According to Google, use of the phrase “Think Globally, Act Locally” peaked in 1996, and has declined ever since. That may reflect how hard it is to practice this idea. During my years as Executive Director of the Sierra Club, the conflict between the club’s intellectual commitment — to think globally — and human instinct — to react powerfully and narrowly when threatened locally, was one I never really found a fix for.
So we may need to find proxies — values or ways of thinking that help us get the right answers even if they are asking different questions. And one such proxy, I would argue, is the idea of making it locally: one manifestation of which, in the case of the United States, is the increasing public fervor for the importance of making stuff in the U.S., of reviving our manufacturing base. “Made in America” it turns out is a pretty fair proxy for “Think globally.”
To understand why, I’m going to crib from a recent — and well worth absorbing — volume by Alex Steffen, Carbon Zero, which explains how badly off-course much of our thinking has drifted. Steffen asks us to imagine our ecological impact — in this case carbon emissions — as cakes, and our desire to live more sustainably, or reduce carbon emissions, as a diet.
He then describes three common ways of measuring these impacts, or counting the calories, we are using — he calls this “footprinting.”
Geographic footprinters say, “I will count only those cakes I both bake and eat at home.”
Most measurements of carbon emissions are geographic, like recent announcements of how U.S. carbon emissions are declining. They are, but the measurements being released are incomplete and don’t tell the whole story, because they are geographic.
Production footprinters say, “I will count all the cakes I bake, whether I eat them or not.”
In the case of carbon emissions, this makes countries like Angola look like major emitters, even though most of what they do is extract oil from their territory and ship it to rich countries like the U.S. to consume. And a very rich country like Singapore which imports almost all of its food and fuel and materials from other countries looks very virtuous on this scale.
Consumption footprinters say, “I will count all the cakes I eat, no matter who bakes them.”
Steffens argues that consumption footprinting is the correct way to measure out impact — because it requires us to think globally as we act locally. Stopping a locally damaging project is only globally helpful if as a result the total amount of damaging consumption goes down — and we only should get credit if it is our consumption that declines. If we block a mega-feed lot in California, and as a result people in China eat less beef, they really deserve the ecological credit. And if an even worse feed-lot gets built in Africa, we’ve actually done harm. (more…)