(Re)learning the Value of Place and Occupying a Sustainable Future
by Tina Lynn Evans
Can we truly be at home in the marketplace? What kind of place is the marketplace, anyway, and how is it related to places like our communities, our homes, and the places we love in the natural world? Has the marketplace effectively replaced these physical/mental places by becoming the great provider of all that we need? And what about virtual place? Many of us spend so much time in online “environments” that place has taken on entirely new meanings unheard of prior to the Internet age. In a time when we can be both virtually and physically present in two different places at once, does it matter how we think about place, or can we just make of it what we will — make how we see and use place fit our chosen lifestyles?
The Occupy Movement, fueled by the indignation of vast numbers of people who are increasingly disenfranchised and displaced by the modern marketplace economy, recognizes the primacy of place in social change that moves us toward a just and sustainable future. This aspect of the movement is articulated by the physical occupation of public spaces, and more recently of homes that have been foreclosed with their occupants evicted by a corrupt banking system.
The primacy of place in the movement reminds us that, when people are denied access to the primary productivity of the land and the seas, they are relegated to a status of enforced dependency on an abstract marketplace primarily constructed to serve the interests of the rich and the powerful. The Movement’s emphasis on space also reminds us that we cannot live entirely within the realm of the abstract idea of the marketplace. We need real food, non-virtual water, wearable clothing, and shelter — all made available to us through the natural processes of the earth, captured and molded by human effort.
In what is perhaps a first step in (re)connecting with place in a world where the fantasy of an endlessly growing and satisfying marketplace is crumbling, the Occupy Movement articulates vital needs for human dignity: the need for efficacy — to be heard and to have one’s welfare and voice taken seriously within collective processes of decision making and action — and the need for dignified and adequate means to obtain physical sustenance to satisfy one’s basic needs. Both of these needs converge in the concept and construct of place.
Reviving place as a focal point of human life and community is essential to social justice and sustainability. When I invoke place in this context, I conceptualize it as a nexus of physical space (both the natural world and the built environment) and community life (that includes economic activity, interpersonal relationships between people and between people and environments, cultural identity and expression, and governance processes). We make our places, and our places make us. Place is a reciprocal relationship that continually emerges through the forces of nature and human activity.
In the techno-world of modern industrial societies, many of us have lost sight of place as an organizing principle in our lives. We find that virtual spaces may indeed satisfy many of our needs as environments for building social bonds and friendships and for purchasing just about anything we might need or want (as long as we have the money to do so, of course), but we still rely physically upon tangible places that provide the necessities of life, even if our needs are mediated and obscured by the modern phenomenon of the marketplace.
Whether we recognize it or not, we are intimately connected to places, though in the globalized world, the reciprocal bonds between people and place, once paramount to the processes of community prosperity and health, have largely been broken. We abuse the land and the sea, sometimes without even knowing it, but because we need nature, we cannot completely sever our ties to places.
Take for example our water. It comes to us through processes of the earth that occur in some particular place, even though most of us know little of the detail of how water appears in our taps. Food offers another example. Since we, as yet, only metaphorically eat words, our food must be raised, cultivated, hunted, or gathered from particular places with particular environmental characteristics, and most often it must be cared for and harvested by people living in those environments. Both food and water derive from particular social and ecological contexts. They are not abstractions, and their concreteness bonds us with natural and social processes that are hidden behind the facades of grocery store shelves and Internet shopping malls — the “places” where we make the purchases that support the way we live and provide the things we need to stay alive.
We live a paradox in which intimate physical relationships to nature and social processes of production are juxtaposed with ignorance and neglect of the places and people who sustain us. Our very lives are in the hands of people and ecologies that may be entirely foreign to us intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. We may never see the face of one person who has picked the bananas we eat throughout our lives, but we are connected to the banana pickers and to the ecology of the banana fields from which the fruit comes. Through our bodily existence and our own internal ecologies, we are connected to others and nature. In many ways, we are others and nature, for without them, we would cease to exist.
And as human-caused depletion and damage of the natural world continues, the threat has become ever present: we may indeed cease to exist without a radical (re)conceptualization of and (re)connection to place.
Many indigenous societies have conceptualized the fundamental relationship between humans and nature as reciprocal, believing that people must respect and care for nature if nature is to provide for people. We cannot allow the continued plunder of the land and the sea to take place in our name, masked behind images of clean and orderly grocery store shelves, spotless storefront windows, and online shopping centers. I’m also convinced that we won’t protect that which we don’t know, and consequently don’t value. It takes years of paying attention and continual, mutual interaction to know a place, both the human community that is part of the place and the natural world within which that community is embedded. Growing into a place is a long term process of relationship building, and to do it well, we will need to learn to stay in place. In a world where careerists are rewarded for their willingness to relocate, this is no small challenge.
But we will have to stay put if we are to learn what we need to know to live sustainably on the land. To recover the health of our damaged places, we will need to learn what can and can’t be done sustainably within particular environments, and we will have to end the process of robbing that which we need from other places because, as we deplete distant places, we threaten the survival of other people and the health of the biosphere — we behave as tyrants, and we threaten both nature and our own existence. We will need to (re)learn the art of neighborliness and of working together in spite of our differences, and we will need to make decisions embedded in a context of our love for each other and for place — and rooted in a desire to sustain that which we love beyond our short lifetimes. It’s time to rejoin the community of life, to belong in mutually sustaining ways. We need to (re)construct places in ways that bring to an end this era of loneliness.
The process will not be easy, especially because so much social power has been concentrated for so long in so few hands. But at least people around the world are recognizing this reality and working to change it. People are seeing the concentration of power and wealth itself as perhaps the central driver for social injustice in the globalized world. This recognition is a huge step in the right direction. It’s also important to recognize that virtually all of the processes that contribute to (re)building healthy places also serve to devolve social power to local contexts.
The (re)conceptualization and (re)construction of place can be both challenging and exhilarating. It’s an endeavor that can take many forms that coalesce in a long term process of articulating who we are in place — community gardens; potluck dinners with neighbors; bioregional resource management; reading, study, and discussion circles; governance work in local politics or in community organizations; farmers markets; community art and theatre projects, formal and informal education; developing and using local currencies; localized production, retail, and banking; localized renewable energy generation; and simply authentic listening among friends and neighbors – any activity that helps to build a sense of community and to increase the provision of basic needs from localized sources. Community building and (re)localization of our economies will help us build the resiliency that we will need to weather the converging crises of climate change, peak oil production, and economic instability.
The Occupy Movement may well be the introduction to a new story about who we are in place. The plot line for this story will be grounded in communities and bioregions, not in the marketplace. And it’s a story for which there is no final draft. Chapters will be written and rewritten over time, and if we can write them in ways that continually deepen our efficacy, improve the health of our environment, and strengthen reciprocal ties between ourselves and our places, we just might come to occupy a place called home.
Editor’s Note: This article is the fourth in a series by Tina Lynn Evans, titled “Living and Learning Sustainability.” Other articles from this series are available on New Clear Vision:
Tina Lynn Evans, Ph.D., teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on energy systems and socio-ecological sustainability at Prescott College and Fort Lewis College, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. She earned her doctorate in Sustainability Education at Prescott College, and currently resides with her husband and cat in the town of Durango, Colorado, where she grows and gathers a good deal of her own food and teaches and writes on sustainability issues and ideas.