Thursday, April 21, 2011

Psychology of Climate Change: Place and Community

In Psychology, Sense of Community means the connection an individual feels to their community. When the sense of community is both strong and positive, we can typically expect to see greater wellbeing.

Sense of Place means the connection an individual feels to a place. When sense of place is strong and people have their needs fulfilled in their space, we can typically expect to see greater wellbeing.

Community and place can overlap, but they do not necessarily overlap. For example, I no longer participate with the Middle Tennessee Storytellers Guild (since I live in Hawai`i), but I’ve been in the same online writing group for almost a decade despite multiple moves spanning 6,000 miles. A basketball team may no longer be a basketball team without a court. But a religious congregation who lost their church/temple/mosque could certainly still gather in another location, though they may greatly feel the loss or lack of their space.

For some communities, the connection to place and community are so integrated as to be virtually meaningless (or highly damaged) without each other. People identify themselves according to their place and their community. This is true, for example, with people who have lived their entire lives, or multiple generations, in one location. Spatial home, family home, and community home become interchangeable.

This interconnection is especially true for indigenous people whose cultural values and norms evolved over thousands of years in the same space. Daily activities, worldviews, traditions, stories, and life expectations of the community are defined by their place. In such cases, sense of place and sense of community are not so much interconnected as they are indistinguishable.

Which brings us to climate change.

At the recent climate talks in Cancun, climatologists offered a number of models ranging from best to worst case scenarios for mitigation and adaptation. The coming century may see nearly 200 million people displaced globally as land becomes uninhabitable. Climate change will not impact the world equally. This map from NASA, for example, shows that while the sea level on the coast of the U.S. mainland is dropping slightly, the increased winds are pushing the Pacific Ocean waters southwest, which is causing an extreme rise in sea level for South Pacific islands.

The unfortunate truth of climate change is that those least responsible are first and most affected. Developing nations do not have the money, power, or infrastructure necessary to mitigate or adapt to the rapidly changing climate. In the near future, multiple developing countries are faced with the loss of their countries’ land.  While this raises important legal questions on an international scale (e.g., is a government still a government without its homeland? ), many important psychological questions are also raised regarding community, culture, and place attachment.

For years, the Tuvaluan government has been an active voice in global forums advocating for wealthy industrialized nations to mitigate climate change by reducing consumption, waste, and burning of fossil fuels. In addition, the Tuvaluan government has called for wealthy industrialized nations to aid developing nations to develop the infrastructure necessary to adapt to climate changes. The goal for Tuvalu is to keep their home safe by limiting sea level rise.

My preliminary studies in Tuvalu show that the culture is strengthened by the integration of land and community. Tuvaluans’ identities are heavily reliant on their connection to their home island community. Even after migrating to the capitol atoll of Funafuti for economic or educational opportunities, families continue to identify strongly with their home island, even across generations. People invest a lot of time, energy, and emotional resources into church and community groups that are island-specific. Just as their island is home, so too is their island community home.

The Tuvaluan people are diverse in their opinions about climate change and future responses of the country. Some feel that migration is likely in the coming generations. But not all Tuvaluans would be willing to leave. One woman explained to me that some people do not want to leave because they feel that if they do not have land then they do not have a home. They will be lost. Another woman told me, “I will not go. I was born here and I will die here.”

Tuvaluans who have lived in other countries (e.g., Australia or New Zealand) often struggle with the individualistic culture and community norms. Tuvaluan islands are small and the people live close together in constant interaction. Homes are open and neighbors are close. Families are extended and community connections are strong. Living in foreign places where neighborhoods sprawl over vast areas with clearly delineated private yards and houses, Tuvaluans struggle from that lack of constant community interaction.

This is not to say that Tuvaluans cannot thrive in other places—many have and continue to do so. But Tuvaluans should not be forced into migration. Though many articles speak about migration as an inevitability, this is not so. With concerted and sustained mitigation and adaptation efforts by the United States and other nations with a high carbon footprint, Tuvaluans and others around the world can maintain their homelands.

Understanding the importance of place and community, the question becomes not whether Tuvaluans should be able to keep their home, but what right do we have to destroy it?

Post By
Kati Corlew, University of Hawai`i, Mānoa


  1. This was very interesting and informative. I hope the work you and other climate change specialists are doing will help save Tuvalu.

  2. Thanks so much for this post. I'm working on a community development master's at Vanderbilt, but the roots of it and the PhD version of it ("community research and action") are in community psych. (with the name of the PhD drawing from the SCRA name).

    I am particularly interested in sense of community though, along with the importance of place, so this was a really intriguing side of both--thanks again!