Give place a chance

Can changing the words we use to talk about the environment affect the way we behave?

The wait is finally over. Most of the Countryside Agency, English Nature and the Rural Development Service, which the government announced last year would be amalgamated into one body, now know what they'll be called. 'Natural England' is the name of the
new body, and it's due to be launched in January 2007.

So what do we know about the new organisation? For a start, three into one doesn't really go, so about 600 redundancies are due to be made between now and 2007. And the cost of setting up this new body will be around £40m, which the government believes will be
recouped within three years. Then there's the inevitable strapline. Nothing can exist without a slogan these days, and Natural England is no exception. Apparently this was a team effort.

After a lengthy consultation with staff of each of the bodies and various partner organisations, they managed to come up with a catchy, catch-all little number: 'for people, places and nature'. Well, I suppose that says it all. It does ring a few bells, however. The RSPB has been running the similarly all-encompassing 'for birds, for people, for ever' for, well, years. Even this very magazine sported 'planet, people' for a while before its current slogan-free existence. So as slogans go, 'for people, places and nature' owes as much to what's gone before as to what is to come - except for one word.

Once upon a time, 'place' was one of those words like 'nice' that English teachers rapped you over the knuckles for writing: 'Use your imagination, boy. Be more specific. "Place" doesn't mean anything.' Now it most definitely does, and it's precisely because of the word's generic nature. The trouble with the word 'environment' is that it's losing its meaning. 'The environment' is that part of our world that we know we have to look after, but which we can retreat from when we want to. 'Most people think that the environment is everything that happens outside our lives,' wrote Jonathon Porritt recently. 'We're here, and the natural world is over there.

Yet this is a huge philosophical error creating a false divide between us and the physical world. We need to change our mindset here, to view our world as being us in the environment, not us and the environment. And the only way we can do this is to acknowledge that the environment is rooted in our sense of place: our homes, our streets, our neighbourhoods, our communities.'

Tom Flood, the chief executive of the conservation volunteering organisation BTCV, has been talking about that 'sense of place' for a long time. 'A lot of people do not have a connection in their lives with a sense of place - either because of their culture, a fear for their personal safety, or, of course, lack of access to open space', he wrote last year. (BTCV's slogan, incidentally, is 'inspiring people, improving places'.)

This is why the word 'place' is beginning to take root in the environmental movement, and why it's pleasing to see that Natural England has given it the nod. Its very all-purpose nature enables it to mean whatever each and every individual wants it to mean. Your sense of place is different to mine, but it's just as important to you as mine is to me.

Enabling everyone in the country to feel a connection with their sense of place is not so much to do with policies as philosophy. It's initially about enabling, encouraging and supporting people to feel engaged in their immediate surroundings, and then further down the line giving them the room to get on with it themselves. It's steady decentralisation. Can a governmental body actually help set such a liberating process in motion?

Watch this place.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2005

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