repersonalisation’ (C&J pg199) of engagement with nature. Importantly this allows for individuals to be more for nature rather than just with nature and forms the basis of Cloke and Jones’ ‘ethical mindfulness’.

The meeting point, it is claimed, of non-human agency and human moral concern provides the node for ethical mindfulness and the array of potential for non-human agency is only released by relational encounters. Therefore relational ethics is dependent on the context in which the encounter occurs. Raymond Williams (2005. 77) notes: ‘Nature contrasts with man, except when presumably when man is looking at it’. That said, the presumption in relational terms, according to Cloke and Jones, is that the individual when looking at a tree is thinking tree thoughts but this is not a given. David Harvey (2006, 276) suggests that an individual could be thinking about that morning’s breakfast, or relationalities, when held in absolute space-time with the tree. The feelings the individual has, whether tree-related or not, means merely that the individual and the tree are co-present or are co-constituents within a precise space-time. It is acknowledged, however, that the subsequent ethical codings envisaged would depend on the context of the encounter.

The Tree Places

Co-constitution therefore varies in the three tree places selected for the case study; a tree-lined residential square, a Victorian cemetery and an orchard, each either in the city of Bristol or nearby. While the places suggest wider cultural, ecological and political networks there is a minor concern that nature is being compartmentalised, or seen in isolation and not in the wider context. However, they are seen as suitable territories to observe anthropocentric and non-anthropocentric ethics.

The Square

The Victorian square was built in the mid 19th century in Clifton, a fashionable and desirable area to the north of the city. The square was planted out as a communal garden to add aesthetic value and over recent years, following adoption by the council, the railings have been taken down and general usage allowed. The grassed area had a path running through it and mature trees line the perimeter. Council maintenance is minimal as ‘the trees tend to look after themselves’ (C&J pg 201). The trees provide canopy and dominate the seasonality of the place while also enhancing the sense of place for the residents, who spend a good deal of time looking at them. Residents have favourite trees, one commented after moving away from the area that she returned to ‘be with’ (C&J pg 201) her tree when it had fallen and stayed with it and wept. As such, our interactions with trees can be theorised in terms of relationality. All trees in the square receive ethical mindedness, either by residents, who water them in the summer, but also from the council who protect them with preservation orders.  New shoots and trees appropriate value once they have passed the aesthetic test, where the majority view is that they have potential to be beautiful. Likewise the council trimmed some of the wider trees so that buses could pass, claiming that the majority of residents would have wanted this. While it is possible to see how intrinsic value may be given to the trees in the square by observing how the leaves make the most of the fine weather or the root systems adapt to changing hydrology, it is also environmental virtue ethics that are on display. Holmes Rolston III observed: “The fallacy is that such humans were really in the dark about the depth of values in nature beyond their own lighting up.” (2005, 76).

– The Cemetery

Typical of a large Victorian cemetery, the site in Arnos Vale is host to a wide variety of self seeding ‘wild’ trees and a number of exotic evergreens. Succession and crumbling statuary are both evident throughout, much in the fashion of the former private cemeteries of London at Nunhead and Highgate, and levels of maintenance have declined over the years and the council has only recently gained ownership following a threat of development. The different interest groups at the site incorporate those with family buried there and conservationists keen to preserve greenspace. There has been past conflict between those that wish to preserve the site for remembrance and those with an interest in nature conservation with restoration to non-interventionalist plans considered for the future. The management plan has raised ethical issues as cutting down some trees that are breaking up the graves would upset the trees’ previously privileged position. So under a new management plan should some trees be preferred over others and can the intrinsic and localised value of some trees be observed while others are treated as woodland.

– The Orchard

The orchard at West Bradley is a 70-acre site planted out with a variety of apple trees. These are planted in orderly rows with a strong management plan in place to maintain optimum growing conditions. This is achieved by arranging the trees in rows to facilitate picking, pruning and spraying for pest control. Unproductive trees are pulled up and replaced by species most aligned to consumption needs. The cropping of the tree is the only relational aspect of the human engagement, unlike both the cemetery and the square where engagement was more varied. The ethical question is whether the trees should be cropped and should poor cropping trees be replaced. Recently, the value of orchards in Somerset has been significantly recognised as orchards appropriating iconic status in heritage terms. As a result, county subsidies are available to preserve them while in the past farmers were encouraged to pull them up. Therefore there is an ethical concern to preserve ‘orchardness’ (C&J pg 207) rather than individual trees and the overall value is aggregate, although from a production viewpoint the value is still attached to the individual tree.

Ethical mindfulness – discussion

So we see evidence within the three tree places that the autonomous individual is moving away from the collective morality in demonstrating ethical agency. Cloke and Jones tackle the dilemma that Whatmore (2002, 151) describes as a post-modern turn that fails to interrogate humanist presuppositions of ethical discourses. Normative configurations of community ethics are challenged by the contexts in which individuals engage with trees and non-human agency becomes part of the social construction of the tree places. Whether intrinsic or instrumental valuations are made of these trees there remains throughout an inter-connectedness that shapes our ethical concerns. Cloke and Jones suggest that there is ‘clear utility’ (C&J pg 210) in tree places and that they have strong welfare value. Much in the way that Ulrich (1984) found that patients recovering from surgery did better if their rooms overlooked trees in full foliage and also in the work by Fuller (2007), whereby a tree in full foliage would indicate species richness and encourage individuals to further engage with public greenspaces. There are themes of stewardship in all tree places, whether trees are seen as individuals or groupings, yet to reach a more sensitive ethical mindfulness it would be necessary for individuals in the communities to move beyond deontological collective positions to more nuanced and personal ethical considerations. Trees may connect with the individual by demonstrating an ‘agency contributing to the performance of the multiple lived worlds concerned, threading their matter and sometimes their meaning through the assembled associations and place characteristics’ (C&J pg 210). The question of being ‘for’ the trees is clearly observed in the square where residents watered trees and mourned their departure, there is however uncertainty as to whether the giving to the trees is unconditional or making use of in terms of well-being. It is the contexts of these meetings that may decide to what extent an individual is ‘for’ the trees or merely engaging in a colonisation process of harnessing the wild and unmanageable.

What is clear, state Cloke and Jones, is the degree of enchantment in formulating opinion at all three tree sites. In dialogue with individuals at each site, the authors found ‘a sense of captivating delight’ (C&J pg 211) in apple blossom, the sunlight dappling through the trees, the restful shade and the birdsong. While these elements may draw people closer to nature, a recognition of otherness is important to consider, as Cronon (1996) observes: “On the other hand, I also think it no less crucial for us to recognize and honor nonhuman nature as a world we did not create, a world with its own independent, nonhuman reasons for being as it is.”

There is an acknowledgment that aesthetics plays an important role in formulating ethical positions through enchantment but a more reasoned ethical stance is possible when incorporating this with more pragmatic issues such as well-being. The hybrid nature of our relations with trees may also include space and place and emotional social constructions. Whatmore and Hinchcliffe note that  ‘trees are active figures in the generation and durability of attachments to place that mark personal and collective senses of urban conviviality and memory’ (2003, 5), indeed, they are part of a lived world full of personal networks. A concept of dwelling in portrayed not as a world of restrictions, boundaries or exclusions but one of situatedness and the recognition of personal networks and relations. The relations to place and space, which often includes specimen trees as important nodes of mental mapping, is described by Lynch (1960) as collections of habitual practices connected to certain locations therefore ethical considerations ‘for’ these nodes are often played out, as seen in Cloke and Jones’ square, by individuals exhibiting personal attachments.

In concluding, the authors describe the ethical mindfulness engendered in the orchard where collective considerations for orchardness compete with individual tree productivity and the labour, weather and machinery that interact with the trees; in the cemetery where associations between human and non-human are couched in concerns for loved ones and those celebrating the ‘wildness’ of place and in the square, where considerations for individual trees are akin to the nurturing of plants in domestic gardens and therefore singular attachments can be made. Ethical mindfulness is therefore ‘place located’ (C&J pg 212) and formulated through relations.

The position of trees in such multiple lived worlds therefore produces convergent ethical stances within the realm of the human and non-human and the hybrid nature of these associations presents an opportunity for a re-appraisal of ethical mindfulness.

Ethical encounters therefore have to be both contextual and relational and the social constructions of trees in their places is dependent on both ethics and morality to create an embeddedness of enjoyment of the otherness.


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