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When “Community” stops being connected to “Place”

August 11, 2010

We live in a very strange time.

For most of human history, the world around us has changed very, very slowly.

It’s a bit hard to define exactly when humans first appeared on this planet, because there is no exact date; rather, it was a gradual evolution over many millions of years. But, for the sake of this discussion, let’s call it 200,000 years of human history, which is about how long anatomically modern humans have walked this Earth.

For most of that history, our ancestors existed mainly as nomadic hunters and gatherers, walking in small family bands (or societies) through small territories in which they collected their food. Communities were oriented around “place” – they didn’t have any travel options anyway, right? – and their knowledge of that place: seasonal changes, plant growth, wildlife movements, was key to their success in finding food… and, so, to survival.

By around 10,000 years ago, following the end of the last Ice Age, many of these societies around the world were making the transition to agriculture. Now they were even more bonded to their place, and their knowledge of natural cycles such as seasons, weather and growing cycles were even more critical to their survival.

Connection to place was not simply an airy-fairy spiritual thing – even though rituals and spiritualities did, in many cultures, develop to symbolize this connection (e.g. the Thunderbird on the Mountain, or the Pachamama). Connection to place was a practical key to survival. And caring for that place – ensuring that wild animals were not hunted to extinction, and that soil remained fertile for subsequent years and subsequent generations –  was a logical key to survival.

Up until only a few hundred years ago, most people on Earth never ventured far from their birthplace. It’s only just over 500 years ago that Columbus embarked on his voyages of “discovery”. By the 1700s and 1800s more of a mass movement of humanity started to occur, as Europeans set out on journeys of colonization. But even these were mostly one-of trips: people emigrated (mainly from Europe; also some from Asia and – not by their own choice – some from Africa) to new lands where they made their new homes and developed their new connections, learning what to hunt and how to cultivate crops.

But what’s happened now? In the last century (or less!) we have arrived to this state where nearly everyone in our western society is mobile. Most of us no longer live where we grew up – or our children no longer live near us. Many of us have moved several times in our lives already. And, more significantly, we know that we have the option of moving again. Our lives and our communities are no longer centred upon a place.

Caring for place used to be critical to our survival. It was in our face every day, our place. If we didn’t care for it, the consequences would be felt quickly enough: no animals to hunt, or crop failures.

Our increased mobility, this last century (which, if you take 200,000 years as the length of time humans have walked the Earth, means only 0.05% of our history) has affected our connection to place. In fact, I would argue that it has pretty much destroyed it.

And once we lose that connection: our knowledge of natural cycles and any awareness of our impact on our place, it suddenly becomes much easier for us to damage our place. We no longer understand the consequences of our actions.

What do you think?
Do you have a place you feel connected to?
Do you still live there?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 27, 2010 11:16 am

    I don’t think it’s true that the general “we” don’t understand the consequences of our actions.

    I think the majority of people are aware of what’s going on environmentally and what lifestyle habits are good and bad for the environment.

    I think there’s a disconnect between people and our environment that’s become essential to our survival. People in the west live longer because we have centralized distribution of food, health care (it’s not perfect but it does impact our survival rate) and our housing is pretty spectacular. Running water in our house. Central heating. Refrigerators and freezers.

    It’s easier for people to live in the woods or out of a more primitive cabin on the west coast, but in most of north america people live in city centers, and in order to survive there you have to live in a place with running water, central heating and electricity.

    Most forms of housing require you to work full time in order to afford the rent or mortgage, so you spend more time working at tasks for someone else than tasks centered on your immediate survival.

    I think that’s where the disconnect is, not that we’re more mobile. I think as a culture we spend so much time performing tasks that aren’t for our personal survival, so we don’t think in terms of survival. We think in terms of bank accounts, which is really the same instinct as stock piling food for winter, it’s just abstract.

  2. erika permalink
    November 23, 2010 12:25 pm

    Hmm.. I have to go back and read this book Collapse by Jared Diamond that my husband told me about. I suggest it to you on the topic as well. The only comment I make for the moment is that I think the mobility is NOT the only culprit here. In fact, environmental damages had happened before the humans became so mobile, and you can find out more in this book… I am not sure people ever put much of thought on how much their actions damage the places where they live, something like what the politicians usually do :)… only short term… I think the number of people required to have a quick and visible impact on the place they live, as it happens today, is also important, and, until recently, we were not as many on Earth.

    Personally, I only feel connected to the place I was born and lived my childhood. Now I do not live there anymore. The rest of Earth is more to enjoy myself for some moments of my life :). I do not say it is less important though. And anywhere I am and go I feel blessed to see yet a new place and take care not to leave too many traces behind… I buy local and seasonal produce in the store when I am giving the options, I recycle, and try to save resources when it is possible.. And I will never buy a more than 3 bedroom house as I do not see the reason why I should have a mansion for my little family of 3! And I could continue like this.. am I connected to the place I live? I think I am but not in the way people used to. I understand some if its cycles, its seasons, unfortunately I have less contact with the people who live around me… So much of our needs are not entirely in the nature hands anymore… Life is so specialized now, we can only hope that everyone takes care of their little special field in the way that leads to harmony with the place we live in.

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