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Think Globally, Act Locally?

Progressive, locally rooted movements have long proven their ability to influence wider social and political trends, whether by force of example, concerted political pressure, or active resistance to centralized power.

We need to strengthen forms of coordination that emerge from the municipal context to support a growing network for change in synchrony with a global resurgence of solidarity, democracy, and justice. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

We need to strengthen forms of coordination that emerge from the municipal context to support a growing network for change in synchrony with a global resurgence of solidarity, democracy, and justice. (Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

The following piece was originally published by the Great Transition Initiative, part of an online forum by the group focused on the potential for transformative local action.

Dynamic, people-powered progressive grassroots movements are on the rise in many parts of the world. Some confront corporate-driven threats to people’s health and livelihoods, such as the expanding pace of fossil fuel production due to fracking and other new technologies. Indigenous and other land-based communities in the Global South actively resist the extraction of timber and mineral resources, as well as misguided climate mitigation measures, such as carbon sequestration schemes that substitute distant bureaucratic management of forests for traditional commons regimes. In France, rural workers have been in open revolt against tax policies that favor the rich, filling the streets to denounce the extreme isolation of national elites. An Irish citizens’ assembly, with delegates chosen at random, launched the national referendum that ultimately voted down a long-standing constitutional ban on abortions. Here in the US, towns in some of the most conservative pockets of Pennsylvania and other states have organized to assert community rights over corporate rights, and successfully fought off expansion plans by polluting industries.

We see increasingly bold public expressions of human compassion, through the creation of sanctuaries and “cities of refuge” to protect threatened immigrants, offer direct aid, and sometimes grant local citizenship rights in defiance of exclusionary national policies. Food and farm activists are reinvigorating urban farming and regional food systems around the world, demanding food sovereignty, and advancing local alternatives that save energy and water, improve public health, empower marginalized communities, and challenge the hegemony of global agribusiness. Visionary planners, designers, and on-the-ground activists are working to reshape their cities to reduce commuting and minimize energy use. An international alliance of trade union representatives has launched a worldwide campaign to democratize energy systems under increasing public ownership, and a youth-initiated rebellion against rising transit fares in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries helped spark a global network advocating free public transportation, among countless other recent examples. 

More than 2,500 cities from Oslo to Sydney have submitted plans to the United Nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, frequently in defiance of their national governments’ far more cautious proposals; well over 9,000 municipalities have joined a Global Covenant of Mayors to reinforce their commitments to climate action. Some of these plans are rather modest, drawing upon cities’ existing jurisdiction over matters such as zoning, building codes, and local infrastructure, but some cities are also moving to limit automobile use, expand public transportation, and accelerate the transition to renewable energy.

Furthermore, we are seeing the emergence of a grassroots “municipalist” movement that directly challenges national centers of power and raises the potential for a more thoroughly transformed political order. In cities as different as Barcelona in Spain, and Jackson in Mississippi, municipal movements rooted in well-organized neighborhoods have elected radical mayors and city councilors with a mandate to defend the rights of tenants, strengthen the public sector of the economy, and implement transformative approaches to community development.

In Jackson, an organization known as Cooperation Jackson established neighborhood assemblies and successfully ran candidates for office on a program emphasizing human rights, local democracy, and neighborhood-based economic and ecological renewal. The project is rooted in the historic legacy of Black Liberation struggles and celebrates their inspiration by movements throughout the Global South. In the heart of the war-torn Middle East, Kurdish activists along the border between Syria and Turkey have adopted a unique model of municipal governance, with a focus on equity for women and new models of ecological reconstruction. 

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A youthful network known as Symbiosis now involves hundreds of individuals and dozens of affiliated local groups. The network’s founders have facilitated several major North American gatherings on municipal politics over the past two years, and the group is now planning a congress of directly democratic municipal movements. As Symbiosis’s founders explain, “[W]e can’t actually make the necessarily large-scale changes without taking control over the places where we live and creating the alternatives necessary for a new system.” 

Progressive, locally rooted movements have long proven their ability to influence wider social and political trends, whether by force of example, concerted political pressure, or active resistance to centralized power. The passage of landmark national environmental legislation in the US in the early 1970s during the Republican administration of Richard Nixon was in part a response to the proliferation of grassroots mobilizations leading to local anti-pollution measures and lawsuits during the 1960s, with corporate interests ultimately choosing uniform national regulations over a patchwork of increasingly restrictive local measures. Local measures to address inequality, such as campaigns to raise the hourly minimum wage to $15, have spread across the US, as have countless other innovative policies whose feasibility has first been demonstrated at the local level. In other cases, a heightened conflict between local values and centralized power structures brings the potential for lasting change. The idea of confederated democratic municipalities actively rebelling against centralized authorities to create revolutionary institutions of dual power is central to social ecology’s communalist political strategy and to the political outlooks of several contemporary municipalist movements.

It seems clear that local action is often the best remedy for the failings and excesses of the present system, and a proven approach to catalyzing wider changes. But what about problems that are inherently global in nature? How can locally based movements provide the underpinning for the broader global transformations we seek? Can we envision networks of locally rooted continental and perhaps global structures that reflect a comprehensive vision of interdependent communities and simultaneously embody a holistic, cosmopolitan outlook and a truly humanistic general interest? How can confederations of municipally based movements begin to address the needs to redistribute wealth, transform economic systems, or manage the increasingly climate-driven crisis of migration around the world? Can they, as Bookchin insisted, tackle the fundamental question of where and with whom political power resides?

We need to strengthen forms of coordination that emerge from the municipal context to support a growing network for change in synchrony with a global resurgence of solidarity, democracy, and justice. The recent upsurge of Green politics across Europe offers one source of hope, but many long-time Green activists are aware of how an earlier generation of Green Party functionaries in many countries succumbed to narrow electoral ambitions at the expense of the organic links to communities and social movements pointing to a more systemic alternative. Confederations of democratic communities and regions need to develop new continental and global institutions that are no longer plagued by the global power politics of the UN, the narrow commercial imperatives of the WTO, nor the technocratic managerialism of the EU. Through creative experimentation, visionary forms of action, and life-affirming political struggle, we can discover ways to resist the tides of reaction and climate-driven collapse, and point the way toward a different world.

Today’s increasingly severe climate disruptions are beginning to universalize the sense of precariousness long experienced by the earth’s most vulnerable peoples. If current trends continue, we face a grim future of ever-diminishing returns and a capitalist race to the bottom, with increasingly extreme deprivation on a global scale. But there is a better path. The odds may be diminishing with each passing year of climate inaction, but it is more necessary than ever to sustain a hope that humanity can unite to reject authoritarian false solutions to the climate crisis and social inequities, embrace the potential for an enhanced quality of life beyond fossil-fueled capitalism, and begin to realize the dream of a liberated and truly interdependent global community of communities.

Brian Tokar

Brian Tokar is the director of the Institute for Social Ecology, a lecturer in environmental studies at the University of Vermont, and a board member of 350 Vermont, an autonomous statewide organization. His most recent book is Toward Climate Justice: Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Change (Revised edition 2014, New Compass Press).

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