Think global, act local

On the one hand, it is very easy to get bogged down in details and lose sight of the bigger picture – to not see the wood for the trees. On the other hand, though, it’s also very easy to have an understanding of the bigger picture and struggle to put that understanding into practice in concrete practical ways – it can be difficult to translate that big picture into smaller, manageable steps.

So the political slogan of ‘think global, act local’ may not be as easy as it initially sounds – but that is no reason to abandon it, as it is an important principle, not only for eco-politics, but also for our lives more broadly. So, what is involved in thinking globally, acting locally?

‘Think global’ basically means that we need to consider the wider and longer-term consequences of our actions (at the macro level) and not just focus on the here and now of our current circumstances (the micro level). This is why the slogan has been adopted by the environmental movement – each time we switch on a light we don’t need or throw away something that could have been recycled we are contributing to the global picture of the gradual destruction of our habitat. But, of course, most people don’t think about this as they go about wasting precious natural resources. So, the idea is that our actions (what we do at a local level) need to be informed by the global picture.

Not only is this vitally important in terms of preserving our habitat, but it is also a wise lesson for how we live our lives more broadly, in the sense that there is much to be gained from being clear about how what we do at a local level has an impact on our lives in a number of ways. If we have no sense of what our actions at a micro level are doing in terms of their impact on the macro level, we may be acting against our own interests. If I have no sense of where I am going in my life or what I am doing with it, I may do things that are against my long-term interests. For example, I may commit one or more offences and thereby get a criminal record that closes off career opportunities that I might have wanted to pursue.

Many people would recognise this as a feature of spirituality, part of how we develop and maintain a sense of purpose and direction and thus meaning. It also reflects the spiritual notion of ‘connectedness’, the awareness that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, whether that be culture, society, religion or one or more political causes. Religious doctrines tend to provide a more global, macro picture to guide their adherents, but, of course, it is not necessary to subscribe to a religion to get the same benefits, the sense that there is a ‘global’ that our ‘local’ is a part of.

So, the idea of ‘think global, act local’ is not only a useful ecological strategy. It is also a way of making sure that what we do makes sense in terms of the wider picture of our lives and is not just an uncritical reaction to the circumstances we may find ourselves in at any time. It gives us a firmer basis for making sure that we are enriching our lives, rather than just being carried along on the waves of circumstance.

Get the balance right

The mantra of being ‘balanced in all things’ is a well-established idea, but there is a paradox here. If we are aiming to be balanced in all things, doesn’t that mean we are being extreme (and therefore unbalanced) about being balanced? Shouldn’t we be trying to find a balance between being balanced and unbalanced?

But, however we tackle that philosophical riddle, the value of seeking balance remains strong. This can apply in a number of ways. For example, there is considerable wisdom in balancing head and heart. This means that we should not let our heart rule our head (which could get us into all sorts of difficulty!), but nor should we try to be entirely rational beings as if emotion is a problem to be solved (rather than a key part of what makes us human). As the old saying goes: go where your heart takes you, but take your head with you.

There is also a balance of ‘self and others’ to be struck. If we are entirely selfish, we can find ourselves isolated, unsupported and struggling. If we go to the other extreme and become totally ‘other directed’ (to use the technical term), then we are neglecting our self-care, which can also be highly problematic. The philosopher, Voltaire, wrote about ‘enlightened self-interest’ by which he meant helping ourselves by helping others – that is, we can meet our own needs by helping other people to meet theirs. This is not only the basis of the idea of community, but also a very effective way of achieving a balance of self and others.

But, just to complicate matters further, we also have to be aware that there is a subjective element to what is seen as a balance. What one person considers to be extreme another person may see as balanced. For example, someone who is committed to social justice and tackling inequality may see certain political steps as reasonable and justified, while for someone who sees inequality as natural, inevitable and even desirable, such actions may be dismissed as left-wing extremism. What this means, then, is that there is no absolute sense of balance – it is a matter of what is balanced for you, what works for you in your circumstances.

A key point to note is that being balanced means looking at situations more holistically, seeing the big picture. Focusing narrowly on one aspect of a situation will give us a very unbalanced view. This can happen in relation to risk issues sometimes. For example, someone weighing up the risks involved in a particular set of circumstances can easily make the mistake of seeing only the dangers involved. They can fail to take account of the range of factors that can make the chances that the danger will materialise very slim indeed. The result can then be an over-reaction that, ironically, can introduce new risks into the situation.

So, the notion of getting the balance right is not as simple an idea as it may originally seem. But it is still an important one. We shouldn’t be looking for simple answers to the challenge of finding a balanced approach to whatever it is we are tackling. What is likely to be much more helpful is a well-thought-out approach that takes account of the complexities involved – and which gives us a richer and more well-rounded picture of the challenges we face.