Going Glocal: finding the sweet spot where local and global converge
As individual human beings, we literally contain multitudes. We are, indeed, made of stardust, being billions-of-years-old carbon-based beings. My body (and yours, dear reader) is made up of tens of trillions of cells and bacteria and contains hundreds of trillions of viruses.
By contrast, we Homo sapiens are far less numerous than bacteria or viruses — there have only been around 100 billion of beings we call humans who have ever lived. But collectively we — 7.8 billion heading toward 10 billion by 2050 — have become a major force of nature, with some of us having a supersized impact on the Earth’s climate and ecosystems that sustain us; the “energy opulent” top 10% of carbon emitters, including most people in the US and Western Europe, consume about half the world’s energy.
As lone individuals and mere mortals, it is often difficult to know how to address global challenges, given the fractal-like complexity of life and all the entangled levels and layers of systems and scales that we are embedded in.
Moreover, nations of the world, who have all committed to addressing climate change and related challenges, have with few exceptions been unable or unwilling to follow through on their commitments. As one young observer recently pointed out: “The emperors are naked. Every single one. It turns out our whole society is just one big nudist party.” Perhaps nations, whether large or small, are inherently the wrong scale to solve these 21st century challenges.
Given the global climate of confusion and the urgency and frustration many of us as individuals feel, what new tools or insights are available to help us address the systemic challenges of climate change, human rights, inequality and a global pandemic?
The Powers of 10 framework of people may help during this time of transformation. It is very simple — the ten orders of magnitude (meaning zeros added starting with the number one) between a single individual and everyone else on the planet.
As a convenient frame, it allows us to be less dependent on vague, relative terms of population size and scale like “nation”, “state,” “region”, “community” by focusing on the number of people involved.
And, the Powers of 10 figures can help convey the unity of humanity and the imperative to put aside what separates us and divides us for the greater good, namely the survival of the species.
1- Individual (YOU!) (P0)
10- Family/Friends (P1)
100- Personal Network (P2)
1000- Village/Neighborhood (P3)
10,000- Community (P4)
100,000- Metacommunity (P5)
1,000,000- Urban (P6)
10,000,000- Nation/State (P7)
100,000,000- Sub-continental/Regional (P8)
1,000,000,000- Continental (P9)
10,000,000,000- Global (P10)
100,000,000,000- All Homo sapiens/humanswho have ever lived
Each of us is nested in families, personal networks, in neighborhoods and villages, in communities and urban areas, which are embedded in nations and continents. Ultimately, we are all connected as global citizens of Planet Earth.
Powers of 10 can help untangle the levels and layers of society that have made progress so daunting.
Take the conundrum of climate change, for example.
For far too long we have been too vague and unscientific about how we address the scaling of efforts to reduce climate risks and increase safety and resilience of society. Through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (which originally envisioned active public engagement and support in developing adequate responses to climate change), we have relied primarily on politically-driven, nation-level initiatives or, more recently, smart-city initiatives to solve the challenge.
International treaties and agreements have glossed over the fact that nations vary in scale from the thousands to the billions; the average sized nation is about 38 million people, there are over 40 megacities with populations of 10 million people or more, yet the median is about 8.8 million, meaning more than half the nations are smaller than these megacities.
Rarely have we been methodical about how we approach scaling of climate action by thinking in terms of scale — the number of people — where people actually live their lives. Rarer still do we consider how to include everyone on the planet to ensure no one is left behind.
Every situation will be unique, whether we live in a small nation, a massive megacity, a rural agricultural land or geographically vast island region. But is there a “Goldilocks” size or best overall fit that is not too big, not too small but “just right” for deploying these efforts to increase resilience, reduce risk and overcome the entrenched status quo?
For decades, the idea of decentralized, community-based solutions to transition away from fossil fuels has been extolled by experts like Amory Lovins and others who recognized the need to understand global challenges while localizing solutions to meet the physical, cultural, and economic needs of the people.
Whether improving policing and public health, or addressing environmental challenges, climate change and energy transformation, the idea of “glocal” community-based approaches is appealing to many of us because it makes good sense.
But how many people do we mean when we talk about community in this way? Hundreds? Thousands? Millions?
In our recent paper, Powers of 10: seeking “sweet spots” for rapid climate and sustainability actions between individual and global scales, published in Environmental Research Letters, we use the Powers of 10 framework to try to find the most suitable scaling of 72 different climate interventions analyzed by Project Drawdown that range from reducing food waste, and renewable energy to deploying regenerative agriculture, improving girls education and family planning.
We found that there is a broad sweet spot for climate action between 10,000 and a million people, but the greatest benefit economically and socially seems to be at the community scale between 10,000 and 100,000 people.
Obviously, every location, every community, every country, every action will have its own dynamics to consider. There may be vested interests intent on blocking change and maintaining the status quo, and cultural challenges to navigate. But in principle it is at this community scale where efforts to transform and protect society should be prioritized.
As we witness the social tipping points quantum shift with the Black Lives Matter movement and experience the public health and economic ripple effects of COVID-19, we can clearly see how actions taken…or not taken…at every scale — by individuals, communities, nations — can have a massive, often non-linear impact. A single superspreader event can quickly impact thousands. The death of an individual can spark a dramatic change in society. The school strike of a lone teenager can revitalize the climate movement.
Moreover, it is clear that focusing our efforts where we live our lives, fostering resilient, socially-just, and healthy communities, is where the action really is.
What we learn globally is now being applied locally. At the same time, lessons learned locally are now being shared with other communities to help accelerate rapid change and transformation.
This is a sort of “middle path”, not imposed top-down edicts alone or relying on bottom-up activism but rather spiraling from the inside out, with individual and household actions aggregating up.
However, politics, policies and leadership do matter at every level. This community-focused approach must be encouraged and supported by government funding and policies at the local, national and international scales.
As our study suggests and others have long advocated, systemic change is most accessible and impactful at this sweet spot, community scale, in our local neighborhoods, our schools, hospitals, markets and parks, where we can all come together by going glocal
Powers of 10 to the People!
The opinions expressed are those of the author and not of ECOS as a community network of networks.
Mark S. McCaffrey- firstname.lastname@example.org