Our understanding of the environment is first and foremost informed by our experience of place—the geographic location where we live, work, and interact with nature and people. Our identity, culture, history, and politics are bound up in a sense of place. Though intuitively place may seem inherently conservative, a reading of place as a site of progressive politics allows us to understand more concretely how environment is linked to culture through relations of power, agency, and responsibility to human and nonhuman environments (Harcourt and Escobar 2005).
My reading of place follows Doreen Massey’s definition of place as inevitably inflected by the global (Massey 2002, 2004). Understanding place as “a meeting-place” enables us to theorize place as within networks of relations and forms of power that stretch beyond specific places. I explore place with reference to my own engagement in place as a feminist political ecologist (Harcourt 2009), looking at three stories of struggles, networking, and connections around place at the local, national, and global level.
Bolsena, the place from where I write, is a tiny town in north Lazio, Italy, a small Etruscan town on the shores of a volcanic lake founded over two millennia ago. The politics of place is currently being shaped by burgeoning tourism, failing agriculture, and the vested interests of the local church, government, and business. Here environment and culture intersect as Bolsena, only recently made up of poor fishing settlements, a castle, and pilgrims, is now subject to modern life marked by overfishing, tourism, speed boats, and the influx of waste from agricultural chemicals being used in the hills surrounding the lake. The national authorities have declared the water unsafe to drink and citizens now pay for filtered water collected at a central dispensary in the town. Local community groups hold town hall meetings to lobby national or European authorities to provide pump filters to clean the lake, set up eco-islands around the town, promote biological farming, and control the use of speed boats. The emphasis is on care for the peace and beauty of the lake alongside the culture—the Etruscan and Roman histories, pottery, local wine, and food. This understanding of place and the responsibility of nature intertwined with culture is in contrast to the business lobby that wants to promote Bolsena for its boating and fishing, tourism, resurrected medieval religious festivities, and popular musical evenings.
Negotiating around who decides what happens in Bolsena is a continual struggle among the town hall, governmental committees, the church, and progressive environmental groups. It is mostly women who have been leading the progressive environmental groups. They are the local women who are running the book and coffee shops, “eco” wine bars, and “bio” cheese farms and holding workshops on local food and Etruscan cultures. Defending the environmental and cultural integrity of the Lake of Bolsena in order to ensure the sustainability of the environs has become a daily activity. The current austerity measures imposed by the Italian state government since 2012 have heightened the struggle around the town’s economic and ecological survival. The local protests are usually ignored by the mayor, who puts economic benefits from tourist fishing competitions, lake-side caravan parks, and hotels ahead of the polluting impacts of such activities on the lake.
The struggles between progressive and business interests in Bolsena show how place is not static but is shaped by the changing experiences of the people living in the place as they connect to other flows of information, economic activities, and social forces (be they tourism, feminism, or religion).
Australia, my birthplace, has in the last years seen a proliferation of progressive narratives around place, environment, and identity. These narratives recognize the violence of colonial history; acknowledge the complexity of forty-five thousand years of indigenous cultures, divergent understandings of land, time, and spirituality; and attempts to deal with the overexploitation of waters, minerals, and soils. Such narratives counter the vision of Australia as a place of great empty spaces and blue skies, a lucky country that offered Europeans wealth and prosperity to be yielded from its mineral wealth and what they considered to be “unpeopled” land.
Since the 1990s, the racial political landscape in Australia has been transformed through various legal and federal decisions related to land rights, equity, and justice: the 1992 Native Titles Act gave back land to traditional owners along with the renunciation of the term “terra nullius”; the 1994 national “Going Home Conference” recognized the aboriginal children, “the stolen generation,” who had been forcibly removed from their families; and the 1996 apology campaign led to the annual “Sorry Day” (held every May 26 since 1996 in memory of the stolen generation). The most famous symbol of central Australia, Ayers Rock, was renamed “Uluru” and officially returned in 1993. In 2000, indigenous Australian and gold medal Olympic athlete Cathy Freeman, with her vivid smile and arm tattoo saying “cos I’m free,” became the heroine of all Australians in the 2000 Olympic Games, celebrating her four-hundred-meter victory by waving an aboriginal land rights flag along with an Australian one (Harcourt 2001, 197–98).
This reclaiming of identities and reconciliation of white and black Australia illustrates how place can be renegotiated. Taking responsibility for creating new understandings of place, is not easy. A sense of belonging in Australia is wrought with an inherent racism of the poverty, ill health, drink, drugs, and violence that indigenous peoples experience. While other Australians can also suffer poverty, the high levels of child and maternal mortality among indigenous Australians in particular belie the First World status of Australia.
It is challenging for Australians to take responsibility and make connections across the racial and cultural differences. Anglo-Celtic Australian Peter Read (2000), in writing about place in Australia, confronts the racism of rural Anglo-Celtic Australians. He speaks of how the contestation between different understandings of place among indigenous and other Australians—one rich with spiritual meaning and a profound sense of collective living together with the land, contrasting with the predominantly capitalist drive to create individual wealth through the ownership and exploitation of land and its resources—needs to be articulated in order for a new sense of Australia to emerge. Such a new understanding would acknowledge and combine different cultural understandings of place, acknowledge the profound power imbalances, and provide a basis for learning to care for the land materially and spiritually.
Places, such as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, also exist at global levels. In UN and international-development-speak, “Rio” has become a symbolic place for modern “eco-governmentality” or the creation of the environment as a subject of global public discourse around “sustainable” development. The Earth Summit held in 1992 was not only about reframing public policy to be based on stewardship and resource management, but also about creating the first global meeting place of thousands of individuals campaigning on forestry, water, environmental justice, peace, and human rights. The NGO Global Forum in Flamengo Park, Rio, hosted hundreds of tents where civil society passionately engaged with Agenda 21 (the official outcome document). During the Global Forum, ecologists, the peace movement, trade unions, women’s and youth organizations, development NGOs, and local community groups intermingled, creating a collective vision for global environmental justice (Dankelman 2012).
This creation of “alternative” places where advocates, NGOs, and movement people could meet alongside the official negotiations has continued through the last twenty years in peoples’ struggle to defend the environment and the culture of local places in public global fora. Rio and its prototypes are highly negotiated places that have helped build connections, understanding, and knowledge among communities defending place, moving beyond the local and national space, shaping a global environmental movement. These places of progressive global negotiations (for example, the UN NGOs Forums held in the early 1990s, the protests held in 1999 in Seattle against the World Trade Organization) have emerged as historic moments flowing onto other places. These created places for movement engagement are illustrations of Massey’s “meeting-place” forging networks of relations and forms of power that stretch beyond specific places. I would argue that for all the cynicism around engaging in such global shows, these places have been key nodes for networking that strengthens local power in ways that extend and transform place-based politics and connections. These places are holding a sense of global responsibilities for exploitation of environments and culture. In places like Bolsena, the global forums strengthen the ecological organizations, connecting what is happening in the microcosm world of the lake with the larger movement. Utilizing social media, the forum debates create new forms of learning that politicize beyond the mainstream policy hype. These global places have played an important role in our global imaginary of the environment that can be politicized as something to be defended, creating a culture of translocal defense of place in vibrant global networks of connectivity (Escobar 2008).
These three examples illustrate that places, whether experienced at local, national, or global levels, are not natural, nor fixed. Our experience of place flows across spatial scales from the body to the household to the community, national, and global levels. Place extends beyond the physical. People negotiate place as they protect and conserve places, enhance and modify places, create connections with other places at different levels. Our attachments to place are about social, spiritual, and cultural meaning and identity as well as economic need. Political negotiations over the environmental and cultural issues informing place are part of our lived “glocal” realities (Dirlik 1998).