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Philosophy and sustainability science collide

February 18, 2019

ASU assistant professor part of project to develop an understanding between sustainability scientists and philosophers

It isn’t every day the humanities and sciences combine their research, but when they do something new is created and explored. Such will be the case for a new research project, “Philosophy of Sustainability Science,” which will have Arizona State University’s C. Tyler DesRoches on the team of researchers.

DesRoches is an assistant professor of philosophy in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies and assistant professor of sustainabilityDesRoches is also a senior sustainability scholar in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability. and human well-being in the School of Sustainability. His team was recently awarded a grant from the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science in Finland.

The project will look to develop an understanding between sustainability scientists and philosophers to gain an integration of models and concepts from the different disciplines. Specifically, it is looking to focus on behavioral economics and ecological/environmental economics.

“Within philosophy, we hope that more philosophers realize sustainability is not just a buzzword but something that fundamentally challenges our ways of thinking about science, society and our relationship to nature,” said DesRoches. “More widely, we hope sustainability science will become more methodologically and ethically well-grounded on the progress philosophers have been making in philosophy of science. That is, we hope that there’s more interdisciplinary integration between science and philosophy.”

He became interested in interdisciplinarity and sustainability as research fields that philosophers of science have often neglected. As a philosopher of science himself, he hopes to create more dialogue between philosophy and sustainability.

“Sustainability is a concept that crystallizes the numerous challenges that we as a civilization face and are going to face in the coming centuries,” said DesRoches. “We want to do philosophy that matters, not merely the kind of esoteric philosophy in the academy — though we still love knowledge for its own sake.”

He will be working alongside other philosophers of science, including Michiru Nagatsu from the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability, University of Helsinki; Taylor Davis from the Department of Philosophy, Purdue University; and Robert Lepenies from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research.

Nagatsu and DesRoches share a background in the history and philosophy of economics and have known each other for a long time. The chance to work on this project together has been fun for them. 

Tyler DesRoches

C. Tyler DesRoches, assistant professor of philosophy and of sustainability and human well-being.

“[DesRoches] always replies to my email instantly, like one does to a WhatsApp chat or something,” said Nagatsu. “He's hyperactive. Perhaps, because of that, I don't feel that we are more than 5,000 miles away. Maybe I talk to him more often than I do to some colleagues down the corridor.”

Together, along with the other members of their team, they plan to write a few special issues in philosophy and sustainability journals. DesRoches will also be writing a monograph titled, “Sustainability Without Sacrifice: A Philosophical Analysis of Human Well-Being and Consumption,” which is under contract with Oxford University Press.

Overall, the research team hopes to inform and advance practices by identifying real challenges and ways to tackle them. When asked how the research would be compiled when completed, DesRoches stated the following:

“This is an ongoing interdisciplinary research program that does not have any clear end point. I hope we have a manuscript or two by the end of 2019.”

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How car ownership affects income opportunity

February 18, 2019

David King, assistant professor in Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, examines the connection between car ownership and income opportunities in a new research paper titled “The Poverty of the Carless: Toward Universal Auto Access,” published Feb. 1 in the Journal of Planning Education and Research with co-authors Michael Smart of Rutgers University and Michael Manville of the University of California, Los Angeles.

ASU Now spoke with King about their findings.

Question: How is car ownership tied to an individual or family’s economic opportunities?

Answer: We commonly talk about American cities as being automobile dependent, and a consequence of that is that people without cars are not able to access the economy as well as people with cars. In our paper, we looked at how incomes of carless households in the U.S. have declined relative to the income of households with cars — with the exception of New York City, which has done the least of all U.S. cities to adapt to automobiles. In New York City, you are not punished for not having a car, whereas in just about any other city, you will be economically harmed by not having a car.

Q: What differences do you see between car-oriented cities and pedestrian-oriented cities?

A: The biggest differences are density and proximity. One of the big problems with cars is that it takes a lot of space to accommodate them. As we’ve built our cities around automobiles, our roads have become wider, the lots where buildings are built become dedicated to parking, and buildings are set back. If you are walking on a sidewalk in Tempe or Phoenix, you’ll get the sense that even though you’re on the sidewalk, you still have to walk through parking lots or cross streets with speeding traffic to get where you need to be. All of these car-oriented design decisions have added up parcel by parcel to make our cities more accommodating to cars and hostile to people who don’t own cars.

Q: How could newer urban-development projects affect this connection?

A: There’s no question that U.S. cities have been seeing an increase in growth in their downtown areas. And a lot of developers and planners tally this up to a preference for downtown living or denser urban living. There’s something to that, but what a lot of cities did is they started relaxing their zoning in downtown areas to allow residential construction. As a result, developers started building and prices and rent went up. When rents inevitably decline, developers aren’t going to build as much. Over time, rent will go down and become more affordable, but that will take a long time to happen. Newer downtown living is aimed at a fairly affluent market. If you have enough money to live without a car, you can rent a car or take Uber or Lyft. But there is a difference between being carless by choice and carless by circumstance.

In our paper we argue that better land use is important, and it is imperative that we start building cities in ways that are not mainly car-oriented. That is a long-term solution. And that’s the crux of our argument: There are people we can identify who are harmed by our auto-oriented economy, and we need to help those people now, not in 20 or 30 years.

Q: What are some ways the U.S. could improve car ownership in the short and long term?

A: The best short-term solution is to come up with a program that gets people access to reliable automobiles. There are some nonprofit organizations that have done this around the U.S., and they have proven to be very effective at helping people gain employment, gain better employment and maintain employment. It’s very expensive to be poor. And not having reliable transportation could mean that you lose your job.

Q: What is the role of public transportation in this problem?

A: Public transportation works well where we have density. You need both population and employment density. Downtown Phoenix or Tempe work well for public transit because of the employment and population density. But, if you think about the larger Phoenix region, most employment is spread out. That is fairly typical of Sunbelt cities, and it makes providing regional transit options difficult. In contrast, in Manhattan the central business districts have local and commuter rail that can get thousands of people in and out of the city at a time. We don’t have that kind of infrastructure anywhere in the Valley.

Another related issue we’re seeing is the suburbanization of poverty. Jobs are suburbanizing, and poverty is suburbanizing. As suburbs are aging, they are becoming cheaper places to live, whether you’re buying a house or renting. So, people are moving to where they can afford to live, even though that will add additional costs. If you can’t afford a car, then you might be stuck on hours-long commutes waiting for multiple buses and so forth. That’s assuming public transportation is being maintained in any given suburb.