More than ever before in my life, I see the tremendous value in having a sense of place or a connection to where I live my life. I view this feeling of community and interconnectedness as essential for a person’s wellbeing, yet it seems people today have given up on this idea to an extent. We travel to exotic places for vacations to escape the daily life we created for ourselves, move away for a school or job position, and dream of picking up everything and moving to a new location for any reason. Not everyone has lost their sense of place, but the majority of us now living in cities know very little about the places where they live and have very little attachment to their current places. This has detrimental consequences for the sustainability of any culture or community.
When I moved to Austin, Texas last August for graduate school, I barely gave it a second thought. I was able to move to a state far from home for my first year to study at St. Edward’s University and discover what I wanted from life. It was an obvious choice to go for me. After completing my first year, the program requires a semester abroad in Angers, France, so I will be moving to Angers at the end of the month. Before my studies began here in Austin, I was again away from where I grew up to earn my undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies in Binghamton, New York. Although it was only a three and a half hour drive from home, it was far enough to feel as though I was in a new place. I was truly in a new place. All of the moving around has taken its toll on me though. Don’t get me wrong, I have had some experiences that I would not trade for the world, and I do not regret my decisions. There is, however, something missing, and I believe it has to do with the sense of community (which starts with our connection to place).
Now, why is our sense of place and connection to the land so important? There are many environmental reasons to value the answers to this question, but I like to boil it down to one thing: sustainability. Not just the sustainability of the environment, but also of society as a whole. The natural environment is what we all depend upon on some level, but we also depend on our location to make sense of the social interactions we have among one another. More specifically, our knowledge of where we live, to a large extent, dictates how we think, act, and respond to life’s various and complex situations.
Since the majority of humans live in cities today, we have lost almost all connections to the natural environment. What we accept as “nature” in the city is disappointing and embarrassing. We value development over conservation. Essentially, we value more and not better (as Bill McKibben writes in Deep Economy). The natural world is in trouble, and very few of us are ready to accept that as fact. We eat foods that travel thousands of miles before it reaches our refrigerators and know nothing of the flora and fauna of the places we call home. We do not know how to grow our own food, nor do we know much about the food we buy from the supermarket. We have outsourced many of these things to a few specialists, and this will one day be a major problem. Change is the law of life. If we rely on others for something as basic as food (and water), then we are at the mercy of those in that position of power for our most basic human needs. Ignorance is not bliss.
Beyond the sustainability of the food system and the natural world, we are at risk of losing all connection to one another. The anonymity and individualism that is provided to us by cities can be beneficial in many ways, but taken to an extreme (as we have done today) we can easily destroy our sense of community. This may seem to some as not such a huge deal, but it is for stability of our communities. Humans need to feel like they belong, but we allow ourselves to become so disconnected from one another, as we connect to our WiFi. Technology has made it way easier to facilitate this shift. Many people today do not even know their neighbors and this disconnection from humanity causes unnecessary violent crimes to take place every day. To give you an idea of how big our social problems are, consider this statistic: one in five woman are victims of sexual assault on college campuses today. Violence is pervasive in our culture today; This is how we treat the members of our community. We stay out of other peoples’ business, and sometimes we even ignore the turmoil of those in our own family. This does not come as a shock to me because we live in a world where it is so easy to escape from the reality of our circumstances.
It is not just crime that rises when we lose our sense of community, but also our health more broadly. Obesity is at an all-time high in the United States because we have lost our connection to our place and time. This is a preventable disease of modern society, yet we continue to allow soda companies to fund our sporting activities. The advertising is all over the place for these products, and the main ingredient (sugar) is the leading cause for obesity. If we truly were committed to ending the obesity epidemic, we would rid our communities of these drinks and of the fast food establishments on every other street corner. Similarly, our “War on Drugs” has taken a huge toll on the mentally ill all around the world, which criminalizes and locks up those who would instead benefit greatly from medical treatment. Viewing things like obesity and addiction as personal choices or struggles is only half of the picture. What we choose to value and how we act towards these things defines who we are as a people. I for one do not want to be defined by absentee legislators who have the power to decide what is best for your community. Every place is different, and each place requires a unique stewardship that should be defined by local residents.
With all of this in mind, I am ready to move somewhere and stay there. After I finish Master’s degree in Environmental Management and Sustainability, I am committed to living in a place. I want to build a sense of community and be a steward of the land I live upon. I want to live in a place where I do not feel the need to run away on an expensive vacation to feel peace and serenity. I want to live in a community where we look after one another, as opposed to a place where neighbors compare themselves to one another and fight with each other. We could all afford to turn off our electronic devices and go out into the local community where we live to see what and who needs our help. Everyone has something unique to offer, but we have to find the courage to recognize and believe in our strengths to make a difference in this world.