Connection to place

TLDR; a limiting social factor on the size of the economy should be how disembedded or embedded individuals are to land and local biosphere. A great deal of our modern process require the lifting out of social relations from community and land, particularly within production. I also offer an approach to restoration ecology that uses cultural function as a marker of ecosystem success to link humans and the non-human environment.

This is a series of posts linked with my PhD project – Social Limits to Growth. These posts describe some of the theory, thinking, and correlations each of these “EE approaches to the social sphere” have with research that was conducted for my PhD. For a full overview of my PhD see my main project page.

The main motivation for these series of approaches is that while ecological economics takes biophysical limits seriously, there is often limited discussion on what the social limits to our economy are. For example, the balance between how alienated/anxious/depressed a person becomes to produce an efficient product should be limited by assurance that a person is getting gainful meaning from their work and labour. So just as nitrogen is a biophysical limit to growth, alienated and meaningless work is also a social limit to growth.

Here is a list of the works cited throughout my thesis and all these posts. References to “city 9” “pei 11” or “maker 1” are references to participants in my research.

Disembedding is “the ‘lifting out’ of social relations from local contexts of interaction and their restructuring across indefinite spans of time-space” (Giddens 1990, 21). This leads to increased individualization, a decline in personal sense of purpose, belonging and ability, and more anxiety. Disembedding also decreases a person’s ‘sense of place’ because they are less likely to be geographically tied to a region. While the process of re-embedding craft is not mentioned explicitly, 25.9% of the crafters in rural PEI did suggest that they are embedded in place and that their craft is highly informed by that. PEI 8 said “the island is my muse” suggesting a connection with the land and PEI 12 said that she would “not be able to do [her] craft anywhere else in the world”.

‘Sense of place’ offers individuals, or in a premodern context it would be individuals through groups, a way to identify with a physical space (D. R. Williams and Stewart 1998). In some cases, an individual may develop emotional or spiritual bonds with certain spaces. For many people, the sense of place is developed alongside friendships and time spent with family (Kyle and Chick 2007). There are various ways that this sense of place is disrupted in modern society such as a less time spent outdoors, greater amounts of ‘structured’ outdoor activity (sports), mobility for school and careers leading to people moving, and greater fear by parents to allow their children to explore outside unsupervised. 

An individual’s sense of place helps connect them to a sense of playing a ‘larger role’ in environmental management (Cantrill 1998) and directly leads to pro-environmental behaviour (Kudryavtsev, Krasny, and Stedman 2012). A central objective for ecological economists must be to include or develop as part of ecological conscious formation, what Aldo Leopold referred to as a ‘land ethic’ (Callicott 2014). This suggests that ecological economists should nurture ‘psycho-social systems’ and include such systems in ecosystem service analysis. The idea of a psycho-social approach to restoration ecology suggests possibilities for this.

As a discipline, ecological restoration was originally framed by the notions of balance, harmony, and equilibrium (Bocking 1997; Bramwell 1989; Sapp 1994). While politically appealing, this didn’t sit with dynamics of long time frames. Higgs (1997) argues that ecology requires a shift from emphasising ecological state to ecological function, which is a) variable over time and, b) explicitly normative in prioritizing the future of human society. This leaves the process of restoration as much more instrumental and means restoration and conservation must begin to incorporate the realities of economy and culture. 

Among restoration ecologists, a similar recognition of the growing complexities of restoration in the Anthropocene is apparent in the concept of ‘novel ecosystems’: “a system of abiotic, biotic and social components (and their interactions) that, by virtue of human influence, differ from those that prevailed historically, having a tendency to self-organize and manifest novel qualities without intensive human management. Novel ecosystems are distinguished from hybrid ecosystems by practical limitation (a combination of ecological, environmental and social thresholds) on the recovery of historical qualities” (Hobbs, Higgs, and Hall 2013, p. 58). Collier defines them succinctly as “anthropogenic landscape” that cannot be returned to their original ecological status” (Collier 2015, p. 1363).

Within the context of novel ecosystems there is no stable or pristine set of standards for an ecosystem. This makes priorities associated with restoration and intervention more arbitrary, which suggests a problem for restorative policy: there is no stable/natural state from which to base goals on as ecological integrity becomes increasingly difficult to define. This means that managerial restoration could become more susceptible to economic objectives. Considered in this way, a central objective for restoration should then be to echo the sentiments of Leopold’s ‘land ethic’ (Callicott 2014). This suggests that alongside novel ecosystems we should nurture ‘restoration ethics” (below table).

A psycho-social approach to ecosystem services would ensure the ecological economist would examine the reciprocal relationship between humans and nature, look at a long view for that relationship, and prioritize the needs of humans and the ecosystem over state needs. This is similar to the argument put forth by Collier (2015) in which he argues that social values should be taken into account when creating restoration policies by incorporating scientific engagement.

The most important departure from current professional ecology on the table below is in relation to politics, scale and culture. The relationships in this table call for a shift in views regarding the relationship between the biosphere and society. This explicitly links restoration ecology to transformations in political economy and ontological frameworks produced through culture. This means ecological economic approaches to restoration should consider questions about why people do what they do (possibly through a TMT lens) and explore how human populations can create relationships with space to drive restoration.

Traditional Restoration EcologyRestoration Ecology for the Anthropocene
human ecologyWildness = wilderness set apart from human society. Humanity autonomous, external/problematic and/or ‘in charge’; human time horizons dominant.Wildness = self-organizing, autopoiesis, including human systems and biological processes occurring in close association with or in the wake of human activities. Humanity embedded, part of a larger complex whole; human time horizons subordinate.
Ecosystem management goalBenchmark ecological states of behavior or organizationDesired ecosystem functions, processes, and relations
ScaleLocalized zones or areas (i.e. a wetland)Includes planetary unit of analysis in panarchic relations
Temporal scaleShorter time scales and resorted to certain periods of timeLong time scale including evolutionary view of the biosphere
Orientation to future and processRestored ecosystem balance and equilibrium, preserved for futureSelf-organizing complexity: continuing viability of ecosystemic/evolutionary process into an indefinite future
Widerpractical orientation (i.e. the object domain for practitioners) Governance/regulatory changes to secure better management of ecosystems in relation to scientific benchmarksPlaces as the intersection of ecology and culture. Ecosystem interventions linked to cultural change and ecological conscience formation
Epistemology: knowledge, human interests and process of change‘Science’; expert-led‘Culture’; popular, participative, and scientific
Ecocentric valuePrioritizes extant ecological diversityPrioritizes continuation of ecosystem and social complexity
Relation between designated object domains/study sitesSeparate, disjointed, and distant spacesMeaningful places nested and indivisible. An ‘land ethic’ encompassing the biosphere. Bio-regional, place-bound expressions in local cultures of nature.

In The Abstract Wild, Turner (1996) argued that quantitative science is always associated with instrumental reason. Thus, restoration that begins with quantitative methods (i.e. tracking hunter harvesting data) inevitably leads to data used in the political process in a regulatory fashion (i.e. development of hunting regulations). Given this, restorationists could, and maybe should, develop collaborations working with cultural practise that embrace unconscious motivations. For instance, experimentation with green hero projects (i.e. the cultural of footpaths and Freedom to Roam in the UK) and indigenous revitalization movements. This would be a broader framework for restoration ecology, not a complete reorientation of the field given that many of the processes in restoration ecology have to be quantitatively specific for the sake of science.

Leave a Comment