Monday, December 28, 2009

Topobiophiliacs Unite!

On my way home today I ran the usual gauntlet of big box stores and fast food restaurants—McDonald's, ToysRUs, Burger King, Walmart; you know the drill. Tens of millions of people around the country (and many other countries) will do the same on this day, traveling paved pathways through neon mazes emblazoned with all-too-familiar logos. Just as these corporations are generally based far away, so too the energy fueling our cars (and heating our homes upon arrival) comes from distant locales. The same is true for most of the foods we eat, the music we listen to, and the information we consume on television and the internet. Globalization has homogenized the industrialized world (and large parts of the non-industrialized world). Is it any wonder, then, that, awash in this sea of sameness, few of us feel a strong attachment to the places that we live? After all, if one place looks basically like any other, what difference does it make which of these you call home? Bolstering this detached state of affairs is the recent trend for people to live and work in multiple states, provinces, and/or countries over the course of their lives.

Such rampant uniformity and unrootedness is new for us, just a few decades old. For most of our lengthy duration, we humans have been intimately tied to our natal places such that the local scents, sounds, sights, tastes, and textures became integrated into our sense of identity. In addition to being steeped in the local community—its culture, foods, and personalities—we knew many of the local animals and plants and understood local rhythms—what month of the year a certain migrating bird arrived or a particular crop should be planted.

Previously in this blog and in its foundational essay, I have argued that Western societies currently suffer from a dysfunctional relationship with nonhuman nature, and that a sustainable future must include not only greener technologies and lifestyles, but a radically transformed worldview as well. Specifically, I have made the claim that three key elements are needed: 1) new metaphors (e.g., the tree of life, the whirlpool of life); 2) a new story, or origin myth (the Great Story, from the Big Bang to us); and 3) a renewed sense of place. Recent posts have addressed the first and second of these items. Today I will delve a little deeper into the third.

Presently, there is a tremendous need to buck the homogenization trend and re-establish our relationship to place. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we forsake the supposed “evils” of industrialization and return to tribal living, or even move toward a purely local existence. Barring the collapse of civilization (a real threat), globalization is here to stay, at least for awhile. Nevertheless, sustainable living (the antidote necessary to avoid civilizational collapse) must include strong local components (1). For example, most of the food in sustainable societies will be raised locally and change on a seasonal basis. Similarly, in stark contrast to our present dependence on fossil fuels from the Middle East, energy will come predominantly from local, renewable sources: geothermal, solar, and wind. And since every place has its own unique characteristics—for example, topography, climate, vegetation, water supply, and culture —sustainability will, by necessity, be closely tied to local needs. Thus, any successes in achieving sustainability at higher levels (state, nation, biosphere) will be realized only through the amalgamation of sustainable societies in local places, with the latter roughly equivalent to watersheds or “bioregions.”

Yet, given present trends towards globalization and homogenization, how are we to shift worldviews, moving from rampant placelessness to a meaningful sense of place? To begin with, how can we encourage large numbers of people to recognize the value of place and local community? In an effort to address these questions, I have become increasingly interested in the intersection of two concepts: “biophilia” and “topophilia.” Although they may sound like contagious diseases, this pair of ideas may just be critical ingredients for resolving the current eco-crisis. Biophilia, often defined as the human bond with other species, was described by biologist E. O. Wilson (2). Wilson suggested that this bond was innate, the result of millions of years of evolution in intimate contact with the nonhuman world. Topophilia, defined as an affective bond with place, is a lesser known concept described in particular by geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (3). In short, topophilia refers to a love of place, and biophilia to a love of life. I have often wondered if our long heritage as place-based beings means that we also have an innate tendency to develop bonds with the places we live. Combining the two ideas, it seems reasonable to postulate that we have within us a genetic predisposition to form bonds with the other life forms that live in and around our home places.

Whether or not the above hypothesis is borne out, it seems to me that we need to work toward building emotional connections with the living beings that share our native places; after all, they are key to our survival. It seems highly improbable that such connections can be forged through books, television, or the internet. No, if we are to renew our relationship with nonhuman nature, it must come from direct, firsthand experience. Fortunately, a number of recent movements are taking us in the right direction, and demonstrating the benefits of fostering both topophilia and biophilia. Below I mention three of these.

First, farmers markets are making a strong comeback in North America and Europe (1). These markets are full of local, sustainably harvested, often organic foods with a tiny fraction of the travel miles (and thus greenhouse gas emissions) that typify most foods in the Western World. Many participating farms conduct tours, allowing people to see firsthand where their food comes from and how it is raised. Second in this brief list is the recent “No Child Left Inside” movement, which aims to reverse recent trends and get children outside exploring nature as a means of enhancing physical and emotional health. This grassroots effort, triggered by Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods (4), is now supported by nonprofits such as the Children and Nature Network ( The leaders of this effort recognize that, in most instances, lasting bonds with nature will be rooted in firsthand childhood experience outdoors. The third and final example is the schooling for sustainability movement, which has a strong place-based emphasis (5, 6). Although still nascent and concentrated in independent schools, this effort to learn from nature and to focus education on place, community, and service is perhaps the most exciting of all. Programs such as school gardens and reclaiming local watersheds promote both understanding and a passion for place (see also

What can you do? Get more informed about, and engaged in, your place. Where does your food come from? Chances are that local, healthy food alternatives are available if you are not already tapping into these. Where do your wastes (i.e., garbage and sewage) go to? Are there ways to reduce your impacts? Can you (and, if applicable, your kids) name a dozen local plants and animals? What types of community projects need your help? What children can you get outside and mentor? As a New Years resolution, think about adding one or two items that address local issues. In short, vow to become a lifetime topobiophiliac! Not only will you be healthier—your community will be too. Plus, it will be great fun explaining your new affliction to others!

1. Brown, L. R. 2009. Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. Norton, New York.
2. Wilson, E. O. 1986. Biophilia: The Human Bond with other Species. Harvard University Press, Boston.
3. Tuan, Y-F. 1990. Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perceptions, Attitudes, and Values. Columbia University Press, New York (reprinted: original published in 1974).
4. Louv, R. 2006. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, NC.
5. Sobel, D. 1996. Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education. Orion Society, Great Barrington.
6. Stone, M. K. 2009. Smart By Nature: Schooling for Sustainability. University of California Press, Berkeley.


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  2. As usual, you have me looking at my situation from a new and different perspective. Thank you! I find, especially lately, that I am avoiding everything outside that I can. Instead of viewing our surroundings as something to explore and celebrate, it is nothing but a nuisance. From complaining about cold and snow, discouraging the little ones from stomping in the snow because they might track it into the house and make a mess, we spend most of our time waiting for Spring to come. I grew up in Minnesota with a Southern mother that taught us that Winter was to be despised. I see my children being excited by nature, no matter what the temperature, but as parents, we are not getting them out there to explore. I will not make the mistakes of my parents and let their natural interests fade away. We live in a city that prides itself on its natural resources and recreation. It is a shame to not take advantage of that. Thank you for this insightful post!

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