by Ares Kalandides*
Place is an important category in the construction of our individual and social identities. We develop a sense of place both by projecting ourselves onto places and identifying with them in myriad ways. We may, for example, use place names to identify ourselves (“I live in Berlin”, “I am from Greece”); we may be more or less attached to particular places, as they become markers of who we are (“I am a new Berliner”).
By Place, I do not only mean the “bricks and mortar” of a locality, but rather the interaction between the physicality and the social relations that come together in a particular locus. Place attachment then is with people and their cultures, with their food, language and behaviour – as much as with public spaces, landscapes or buildings. It is easier to feel responsible for a place we are attached to, rather than for places we just pass through in the course of our lives. Tourists often behave differently at home than when they travel, although place attachment and responsibility may not be the only reason behind it (throwing away behavioural norms as part of the travel experience or the relative anonymity and lack of social control may be other explanations).
“It is easier to feel responsible for a place we are attached to, rather than for places we just pass through in the course of our lives.”
In a world where many people (though by no means all) move constantly, is there still such a thing as place responsibility and indeed the space for place-based politics? Or as Doreen Massey put it back in 1991, is there a “global sense of place”?
These thoughts come from a recent symposium on climate change that the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University organized at NYU Paris 16th –18th March 2017. There were several questions that structured our meeting, but there are two that are pertinent to this short article: a) How do we deal with climate change in our roles as teachers and b) How do we incorporate climate change into our activism. For me, as somebody who deals professionally with places, one question stuck out: If our students move constantly from one site to the other, can they develop the skills needed to engage with these places?
Sense of place and environmentally responsible behaviour
So how is the sense of place related to environmentally responsible behaviour? Let me start with some framing ideas: First of all, only because many people travel more today, it does not mean that all people do. Quite the opposite is true. Sometimes, one group’s mobility may even limit that of another. So, whereas many people move more, others are place-bound. Secondly, we should not conflate the concepts of community and place.
“What happens if through constant moving, we do not develop a sense of place? Can we still feel any kind of responsibility for a place we just pass through?”
People may belong to several communities simultaneously; different communities may co-exist in a place; and there may be communities that cross borders and span large parts of the planet. Third, we can define ourselves with places (because we’re attached to them) or against them (because we dislike or even hate them). We should not take place attachment as being the only possibility in identity formation. Fourth, we can develop attachment (or antipathy) for places we know, but also for places we imagine; places we have grown close to through our readings, representations in film or in music – just to name some possibilities.
Our relationship to places may very well be linked to routines of the everyday: the road we take to the bakery, our bus to work, a neighbour’s ‘good morning’, the smell and sound of a street we cross daily become elements of familiarity in our minds. Whether we grow to love or hate them (and anything in between), they are still formative of who we are. What happens then if through constant moving, we do not develop that kind of (positive or negative) place attachment? Can we still feel any kind of responsibility for a place we just pass through?
“We need a strong geographical imagination that does not only depend on our everyday experiences if we want to understand the interconnections between places at a global scale.”
One can argue of course that as we all share one planet, we are all global citizens. However, as our living experiences are linked to particular places, the idea of the global easily remains distant and abstract, not to say threatening. We need a strong geographical imagination that does not only depend on our everyday experiences if we want to understand the interconnections between – and sometimes common fate of – places at a global scale. But do we have the skills for that?
I believe we do. As human beings we are capable of very different things: from empathy for what is happening right next to us to the abstract understanding for certain events that take place far away. Although we may not be able to connect emotionally to the far away, we are still capable of doing so rationally. However, for decades (or is it centuries?) now we are being told that humans are essentially selfish utility maximizers. That the only thing we care for is ourselves and that that is actually a good thing.
One of our responsibilities as teachers is to debunk this dangerous idea, which has now been proven wrong even by the neuro-sciences. History (but also sociology, anthropology and more) teach us that humans are both selfish and altruistic, both individualists and social beings – in short that we are many conflicting things at the same time. Deciding to isolate selfishness as the only possible human trait, is a politically motivated fallacy. We need to get that message across as clearly as possible.
Additionally, a deeper engagement with place and space can train the geographical imagination. Geography as the spatial discipline par excellence which links social and natural sciences (but also other social sciences and the humanities), can show that places are indeed interconnected and one’s fate has consequences on another’s. This, however, takes reasoning and a level of abstraction that goes against the simple emotional triggers reproduced by media imagery. It means that we must teach students how to relate to something they cannot experience directly, because it is too far away either in terms of space or time. No matter how much we value difference, we need to find the right balance and insist upon the universals – the things that bind us together.
People often consume places as if they were commodities, with a tick-off list or at best with the obsession of collectors. Assisting our students to engage in a deep and meaningful way with the place they study at – class subjects, field trips, activism, and personal connections – should be part of our tasks. In fact, we need to understand university sites as deeply embedded into their places, not as bubble-like enclaves.
But our responsibilities as teachers do not end in our disciplines. For students we are and remain role-models, even if they will always reject part of what we represent. Are we sure we are engaging with places ourselves? Do we have and convey the geographical imagination needed? Do we engage with and care for others or do we show our students that individualistic competition is indeed the only source of progress as the neo-liberals will have us believe?