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.