Cultural Landscape Evolution: The Elements of Risk and Surprise

Our lives involve all kinds of risks.  But lately I have been contemplating the concept of risk at the cultural landscape level.  My reading has focused on the intersection of theological and biological understandings of risk and how they might relate to cultural landscape expressions.   Sounds like a strange combination of thoughts.  Perhaps it is.

 I contemplated these issues recently as I drove from downtown Los Angeles to San Diego, transitioning from the placeless cultural landscape of highways, mass residential developments and shopping malls of L.A. to the neighborhoods of San Diego, defined by their individual personalities and orientation to the ocean—La Jolla Cove, Bird Rock, Pacific Beach, Mission Bay, Ocean Beach.

 Openness of God theology, still within the range of orthodox Christianity, characterizes God as fully and personally interactive with humanity, while remaining in charge, even if not in control.  Theologian Clark Pinnock says in his book, Most Moved Mover:  A theology of God’s Openness, that in contrast to the more traditional view based on meticulous providence and exhaustive foreknowledge, this theological perspective sees the future as partly settled and partly unsettled, partly determined and partly undetermined and thus partly unknown even to God.  This involves a risk on the part of God.  God does have sovereignty but has decided to make some of his actions contingent on our actions and requests; God has chosen to exercise a general rather than meticulous providence—to be resourceful in response to our choices.

 So what does this have to do with biology and ecology? If theologians like Pinnock are emphasizing the risk involves in God giving humans choice, what about nature?  Does nature “possess” free will or is its future largely pre-determined according to natural processes?  Is there risk involved in terms of the open-endedness of ecological processes and nature’s direction? Bruno Latour, in Politics of Nature:  How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, pushes for a more open sense of possibilities equally for both, arguing that “The only thing that can be said about them is that they emerge in surprising fashion, lengthening the list of beings that must be taken into account…What better foundation for common sense than the very self-evidence of these humans and nonhuman actors whose association is sometimes surprising?” (Latour 2004, 79).

 Likewise, ecological understanding has moved from a more linear model of succession of species to a more complex and open-ended view. C.S. Holling again uses the word “surprise” to describe adaptive responses within ecosystems. Likewise David Bartholomew (God, Chance and Purpose:  Can God Have it Both Ways?) describes chance in nature as playing the role of introducing flexibility and resilience in the face of uncertainty and risk.

Risk, surprise, adaptation, resilience, responsiveness…

Is God a risk taker where he takes actions with the outcome uncertain? Is risk a bad think or is it something that builds resilience, something we seek out naturally?  And what does this have to do with cultural landscapes like those of Los Angeles and San Diego?  Can I understand these two different cultural landscapes through these concepts—the placeless cultural landscape of Los Angeles and the neighborhoods of San Diego.  One shaped by highways, mass residential developments and shopping malls; the other made up of neighborhoods defined by their individual personalities and orientated to the ocean. 

Should I be surprised by their differences?  What choices led to these two different cultural landscapes, both embedded within a Mediterranean climate region?  Were the differences inevitable?  And which landscape best represents the possibility of resilience in the face of change?  Which is most responsive to the needs of society and nature?

Risk, surprise, adaptation, resilience, responsiveness…

I contemplate these questions as I travel

San Diego

Los Angeles