Friday, 11 September 2009

Loving the world I: Local vs Global.

I've been meaning to write about this for about a week and a half now and haven't managed to sit down and find the time for it. I don't really have the time now, either, to write the polished posts that my brain has been scratching away at. But it's important, so you get imperfect train-of-thought rambling posts instead.

Over on Nick Baines' blog there have been a number of excellent, thought-provoking articles of late. In the comment section I seem to keep brushing up against a number of themes... so I'm going to try to explore some of them in more depth here.

One is of the difference between locality and community, and of how far community should be grounded in the local, physical world we live in. I consider myself an active member of many communities, most of which I wouldn't classify as local to Upper Suburbia. Some of them are local to London but do not by any means encompass all Londoners. Some of them are more international. The internet helps a lot, as does telephone and even the postal service, in making it obvious that no matter where I live, I am connected with the rest of the world. And yet, as one commenter noted, we all have to live somewhere, we all shop somewhere and pay taxes somewhere and have our bins collected. Most of us send our children, if we have them, to school relatively locally. Most of us are subject to local laws and by-laws to a certain degree. Try as we might to escape the influence of location, where we live does affect how we live... and if we have a choice, we choose to live somewhere that we feel we can live well.

Taking responsibility for ensuring that where we live continues to be somewhere that is safe and pleasant to live almost always means getting involved on a local level. Here in Upper Suburbia there are a number of residents' associations which help with this, as well as various religious and secular organisations which are more or less locally based. One of the things that has been encouraging to me in my search for a church to attend has been the way that all three of the local churches I've visited seem committed to serving the local community, whether churchgoers or not, in a variety of practical ways.

I think this is good and right and healthy. But I think we ignore the wider world at our peril. Some problems are simply too big to be dealt with at the local level -- human trafficking springs to mind as one example of a problem that requires cooperative efforts between people in various communities in order to make it stop.

Further to the practical aspects of working together on problems that affect all of us there is a moral principle to treat other humans well. Our local actions do affect others... if we dump sewage into a river, someone downstream is going to get sick. We need to remember that we are always upstream of someone, physically and metaphorically. To ignore that is to deny the humanity of others. It seems to me that to willfully harm another for our own benefit when there is some other option is, on some level, to deny that they are children of God, lovingly created in God's own image.

Harming nobody is a very tall order. Keeping track of the interactions of six billion human beings on this planet in order to run a cost/benefit analysis every time I do something is impossible: I just don't have enough data. And doing no harm, even if it were possible, wouldn't be enough. The world around us is wounded. And we must act to heal it. Locally, yes, but also globally.

What does that mean, in practical terms? It means reaching out to people, locally and further afield, paying attention to their needs, and helping meet them if we can. It means not just switching off when we read or listen to the news but asking ourselves what we could do to improve each situation. It means not avoiding that awkward neighbour who smells a bit funny and seems to do nothing but complain, but instead trying to figure out a way to help. It means recognising that young or old, rich or poor, healthy or sick, near or far, we are all in this together and the easiest way through will be to support one another.

Local or global is a false dichotomy. It's all local, and it's all global. The important thing is to act with care and with love.


Ernest said...


I have been following Nick Baines blog and your posts. You make some pretty good points for a post done in haste.

I like your thoughts about local and global, as everything is local to someone, and our actions here, such as waste disposal, can be a local problem when we have exported it to them.

I think that we never knowingly harm someone else, but perhaps the law of unintended consequences might come into some of our actions. We would not even know about it, unless it comes back to us. Which if it is global, might never happen.

I think that the 2nd most important commandment comes into this to "Love thy neighbour as thyself".

Song in my Heart said...

Thanks, Ernest. I have a lot more to say but decided it would be better to break it up into smaller chunks than write one huge mammoth-length post.

I think that we never knowingly harm someone else, but perhaps the law of unintended consequences might come into some of our actions.

I am certainly aware that some of my actions cause harm. To take a fairly innocuous example, in the past month I've been buying lots of sugar for preserving, and not all of it has been Fair Trade. I can justify this however I want to (Fair Trade is more expensive and I am not currently earning enough to pay my own rent) but the fact remains that, by how I have chosen to spend my money, I have caused some harm. If nobody bought unfairly traded goods they would cease to exist. I have helped to perpetuate an agricultural and industrial system which is exploitative and oppressive. And I knew it at the time and did it anyway. It may not have been my intention but it certainly was something I knew about. And I did it because I wanted to make jam.

I am going to need a new mobile phone soon. Really, I need one already: my old one broke, and my "spare" is proving to be very bad for my joint problems so that I am in pain every day that I use it. Mobile phones use a material called coltan which is heavily implicated in human rights and environmental atrocities in the Congo. There are some guidelines available now about which companies have better policies about this but none have a spotless record; and most of the manufacturing is done in China where trade unions are effectively illegal and there are other human rights concerns. I'll be taking that information into account when I get a new phone, but if the only phone available that doesn't exacerbate my problems is from a company with questionable ethics, I will probably end up buying it anyway... essentially putting my own physical comfort and long-term ability above the quality of life of people on two other continents, people who are risking a lot more harm than losing the use of one wrist. I could stop using my mobile phone altogether, but without text messages I would find it very difficult to carry out administrative aspects of my work -- I'm near-phobic about making and receiving phonecalls -- and the harm done there would also be significant. No matter what I choose there's going to be some harm somewhere. It's just an awful lot easier for me to live with harm to someone I've never met who lives far away than with harm to my own body that causes daily pain and long-term disability, however minor that may be in comparison.

It is, to an extent, my responsibility to find out about the consequences of my actions for others; ignorance (or "unintended consequences") is only an excuse some of the time, and I don't know where I would draw the line there. I certainly couldn't do complete research for every product I buy or action I take, I'd spend my life sitting in front of the computer.

But even knowing some of the consequences of my actions I find it very difficult to act in such a way that nobody is harmed. I try not to do direct harm. I try to mitigate the indirect harm that I do (for example, recycling or re-using old mobile phones, baking a Fair Trade ingredients cake or three for an awareness-raising event at Nearest Church this past Saturday, and using locally-foraged fruit in the jams and jellies I've been making).

I cannot speak for anyone else, but to say I never knowingly harm others would be an outright lie. I might not find it comfortable to think about it but nearly everything I do involves some harm somewhere.

I do the best I can, and hope that God is a lot more forgiving of my weakness in this than I am.

Ernest said...


You have made me think more about my own actions a little more. My awareness of my actions, is probably blinkered by habit and the lack of time in the past to do the type of research that you have indicated is necessary.

Thank you for reminding me of my responsibility to seek more information before choosing something. In a small but important way, you have just changed my life.

I do actually look for fair trade products and organic products and buy them in preference, even if they are more expensive. What I had not really considered are the gadgets and stuff, which I hesitate to say, I own a lot of.

We recycle our old phones etc in Support of Animal Cruelty Charities, but buying them and using them, has already done the harm!

I run an Environmentally friendly car with very low emissions, and my spouse has just bought a new, environmentally friendly car, which has the lowest emissions and carbon footprint we can afford. This will replace a 15 year old car, which is now an environmentally unfriendly.

As I am just turning 60, I will get a freedom pass for Public Transport locally and intend to maximise my use of it to ensure that I reduce the car use to a minimum.

We are also vegetarian, so we do not eat meat or fish or associated products. A small thing, but vital given the harm that emissions from Cattle and pigs etc do to the environment.

I have real issues about poverty and hunger in the world and food waste, we do not waste any food at all, but I am aware that tons of food is thrown out daily in this country.

Just doing this is harming people, due to the resources used to overproduce here, to be thrown away. If we could only educate people, but so many just do not seem to care.

I don't have the answers, but if everyone followed your caring model, a lot less harm would be done.

Song in my Heart said...


It sounds like you do take the time to do some good consumer research already, especially in the area of caring for the environment. I'm glad if I've been able to raise a bit of awareness about the gadgets.

In the end I bought a mobile phone that is exactly like my broken one, so I know it won't make my joints any worse, and I bought it second-hand which saved me some money as well as not driving demand for new phones quite so much. This also means I can use the broken one as a sort of charging cartridge for the spare battery and start using my old solar panel to charge phone batteries again; I had stopped doing this because the phone I was using did not have a stand-alone battery charger available and I can't use the solar panel at night and couldn't always be home to charge the phone during the day if it was sunny. It's hard to say whether doing things this way means less harm overall, as the situation is complex beyond my ability to comprehend it, but it does mean the solar panel (a gift from a relative) is not sitting around gathering dust.