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A Compassionate Sense of Place
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An Overview | Background | Part I | Part II

In an offhand conversation over a fairtrade coffee, a colleague made a comment that included the words "compassionate sense of place." It felt like a movie effect - you know, where the camera skyrockets in to concentrate on the subject, and everything around goes completely out of focus. There was meaning in the term. It said a lot of what I was looking for.

There is a voluminous literature on "sense of place" particularly by cultural geographers. The early work has been drawn on by place-based environmnetal thinkers and writers. Place has emotional and other aspects, and meaning that is constructed by the interplay of the individual and their context.

But this literature does bring up concerns about how one connects his or her little place, and that personally meaningful but contextually situated sense of place, to all the other places around the world.

Environmental and social issues are enacted in global-local linkages. More importantly, if rootedness in place is privileged, or knowledge is constructed that is place-based, what does this do in a world that is increasingly mobile? Finally, there is another aspect to this word "place". We talk about "my place in the world," meaning also "my role" or "how I fit in." This latter meaning, going to the core of understanding of "self," would seem to be hugely important in developing and acting on conscientization.

Environmental educators often argue that an emotive connection is important; that from this comes a sense of caring, and later a greater likelihood of action. Sure, knowledge of what one can do, or how to do it are important, but the emotional or moral push from "caring" is often viewed as essential. But, what is caring? What can we care for? Can we care about people we don't know or haven't seen on TV? Can we care without relationship? Can we have a relationship with the earth itself? What does a relationship with the earth even mean? The environmental education literature does not even begin to discuss this, unless it is in the context of place-based education.

There is nothing so important as a good theory. But, my disquiet grows about social theory in almost all forms.

Most importantly, most social theory has a sort of "human exemptionalism" to it. That means, we really exempt out humans from a bigger context. What is that bigger context? It is not "history" or "culture." I would say the bigger context is "all of creation" except that the word has uncomfortable connotations. So, we'll say "the earth." Knowing our lives and learning how to live well is "located" in a specific context that is more than a socio-historical context.