Reflecting on Community and Environmental Change

I have spent the last few days back on my home patch, in north Essex, doing a whistle stop tour of visits to see family and friends before I return to the west country later today. I’m not often one to get homesick but when you return to the place where you grew up something remarkable often happens, usually subconsciously, you realise how much the place has meant to you and has defined who you are. The environment of the familiar is beneficial for all sorts of reasons and whilst I hugely enjoy experiencing new places, meeting new people and seeing things that were previously unfamiliar to me, there is nothing quite like the familiar for making you relax. I held this thought with me yesterday when I spoke to a group in Frinton, principally about my recent book on the Naze, but also about the broader links between local environment and community. Communities are complex entities and anthropologists have spent decades studying them so there is little I can add here that hasn’t already been said before. Nonetheless what I wanted to do yesterday was to reflect on what local environment means for local people and make a case, compliant with the philosophies of environmental history, for the changing environment of the Naze and the surrounding area being fundamental to the shaping of local people’s identities. Yesterday, I was focusing principally on the coastal and marine environments since that is the dominant environment for the people who I was speaking to, but the reflections go much further and can be made appropriate for all environments.

We live in a time when almost all of us have removed historical context from the way we see the natural world. We seem to suffer from shifting baseline syndrome. Each generation defines what is ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ according to their own personal experiences and their own historic framework. We find it hopelessly difficult to accept that there have been much more significant changes over time. The changes we have experienced ourselves therefore seem to be more tangible than those experienced by others in the past. The result is that our standards and expectations of the world, and particularly its ecological condition, are lowered. Environmental history has the capacity to show how landscapes and ecologies looked entirely different in the past and it offers multiple alternative views of environments we thought were so familiar to us (‘our’ local environments). We seem to have removed any sense of linearity or fluidity of landscape from the way we perceive the world. We work to conserve things ‘as they have always been’ but usually this is completely foreign to how the place ‘has been’ for much of the time. Where we place our ‘baseline’ has a fundamental impact on how we perceive the world but also how we manage the landscape.

Yesterday, I spoke about ‘spirit of place‘ and how landscape, and especially the historic landscape, seems to play an intrinsic role in influencing our perceptions of how we see the ‘spirit of place’ of an area. For me, a ‘spirit of place investigation’ which involves asking lots of people about their views as to what makes an area unique, has a vital role to play in involving people in the planning of their local area. The process involves asking people to take a step back and to reflect on the place where they live. Taking time to do this is something we don’t often do, yet in my view it is an absolutely critical activity in order to imagine a better future for ourselves in the place where we live. Spirit of place offers an opportunity for people to imagine a positive future, working out how to conserve the most appreciated elements of present existence and understanding what has made the place ‘unique’ over time.

So, when you walk in your local area, go shopping or drive along the main road have a think about the historic landscape, how it has changed over time and how it has influenced the way that you perceive your local environment and your community. For me, community and environment are fundamentally linked and if the environment changes too quickly for community to adapt to it, such as with rapid population growth or the destruction of key habitats central to local identity, then the community will suffer.


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