Is Localism a Retro Fad or a Blueprint for Sustainability?

By Keith Kloor | March 9, 2013 7:36 am

As someone who tracks environmental discourse in real time, I find it valuable to step back on occasion and look at how public attitudes are shaped. For that, I depend on the work of scholars. One book from 2008 that I’ve only just read explores how several major contemporary environmental themes have been expressed culturally, such as in literature and movies. It’s called Sense of Place and Sense of Planet, by Ursula Heise, a UCLA English professor. (I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Heise several months ago.) In her  text, Heise analyzes two conflicting impulses in environmentalism, which are famously summarized in the “think globally, act locally” slogan.

This is a tension that environmentalists haven’t come to grips with yet, especially when we consider the scale of today’s environmental challenges. Averting catastrophic climate change and meeting the energy and food needs of 7 billion people will not be solved by local food markets and rooftop solar panels. There is no going back to the garden to save the world. (Still, I love that song!) And I say that as someone who loves to shop at my local farmers market and believes there is great value in community gardens. But people are fooling themselves if they think localism is a the formula for sustainability.

The contradiction between the global nature of the climate threat and the traditional environmentalist approach to solving it is embodied today by America’s most influential environmentalist. To understand this, to grapple with it, you have to read Matthew Nisbet’s new discussion paper, titled:

Nature’s Prophet: Bill McKibben as Journalist, Public Intellectual, and Activist

There is some rich discussion on the different types of  “knowledge journalists” that shape public debate on environmental issues, but the heart of his paper is devoted to McKibben’s prominent role. What Nisbet does is juxtapose the immensely complex problem of climate change, which McKibben–as activist– has now devoted himself to, with the solutions that McKibben–as public intellectual and writer–has advocated.

So here’s Nisbet on the bedeviling nature of the climate problem:

Instead of a conventional environmental threat like smog or acid rain, climate change is more accurately defined as a “wicked problem.” Such problems are the product of multiple social, ecological, and technological systems, are difficult to define, have no clear solution, and are seemingly intractable, often plagued by chronic policy failures and intense disagreement. As a result, wicked problems like climate change require almost constant risk reduction, conflict management, and political negotiation that seldom bring an “end” or resolution. Like poverty or ethnic and religious conflict, climate change is not something likely to be solved, eliminated or ended, but rather a condition that society will struggle to do better or worse at in managing.

This doesn’t mean raising the white flag. I’m pretty sure Nisbet would be thrilled if the energy produced by fossil fuels could be replaced with a clean green substitute. He’s just realistic about the prospects of that happening anytime soon.

What Nisbet does next–after discussing the different rhetorical styles of several “knowledge journalists,” (such as Andrew Revkin and Thomas Friedman)–is delve into McKibben’s life as a writer and activist. It’s essentially a chronological distillation of McKibben’s philosophy as it developed and was expressed over several decades in his many books and articles. After taking the measure of McKibben’s body of work, Nisbet concludes:

Having spent six months studying McKibben’s books, writing, and career, I hold a deep admiration for his ability to convey the urgency of climate change and to articulate a better approach to life that includes more time for family, reflection and nature. His work as an activist is equally impressive. From his start in 2006 working with a handful of college students to his leadership today of 350.org, McKibben has helped shift the U.S. environmental movement from an almost exclusive focus on insider lobbying, legal strategies, and think tank-style influence to focus greater resources on grassroots organizing and mobilization.

Yet as a public intellectual, McKibben has failed to offer pragmatic and achievable policy ideas. Instead, reflecting his intellectual roots in the deep ecology movement, McKibben’s goal has been to generate a mass consciousness in support of limiting economic growth and consumption, with the hope of shifting the United States towards localized economies, food systems, and “soft” energy sources.

McKibben is certainly in tune with the zeitgeist that he helped create. To what degree is that goal shared in the green community? That may not be an entirely fair question, as even a retro version of “return to local” is arguably a positive means of individual engagement with environmental issues. The danger, it seems, is if McKibben and like-minded greens convince people that getting back-to-the-garden will really change the world this time around.

  • jh

    I found the characterization of “climate change” as a “wicked problem” kind of interesting. I was struck by the fact that there’s no reasoning given to support this characterization – it’s just claimed to be so.

    Climate change may be a complex problem, but only because so little is known about the possible outcomes, and because so many people have speculated so widely on the basis of rudimentary data whatsoever. These wide ranging and wild “predictions” are not testable in the traditional scientific sense because they aren’t proposed in the traditional scientific sense. They’re nothing more than ideas but they’re treated as testable hypotheses. It’s hardly surprising that, when we pull all these wild speculations together and try to find supporting science, there’s little of substance that can be done except generate more wild speculation with little basic data. We create the “wicked problem” ourselves by asking – and then answering, from our imaginations – questions that we can’t answer with the information provided by science.

    So there are many aspects of the “wicked problem” of climate that we can’t even tell yet if they’ll be a problem (e.g., how climate change will affect food production). Problems are certainly more complex if we don’t know they are problems!

    Nisbet hints further at why climate, in particular, and other environmental issue more generally, have become “wicked problems” – problems that we don’t even know if they are problems:

    In reference to the writing tradition McKibben draws on, Nisbet notes, quoting Croon:

    There is also a strong religious dimension to this tradition, as these settings are where “the supernatural lay just beneath the surface,” enabling people to “glimpse the face of God,”

    So, in my view, McKibben’s ideas, and the ideas of many others in the green movement, draw heavily on their own spiritual perception of the world. Their claims about the course of the future aren’t scientific, they’re prophetic, and their language often has striking parallels to old testament prophecy. It’s not surprising then that the “problems” they highlight aren’t answerable with science.

    Furthermore, Nisbet points out that:

    Therefore, experts, political insiders, and journalists invest considerable resources establishing communities of assumptions around problems, assumptions which may eventually be taken for granted and accepted as conventional wisdom.

    More and more people are recognizing that McKibben and other green activists have shaped the set of unexamined assumptions upon which we operate. Since these unexamined assumptions are based on a non-scientific, religious perception of the natural world, it’s hardly surprising that the policy prescriptions that grow out of them are leading us into “wicked problems”.

    • Gary Jones

      “I found the characterization of “climate change” as a “wicked problem” kind of interesting. I was struck by the fact that there’s no reasoning given to support this characterization – it’s just claimed to be so.”

      I read it as a reference to the positions of The Breakthrough Institute who have written long and well of climate change as a wicked problem.

      • jh

        Hmmm…

        It’s actually becoming common usage. J Curry has had much discussion of “wicked” problems, but I’m not sure Nisbets def would match with JCs.

        Anyway, I find it a little odd to state in a scholarly paper with no reference “Climate change is a wicked problem therefore…”

  • Tom Scharf

    I think one of the problems faced by environmentalists with climate change from people like myself is that once the concept of “limiting economic growth” is pushed out as a solution, this is perceived as the real agenda, not the solution.

    In other words, climate change is being used as a proxy in order to push a stealth social agenda that has much less support. It is seen as a dishonest manipulation.

    Evidence can be trotted out to support this perception such as the anti-fracking and anti-nuclear positions of the same people. They don’t want cheap clean energy, even if it existed. It simply doesn’t add up.

    • Joshua

      I think one of the problems faced by rightwingers with climate
      change from people like myself is that once the concept of “smart
      economic growth” is pushed out as a solution, they mark themselves as tribalists when they assume that everyone advocating for smart-growth actually has an agenda of advocating limited growth – as if they are one and the same..

      In other words, climate change is being used as a proxy in order to
      push a stealth social agenda that has much less support. It is seen as a dishonest manipulation.

      Evidence can be trotted out to support this perception such as the
      simplistic positions of the same people on fracking and nuclear energy. They don’t want cheap clean energy, even if it existed. What they really want is to exploit the notion of cheap energy and starving children in order to advance a political agenda. It simply doesn’t add up.

    • Buddy199

      Larger government, more regulation and top down control, financed by higher taxes and costs on an evil few that eventually become shared by the majority.

      The solution proposed by leftist greens for climate change. It’s coincidentally the same solution leftists propose for poor public education, poverty, childhood hunger, childhood obesity, racism, “social justice” and any number of other issues they hold near and dear.

      A generic, one size fits all approach to every problem. And when it fails we are scolded that it only did so because we didn’t spend, regulate or legislate enough.

      And yes, there is a heavy, monotonous strain of anti-capitalism running through it all. Witness the Occupy Wall Street movement that ranted against the mega-thievery of banks but said not a peep about their equally corrupt enablers in Washington, such as Eric Holder who has publically stated that it’s just to economically destabilizing to prosecute too-big-to-jail bankers.

      Top it off with the pontification of rich greens like Al-Jazeera Gore and others who engorge themselves on a life style they wag a finger at for the little people.

      So, yeah, cynicism is warranted.

      • Joshua

        Impressive, Buddy.

        You managed to get taxation, poor “scolded” conservatives, regulation, Al Jazeera, taxation, anti-capitalism, Occupy Wall Street, Eric Holder, rich greens, Al Gore, big government, top-down control, public education, poverty, childhood hunger, childhood obesity, racism, “social justice”…

        all in one post!!!!!

        Impressive.

  • Joshua

    But people are fooling themselves if
    they think localism is a the formula for sustainability

    Interesting proofreading oversight — of using both the definite and indefinite articles there.

    I completely agree – with the notion that anyone who thinks that localism is “the” formula, is fooling themselves. Don’t know too many people like that – but no doubt there are some.

    Of course, anyone who thinks that, say, industrial farming is “the” formula is also kidding themselves.

    “The” formula is no doubt complex, and no doubt consists of combining together disparate components, such as maximizing the efficiencies of local and small-scale farming as well as maximizing the efficiencies of industrial-scale farming. Most importantly, IMO, is understanding the fundamental political variables in “the” formula, and understanding the economic complexities of maximizing growth while not maximizing inequalities and inequities.

    The term think globally act locally has a pretty wide meaning. Apparently it was first used with reference to urban planning – to stress the notion of the interelatedness of small- and wide-scale decision-making. It seems to me that you are suggesting that the term references a dichotomy that is not consistent with how most people I know think about these issues.

    • Joshua

      Speaking of think globally, act locally:

  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    i concede that raising awareness about the env. in general is a good thing but people tune out when it’s an empty gesture like “doing something” about GW. I can’t even count the number of “green” people in my family who also have children. uh, you’ve already done the absolute wost thing for the environment, you don’t need to worry about recycling some cans. they’re also part of the worst polluting generation of people in Earth’s history and they act as if turning off the lights or getting a Prius will help. no perspective and a lot of guilt and empty gestures. do something that matters like land preservation, etc.

  • Joshua

    Impressive, Buddy.

    You managed to get taxation, poor “scolded”
    conservative, regulation, Al Jazeera, taxation, anti-capitalism, Occupy
    Wall Street, Eric Holder, rich greens, Al Gore, big government, top-down
    control, public education, poverty, childhood hunger, childhood
    obesity, racism, “social justice”…

    all in one post!!!!!

    Impressive.

  • peter steager

    Problems of scale ought to dominate any kind of intelligent discourse on climate change. The disjunction between the backyard garden and-say-feeding 7 billion people is literally astronomical. You can’t simply ramp up the garden and feed a nation and in that sense localism is indeed naive. But I would suggest that to most of the people who practice it

    it provides an antidote to powerlessness, a chance to live the experience of doing the right thing, to form functioning communities and to at least do something, to exercise some tiny bit of control in a world where we are otherwise dwarfed into complete insignificance.

    • Joshua

      Do you think that efforts to improve small-scale farming as a way to reduce hunger, say in Africa, reflect naivete?

      • peter steager

        No. They most certainly do not. I am a great fan of Vandana Shiva. I am certain even enormous rural populations can feed themselves. An Indian or African village can i feed itself and do so sustainably, but how do you feed Bombay or Lagos? Localism in the west involves, in a sense, the willingness to use what are really Third World models, but these cannot sustain us at our present level of affluence. Or maybe they can. What do you think?

        • Joshua

          Ironic that you’d mention Shiva in light of Keith’s post upstairs.

          Again – I think that small-scale urban farming can contribute to the “formula.” Our current level of affluence includes food deserts in neighborhoods in neighborhoods like mine to some extent, and almost completely in neighborhoods bordering on mine.Local urban farming can help address that problem – and would imagine the same might go for Bombay or Lagos.

          I think that the major problem is that people gravitate towards adversarial and simplistic frames.

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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