As my fellow “work-sharers” and I fulfill our weekly 3-hour stints at a community-supported farm, someone brings up the topic of sustainability. (This tends to happen during this type of social gardening.) While digging up garlic, I trialed: “Sustainability is the evolution of environmentalism.” Although this explanation seemed to satisfy my garlic partner, as I further considered the distinction between sustainability and environmentalism, I recognized both a key difference and a synergy between the movements.
A key distinction is that environmentalism came of age years before society conceived that business could be anything but the enemy to a clean planet. Sustainable business, on the other hand, is now a recognized field and, at its best, aims for exactly that. Sustainability has the potential to breathe new life into some core tenets of environmentalism, which are critical even though they seem to have been forgotten. There are no serious barriers to realizing that potential, other than that changing of a mindset – or actually bringing it back to where it once was.
It is very possible to make the connection between early environmentalism and sustainability. A benefit to doing so would be the possibility of redirecting some of the citizen energy applied at the local level (perhaps still latent and untapped) and aiming it globally.
The famous statement in the environmental field, “Think Globally; Act Locally” has inspired many positive actions, and is consistent with the “Subsidiarity Principle.” This public policy concept states the logical-sounding idea that policy actions should be restricted to that scale where the effect occurs. By this measure, local actions would address problems classified as local, and global actions would be taken by global players to deal with worldwide problems.
However, both of these viewpoints can be limiting in their scope. They can clash with the core “interdependence” theme of the original Earth Day, spurred as it was by that famous first picture of the Earth from space. The “We Are All Connected” banner on posters back then has become no less true. (There is also an argument for the opposite of the guidance above, which is “Think Local; Act Global.” This is the subtitle of an article about a number of local resource conflicts in Canada, and how local opponents of development proposals, frustrated in making their cases at home, took their case to the international scale. They targeted the media, legislatures, the U.N., NGOs, visiting tourists, and even the Pope to raise support in order to pressure decision-makers back home. Perhaps the consumer boycott and import ban of furs from baby seals by the European Common Market was the most famous example of this type of local-global connection.)
Further, there is a conflict with another core tenet, this time from The Brundtland Commission Report (also known as Our Common Future), which first put sustainability on the map. This report proposed a new bargain between the developed countries and the developing ones and promised that we would help them develop economic alternatives so that they don’t repeat the same mistakes we did. This proposal was accepted at the first Earth Summit in Rio in 1992.
The global theme is noticeably absent from the numerous sustainability forums at the local and state levels, which appear to have almost an “island” mindset. Three of the most prominent programs, Sustainable Seattle, New York City’s PlaNYC, and Sustainable Jersey show no explicit acknowledgement of the global scale, although certainly the first one, through its early prominence, has influenced thinking in municipalities around the world. While “local” frequently resonates with many, we should all be aware of our full range of choices.
Even successful local initiatives place all of their emphasis at the local scale. There’s almost an assumption made, especially by the Transition Movement (which goes the furthest with its “sub-municipality” orientation), that these localities and states are islands that affect no one beyond their own borders and likewise are not affected by outside forces, either. The “local” context can limit thinking regarding what should concern citizens and what they can do about it.
For example, consider a village in Indonesia or Brazil where residents are forced to make global-affecting decisions such as whether to clear-cut their rainforest because, economically, they perceive no other opportunities for prosperity. Others have carried this argument further to include poverty or severe water shortages in developing countries leading to such desperate conditions that these areas become susceptible as breeding grounds for terrorism. Or, in the age of globalization and relatively easy international travel, what about the facilitation of the spread of viruses to other parts of the globe? All of this can affect anyone’s “island” and make efforts to improve sustainability in other parts of the planet actually quite relevant.
But is it actually possible for a citizen acting at the local level or even individually to aim globally? There are enough exceptions now that it should be possible to overcome this pure locally-focused mindset. The most prominent one, ironically, comes from outside the sustainability world. Locally-operated Rotary Clubs, through leadership, funding, and volunteer time overseas, receive much of the credit for major progress towards nearly wiping out polio worldwide.
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