A sense of place

“The modern mind-set must integrate understanding of Indigenous peoples’ traditional relationship with the land in order to achieve long-term sustainability, not only for Native communities, but for everyone everywhere … Implied here is the essence of the conflict between worldviews: non-anthropocentric (Indigenous) versus anthropocentric (Western industrial). The former is grounded on the interconnectedness of humans with the land and natural forces in general, as well as with all other living creatures. In contrast, the latter tends to separate living creatures and nonorganic matter into hierarchies with humans at the centre or pinnacle of all.”

— Gregory Cajete (1999)

Such ecologically conscious resource management and design practices have been employed by locally adapted cultures found on most continents. Traditional sustainable land management can be found in Asia, Europe, Africa, Australia and the Americas.

Helena Norberg-Hodge is an analyst of the impact of the global economy on cultures and agriculture worldwide, a pioneer of the localisation movement, and the articulator of the core ideas of Counter-development. She is the founder and director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC); (Image left, image right)

Professor Gregory Cajete, of the Tewa tribe explains how, for Native people throughout the Americas, the relationship between humanity and nature was not one of separation but of participation. Human culture was the human expression of the local environment. While the actual terms and concepts like ‘ecology’ and ‘design’ are admittedly part of the Western intellectual tradition, it is nevertheless evident that Native people had, and to some extent still have, a tradition of ecologically conscious design. Their design of artefacts and their patterns of production and consumption are aimed at appropriate participation in natural process and the maintenance of a healthy community within a healthy ecosystem.

The Tewa are a linguistic group of Pueblo American Indians who speak the Tewa language and share the Pueblo culture. Their homelands are on or near the Rio Grande in New Mexico north of Santa Fe; Gregory Cajete is professor in native american studies at the University of New Mexico (image left; image right)

“The environment was not separate or divorced from Native peoples’ lives, but rather was the context or set of relationships that tied everything together. They understood ecology not as something apart from themselves or outside their intellectual reality, but rather as the very centre and generator of self-understanding. As a centre, that environmental understanding became the guiding mechanism for the ways in which they expressed themselves and their sense of sacredness.”

— Gregory Cajete (1999, p.6).

Christopher Day rightly points out: “Culture, though bounded with place, is handed down through living continuity. If generational links are broken, traditional practices no longer seem relevant” (Day, 2002, p.148). This is the great danger inherent in the loss of traditional knowledge and social community cohesion everywhere in the world.

“In a sense, ecological design is really just the unfolding of place through the hearts and minds of its inhabitants. It embraces the realization that needs can be met in the potentialities of the landscape and the skills already present in the community. Sustainability is embedded in processes that occur over very long periods of time and are not always visually obvious. … Without local knowledge, places erode.”

— Sim van der Ryn & Stuart Cowan, 1996

Sim van der Ryn puts its beautifully: “At the heart of ecological design is not efficiency or sustainability. It is the embodiment of animating spirit, the soul of the living world as embodied in each of us waiting to be reborn and expressed in what we design” (Sim Van der Ryn, 2012), or in the words of John Todd: “Ecological design is elegant solutions predicated by the uniqueness of place.”

Exploring a Sense of Place guidebook will inspire you and give you all the practical tools you need to design, develop, organize, and produce an Exploring a Sense of Place program specific to your bioregion; Survival is the an organization working for tribal peoples’ rights worldwide. (image left; image right)
The First in a series of short films by Max Smith, providing viewers with a window into natural habitats found in the UK through the use of cinematography. (Friends of the Earth, UK)

This is an excerpt from the Worldview dimension of Gaia Education´s online programme in Design for Sustainability revised and re-written by Dr Daniel Wahl on the basis of an earlier version by Jonathan Dawson (now Head of Economics at Schumacher College). This article was originally published here by Dr Daniel Wahl.

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