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A Compassionate Sense of Place
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Human Exemptionalism & Caring for the Earth

Very few analysts are adequately conceptualizing the situation in ecocentric terms. Human exemptionalism predominates. For example, more than once, in presentations on globalisation I suggested we need to consider the environment as well. The context of globalisation is the globe, right? The planet itself? But one person turned to me and said "the problem with the environment is what humans are doing to it, right? Then we need to talk about society and what it is like." I relented, but the topic of the environment never came up again. The consequence is that the environment was unreflexively taken-for-granted once again. That is human exemptionalism.


To make parallels, we would never consider "masculine exemptionalism." It has rightfully been criticized. Another parallel is in regards to multiculturalism or "race", the "normalness" of whiteness has become more recently questioned - this "white exemptionalism" is being overturned, and none too soon. I susggest that social theory needs a groundedness in the earth - society does not exist placeless.








I have purposely avoided any Cassandra-like tendencies to point out that rapidly changing global and local environmental conditions may force this acknowledgement.










Theory tends to be heavily rational. Even Habermas, that proponent of extending the rational project of modernity, admits his approach of "communicative action" to be of limited benefit in the face of "the danger of the planet destroying itself" as well as other particular concerns (more later). Moreover, most environmental philosophers have implicated modernist rationalization, particularly in the manifestations of science and technology, as mixed blessings that contribute to domination of the planet and environmental deterioration - a technocratic "managerial" ethos and human hubris. This suggests a need for other-than, or more-than, or something-else-plus rationality. Caring and experiential are not so rational. That is partly why "compassionate sense of place" has gripped my sociological-geographical-educator-person imagination.










Caring (compassion) suggests a direction that is lacking in experience (place/sense of place) alone. Together they suggest action to associate with communication and rationality. I wonder how well a link of caring to justice and environment together has been explored? It does require particular qualifications about "caring". The dictionary calls compassion "pity" which is far different than my connotations, which place it more like "love". That latter word could be equally goopy without recognition that, for me, it is the profound part of a tradition manifest in the radical social ethics of the Sermon on the Mount, and acted out in pacifist actors like Francis of Assisi, Mennonites, Thicht Nhat Hahn and Martin Luther King Jr. As Brent Cuthbertson and I first tried to explain a compassionate sense of place, we drew on Christian agape, Buddhist compassion and feminist ethic of care. We think compassion guides ethical action out of relativistic deserts vacated in the trends to post-modernism and social constructionist perspectives, without overemphasising rationalisation or a "management" attitude.










A compassionate sense of place, would be a middle-level theory. Not grand narrative, which has rightfully problematised as potentially heavy-handed. Nor is it as limited as grounded theory, being completely context-specific with little to suggest a generative function. A compassionate sense of place would be meaningfully differentiated in empirical sites. It might provide an adequate way of linking local and extra-local sites, as well as a basis for place-based pedagogy. Finally, it could be valuable in connecting justice concerns on various geographic scales.

I am interested in hearing your views.

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