Think locally, act globally

“I’m getting bored of global governance,” said my friend Vikrom to me today over late afternoon tea and mangoes.

We were catching up on the last seven years, and he was telling me about his doctoral research on perceptions of climate science and risk at Oxford’s Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (how much do I love their tagline “Wicked problems, clumsy solutions, uncomfortable knowledge”). 

“Global governance is fine for things like security and human rights. But I think meaningful environmental action is increasingly going to be taking place at the local level and not at the transnational level.”

This wasn’t a normative statement. He wasn’t saying that meaningful action on climate change or water or biodiversity shouldn’t be taking place at the transnational level. Only that he didn’t think it was going to happen.

This reminded me of a blog I read last week by Shoko Takemoto, an MIT grad student working on a project to understand how communities perceive climate risk. She writes fascinatingly about her work this summer with Laotian rice farmers (via David Hodgson):

Before coming to Khammouane, I was a little nervous to ask the villagers about climate change. For me, I have understood that climate change adaptation is about estimating the impacts of climate change using the best science, scenarios, and models available… I was worried about how to communicate such complex ideas to farmers and villagers who perhaps had very little knowledge of science or future projections.

However, as soon as I started talking with the farmers and community members, I was stunned by their wealth of knowledge, experience, and insights regarding how seasonal weather patterns, extreme events, and frequency and scale of disasters are changing, how that is impacting their lives, and what needs to be done to solve these issues.

Ninety-five percent of the people in Nonbok are rice farmers… they must survive through damages from flood and drought almost every year. [Adaptation] to climate change and reducing the risk of disaster is not a matter of science or predicting what might happen in the future; instead it is an issue that impacts their well-being and their everyday lives, and needs to be dealt with today.

…I began to understand that at the community level, the terms disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation may be too limited to capture and address the villagers’ concerns.  In vulnerable communities… it is difficult to isolate and identify whether a disaster is due to climate change, [poverty] or natural hazards.  From the perspective of the communities, such differentiation seems irrelevant, if not confusing.

There’s something here fascinating here about language. One of the things that we continually bump up against is making the complex, long-term, global nature of sustainability challenges meaningful to each of us in our daily lives as individual citizens, consumers and professionals. Ironically, the language of sustainability – as increasingly abstract and sanitized as it has become  (think “overnutrition” or “350 ppm” or “stakeholder” or, indeed, “climate change adaptation and mitigation”) – serves to distance us from a gut understanding – and therefore, from acting.

There’s something, too, about an over-reliance on modeling at a global or corporate or non-individual level without attention to what this means on the ground today – whether that’s in a village or a corporate meeting room. Of course, it often seems like there isn’t anything to care about on the ground today (that’s why it’s a sustainability challenge) but I’m increasingly thinking that we have to try harder to find those connections, rather than railing against the cognitive limitations of all of us humans to grasp what’s happening in the long-term or the broader sphere and asking “why they don’t just look at the data.” Perception is not to be dismissed. We need to meet people where they are.

Hence – again – why stories and the one-to-one model (as Tom’s Shoes says) are so important. And just yesterday, my colleague Kyle forwarded me a project he’d come across to tell stories that personalize the Millennium Development Goals.

Need to keep thinking about this a bit more.

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