“Thinking Globally” Means Thinking Systemically

“Think globally, act locally.” In last week’s column I emphasized the local side of this motto of sustainability, describing some things we can do here at home to build a strong and resilient community. This week I want to explore what is involved in thinking globally.

A global perspective requires us to think systemically—to see the multiple and often subtle connections between complex events. Take the immediate and disturbing example of terrorism. While it is easy enough to denounce ISIS as evil and vow to eradicate it, few leaders or commentators are trying to understand and address the global realities that gave rise to it.

One exception is an award-winning British investigative journalist, Dr. Nafeez Ahmed, who recently argued that “terrorism is not a symptom of barbarians ‘out there.’ It is an integral and inevitable feature of the prevailing geopolitical and economic order.” You may be tempted to scoff that he is simply blaming the West, but his analysis is much more sophisticated than that.

In two well-researched articles (one at yesmagazine.org and another at middleeasteye.net), Ahmed examines a number of global developments that have driven populations in the middle east to desperation. Start with the fact that global food prices spiked in 2008 and 2011; Ahmed observes that “climate-induced extreme weather had triggered a string of crop failures in major food basket regions, driving global food prices up.”

Consequently, he says, “staple foods like bread became too expensive for the poor majority in many Arab countries, Syria among them” and this led to extreme discontent in many places. In fact, Ahmed points out, “every single Muslim-majority country experiencing civil unrest from rising Islamist violence is simultaneously experiencing resource shortages linked to food insecurity.”

With Syria’s agriculture “ravaged,” over a million Sunni farmers have been forced to seek employment in the Alawite-dominated coastal cities, exacerbating the political and religious tension between the groups.

“To compound matters, Syria’s conventional oil production—which had underpinned the vast bulk of the state’s revenues—had peaked in 1996. By 2011, state revenues were hemorrhaging, forcing Assad to slash food and fuel subsidies.”

As for Iraq, Ahmed cites one meteorologist’s observation that the rapid rise of ISIS “coincided with a period of unprecedented heat in Iraq from March to May 2014, recognized as the warmest on record. Recurrent droughts and heavy rainstorms have played havoc with Iraq’s agriculture. . . . The Tigris-Euphrates basin—distributed predominantly between Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and western Iran—has lost groundwater faster than any other place in the world except northern India.”

These are all relevant facts. It is true that regional politics, repressive regimes, and the rise of extreme Islamist ideologies fan the flames of discontent and radicalism. Ahmed does not excuse “the barbaric nature of ISIS nor its puritanical fanaticism.” But there is a complicated global context—the resource-gobbling, carbon-spewing, inequality-spawning system of global capitalism—that surely sets the stage for political and sectarian conflict in the middle east and elsewhere.

This means that even defeating ISIS would not fully uproot the causes of terrorism. We really do need to address climate change in a serious way, before it leads to even more desperation and conflict, and to millions more refugees from violent or agriculturally ruined places. We need to revamp the global economy which has colonized or cannibalized parts of the world in its ruthless search for resources and profit.

Today we may well be watching complex global systems spiraling into a process of collapse. If so, it will become ever more vital to improve the resilience and self-sufficiency of local and regional communities. When we think globally, we see how urgent it has become to act locally.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *