The surge in social awareness in the past few decades has led to an improved understanding of complex and technical social problems. Yet the majority of current initiatives are aimed at altering our habits rather than our belief systems, despite increasing acceptance that our consumer-oriented values are largely responsible for a number of our social problems. Though many of us know the perils of a consumer-oriented lifestyle, many still fail to engage in a deeper understanding of how our current set of values have rendered us so detached from our surroundings. Indeed, there’s a pressing need for us to reconnect to the landscapes that are instrumental for our future well-being. To accomplish this it’s crucial to rethink our relationship with nature and the importance of building strong and meaningful communities.
According to a recent survey conducted by the Canadian Press, only two percent of Canadians deny the occurrence of climate change. And yet, our society continues to operate on the assumption that the environment is subordinate to the economy. We might not like to admit it, but most of us behave (whether consciously or subconsciously) according to the premise that the planet exists largely to fulfill human desires, which are largely defined by consumerism. This misconception has led most of us to view ourselves separate from our environment. Just as industrialization fostered the separation of labour from production, rising trends in computerization and globalization have created new separations between place and consumption—we rarely think about the food we consume and the distance it travels to make it to our dinner plates.
All we have to do is look around us to realize how compartmentalized our lives are: We are constantly engaged in separating and classifying various aspects of our existence. How many among us separate work from our personal lives? Or work from consumption? We spend the greater part of our lives indoors, separating us from the natural world. We fill our indoor spaces with constant reminders of the outside (such as plants and images of landscapes) and when we think of nature or the outdoors, we often invoke ideas of distance separating us from a remote and unfamiliar world.
The separation of labour from the environment is particularly interesting. The fact that most of our working hours are spent inside has given way to the notion of labour being widely disconnected or even irrelevant to nature. We view employment as an instrument allowing us to attain satisfaction through the materialistic goods or the services that we consume. Therefore, the quest for material possessions has replaced personal gratification as the main objective of paid labour, if not the very goal of our existence. This vicious “work and consume” cycle has very apparent and negative implications. What we’re doing is distancing ourselves from the negative effects that our lives and labour are exerting on the environment.
Many of the problems plaguing our society, such as homelessness and poverty, are often exasperated by the lack of attention and care that result from our isolated lives. Creating strong connections to places, on the other hand, helps overcome anonymity and helps to facilitate social interaction. This in turn has the potential of constructing real communities where people get to know each other and develop meaningful relationships, enabling a better understanding of social and environmental issues. Direct involvement in one’s community or neighbourhood also contributes to a healthier life and quality of living. More importantly, genuine communities challenge mainstream assumptions about what qualifies as happiness in our modern societies.
Commitments to place are about taking charge, about proactively participating in the creation of one’s own life and connecting to others. A good example of this is the case of Whistler, Canada, where a sense of place has fostered an environmentally sustainable development focus, resulting a greater awareness of social concerns and the need for economic diversity. In other words, places that highlight and restore their natural environments will in turn be places where people want to live and where businesses want to be located.
As the forces of globalization continue to expand and destroy the sense of place, there are fewer social obligations to connect to community and nature, causing us to turn our backs on the extraordinary wealth of our ecosystem and our community. Reconnecting to the land and having a better understanding of the built and natural environment in which we live is imperative for ourselves and future generations.
by Philippe Daniel Markarian