Monday, December 6, 2010

Think Locally, Act Globally

For decades the mantra of the environmental movement has been "think globally, act locally". Those of us going to school in the 1970's and 1980's grew up with this slogan. I still think of the green "ecology" flag every time I hear it.

For environmental issues such as pollution, this was a very effective way of getting people involved in local campaigns to fight pollution and generate environmental regulation. In the U.S., these grass-roots campaigns resulted in the passage of legislation such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, NEPA, the Endangered Species Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and other regulatory statues designed to reduce pollution and protect the environment.

People were inclined to "act locally" because they could see, smell and taste the degradation all around them. They could see dead fish floating in the local waterways. They could smell the acrid tang of the local power plant in the wind and on their clothes as the weather turned cold. They could taste something not quite right in the water that came out of their taps. These visceral reminders of something bad happening was all around and once people were sensitized to them, the grass-roots movement began to demand action be taken to change it.

Given the unique global nature and ubiquity of the climate change problem, perhaps it is time we turned this mantra on its head. Climate change is different from the types of visceral pollution witnessed in the 1960's and 70's. It is invisible. While weather is event driven, climate is cumulative. You cannot feel or experience climate, you can only feel and experience its cumulative effects. However, those effects will slowly start to manifest themselves by changing local and regional environments. We need to think about how climate is likely to force environmental, ecological and social changes to the places in which we live or the places we value.

Another difference is the type of pollution problems associated with the environmental movement of my youth could be addressed on the local scale. If people "acted locally" it made a tangible difference to environmental quality. With the problem of climate change, "acting locally" will do relatively little. The solution to the problem of greenhouse gas emissions, if one is ever reached, has to be a structural shift occurring worldwide, not a fragmented approach on a city by city, state by state, or even country by country basis. We need to act in a coherent global fashion (which is unprecedented at this scale) in order to have any effect on the severity of the crisis.

Perhaps it is time that we shift our thinking. In order to protect our local places we must change global emissions. In order to maintain the viability of local ecosystems we need to reduce the magnitude of environmental stress. If we think locally, it now follows that we must act globally.

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