We are constantly traveling.
The twin miracles of communication and transportation have brought the world and all its enticing wonders – beautiful and profane – closer to our doorstep. So not surprisingly, we have wandered away.
As liberating as it may be, the persistent exposure to media leaves many of us increasingly “mediated.” Something stands between us and the places we inhabit. The news and entertainment cycle offers a renewable source of distraction. Communities of like-minded souls are readily accessible to friend and follow. We know more about distant lands and tourist destinations, abetted by guidebooks and tour groups.
In the end, we are more and more connected to every place but here.
As Elizabeth Drew claimed, “Too often travel, instead of broadening the mind, merely lengthens the conversation.”
A resilient future will involve both a broader perspective and a deeper engagement with own’s one landscape – and a network of people living more integrally in places and ecological systems.
Places are part of ecology’s “network of networks”
Nature does not fight for mindshare. There is nothing intrinsically newsworthy about millennia-old cycles and relationships of life. It holds little sway among cosmopolitan urbanites or wired cognoscenti. For all of the benefits of the city, urbanization and “nature deficit disorder” fosters a kind of anthropocentrism.
But humanity relies upon the gifts of nature for virtually everything – air, water, food, inspiration, and sustenance. We ignore nature at our peril, and as recent discussion about climate and biodiversity confirms, we have ignored it.
The social web has nothing on the web of life. Between the hydrological cycle, atmospheric and meteorological patterns, deep geophysical structures, flyways and migration pathways, places across and between continents are connected by nature.
With ecology the connectedness is far from virtual, yet our collective survival will demand inculcating a greater sense of ecological connectedness and interdependence among people living in local communities and between connected communities.
It will be an act of maturity and wisdom – or perhaps desperation – to bring nature back into focus.
Spatial mismatches and shifting baselines
Time and space have been obliterated by modernity. Across the planet, people are increasingly mobile. Urban and agricultural development dominate more of the landscape. But the world is not flat. It is not a tabula rasa for human activity.
The phrase “spatial mismatch” – which originally described the effect of economic restructuring on jobs and residences for low-income populations – now seems to describe a vast range of our growing challenges: mismatches between food and mouths, work and reward, resources and consumption, water and agriculture. In an era of climate change, spatial mismatch could also pertain to collapse of fine-tuned temporal relationships between co-evolved plants and migratory animals.
The future isn’t what it used to be… The pace of change has intensified dramatically.
And the past, too, isn’t what it used to be. Even more astounding than modern invention is how much each new generation will now forget. What we remember about the land and vanished species and what is defined as “natural” all undergo creeping changes. This loss of local memory about environmental conditions is termed “shifting baselines.” Things lost do not seem lost, if they are never known.
A corollary for human communities is something psychiatrist Dr. Mindy Fullilove calls “root shock,” applying a biological metaphor to the decimation of established human communities and psychological ties by urban renewal.
Oral history, culture, the conservative arc of wisdom have lost their foothold. Crowd-sourced wisdom can enhance but not replace wisdom rooted in place. Connectivity without a base is not deep knowledge, especially compared to some cultural traditions developed through deep understanding of local conditions.
Conservation is local and networked
Now that the Anthropocene era is upon us with a vengeance – and we’re all a part of the push against the planet’s boundaries (though some more than others) – what to do? There seems to be an endless parade of endangered species and environmental disasters – as we are informed frequently by the media.
Our footprint is everywhere. Speaking about mankind’s irreversible relationship with rainforests, the eminent ecologist Daniel Janzen, declared, “It’s all gardening now.” And so it has become with most of the planet. Humanity’s role has to become one of greater stewardship.
So where do we start?
You start with what you know, with where you are. Unfortunately, these two may not coincide. Many of us no longer have much of a relationship with the natural world around us.
Somewhat like politics, all successful conservation is local. A common refrain suggests that “we will only conserve what we love. We will only love what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” (Baba Dioum)
The Children and Nature movement, citizen science, and service learning can help us to gain deeper understanding of our neighborhoods, gardens, watersheds, and landscapes. Anything that gets us out of enclosed and “climate controlled” spaces (and away from batteries) allows our senses to engage with the world.
We also need a network of local ecological histories, documenting baselines of places to provide context for future decision-making. It’s all gardening now.
Geospatial thinking and place-based education
What reality is augmented by geolocation services and mobile devices? The current interest in geolocation offers an entry into landscape, but one mostly disconnected from the ecological world of soil and water and air. In fact, it most supports consumption of one sort or another.
The map – even if it was produced by Google – is not the territory. And “here” is not a lat-long coordinate. In the living world, there are no independent places. Each point is embedded within a vast “network of networks.” Geophysical and biological forces ceaselessly shape the landscape.
Geospatial thinking and geodesign may help address problems of spatial mismatch and shifting baselines. Place-based education that reveals the depth of human history and ecological relations represented by any place also engages individuals in a connected fashion.
Time to come home
It’s time to come home to our senses, to return from those liberating but prodigal journeys, an era of wandering. We will continue to visit, to share stories and collaborate, keep in touch with all the people and places we've encountered. But the future is not virtual, and virtual is not the future. Even when the mind has succumbed to the lure of elsewhere, the present – including its ecological and social woes – is created by actions in the flesh.
Similarly, “here” does not mean stasis, isolation or Luddism. Here is connected, and here is changing. A brighter future will be embodied in local awareness and action, informed by a broader understanding of that embedded here. This new worldview is consonant with developing a deeper wisdom.
Given the new realities, everyone has a role as a steward. Everyone is a gardener. This is something that cannot be outsourced.
Are we here yet?
There have been many inroads leading to a new, resilient approach – permaculture and “healing cities”, Transition Towns and Bright Green Cities, and many others.
For some, the resurgence of focus on local food systems has reawakened wonder in the natural world. But that said, we will not all become agrarians or pastoralists. The embrace of place is not a return to provincialism or some nostalgic sense of the past, but the rise of a truly engaged, wise, connected citizenry concerned about future generations.
Disciplines that modern (American) society once cast aside – civics, geography – still deserve a place in our future. We are looking at a new civics for a new geography based on a new ecology. But at its root, the ecology has never changed.
The excursions of brilliant communities will continue to enrich the human experience, but the human relationship with local places may determine its future sustainability.
“The real voyage of discovery,” as Marcel Proust suggested, “consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”