The Utility Of Global Thinking

In an era when individual actions can have planetary effects,
"thinking globally" is not as futile as Wendell Berry thinks it is

One of the articles in Sustainability (IC#25)
Originally published in Late Spring 1990 on page 55
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

Wendell Berry – the Kentucky farmer, poet, essayist and novelist – is a voice to whom many in the sustainability movement turn for a profoundly humane realism about the nature of our cultural problems. While he doesn’t shy away from the full gravity of our predicament, his voice is ultimately hopeful; and his prescriptions are often eloquent variations on the theme of "small is beautiful" and "the less technology the better."

For Wendell (his voice invites the use of the first name) is a neo-Luddite: he farms with horses and eschews computers. He believes that certain kinds of technology and abstract thinking drive many of our problems. I often find myself nodding and saying "Right on!" as I read him – even though I am surrounded by computers and living in an urban apartment building whose only garden was paved over for parking some years back.

But recently I came upon an essay that, after a first blush of "Right on!" sentiment, left me with nagging questions. The essay, entitled "The Futility of Global Thinking" and adapted from Wendell’s commencement remarks to a Maine college, appeared in magazine after magazine: Harper’s, Whole Earth Review, and Resurgence all ran versions of it. The nagging got more insistent as I reread the essay with each reappearance, until I finally realized, almost reluctantly, that I was in fundmental disagreement with his central point.

Wendell is concerned with the use of the word planetary and the abstraction it represents. He has no problem with the use of the word to refer to "the interdependence of places, and the recognition…that no place on the earth can be completely healthy until all places are." His concern is with the word’s reference to "an abstract anxiety or passion that is desperate and useless exactly to the extent that it is abstract. How, after all, can anybody, any particular body, do anything to heal a planet?" he asks. His answer: "Nobody can do anything to heal a planet. The suggestion that anybody could do so is preposterous…. In fact, though we now have serious problems everywhere on the planet, we have no problem that can accurately be described as planetary."

The problem, he goes on to say, is our lives – especially the lives of those living in developed countries. "The economies of our communities and households are wrong," writes Wendell, and he spends much of the essay fleshing out why and noting that "Our understandable wish to preserve the planet must somehow be reduced to the scale of our competence – that is, to the wish to preserve all of its humble households and neighborhoods."

My quarrel is not with this prescription, nor with later ones to waste less, dispel the fantasy of infinite resources, and "achieve the character and acquire the skills to live much poorer than we do" – and I certainly echo his call to "Love this miraculous world that we did not make, that is a gift to us." Clearly we have not yet proven ourselves competent to manage planets, and the fundamentals of community have all but disappeared from our cities, towns, and suburbs – both a casualty and a cause of our predicament. In fact, in the light of the gentle wisdom of this writing and the good insights scattered throughout, my quarrel seems small and, well, abstract. I still agree with fully 80% of what Wendell has to say here. Yet I cannot shake the conviction that with regard to the other 20%, he is simply wrong.

For we do have problems whose accurate description can only be "planetary." And understanding their planetary nature may be our only avenue for developing a culture more closely resembling the one envisioned by Wendell Berry.

It is true that ozone depletion, climate change, acid rain, Valdez-size oil spills, and Chernobyl-scale radiation leaks can all be traced to decisions and demands made at the level of individuals and households. But understanding that simple fact – crucial to empowering us to act – does not erase the reality of larger structures, both natural and human-created. For the effects of these problems are global. Many of the systems in which those individuals and households are embedded are global. Some of the individuals making those decisions and demands are controlling organizations whose reach, indeed whose very identity, is often global. To ignore this is to misrepresent the reality – a global reality that is, admittedly, hugely complex and beyond the ability of any one mind to comprehend fully. But that does not mean we should abandon the attempt.

I’m sure Wendell Berry understands global realities as well as anyone. But he has chosen to title his essay "The Futility of Global Thinking" [italics mine] – to make a case against abstraction in general and planetary abstraction in particular. As a result, he is also arguing against the most powerful conceptual tool available to those working to motivate the great numbers of people (bureaucrats, legislators, and executives, as well as householders) whose individual choices must be changed if planetary systems are to be preserved.

As a former rebellious philosophy student who fled from academia into social work, I am also wary of abstraction’s alienating qualities, its capacity to substitute for action. As Wendell writes in his essay, "though we have been talking about most of our problems for decades, we are still mainly talking about them." But he backs up his case this way: "The civil rights movement has not given us better communities. The women’s movement has not given us better marriages or better households. The environment movement has not changed our parasite relationship to nature."

Perhaps my age (30) gives me a less historical perspective – I haven’t had to watch the slow decay in our common life witnessed by Wendell over decades, against which the gains of these social movements may seem small. But I am convinced that my own marriage, and the marriages of most of my friends, are much better than they might have been without the women’s movement. And I doubt that most Blacks and other minorities would agree that the civil rights movement did not improve their communities, even if other forces in society (including changes in the international economy and the rising flow of drugs into the country – forces that are themselves global in scope) have caused them to lose ground overall.

These social movements have not been reduced to abstract rhetoric, as Wendell seems to suggest. Rights have been won, laws and policies adopted, dignity achieved. I don’t, as Wendell notes one cannot, "conduct [my] relationship[s] … in terms of the rhetoric of the civil rights movement or the women’s movement." I simply know that my relationships have benefited from those movements, including their rhetoric – and that the environmental movement has changed our relationship to nature (the far-reaching consequences of the Endangered Species Act provide a good example). None of these movements has brought about change to anywhere near the degree that is necessary, of course. But the problem is not that the abstractions of these movements are useless. The problem is that the momentum of huge systems is enormous and not easily changed.

"All public movements of thought quickly produce a language that works as a code, useless to the extent that it is abstract," writes Wendell. I wish he had said, "useless to the extent that it is divorced from action." Certainly the "juice" of new language evaporates, leaving only the dry rattle of a buzzword, when the concepts have no practical effect. But "planetary" still has plenty of juice in it. Understanding in the abstract that the sum of our individual actions has an effect that is planetary is often the only motivation that a city dweller, who lacks the benefit of a farmer’s intimate daily contact with earth’s biological systems, has for changing problematic behavior. Love for the planet – seen as a whole from space only during my generation, and now carried in the mind as an abstract image – empowers that person to act.

The solutions to our problems are, indeed, to be found in our lives. But in our era of global media and shrinking distances, those lives have the potential of making a difference that is planetary – for good or ill. We must not, therefore, withdraw our antennae and look only at the precious piece of earth directly under our noses (though we must certainly look there) when the mistakes of a single nuclear technician thousands of miles away may render all our work on that small plot moot. Everybody can do something to heal the life systems of a planet, and we must think globally in order to act locally with any real effectiveness. The complexity and interconnectedness of our world require that abstraction.

At the same time we must think locally, in terms of what is dear and close to us, as we act in ways that increasingly have a global impact. The "ecology" of our minds needs to include both kinds of thought, with as much depth as we are capable, if we are to be effective healers of our families, our communities, and indeed the earth itself. We must start right where we are, but reach as far as we can.

I have sometimes wished that I could live like Wendell Berry – farming, writing, caring for a piece of land. I suspect many others who read him feel the same. His is a wise voice, and a beautiful one. But we do ourselves (and him) a disservice if we hold it to be universal. For the majority of us who live in cities or suburbs, who ache to steer humanity on a more sustainable course, but whose sheer numbers mean that we cannot all return to the rustic life Wendell Berry returned to many years ago, global thinking is not futile. It is a necessity.

Sustainability In An Uncertain World

by W.R. Prescott

I tend to share much of the commonly held vision of a sustainable culture: decentralized renewable energy, bicycles and efficient mass transit, locally sustainable agriculture, 95% recycling of all materials, wide reforestation, post-consumer steady-state economics, demilitarization, grassroots democracy, post-patriarchal values, global interactive media, and so on.

However, I am also a student of general systems theory, global warming, and the other major global environment and development issues, and I have come to realize that our commonly held vision will probably not survive these major emerging crises. Global realities have fundamentally changed, but our vision, on the whole, has not.

Most of our models of sustainability are not designed to cope with the consequences of global environmental breakdown. Our fragile planet is being knocked off balance, and the convergence of environmental disasters makes it possible that imbalances in the earth’s natural systems will undermine all our best efforts at building a sustain-able society. Unless we plan for it.

What we can expect from the future, at best, is a long period of transitional instability as hyperstressed natural systems undergo unpredictable and strange, non-linear, sometimes violent behavior, with sudden shifts to new plateaus of radical change. In short, we can expect the unexpected. What we cannot expect is that the ancient cycles of nature, upon which many of our ideas of a better world depend, will remain dependable.

Ecotopia might not survive such violent perturbations any better than New York would. How will wind farming for energy survive if global warming induced hurricanes become common? What happens to local self-sufficiency when bands of ozone layer depletion destroy crops, or ocean current shifts change the planting seasons? How can we encourage decentralization when global environmental threats seem to demand centralized global planning and management? Worst of all, how do we plan at all when systems are not changing from one permanent state to another, but from equilibrium to disequilibrium?

It may not be The End of Nature, as the popular book calls it, but it is certainly the end of our romantic vision of Nature and of sustainability – the vision of a simpler, quieter, more beautiful, appropriate technology world … a world which I, for one, deeply long for.

However, the new reality requires new thinking. Any realistic vision of sustainability must address the dynamics of natural disequilibrium, and must be conceived to mitigate and stabilize the erratic behavior of natural systems.

Any model of sustainability needs to be designed to: (1) help mitigate the major global environmental crises; (2) last through mid-range predictions of global warming, extra ultraviolet, greater pollution and contamination, and so on; (3) adapt to sudden shifts to new plateaus of unprecedented change; and (4) help other systems, human and natural, to fulfill principles 1, 2, and 3.

The vision of the world we strive for is more important than ever before, yet harder to grasp. Even if we were to implement some kind of sustainable society tomorrow, we would be too late to fundamentally alter the fact of natural disequilibrium. The changes that are emerging will force upon us new and untried solutions. Adjusting our vision of sustainability to include unpredictability in natural systems may mean the difference between successfully shooting the rapids of change, and river-rafting over a major waterfall.


W. R. Prescott is a contributing editor to IN CONTEXT.

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