For most of human history, we have been deeply connected to the places where we live. Over the millennia, human communities have had an intimate relationship with local nature. Daily life has been characterized by and made more meaningful through interaction and interdependence among people in their local community.
In the past century, this has dramatically changed with advanced industrialization and the proliferation of the global economy. Daily use of cars and digital devices, in particular, have changed our relationship to each other and nature in our local context. We are more likely to be behind the wheel of a car than walking in our communities. We are more likely to be on our cell phone than connecting to nature or each other in person. A profound shift has taken place regarding how we relate to the places where we live.
Benefits have emerged from these rapid (especially on the scale of human history) shifts in human society. With air travel and digital communication, we can indeed work across the country and even the globe, expanding economic opportunities for ourselves. We can drive across municipalities and counties to our desired job or to opportunities that may not exist where we live. We can invest in economies and obtain resources from nearly anywhere in the world. We can connect virtually to friends, families and colleagues in a matter of seconds.
Although these benefits exist (primarily for those with resources), we are losing our connection to nature, our neighborhoods and each other. It is no coincidence that global crises loom at the same time in the form of climate change, biodiversity loss, natural resource depletion and growing economic inequality. As we travel regularly and long distances powered by fossil fuels, for example, we emit carbon that is leading to climate change and also spend less time outside in our local community.
Our choices, however constrained by society and land use patterns, are causing and exacerbating this disconnectedness. As consumers, citizens and investors, we are complicit. By examining our choices, we can change this. We can choose collectively and individually to deepen our connections to the places where we live and make our communities more resilient, healthy and stronger.
In the fourth season of the television series The Good Place, the main characters learn that no one has died and made it to the Good Place in recent years. There must be a flaw in the point tracking system, they think. Why is no one earning enough points to get into the Good Place? They find a human who seems to be acting selflessly in every way and still he does not get into the Good Place when he dies. Upon investigation over a couple of episodes, they learn that nearly every choice humans make in the modern age has negative consequences. They use the tomato as an example of a consumer good that is linked to carbon emitting energy use and toxic pesticides through global production and transport and processed by workers in poor conditions with low wages. It seems no one can earn points when nearly every choice leads to consequence and harm. This predicament for humans in the modern age is not far from the truth. It does not, however, have to be this way. Every decision we make does not have to ripple across the globe.
Reorienting our lives to be more connected to place and living in more local ways is entirely possible and desperately needed. It does not mean we retreat and relinquish connections to the world outside our communities. There is much to gain from communities being connected to each other and every community having a diversity of people. This does, however, require an intentional shift towards spending more time in our communities, being stewards of local nature, consuming local food, supporting local businesses and institutions, learning in our communities and as much as possible, living, working and recreating locally.
For three years (2012–14), I studied personal transportation choices while working towards my doctorate degree. In trying to understand why some people use sustainable transportation modes regularly, most of my original hypotheses were wrong. It was not because those who biked, walk and took public transit (sustainable transportation users) cared more about the environment and were more concerned about climate change than others. It also had less to do with personal considerations around finance, time and other practical matters than I expected. What really stood out as to why individuals, across 3 studies, regularly and often for many years used alternatives to cars for getting themselves to work and around in daily life was intrinsic satisfaction in the experience itself. They derived happiness from being connected to their local surroundings while traveling and interacting with others in the bike lane, on the sidewalk or on the train. One participant talked about walking by the same beautiful grove of trees everyday; others about walking through their park-like neighborhood; another about seeing the same group of people on the train everyday; and a bike commuter shared discoveries such as a coyote sighting on her way to work. The social and community connections, along with the health benefits, kept them coming back for more. As other researchers have noted, the lifestyle we need to restore our environment and build stronger, healthier communities may also be more enjoyable and meaningful.
This transition to a more local orientation to living is starting to form and under way in many communities. Raymond DeYoung and Thomas Princen of the University of Michigan, in The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift, describes this orientation as localized living in which “people’s attention is focused on everyday behavior within place-based communities.” They clarify that localization “is not a revolution in the streets or a new strategy for corporate or NGO headquarters” but rather “an affirmative social trend, driven by biophysical realities and accepting of the innate human inclinations for self-provisioning and commitment to place.” They see this transition as unavoidable if we are to avert a planetary crisis but also something that can bring out the best in people and make us happier. Transition communities; local and sustainable foods movement (catalyzed by organizations such as Roots of Change); cities building out protected bike lanes, pedestrian areas and car-free zones (see This city bans cars every Sunday- and people love it); rooftop solar energy; and mixed-income, mixed-use developments (such as Mission Rock) are all signs of this transition taking place.
Being connected to place and living in more local ways can be realized through supportive conditions such as:
- Nature is abundant, accessible and nearby.
- Public space is safe, attractive and car-free.
- Healthy, active transportation modes are available and easily accessed.
- Energy is locally produced and conserved.
- Food is local, healthy and seasonal.
- Material goods are shared and treasured with minimal waste.
- Local businesses, products and services are abundant.
- Schools are community centers.
- Learning, across all age groups, regularly takes place in local community and nature.
- Regional destinations are preferred for most trips and vacations.
A widespread transition to local living will require transformative changes in the conditions we encounter in our communities and everyday life. The commitment and involvement of many institutions and individuals, along with strong democratic power at the local level, can catalyze these needed changes. Global economic and political forces stand in the way, as a full transition to more local living will take power and resources away from multinational corporations and other power centers. While this change may seem impossible, the intrinsic benefits of being connected to place and living in local ways along with economic benefits to communities can motivate action. Strong relationships among diverse people, nature and organizations in the local context can simultaneously promote individual, community and environmental well-being- it’s time to live locally in this global age.