Earth Day 2014: Is thinking globally and acting locally really enough?

In this guest blog post, Joshua Howe challenges individuals and civic leaders to move beyond the popular “think globally, act locally” mentality and adopt more practical paths toward environmental responsibility. Howe’s book, Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming, explores similar civic-environmental quandaries, arguing that climate scientists’ failure to effectively engage politicians and the public has impeded our ability to respond to the climate crisis.

Think globally, act locally. Since its first iteration in the late 1960s, the bumper sticker exhortation has come to represent the heart of environmental awareness in modern American culture. The slogan tells us how we as environmentally responsible middle- or upper-middle-class Americans can live ecologically moral lives, and collectively do nothing short of “save the world.” In practical terms, the sticker on that Prius you saw this morning is telling you to compost your coffee cup, think about Bangladesh, and feel just a little bit better about things.

But “think globally, act locally” is actually a much bigger ask than composting your coffee cup and thinking about Bangladesh. The slogan demands that you construct a way of being in and thinking about the world that completely transcends the boundaries of normal human experience. That is, to think globally and act locally, you are supposed to use concerns about an abstract, largely scientific concept to guide your everyday behavior.

We do this in practical ways all the time. When you look at a map and use that map as a guide to navigate a city, for example, your bird’s-eye-view way of thinking about the city provides a framework to guide a series of much more direct human interactions with stop lights, pedestrians, and that Prius with the bumper sticker. Your ability to marry your cartographic perspective to your street-level experience enables you to get to Whole Foods and back again with only a minimal amount of circumlocution.

The planetary perspective is very different from a bird’s-eye view, however. It is awfully difficult to figure out how to bike to the store to buy organic pears by looking at a globe.

Denis Hayes, head of Environment Teach-In, Inc., the Washington organization coordinating activities for “Earth Day” on April 22, 1970, poses in the group’s Washington D. C. office.

There are good historical reasons that David Brower and company began to ask us to “think globally, act locally” in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and they dovetail with the reasons that Earth Day supplanted the much tamer Arbor Day as Americans’ celebration of the environment around the same time. The advent of Earth Day in April of 1970 followed on the heels of NASA’s iconic images of Earth from space, enabling citizens to understand the planet’s isolation and potential fragility in a powerful new way. Around the same time, scientists studying large scale natural processes began to articulate new forms of environmental degradation that actually operated at the scale of the whole earth. In addition to endemic problems of deforestation, toxicity, and pollution, these scientists began to identify problems like CO2-induced global warming and, later, ozone depletion as part of a global environmental crisis.

The climate crisis provides a neat example of the kind of problem at the global extreme of the Earth Day reach. As a problem resulting from global atmospheric change, global warming manifests in ways that we only understand as “global” if we subscribe to a scientific epistemology that links CO2 emissions to extreme weather, sea-level rise, or resource scarcity. Only scientists have the tools and techniques to measure, monitor, and model these global processes. Experiencing disappearing sea ice or water shortages or sea level rise as climate change requires a commitment to a scientific vision of an interconnected global whole. Doing anything—even local things—about climate change qua climate change requires that you think globally.

What “think globally, act locally” means to do is to bridge the gap between that global scientific vision and a set of local decisions imbued with a new global morality. It helps to explain why I rode my bike to the store and bought local organic pears.

The trouble is that the collective global and the individual local represent logical extremes of action, and there are some very important ways to engage with the environment in the space between them.

Photo by Surrealize via

Think again for a moment about a map of your town or city. Where are the transportation corridors? What kinds of energy sources does the municipal or regional power company make available to its constituents? Does the city run a recycling service? To put it differently, at this municipal level—on your city map—how easy does your town or city make it not just for you, a committed environmentalist, to live a low-carbon lifestyle, but for a fair-weather light-green citizen to live a climatically responsible life?

Ultimately, these are the kinds of mid-level government structures that shape the day-to-day lives of large aggregations of citizens—that is, they represent the true point of confluence between the thinking globally and living locally. Change at this level requires hard work, political negotiating, and most importantly, civic involvement—and not just on Earth Day—but it is also both effective and fundamentally democratic.

The time has come to think about Earth Day in not just in terms of globes, but also in terms of maps. That is, the time has come to go beyond “think globally, act locally,” and to begin cultivating practical paths toward environmental responsibility that lie somewhere in the middle.

Joshua P. Howe teaches history and environmental studies at Reed College. His book, Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming is now available from the University of Washington Press.

“Joshua Howe’s conviction is that we must look beyond science for solutions to questions of human value that science alone can never answer. Only by placing climate change in a larger cultural and historical frame—as Behind the Curve consistently succeeds in doing—will we learn what we must from science without evading the ethical, moral, and political work that is no less essential if we are to find our way through the challenging choices that lie ahead.” —From the foreword by William Cronon