Milan has recently argued, quite effectively I think, that the insular community-first aspect of local environmental organization is a bad thing. The argument is demonstrated nicely through this analogy:
It reminds me of a person wandering in the middle of a battlefield, looking for their glasses. They realize one problem – that their glasses have been dropped – and they are working diligently at solving it by scrutinizing the ground. At the same time, bullets are flying all around them. They see the small problem, miss the big one, and focus their efforts in the wrong way as a consequence.
On the other hand, of course, community is an essential part of being a whole person, so if local environmental activism is blind to the real problem of the environment, what forms of local activism are appropriate given the real circumstances in which we live? Another friend of mind is becoming heavily involved in health-care activism – fighting against the withering away of our nationalized health care system, fighting for health care access for migrant workers, fighting essentially for the recognition of the validity of human persons and their right to life, and to live a good life.
Health care activism is interesting in relation to climate change – because perhaps the largest destabilizing product of CC will be migration – something nation states have a problem with (sometimes more so than the porous empires which preceded them). We live in policed-states, you have a status, and you have a “right” to be here, or we’ll deport you. That works fine so long as states can sustain themselves, so long as food supplies don’t dry up – but it won’t work so well when the food production of latin america dries up and America is pressured to close and arm the border. It’s hard not to foresee a racial conflict between Latin Americans and “white” Americans as Mexicans and other Latin Americans attempt to migrate north to where the food is. In the face of this, perhaps the most important thing we can work on locally is not protecting our local environments, but protecting our local sense of humanity, sense that a person has a right to exist, eat, and live, simply because they exist. In essence – the rights of a refugee. Without strong refugee rights, this century could easily become one of greater racial (or other forms of xenophobic) conflict and genocide than the one which preceded it.
It’s quite common for people to accuse those involved in global struggles of being “too abstract”, “not acting locally”. This is misplaced if they mean something like “why do you want to help millions or billions in the future when there are hundreds or thousands suffering right now” – the utilitarian answer to this is clear. But, it is not misplaced if it means something like “if you don’t strive to ensure the humanity of your own community, what crimes might they commit when confronted with chaos?” – that is true. And to see why it’s true, you just have to look at the standard examples, used commonly by Western imperial ideologies, of the moral degeneration of communities in the face of chaos and rapid change – i.e. the liquidation of the kulaks, the three million killed in Cambodia, or dozens of other radicalized conflicts in the face of real challenges to a society.
Our society will face challenges in the next hundred years. Gwynn Dyer argues effectively that Climate Change will mean mass migration, and how we respond to that migration will determine whether this century is less violent and genocidal than the last. Health activism (but also groups like No One is Illegal) work towards humanizing society, strengthening the narratives that keep us from falling into easy patterns of nationalist exclusion and the violence that results.