This winter and spring, during my sabbatical leave from teaching at Coe College, I have been reading a great deal about place. I'd also hoped to be doing more hands-on investigation of place, particularly related to my hometown of Cedar Rapids, but that has so far not worked out.
I teach a course in our first-year seminar program called "A Sense of Place," and two times through this course has impressed me with how pliable this concept is. A semester out of the classroom has enabled me to immerse myself in the place literature--or, should I say, literatures, because it's a hot topic in any number of disciplines (though not so much, curiously, in my home discipline of political science). Perhaps I will turn all this reading into an article or book, but that's down the road a piece. In the meantime, I've increasingly wished that I'd been keeping track of and reflecting on my reading in a more public forum than the notes I was storing on my hard drive. Unfortunately, the world has lost much of the brilliant posts I would have made on this blog had I started it three months ago. Fortunately, there's still time to be brilliant if one can manage it.
My study of place this year has reinforced my conviction that the fundamental human challenge in the 21st century is figuring out how we're going to all live together on the planet Earth. This challenge has a number of dimensions.
- There sure are a lot of us. We're pushing 7 billion people on the planet, which is more than it's ever supported in human history. Technological advancements have helped manage this, but there are practical limits to spaces where we can fit and resources we can use. If we expand the notion of "us" to include animal and plant life, it's undeniable that human activity has pushed and is continuing to push squads of species to the brink of extinction.
- We have diverse talents and opportunities. It's common knowledge that economic inequality is increasing in the United States to levels not seen in roughly 100 years. This is occurring at the very time when leaps forward in automization, communication and transportation are making a lot of human employees redundant. Opportunities for Americans who don't have a head start in life are pretty bleak. The keys to success in the 21st century economy are to make the most of your opportunities, and to sell yourself. But what if you're not good at selling? Do we really want to evolve into an entrepreneurial monoculture? Do we really want to doom huge chunks of the population to marginality?
- We are different in a lot of other ways as well. Choose any demographic dimension you care to, and you're going to run into people who are different than you. The homogeneous small towns of the 19th century are probably as much myth as they were reality, but they are for the most part over. We are a diverse bunch racially, linguistically, culturally and in terms of sexual orientation. We are diverse religiously, not only in what we call ourselves (Christian, Moslem, atheist, e.g.) but in terms of how we practice our religions or lack thereof. We have different ethics, social norms, lifestyles, political ideologies and such. Can we get along?
- Climate change is undeniable, even though many people still deny it. Prudence dictates that we adjust our lifestyles to reduce our production of greenhouse gases. We also need to start thinking about how we're going to accommodate changes as they arrive. Rising sea levels would have an interesting impact on some major population centers. Greater incidence of severe weather has already started to happen, and it's harder and harder to find the wherewithal to dig out from repeated natural disasters.
- Everyone's angry. Well, not everyone... if you've made it this far through this post, you certainly have the patience and open-mindedness this country needs. But there are plenty of people in politics and the media marketing outrage to an eager audience. Too many people are ready to believe anything, no matter how preposterous, if it makes them feel good. And "I have a right to X" doesn't contribute to the conversation, it stops it. The tradition of individual rights that originated in the Enlightenment is one of the glories of civilization. Yet, rights have to be accompanied by responsibilities, and accommodated to public need, if we're going to work all this out.
Those are some of the ways in which living together in the 21st century is going to be a challenge. Can better understanding of place, and better spatial arrangements, help us to do that?
Despite the title, and the epigram, my blog will not primarily focus on religion, though religious subjects may arise from time to time. I thought about calling the blog "Living Together," since as stated above it is my fundamental concern, and because it has an amusing double entendre to it. Then I ran across the verse from Isaiah, which I think covers the same ground, and most poetically. Incidentally, the address holymountain.blogspot.com has been taken, though that blog hasn't been updated since October 2002. Were there blogs in 2002? Does Blogger have a statute of limitations? My fallback, livingtogether.blogspot.com, has also been taken, albeit no entries have ever been made on that one. So I'm using "Holy Mountain" for the title, and my Gmail for the address.