Chances and limits of place-based environmental politics


The question about the relationship between the local and the global has been on both the political and the research agenda for a long time, but it became particularly explosive at the latest since the globalization debate in the early 1980s. This debate has always been about the contradiction between the local and the global as two opposing spatial scales. Ares Kalandides argues that it is time to rethink this approach and explains what opportunities and possibilities local initiatives offer today.

Kleines und großes Zahnrad

Questions on relationship between the local and the global have been both on the political and research agendas forever but have been particularly salient since the globalisation debate took flight at least since the 1980s. What has always been at stake in this debate is the contradiction between the local and the global as two conflicting scales. More than that: the local in this duality is often represented as the weaker partner, oppressed, if not outright destroyed by the omnipotent global. There is a double imagery here which is interesting: First, this opposition creates an imaginary globalisation as this huge abstract force that falls from the skies onto places; second, globalisation is almost depicted as a force of nature, an “act of God”. This way the global is given agency whilst the local is limited to a passive defensive existence. In the best case the local is only capable of resisting the global. If the latter is action, the former is only reaction. If the latter is movement the other is stasis.

The global is present in the local

This clear-cut duality however has always had its critics. Already in the late 1960s several thinkers started conceptualizing space differently, as a dynamic and relational process in which different places are interrelated (e.g., H. Lefebvre, D. Massey, D. Harvey, E. Soja). In practice this meant that territories could no longer only be observed separately, but one should always look for overt or hidden interconnections. This relational thinking had a huge impact on theories of globalization. Now, the local is neither necessarily opposed to the global, nor is passive stasis resisting this natural gale of the global. The global is present in the local, argues this school. It is around us wherever we go, in the people we meet, in the products we consume, in books we read, the airplanes that fly above as, etc. The other way around then globalisation is not an abstract force, but it is produced in particular places, in certain nodes which through their powerful position in global networks give globalisation its particular characteristics and power. Such places produce their own version of globalisation (currently predominantly neoliberal) through their own structures of power: economic, financial, political or ideological. For a short while the term “glocal”, coined by E. Swingedow, dominated the international debate, because it managed to merge the local and the global in one word.

Local political action has some global repercussions

This understanding of the local-global relationships has direct consequences on our understanding of politics. If the global and the local are interconnected and not opposed scales, then not only do global phenomena influence the local, but vice versa, local processes equally form the global. Certainly not all places have the same position in this global “power geometry” (D. Massey’s term), so not all local action has the same impact. To put it in other words: local political action in Frankfurt will have a different global impact than local political action in a south Italian town of the same size in the Mediterranean. Local political action no matter where it is has some global repercussions – albeit of different intensities. The Occupy movement with its symbolic action to occupy the very local centres of global power – Wall Street or the City of London – showed in political practice what this interconnection means.

Successful examples always serves as a model for others to imitate

Local political environmental action in an interconnected world may have both very material and very symbolic consequences. It is material because with the current climate emergency every tiny action matters. If we are to at least delay a looming catastrophe, then even if one single town implements the European Green Agenda this adds to the whole. Of course, it makes a huge difference if this is implemented in a small village in the English countryside or in a world metropolis such as Paris. It is also material in the sense that it will have a positive influence on the everyday life of people in that particular place. By always looking at the big picture – which we should – we often forget that in the end one of the things we should be aiming at is equally accessible quality of life for everybody.

Symbolically this is important because every successful example always serves as a model for others to imitate. Unfortunately, failed examples also discourage others from taking action. This is particularly true for countries that are economically and technologically more advanced and often serve – rightly or not – as examples for others. What happens in Barcelona or Berlin has a strong Signalwirkung for others and we should not underestimate the global responsibility that this entails.

Local action leads to the mobilisation and politicization of local communities

There is however a third consequence which we should not ignore. Local action leads to the mobilisation and politicization of local communities. The moment people start acting together politically the become active citizens – in a political way. Citizenship today is understood not only in the national sense (National Citizenship) where it is about legal rights, but as an active and dynamic process of formulating and claiming rights. Thus, the citizen is actually formed as such through his or her political action. Local environmental movements in this sense create environmental citizens.

For local action to operate it needs trans-regional networks

Formulating and claiming rights (environmental or others) locally, generates a political consciousness, that can then function at different geographical scales, local, regional, national, or global.  This is however not a given. For local action to operate at different scales it needs trans-regional networks of collaboration and exchange. The ideology that only looks at competition between places instead of the possibilities of collaboration is in this sense detrimental to environmental action. If the spirit of competition – that is supposed to produce perfect equilibria – prevails, then places will tend to compete for the lowest possible regulations in order to attract footloose investment. This is what we call “race to the bottom”. Only through the connections between local actions is the necessary upscaling possible.

Local initiatives find their place in a vibrant participatory democracy

Municipal authorities often look at such local social movements – environmental or other – with scepticism and regard them as a potential threat. This may indeed be the case, but this is exactly the role of social movements: to push the agenda in a certain direction. A basic distinction in democracy is this between representation and participation. In the latter, it is the people that rule; in the former, they choose their ruler. In reality, both forms almost are always present at the same time: citizen consultation, public hearings, citizen participation frameworks, etc., are all different methods of participatory democracy beyond representation that co-exist with elected local councils. Actually, it is often argued that the small scale, the local, the Agora of Ancient Athens, is ideal for participatory democracy. Local authorities should see this as a chance. Even participatory democracy knows different forms. On the one hand there are more deliberative (i.e., consensual) forms of participation and there are more agonistic (conflictual) ones on the other. The examples mentioned above belong to the former, social movements to the other.

Democracy thrives when all these forms come together: the representative, the participatory, the deliberative and the agonistic. They work better at different scales, for different topics and in different cultures. Where would the world be today without the civil rights movements of the 1960s or the environmental movements of the 1970s? No matter how hard it is in everyday practice, finding ways to enter into dialogue with such movements, a dialogue which by definition will sometimes be laden with conflict, only revitalizes and reenforces local democracy.