Sunday, November 9, 2008

Think Global, Act Local ... And It's All Local

You know that book Don't Sweat the Small Stuff ... And It's All Small Stuff? Yeah, I never read it either, but lately I've been applying that same logic to that ubiquitous phrase "Think Global, Act Local." Think global, act local ... and it's all local. If that hadn't been hammered home enough during the global financial crisis, it was certainly hammered home on Tuesday when people from all over the world rejoiced over the election of Barack Obama. Why? Because very simply, what happens in America affects the entire world.

Every act you make now has global consequences. As Bill McKibben pointed out in his book Deep Economy, American demand for plastic shower curtains produced in China is helping to pull many Chinese young men and women out of poverty. While I might not encourage people to buy new plastic shower curtains from an environmental point of view, I cannot deny that shower curtain factories produce jobs for people who desperately need them. In The End of Poverty Jeffrey Sachs talks to some Bangladeshi women who work in sweatshops producing clothes destined, most likely, for America. Although their work environments are poor, still, the women are grateful for the work, and for the opportunities they see arising from their paid labor.

I've always been a little wary about the idea of buying locally simply because I feel it ignores this component. And when locavores don't ignore the component, such as Bill McKibben, they often seem left with no ready answer. McKibben points out that globalization has increased the prosperity of many Chinese people, and I give him credit for that. But he never resolves the issue for himself. How do we deal with the legitimate environmental concerns related to shipping products around the world, and yet still ensure better lives and more opportunity for those workers in Chinese factories? If we, as environmentalists are telling people not to buy cheap plastic goods produced in China due to the hidden negative externalities of cheap plastic, what is the engine that produces equality?

Because here's the thing. The surest way to get less cheap plastic crap on the market? Is to make that cheap plastic crap more expensive to produce. And a great way to make that cheap plastic crap more expensive is if labor becomes more expensive. That is, if people have more opportunities, and better job possibilities, then working in a shower curtain factory is suddenly not so appealing. Why are there almost zero shower curtain factories in the United States? Because people don't want those jobs. Because labor is expensive. Because most people living in America can find better work that pays MORE.

So right now our global corporations send those jobs abroad where labor is cheaper. Essentially, in my opinion, the answer isn't to boycott goods made in China, but to reduce inequality. Because, frankly, when the whole world is making say, between $15,000 and $20,000 a year? Those plastic shower curtains are going to become veeeery expensive to produce. Why don't people fix their DVD players when they break? Because it's cheaper to buy new. But those $10 DVD players, rampant consumerism, and a need to buy new, new, new are built on the backs of cheap labor. Once labor starts getting expensive, so do the DVD players.

But besides all that, here's the truth. Those Chinese workers in the factory? They are part of my community. They are human beings, and thus, my people. And they have as much right to their dreams as does the person who lives next door.

So what am I saying? Am I saying that we should all start buying produce from South Africa because it enhances South Africa economy, that we should all start buying plastic shower curtains by the dozen from China?

No. But what I'm saying, is we need to start framing things differently. Buy local food, by all means, but buy your sugar fair trade, and your chocolate fair or equitrade. And next time you're dying for a banana, then get yourself a damn banana, just get it fair trade. Buy goods at your local mom and pop green store, but if the shoes you buy happen to be ethically and sustainably produced in China, treat that as a WIN, as opposed to a loss. Take the money you save by forgoing the plastic shower curtain, and lend it to someone in the developing world at And the next time you have to talk to IT support in India, instead of griping about how you can't understand the accent, take a moment to remember that these IT jobs have enormously benefitted India, have pulled thousands and thousands into the middle class, and that the environmental negatives for phone support are fairly small.

We must stop viewing the world in terms of us versus them. There's only us. Think global, act local, but remember it's all local. So by all means, buy products from your farmers' markets, support the seamstress who lives next door. But remember, that the choices we make directly impact people all over the world, and not just our neighborhood. Remember, we are all human beings. We are all entitled to dignity, to food, to health care, to work, to education. We are all entitled to dream big.

*This is my post for the November APLS carnival. There is STILL time to get your submissions in. Write your post about buying local and email it to aplscarnival (at) gmail (dot) com.*


JessTrev said...

I love this post ("there's only us") -- and the idea that each purchasing decision is an opportunity to send a message, or support an outcome.

Farmer's Daughter said...

Maybe "Buy Locally, Act Globally" would be a better slogan.

Anonymous said...

You have a fine way of articulating ideas that I share but am unable to put into words. Twenty-five years ago when I bought my first Japanese manufactured car there was a lot of resistance in America to Japanese cars - it was considered "unpatriotic", blah, blah, blah. I complained to my brother then that I found it hard to believe in the global economy of the 80's that people still talked about "us and them". The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Green Bean said...

Beautifully synthesized - we are all one. I think it is important to build strong local economies to get us through the coming hard times but equally important is reaching out to those in other countries, those we cannot see, making microloans and, when appropriate, making purchases of ethically produced goods. Leave it to you to make the best of all worlds. :)

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

This is a great post that reflects some of my own thoughts about buying local. There's a lot that's good about focusing on local products, but I think it's more important to buy fair products that will last and to be conscious of the effects our purchases have.

One thing that has worried me about the local buying movement is the possibility that it will lead to ethnocentrism, nationalism, regionalism, even localism, which never leads to anything good (think contributing factor to many, many wars). It's good to buy local as long as we don't start assuming our local is better than their local.

ruchi said...

Jess, thanks!

Abbie, that's a great slogan! Let's make it stick!

Lucky, I hear ya. You would think by now we'd be past the us vs them mentality, but ... sigh....

GB, thanks. You know very well how much I've struggled about this issue since you've had to sort of hear me argue with myself about this. :) I think the key is balance. I think.

Erin, I love love love that last sentence. That's exactly right. Local is fine, but xenophobia is not!

Deb G said...

Just wanted to say how much I like what you've written here. I never have been able to give up buying cheese from Italy. :) It comes back to "all things in moderation," for me.

Anonymous said...

If "buying local" becomes a dogma, we are in trouble. Life, unfortunately, is never black or white. Even when it comes to food, rice from the flood plain of Bangladesh may still trump my local irrigated Californian rice in terms of energy and water consumption.

Consumption decisions have always be difficult for me. A made-in-USA T-shirt is not necessarily better than an organic-cotton shirt made in India. We strive to be informed, while knowing information transparency is not all there yet.

I have only 3 rules:

1. Buy less
2. Buy local food as much as possible
3. It's okay not to be perfectly green :)

ruchi said...

Deb G, I agree, all things in moderation is key.

Cindy W, beautifully put. I think your 3 rules are excellent. :)

Anonymous said...

great post !
take a look at this report by cbs regarding e-waste. it's an eye-opener.

Anonymous said...

Ruchi, I'm so glad you mentioned the IT guy in India. I LOVE talking to those guys because it's probably the only time during my insulated life that I ever have voice contact with someone in another country. Well, besides Canada, and that doesn't count.

One of the most touching experiences of my life (and saddest) was a conversation with an HP tech support guy in India. We had a great conversation. He was very helpful but also funny... making jokes and testing me to see if I could figure out the difference in our time zones.

Anyway, I just thought he was a really nice guy. And at the end of our conversation, after my computer problem was solved, he said, "Thank you. I think you are the nicest customer I have ever spoken to."

Oh my god. I'm starting to tear up just thinking about it right now. Because I have a unique understanding. I am the IT go-to person at my company. And I know how hard it can be for any IT person. People's computers break, and they freak out. And then they take out all their frustrations on you if you can't fix it immediately. That is true for any IT person.

But when many Americans call for tech support and hear an Indian accent on the other end of the line, their frustration is increased. Not only does their computer not work, but now on top of it they have to speak to this foreigner with an accent, and they won't be able to understand each other, and of course the foreigner won't be able to help because they can't possibly be as smart as an American.

(I've seen and heard these kinds of sentiments.)

So when this guy told me I was the nicest customer he'd ever talked to, I just thought how hard it is for so many people to just live and do their freakin' jobs. Because oh my god. I am not actually all that that nice! I'm just me. And I sat and cried for about 20 minutes and then cried again when I was telling my husband the story.

Now, I realize that we project our own feelings and emotions onto other people. When I'm in a good mood, everyone else seems nice. When I'm in a crappy mood, everyone else seems like a jerk. So we probably just met each other on a day when we were both in good moods and bringing out the best in each other. Whatever.

The point is (which doesn't have that much to do with your original post I guess) that we are all just humans living on this planet and doing the best we can, and like you said, nowadays no matter how far from each other geographically, we are all neighbors, and why can't we just all get along!?!?!!

Anonymous said...

Just found your blog via the recent carnival post up.

YAY! So great to hear someone else thinking globally!

Great blog.