The Power of Place

The Power of Place

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The Power of Place


“The main thing is to root politics in place. The affinity for home permits a broad reach in the process of coalition building. It allows strange bedfellows to find one another. It allows worldviews to surface and change. It allows politics to remain an exercise in hope. And it allows the unthinkable to happen sometimes.” Allen Thein Durning, This Place on Earth , P.249

The concept of place, home and community is a transnational and trans-community concept. Human places have just recently been given political boundaries. Previously, human boundaries were determined the same way that animal, plant, and ecosystem boundaries were defined. They were defined by ecology and they were defined by geography of region and hemisphere.

Tony Hiss Author of The Experience of Place brings to our attention that as humans “We react, consciously or unconsciously, to the places where we live and work, in ways we scarcely notice or that are only now becoming known to us…In short, the places where we spend our time affect the people we are and can become.” Place defines characteristics in both human and extended moral communities. Place is not necessarily specific to gender, race, generation or specie. This understanding and recognition of place is fundamental when thinking about institutionalizing ecological and social responsibility.

Because of human and nonhuman connections to specific places including knowledge, experience and community, using a sense of place and permanence as a green transnational multilateral initiative could be a successful step towards green democracy and ecological citizenship. Robyn Eckersley offers the suggestion of a constitutionally entrenched principle that would enhance ecological and social responsibility: the precautionary principle. I suggest connecting localized, place-specific boundaries with the principle. This addition is meant to aid in fostering ecological citizenship, expanding the moral community, and creating a responsible society. This addition would also be meant to unite a transnational issue that all nations could agree upon. This would create a binding multilateral principle that would be thoroughly accepting of specific ecological needs and characteristics of specific places.

In short, the big picture of an international perspective needs the resolution of the peculiarities of place that can't be emphasized in a global viewpoint.

The second major international environmental conference was held in Rio de Janeiro, in 1992. It was at Rio that the precautionary principle first became known to the public. Called principle 15, the precautionary principle provided that: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation” (p.

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135). Although an effective ecological foundation, Eckersley noted the necessity to add to the depth of this principle. In order to be in favor of all possible environmental victims, she adds the following after “irreversible damage”: “to present and future human and nonhuman communities.” (p.135).

Eckersley goes on further to state that “No single decision rule is likely to do more to protect environmental victims” than the precautionary principle (p. 136). I would agree, but would like to suggest a most effective way to implement the principle. To create an easily understood, multilateral constitutionally entrenched principle that would enhance ecological citizenship, I believe in adding a place-based proponent to the principle.

The initial Eckersley principle protects citizens of potential environmental risks. But if this principle was to be implemented on a local level, it would not only protect those affected by environmental risks, it would also create a new sense of pride in place-based politics. This would be a place-based politics in which communities could understand, in which communities would be willing to participate in because of a long standing relationship and connection to a region, piece of land or community. In describing how saving land affects our private lives, but also relating to how the connection of land and people can create a unique bond where the place-based precautionary principle could succeed, Editor Peter Forbes states “It is the chance to express our allegiance to ideals, to one another, and to the land, thereby enabling each one of us to become a citizen of a specific place.”

After being implemented unilaterally to understand its initial effectiveness, this place-based principle could reach multilateral levels without much difficulty. Because a sense of place is not found solely in America, or Europe or Africa, this principle would reach out across all political boundaries, uniting in binding agreement. In considering such types of unilateral and multilateral agreements, Eckersley states that, “…these unilateral initiatives would be considerably buttressed by multilateral agreements that confer reciprocal environmental rights and obligations.” (p.196). This would be the hope in the execution of the place-based principle.

This principle would be important to employ on an international level to achieve a successful all encompassing approach towards ecological citizenship and effective green initiatives. Without the cooperation of many or all of the nation states, a place-based precautionary principle could only reach a certain point before becoming obsolete on the global level.

The importance of the international communities involvement is apparent in intrinsic value, the connectedness of ecological niches to species and ecosystems, and international trade. Many examples can be addressed here.

The rainforest is a common example of a transboundary, place-based issue. Recent developments of slash-and-burn areas for cattle grazing done by nonnative peoples in the South American rainforests have both affected the actual place as well as the world at large. The soil erodes easily away during rainfall, destroying the local land. In turn, biodiversity and a planet carbon sink are drastically depleted. The precautionary principle without the place-based addition would possibly address this issue. Yet with a worldwide understanding and respect of place, there would be more thought evoked on such issues enhancing an ecological world, and the decisions to negate slash-and-burn techniques would also be accepted and understood without significant problems.

International trade is another example for the necessity of global participation. A US company buying bananas from Ecuador may have no vested interest in the region in which the bananas are grown and harvested. Yet with a place-based ethic, both the company and the Ecuadorian growers may be inclined if not required to ensure that the bananas are grown, harvested, transported and sold under sustainable conditions, producing as little environmental risk as possible to both indigenous communities as well as ecosystems.

Indigenous rights are also a concern in place-based ecological thought. The local indigenous knowledge of citizens of a certain place is often overlooked. If every region, ecosystem, town, city or village was represented by citizens understanding and sympathetic of the knowledge gained by the permanence of place, such irrationality of ignoring indigenous knowledge would no longer occur. Scientific understanding, specifically written with more of an emphasis on place and local knowledge would be needed to disprove environmental risks.

These issues cross boundaries and affect the whole world, not just a single geographical region or country made of political boundaries. With the implementation of the place-based precautionary principle first, as a unilateral attempt to understand the workings of the principle and second, as a multilateral binding initiative, these issues would be methodically considered by many nations understanding the ethics of caring for place and the ethics of sustainability. I think Eckersley would support the different steps that this place-based principle would take on its way to implementation and include it with the following statement concerning such initiatives:

“Taken together, these unilateral and multilateral initiatives would loosen the nexus between the nation and the state, while also redefining the more traditional understandings of nation such that the source of connectedness between those constituting any particular demos is no longer just belongingness or membership but also a common ecological or biological harm.” (p.196)

The place-based precautionary principle would in, co-editor of Rooted in the Land , William Vitek's words, help in “slowing down, staying put, opening our senses, practicing humility and restraint, knowing and caring for those around us, and finding our natural place in the natural world” and that these steps, as well as accepting, understanding, and implementing the precautionary principle would be “significant steps in the rediscovery of place and the sense of community it holds.”

The emphasis of place in the precautionary principle would connect the world with the value of ecosystems and all members of this earth. The emphasis of place would foster pride in community and local environmental knowledge thus supporting the concept of ecological citizenship on a global level. The emphasis of place would obstruct American's and others from losing their sense of place in this mobile world, discouraging rootlessness by understanding the theory behind place and accepting the places and local knowledge of others.

Works Cited:

1. Durning, Allen, Thein. This Place on Earth. Sasquatch Books. Seattle. 1997.

2. Forbes, Peter, Forbes, Ann Armbrecht, and Whybrow, Helen. Our Land, Ourselves. The
Trust for Public Land. San Francisco. 1999.

3. Jackson, Wes and Vitek, William. Rooted in the Land. Yale University Press. New
Haven.1996.

4. Olsen, Andrea. Body and Earth. Middlebury College Press. Hanover. 2002.
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