Think Global, Act Local?

As dismal as we may find the impending doom of global climate change, biodiversity loss, protracted economic recession, and ever increasing global inequality, we all generally believe that we can reach some kind of global agreement to ensure that our long-term future remains intact. This agreement usually includes some sort of global governance system like a meaningful UN or a body of regional associations like the EU. They also include the democratic definition of global public goods like climate change or financial market regulation, and agreed targets or goals. The third component is some sort of mechanism for achieving these goals, be it devolved regulation to countries, a global cap and trade system, or say internationally harmonized tax regimes. I am trying not to be too specific here, just to make a point that we all have in our minds something along these lines that saves the world from collapse.


At the same time, we typically ask what we can do locally, in our home towns, to make a difference. We join community groups to help write climate change action plans for our towns, we protect our local ma’ and pa’ businesses by boycotting the Starbucks, we buy local products, we withdraw our money from foreign banks, we also help enforce strict building codes to keep out those less accepting of our social and environmental views. Again, while you may have not done any of these, I suspect you generally feel that the next step towards saving the world from collapse is to ‘go local’.


Generally this feels like the right thing to do. Think global, act local. However, this is often not what happens when we, despite our best intentions, go local. At the local level, we tend to forget about the global picture when we formulate priorities, choose what is ‘right and worthy’ and act on these convictions. A group of well-intentioned ‘big picture’ activists, when they sit down together in their town hall, can very easily devise insular and non-global strategies to protect their pristine villages. I started realizing this a few days ago when I heard that the USA, arguably the biggest supporter of globalization, passed a ‘buy American’ law to insulate its workforce. Reading the minutes from my home town’s Board Meeting yesterday I saw the same thing: my nice little hippy town was increasing parking rates for non-residents. And today I myself participated in some insignificant but equally insular action. At my academic group’s monthly meeting, I voted in favor of not extending our nerdy and probably not even heavily demanded event to non-members.


Now, all of these actions are probably well intentioned. They might even be the right thing to do. But I am sure that if I looked at each of these from the non-American worker’s perspective, the non-home town’s perspective, or the non-nerdy-academic-group’s perspective, there would have been a few dissenting hands. The point is that, what might make a lot of sense to you internationally and what equally might seem like the right thing to do locally don’t always match up. It is very hard to think global and act local. Try this next time you’re in a group. You’ll see what I mean.