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Think Locally NOT Globally

Think Locally NOT Globally

In the words of Wendell Berry, "You can't act locally by thinking globally." (emphasis/emboldening mine)

Or put a little more bluntly:

Properly speaking, global thinking is not possible. Those who have "thought globally" have done so by means of simplifications too extreme and oppressive to merit the name "thought."

These fine quotations come from a short essay written by Berry in 1991 entitled "Out of Your Car, Off Your Horse." The essay itself is "Twenty-seven Propositions About Global Thinking and the Sustainability of Cities;" the title of the essay comes from proposition II. in which Berry states:

If you want to see where you are, you will have to get out of your spaceship, out of your car, off your horse, and walk over the ground. On foot you will find that the earth is still satisfyingly large and full of beguiling nooks and crannies.

The twenty-seven propositions that make up the essay serve as a critique of so called "global thought" & those who espouse the "sustainability of cities." It should first be understood that Berry's criticism comes as one who lived in rural Kentucky for most of his life and was heavily concerned with topics such as: food production, land conservation, sustainability, and so forth. It is this biographical fact that makes Berry's arguments so potent. He makes the case that anyone who is truly interested in these things would look very different from those people who espouse these abstractions in their political jargon in order to secure votes and power.

Berry ultimately believes that thinking locally would bring a much greater effect upon the ways things are done globally than the other way around. He says:

If we could think locally, we would take far better care of things than we do now. The right local questions and answers will be the right global ones. The Amish question "What will this do to our community?" tends toward the right answers for the world.

and again:

If we want to put local life in proper relation to the globe, we must do so by imagination, charity, and forbearance and by making local life as competent, independent, and self-sufficient as possible—not by the presumptuous abstractions of "global thought."

Berry cuts straight to the heart of the matter when it comes to the topics of conservation and sustainability. Most politicians who speak in such terms speak in abstractions. They desire to centralize power in order to make conservation and sustainability possible. Berry notes that not only is such a stance brash and egotistical but it would also never work because such abstractions never work:

Abstraction, of course, is what is wrong. The evil of the industrial economy (capitalist or communist) is the abstractness inherent in its procedures—its inability to distinguish one place or person or creature from another.


Abstraction is the enemy wherever it is found. The abstractions of sustainability can ruin the world just as surly as the abstractions of industrial economics. Local life may be as much endangered by those who would "save the planet" as by those who would "conquer the world." For "saving the planet" calls for abstract purposes and central powers that cannot know—and thus will destroy—the integrity of local nature and local community. (emphasis and emboldening mine)

The reason Berry believes that those who call for "saving the planet" will ultimately doom the planet is because they want to steer the actions of entire rural communities from a corner office in New York City or the halls of congress. Such pretension is a foul stench to the nose of Berry. Instead, he argues that keeping the right scale between community and work is of the utmost importance:

The right scale in work gives power to affection. When one works beyond the reach of one's love for the place one is working in and for the things and creatures one is working with and among, then destruction inevitably results. An adequate local culture, among other things, keeps work within the reach of love.

The problem with those who want to save the world through politics and policy is that they are so far removed from the actual work of saving the world that they cannot be of any help to local communities. The world is not going to be saved (in this sense) by some big idea or policy passed by congress (to even think in such a way is the height of disillusion!). The world is going to be saved by small steps taken by small communities over a long period of time. Berry puts it this way:

The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, and humbling, and (insofar as it involves love) pleasing and rewarding. Its jobs will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous.

It's the last part of that quote that Berry sees as being one of the bigger hangups to the work of conservation and sustainability.

The great obstacle may be not greed but the modern hankering after glamour. A lot of our smartest, most concerned people want to come up with a big solution to a big problem I don't think that planet-saving, if we take it seriously, can furnish employment to many such people.

It seems clear that much of the public outcry for "planet-saving" is steeped more in the desire to be glamorous than in the desire towar small, humble, and unrecognized work at home. Ultimately, like almost all things that are worth doing, the desired results can only be accomplished through humble faithfulness with a multi-generational perspective: in other words, covenantally.

Food for thought.



All quotations come from the book Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community a collection of eight essays written by Wendell Berry

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