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Local or Global: Sustainable Thinking by Avoiding Either/Or Thinking

Saybrook University | Tuesday November 22nd, 2011 | 0 Comments

The following is a guest post by our friends at Saybrook University’s Organizational Systems Program (a 3p sponsor) – designed for students who want to understand the nature of organizations, collaborative practices, and transformative change.

By Nancy Southern, Ed.D.

Photo courtesy of the website, Chairs Under Trees

I have noticed an increasing tension residing in sustainability conversations as to whether the primary focus of attention should be on local or global development, community or organization change. Rather than engaging in this either/or thinking, I believe it is critical to recognize that we have to work on multiple levels in multiple places. We live in a world of complex interrelated systems where change at one level will impact change on many other levels. There is no room for either/or thinking when working with systems. Rather, what is needed is to identify where the greatest needs are in order to implement the right kind of leverage to meet those needs exists.

Let’s consider an example.  Many communities need attention to create thriving local economies where jobs and basic resources can be found within a reasonable distance.  Most people prefer to work close to home, which allows them to strike a balance between family and work life. When people work locally, they are more likely to participate in their communities, in their schools, and in their local government or non-profit organizations. They know their neighbors and can create a strong, supportive network that, in turn, supports greater health and happiness.

Communities that grow and produce much of their food support a local economy and, consequently, create a greater sense of community. Saturday mornings I head to my local farmer’s market. It’s one of my favorite times of the week because I feel I am meaningfully participating in an exchange of provisions that nurture my life and that of the farmers.  Fortunately, more young people are being drawn to live and work in their communities, grow their own food, and participate in relationships that create a sense of belonging and care for the community.

We have seen far too many communities decline in population and resources; without increased attention, we will see many more. There is an immediate need to place greater attention there. What worries me is that some people want to do this at the expense of also participating in creating and sustaining healthy regional, national, and global institutions. Both liberals and conservatives seem to be engaged in this thinking that the infrastructure of global connections and networks can decline or disappear without a detrimental impact on our lives as long as we can retreat to our local communities.

I believe we are in our infancy of learning to participate in a global society and have yet to see the benefits that can come from being global citizens. Learning across and from differences is the primary way that we transform. Travel, exposure to other cultures, and ways of living and working greatly expand our horizons and opportunities for move toward world peace. I truly hope that my teenage daughter experiences living in a world where no war, famine, or intolerance exists.  A world where we appreciate the gift that diversity brings to our lives. To create this world, we have to continue engaging in it—through that engagement, we increase our interdependencies.  The learning that comes from engaging as global citizens enriches our lives and local communities.

It is time to take a fresh look at the relationships between levels of government from local to global, corporate entities, educational and community service organizations.  We need to consider new values, measures, and decision-making metrics that guide us to support our lives locally and globally. The triple bottom line is one approach to supporting better decisions.

We also need to improve the conversation at the government level so that it is less about ideology and more about creating thriving local and global economies, governments, and organizations that sustain people and planet. The questions we need to raise are much more sophisticated than whether smaller or larger governments will best serve us. We need to rethink the role of government at every level. It may also be time for the U.S. to look seriously at the important role of public private partnerships in creating sustainable communities and organizations that can thrive without depleting natural resources. Looking outside the US and learning from what is taking place in other countries is critical to expanding our thinking.

Systemic change is needed at multiple levels and now is the time to shift our thinking from either/or to reconsidering the relationships between systems and their levels, types of institutions, and groups of people. Healthy, local communities are supported by healthy, public and private institutions and healthy, public and private institutions only thrive when they are supported by healthy communities.

Either/or thinking will not lead to systemic solutions. When we catch ourselves falling into it, it is good to ask:

  • What are we not considering?
  • Where is our blind spot and how can we expose it?
  • How can we hold the tension of both either/or thinking and find ways to discuss differences in values and perspectives so that we can expand our horizons of understanding and develop new ways of being and living in the world?

Nancy Southern, Ed.D., is Chair of the organizational systems program at Saybrook University and is a regular contributor to Rethinking Complexity, a blog produced by students and faculty members of Saybrook’s organizational systems program. Read more of Dr. Southern’s work at: www.rethinkingcomplexity.com.


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