Two interpretations of “think globally, act locally”; and the problem with “think globally, act locally” as it is usually applied

1a. “Think globally”: Mourn globally, then stop your study of the problem there. There’s lots of poverty. Guess that it’s probably because most people aren’t charitable (i.e., aren’t giving others goods and services for free). And guess that most people probably aren’t charitable because you’re one of the first people in the history of the world who has thought, “If I’m charitable, then being charitable will go viral.” Refuse to study history to see whether this plan to cause charitability to go viral has ever been thought of before and what the results were.

b. “Act locally”: Do whatever charitable act you would most enjoy.

2a. “Think globally”: Look at the whole interconnected world as it is, divided between rich and poor countries, and each of those countries divided between a tiny sliver of wealthy and a large mass of poor people. Study history: How does this system reproduce itself generation after generation? How did we get where we are, as a whole planet, as a whole system?

What has been the history of previous analyses about this problem? Is there some theory about how the whole system must be transformed? Are there situations where deprivation was abolished or dramatically reduced? How did those situations come to pass? What must the masses of people do to bring those situations about? Study the history of the attempts of individuals to help catalyze the masses into doing that: what can I do, where I am, to most effectively catalyze others to most effectively catalyze others to most effectively catalyze others (and so on) until the masses are in motion solving this problem?

2b. “Act locally”: Carry out the strategy that has proved most effective in this in the past, continually iterating and refining your tactics locally based on your experiences and what they tell you about where you fit in geographically and chronologically in this catalyzation-of-catalyzation process.


I have met a lot of people with what seems to be a sincere desire to help end the misery in the world whose working theory was basically this:

“I will do something that provides additional resources to poor working people for free right where I am. This will help them solve their own problems better. If everyone did this, the problem will be solved–and by setting an example, I can make the idea to do this type of charitable work ‘go viral’ and soon everyone *will* do this.” They think, I will start a community garden, or I will teach skills for free, or I will volunteer lots of hours for a nonprofit.

Such an approach fails to ask important questions: (1) *can* everyone do this? is there anything unique or rare about my circumstances that makes it impossible for everyone to provide the degree of resources I am providing?; (2) hasn’t anyone had this idea before? what would happen if this particularly caught on in certain areas, with literally whole cities running moneylessly, where those who needed things received them from a common store without asking?

Let’s talk about (1): No, only people with disposable time, money, and social prestige who live in countries with abundant resources can do this sort of thing. If any part of this work runs on grant money, well, (i) there is only so much grant money in the world, so if one project gets it, that’s another project elsewhere that doesn’t; (ii) that grant money comes from people who earn a profit somewhere and donate it, and if your project hurts their ability to profit, they won’t keep donating.

And (2): Such a thing as a moneyless city would cause a stir. It offends sensibilities. It is “communism.” And what’s more, it would hurt the profits of any corporations trying to operate in that city, because a well-fed group of workers is a group of workers who can bargain for as high a wage as possible; a well-educated populace is one that can grasp what regulations are most necessary and argue for them most thoroughly. And here is the crux: the more a grassroots movement hurts the profits of big corporations, the more aggressively it is attacked–to the point of violence, to the point of guns, to the point of death squads. This is a sociological law under capitalism with no exceptions, and read “Killing Hope” and “Agents of Repression” if you don’t believe me.