We live in a world completely divorced from place. Our industrialized and consumer driven lives have effectively separated producers from consumers and consumers from the waste of their consumption. Most of us simply have no idea how natural processes actually work or how very real ecological limits interact with our livelihoods. We are encouraged to be mobile and nomadic, meaning of course that we only further distance ourselves and our livelihoods from the land that sustains us and the communities that surround us.
The effects of this unplaced culture are starting to be painfully felt. If we are to confront the myriad of crises that we collectively face, technical solutions won’t be enough. Rather, we need to confront the underlying civilizational paradigm that defines our modern times and develop a new culture that is tied to place.
Aspects of our current “placeless” society
What does it mean to be disconnected from place? Obviously, all of us live in some place. Our homes sit on a piece of land and we usually live either in a neighborhood or apartment complex where we share a certain physical place with others.
However, these places where we live and have our being have almost no bearing or impact on how we actually live our lives. Whereas the livelihoods of our ancestors were largely determined by the physical places where they lived, our lives are completely detached from any sort of ecological limits that the ecosystems where we live require.
For example, there are millions of people living in Las Vegas, a mega city in a desert. The resources that support this oasis of luxury, affluence and wealth are almost completely divorced from the actual, surrounding area. Water is pumped in from hundreds of miles away contributing to the Colorado River running dry while electricity is supplied from the Hoover Dam and oil-powered electricity plants. Las Vegas, then, exists by pilfering the ecological resource of other places and depending on stores of ancient sunlight in the form of fossil fuels.
The Timbisha-Shoshone are an indigenous group that have lived in the deserts of the American Southwest for thousands of years. Unlike their resource hungry neighbors of Las Vegas, the Timbisha-Shoshone have learned to craft their lifestyle to the very real and sometimes harsh limits and conditions of the desert ecosystem they inhabit.
Small communities placed around the few oases offered by the desert found abundance in the pinyon pine nuts and small wildlife that lived in the region. Whereas a person from Las Vegas has almost no understanding of what living in a desert ecosystem actually entails from a sustainability perspective, the Timbisha-Shoshone developed a complete desert culture that learned how to interact with their surroundings so as to provide a healthy lifestyle while not diminishing the ecological resiliency and health of the place that gave them life.
The example of Las Vegas might be seen as a hyperbolic illustration. However, almost every “community” dominated by the industrial paradigm follows the same pattern. The food we eat travels an average of 1,500 miles before arriving to our plates. We enjoy fresh produce in the dead of winter when the ground outside is frozen.
All of us expect water to flow from the faucets in our house but almost none of us have any idea where that water comes from nor how it is pumped into our homes. Similarly, the waste from our bodies is taken as far away from our homes as possible with the help of a toilet and a sewage system, though again none of us have a clue as to where that waste actually goes or how it is treated (if it is treated at all).
From our consumer livelihoods, each of us generates an average of 4.3 pounds of trash each day adding up to 220 million tons per year. That excess from our consumer driven lives ends up somewhere, though almost none of us know where. Furthermore, we enjoy unlimited amounts of electricity and power, but unless we live near a coal generating plant or a nuclear waste site, we are so far removed from the effects of the generation of that power that we simply can’t understand the true ecological and social cost.
On the level of community, though we may often live around people, most of us simply have no idea who our neighbors are. While we may greet them at the mailbox, their existence has absolutely no influence or relevance over our own lives. With our cherished mobility and the rise of social media, we are “privileged” to create our own communities based on shared affinities and worldviews. The idea of community, then, is almost completely divorced from any tangible and concrete place.
The problems that come with separating ourselves from place
If we can’t see the effects of our consumption or our waste, then how can we be responsible and held accountable for those effects? Similarly, if we don’t know the people who produce our food, the communities that supply us with our water, or the ecosystems that are forced to absorb our waste, how can we enter into ethical relationships with those people and places?
It is convenient to simply trust the promises of big companies and corporations that promise us that they operate ethically and sustainably. These companies and corporations may spend millions of dollars to promote their corporate social responsibility, however the bottom line of profit is what rules in our ultra-competitive, neoliberal, global economy. Evidence shows that corporations use the corporate social responsibility tag as a way to maintain the image of an ethical company while engaging in cutthroat competitive practices that may mistreat workers or the environment in route to a higher profit margin.
Our modern day economy has come to depend on the separation between producer and consumer, and the separation of consumer from the places that absorb their waste. As long as the everyday consumer trusts in the system that offers them unlimited opportunities for shopping, workers from Third World countries will continue to be abused and mistreated. As long as we continue to accept the “out of sight and out of mind” mentality, indigenous communities will continue to have to suffer the adverse effects of nuclear waste buried underneath their communities and sacred places just so that the average citizen can have cheap and unlimited amounts of electricity and power.
Our placelessness isn’t an inoffensive and meaningless feature of our modern civilization. Rather, it is the fundamental characteristic that has lead us to the brink of social and ecological collapse.
The agrarian author, poet and farmer Wendell Berry, in one of his seminal works “The Art of the Commonplace” once said that “in this state of total consumerism – which is to say a state of helpless dependence on things and services and ideas and motives that we have forgotten how to provide ourselves – all meaningful contact between ourselves and the earth is broken. We do not understand the earth in terms either of what it offers us or of what it requires of us, and I think it is the rule that people inevitably destroy what they do not understand.”
The virtues of placed communities
The idea of limits is not looked upon very kindly in our industrial society. We equate virtue and success with the ability to go beyond the limits of our upbringing, of our local community, and of our surrounding environment. At the same time, we consider small, placed communities to be backwards, antiquated, and synonymous with poverty.
However, perhaps we need to rethink the value (or lack thereof) associated with small, placed communities. By having their lives and livelihoods tied to a specific community, placed communities understand better the limits and opportunities that each place offers. While modern day society focuses almost exclusively on the limits of being tied to place, the opportunities that each place offers are the true sense of wealth.
For example, though a placed community in the foothills of rural Appalachia may not to be able to have fresh strawberries in the dead of winter, they might still be able to forage for buckets of morel mushrooms in the surrounding forest. A placed community that doesn’t depend on the “out of sight and out of mind” sewage system that takes away the waste water from their homes, may find that by recycling their grey water they are able to gain an extra source of irrigation for their fruit orchard. A composting toilet would provide them with an extra source of fertility for their land as well.
On the community level, many of us may believe that small, rural communities are synonymous with the close mindedness exemplified by the metaphoric Hatfield’s and McCoy’s where petty fights, ignorance, and lack of education abound. However, some studies have found that by cultivating a sense of place, greater opportunities for holistic and integral development are more possible.
Creating community that is geographical also allows for a greater sense of belonging. While our industrial society focused on mobility, and freedom from limits has emphasized the ability to create community of like-minded individuals, sharing a tangible and real place with others around us forces us into confronting our differences and finding ways to survive together.
Resituating our lives in community: A paradigmatic change to reimagine our way forward
By reconnecting our lives to place, not only can we become more ethically responsible for our consumption and waste, but also, we can benefit from an intensified sense of belonging that can bring us more meaning, purpose and happiness. Whereas seclusion and remoteness define how we currently interact with our places, this posture has led us towards a sense of collective despair, not to mention a myriad of ecological and social crises. Cultivating a sense of belonging once again to our places and communities offers us a path forward that will allow for a healthier civilization, healthier relationships, and a healthier everyday life.