Where do you really live?

Town and environs

Your home range

One simple fact of life that got disconnected in the advance of instant communications and nearly-instant travel is our connection to place. Promoters of globalism tell us that “geography doesn’t matter anymore,” and we take it for granted that we can literally be in any other locale on the planet before even needing a change of clothes. We spend so much of our lives projecting ourselves elsewhere through a screen or inside a vehicle that we lose any abiding sense of where we do in fact abide. For the majority of people living the late-industrial workaday life, home is where the bedroom is.

On closer inspection, “where” turns out to be a little word with a big reach: it serves to identify not only the location of an object, but also to indicate the object’s characteristics that led to its being placed there. For example: “Where is the good stuff?” Answer: “It’s on the top shelf.” Or: “Where are your sweat socks?” Answer: “They’re in the laundry hamper.” When we speak of having “a place for everything,” we understand that the nature of the place is fitted to that of the thing that goes there, and vice versa. In short, it belongs in that place.

The same applies to people, arguably. Except that people, being more mobile than bottles of 30-year-old single malt or dirty gym apparel, tend to be a lot more slippery about the relative scale of location. Traveling abroad, you’d probably respond to the question “Where do you live?” with “I live in the U.S.” While that doesn’t narrow it down anywhere close enough for the purpose of actually locating you later, it does communicate “that’s where Yanks live,” along with the associated traits that your new acquaintance is now likely to expect from you.

It works much the same at smaller scales: visiting another state, you’d probably name your home state in response to the inquiry; in the same city, you’ll probably name a neighborhood, if not a street address.

At smaller scales, the answer to “where do you live?” also becomes more literally true. You really do live at that address: that’s where your stuff  is, and that’s where you can be found — at least one-third of the time, even if it means waking you up. You really do live in that city, also: most of your habitual comings and goings are within its bounds. In ecological terms, it’s your range, your territory — your habitat. Do you live in that state, though? Not so much. And that enormous territory we call America? Only figuratively. You as one individual can’t literally inhabit a continent.

One way to de-muddle a definition is to find a way to make it operational. Instead of asking “where do you live?” we could substitute “what area do you inhabit?” and we’d have an operational equivalent. Returning to the ecological ideas of habitat and range, let’s pose a thought experiment: you take out a map and draw the route of every trip you’ve made for, say, the past year, day in and day out.

The result will be quite a dense web of lines, but one area will emerge that’s so dense with your habitual comings and goings that it’s nearly solid. It will probably be very obvious. Draw an outline around it, and you’ve identified your range; this is the area you inhabit. This is the real, unambiguous, data-driven, nitty-gritty “where you live.”

Ideally, the “where” that you live isn’t just the geographic coordinates of your daily rounds, any more than your home is just a house. The difference is the sense of belonging that the place gives you. It works much the same way as the sense of belonging you find with the important people in your life. If you’ve found the place you belong, it’s part of who you are.

This is of course an ideal that is systematically discouraged by the current industrial economic setup. The economic engine tends to function better with a workforce that is mobile, interchangeable, and undistracted by the desire for identity, with its complicating ties to persons and place.

For the sake of functionality, such pesky human needs do get addressed in a perfunctory way — typically with an array of substitutes and simulations like television, luxury goods, branding, patriotism, team sports and professional associations. And it brings us inevitably to the all-too-familiar landscape of alienation and anomie that provided so much material for late twentieth century social criticism and psychological storytelling.

Despite what the calendar says, we’re still trying to live in the century that created this great, all-encompassing engine, and this engine runs on fossil fuel. Throughout the whole era, there has never been a time when the essential premise of cheap, abundant energy was seriously challenged. The premise is not just abundance, but a steadily increasing abundance of cheap energy. “Growth” has become synonymous with “prosperity,” and it is probably no coincidence that the industrial-era economy has historically grown at about the same rate as oil production.

Almost coinciding with the turn of the new century, it turned out, was a truly new turn of events for our ever-growing oil supply: in 2005, it stopped growing. It’s been flat ever since, though on a historical scale those intervening years represent but a few seconds of hang-time in the trajectory of world oil production, where nothing in the oilfield development pipeline will even keep it flat, let alone put it on the ups again. After all of the “yes, buts” and the professions of faith in heroic technology and the necessary deployment of small-scale renewable sources, we’re facing a future with maybe one-fifth of the energy we’re accustomed to today.

That’s bound to change things. Scenarios vary greatly — the major differences having to do mostly with the rate of change — but the upshot of most credible ones is an overall contraction in human affairs. The world at large will once again be, well, large, and the individual’s world will become a good bit smaller. As horizons contract, they will begin to match the dense scribble on the map that identifies your habitat.

The successful adaptation comes when all who share your habitat set things up in such a way that you get most of what you need from within it. Well-adapted life in such circumstances is decidedly local, where place matters not just emotionally, but also materially.

To devotees of things big, fast and shiny, the prospect of contraction is decidedly gloomy. Indeed, no one in our political and economic leadership is defining issues in any terms but those of the century past, nor making any gesture toward the realities of this one, where the central concern will be how best to manage contraction.

But for anyone untempted by the constant pursuit of bigger/faster/shinier, there are some definite bright spots in the gloom: living on a local scale is also living at a human scale, with all of its potential for reconnecting who we are with where we are. We might not be living as large, but odds are that we’ll be living a lot more real.

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