The Local and The Global

When taking my first graduate course on the ethics and politics of the environment, my professor assigned Wendell Berry’s The Gift of Good Land (1981). Berry is an advocate for sustainable agriculture and its virtues for community resilience. Today’s food movement with its emphasis on local sourcing, humane husbandry and urban farming owes much to Berry’s prefigurative thinking.

One theme running throughout his book is a critique of the popular slogan, “think globally, act locally”. For Berry careful attention to the places in which we live is equal in importance to a global analysis of environmental or social problems. While global organization and action are indispensable, so too is the careful nurturing of the places we inhabit. And while addressing global problems requires international commitments from national governments, transnational NGOs and a cosmopolitan civil society, Berry believes individuals and local communities can make substantive change for the better in the places they inhabit.

Berry’s views on the tension between the local and the global became a vociferous point of debate amongst my peers. Some students decried its localism as a form of provincial parochialism. They thought it diverted attention from the more important dynamics of global forces such as capitalism and globalization that drove environmental and social problems in the first place. Others touted it as the antidote to meaningless abstractions in academic debates, and a powerful tool to re-empower local communities to make change here and now, while not waiting for some grand solution from above.

When I took this course climate change was just emerging as a leading environmental issue. Today, when I assign this reading to my students, they too initially sort themselves into advocates for the global versus the local. And climate change is at the heart over their arguments over whether globalism or localism is better.

So when I began to read about the heated controversy over Peter Franzen’s “The Other Cost of Climate Change” in The New Yorker (2015), I was immediate reminded of Berry and the enduring pull that local versus global debates have on our ethics and public policies.

Before writing the article, Franzen was ticked off that the developers of a new Vikings football stadium in the Twin Cities would not make a marginal cost adjustment to change its glass walls into a glass birds can see. Otherwise, thousands of birds will die each year as they fly directly into these walls. He was moved to write the article, however, after reading a blog by Jim Williams (a bird blogger for the Star-Tribune newspaper in the Twin Cities) who believes such deaths are meaningless in the face of runaway global warming and the extinctions it will entail. Franzen’s main point is that the threat of climate change to birds in the future should not be a justification for ignoring threats to birds now.

Franzen’s article goes on to critique the use of climate change to peripheralize other environmental and social issues. And he does so in a way that is directly reminiscent of Wendell Berry. While not dismissing valid concerns over climate change as a preeminent issue of our time, nor the importance of local and global climate action per se, he believes we also have to make efforts to defend the environmental and social integrity of particular places and species. He is in effect asking us to think both locally and globally, not to allow local action to take a back seat to global initiatives, and attend to issues of both cultural and natural diversity.

The reaction to Franzen’s article has been surprisingly strong, with climate hawks accusing him of being a climate action defeatist, failing to get his environmental priorities right, and villanizing Audubon. For two examples, see Mark Jannot’s “Friends Like These” in Audubon and Dan Klotz’s “Climate Hopelessness is a Work of Fiction” in National Geographic.

At CURes we take climate change very seriously. It is the point of departure for many of our public presentations on the challenges of urban resilience. We also host the Mediterranean City Climate Change Consortium (MC-4). This is a network of coastal cities with Mediterranean environments that face distinctive challenges in the face of climate change — rising sea levels, coastal inundation, threats to fresh water supplies, expanding tropical diseases, and extreme weather events.

Yet we also take the well being of our metropolis and its places seriously as well. For example, we have a study designed to find non-lethal means of protecting the Least Tern on Venice beach, we teach urban ecology for underserved communities in Los Angeles, and we partner with the Friends of the Ballona Wetlands in teaching about and restoring La Ballona.

To my ear, this controversy over local versus global is a false dichotomy, a debate offering false binary choices over whether we can walk and chew gum at the same time. I think we can do both — walk and chew, as well as engage in climate action and local protection, restoration and adaptation. There is nothing in principle that should prevent us from caring about climate change, even as we attend to the urbanized and wildish places that we live in or love. Indeed, in my experience, caring about particular places is an indispensable motivator for caring about larger issues that threaten these places. It often moves people to education themselves and others, mobilize civil society, and demand policy responses that will prevent, reverse, mitigate or adapt as best we can to environmental and social change. In this respect, we cannot simply wait until we have “solved” climate change before we act in defense of the people, animals and nature of our cities.

About the Author: William (Bill) Lynn, Ph.D., is the Senior Fellow for Ethics and Public Policy at CURes.  Bill’s research and teaching focus on ethics and public policy, with an emphasis on animals, the environment and sustainability. Standing astride the environmental humanities and social sciences, Bill uses ethics and interpretive policy analysis to explore how moral norms shape public policy.He has worked on a wide range of local and global topics including wolf recovery, outdoor cats and biodiversity, barred and northern spotted owls, the Canadian seal hunt, the Earth Charter, global sustainability, sustainability science, and urban ecology. As a professor at Green Mountain College, Tufts University and Williams College he has taught courses in animal studies, environmental studies, ethics, human geography, qualitative research, and public policy.He is the former Director of the Masters in Animals and Public Policy (MAPP) program at Tufts University, a founding editor of the international journal Ethics, Policy and Environment, former chair of the Ethics Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and an International Associate of the New Zealand Centre for Human-Animal Studies. Bill is also a consultant and keynote speaker, providing ethics advising, training, and social marketing to help citizens and organizations improve their toolbox for policy-making.