Democracy Rising is a series of blog posts on deliberative democracy: what it is, why it’s powerful, why the time is right for it, how it works, and how to get it going in your community. The series originates in the United States but will discuss principles and draw upon examples from around the world. Views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the individual contributor(s) only.
“The climate crisis is urgent and it’s global! So how can we possibly rely on tools that are slow and local?” When I speak with environmental activists about the value of local democracy, this is, hands-down, the most common question.
Are local change efforts too small in the face of the enormous problems we face? In my view, no. In fact, the opposite is true. Local, place-based actions are among the surest (and, ironically, fastest) ways that we will ensure transformation. Because place-based change is change at a human-scale.
International policy solutions are terrific in concept. Those with expertise and access should work toward them, with firm guidance from the international science community. But for better or for worse, human beings must still be at the heart of these solutions—not only to create and implement them, but to embody and live by them. Humans are deeply flawed—so we need to frame changes deliberatively, in ways that our brains will allow us to embrace them (as discussed in Democracy Rising 4). And for a number of reasons, local, place-based action will be crucial to the sustainability of these solutions.
Perhaps not surprisingly for Resilience readers, some of the most important lessons about the value of place have arisen from the field of environmental education.
Lessons from Environmental Education, Part One: Fall in Love
The first Earth Day in 1970 is often seen as the launch of the modern environmental movement—a global clarion call to “Love Your Mother” (Mother Earth, that is). In the decades following the first Earth Day, environmental educators launched countless innovations to explain the importance of ecology to kids. Classrooms were filled with pictures of sewage being piped into rivers and smokestacks belching toxins to awaken students to issues like water and air pollution.
But by the mid-1990s, environmental educators were noticing a disturbing trend. Children had been so inundated with news of ecological catastrophe that they started to fear the natural world. Antioch professor David Sobel dubbed it “ecophobia” : Children were so attuned to stories of environmental disaster that they literally became afraid to go outside. And who can blame them, with this messaging? By 2005, Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder,” identifying trends in youth that, due to alienation from the natural world, led to ADHD, obesity, and depression.
Today, most environmental educators agree with Sobel’s policy, “No Tragedies Before Fourth Grade.” Instead of starting with melting polar ice caps, teachers and parents need to introduce nature to children through the sheer joy of it.
In order to want to save something, we have to love it first.
So to nurture budding environmentalists, we encourage them to put their hands in the dirt, catch fireflies, and build forts and fairy houses. Listen to birds, observe anthills, and watch the clouds. Explore, create, imagine. Fall in love.
Lessons, Part Two: Make a Difference
Also in the 1990s, environmental educators made another discovery. For decades, those in the field believed that providing learners with solid information would improve their attitudes and behavior toward nature. “From Awareness to Action” was a common conference theme. (It sounds good, right? I don’t even want to count how many publications and events I helped create with this motto.)
But a comprehensive study by professors Harold Hungerford and Trudi Volk examining what had inspired people to become active environmentalists—to exercise environmental citizenship—revealed the opposite.
Hungerford and Volk found that what really inspired environmental citizenship were factors like:
- feeling empathy toward the environment;
- having the issues resonate for us personally; and
- feeling confident that we can make a difference.
So “From Awareness to Action” never really covered it. In fact, a more accurate way to think about this very human dynamic is “From Action to Awareness.”
In other words, when we get up to our elbows in stuff that we love, care about personally, and where we see we can make a difference, that’s when we hear a democratic “click” in our heads. Now, we’re ready to be environmental citizens.
There’s a valuable lesson here about engaged citizenship. To combat the climate crisis, we desperately need people to commit to environmental action and democratic change. But news about uncivil discourse among congressmembers, contested national elections, and dysfunction in federal government is the democratic equivalent of watching sewage piped into rivers. Increasingly we look at the national public sphere as something toxic. Like children suffering from ecophobia, citizens are afraid to “go outside” and take part in national democracy.
Fall in Love and Make a Difference—Locally
Few Americans are confident that national partisan leaders will help us get along. Our partisan polarization has gotten so deep that 40 percent or more of both Democrats and Republicans see the other party not only as folks they disagree with, but as “a threat to the well-being of the nation.”
When assessing our local options, however, Americans are consistently more confident. According to Gallup, an average of 70 percent of those polled trust local government to handle local problems, compared to only 53 percent who trust the federal government to handle domestic problems.
Taking a look at preceding articles in this blog post series gives us a clue as to why. From the “Portsmouth Listens” citizens’ group successfully navigating local controversies in New Hampshire (see Democracy Rising 7) to Montevallo, Alabama’s, pathway to a non-discrimination ordinance (see Democracy Rising 19), at the local level people can, as Montevallo Mayor Hollie Cost wrote, “come together to discuss some fairly wicked issues using exceedingly civil means.”
Working locally, we can follow the lessons of environmental education. We can fall in love with the changes we can create through deliberative democracy—and watch as we actually make a difference.
For climate activists, examining place-based change offers a number of valuable take-aways:
Place teaches us. Focusing on the local gets us two for the price of one. We not only improve local decisions (environmental sustainability in Portsmouth’s city plan; welcoming of LGBTQ+ residents in Montevallo, Alabama), but we strengthen our civic infrastructure. By working through deliberative processes, we strengthen our skills at self-governance. This improves the chances that future decision-making opportunities will lead to more sustainable decisions.
Place can’t deny nature. A farmer friend of mine makes it clear: Folks who work close to the land are experiencing climate change personally. For them, there is no “denial”; the growing seasons are changing, water tables are altered, and novel pest infestations are frequent.
When we focus on the local, we are forced to listen to our neighbors who have the most intimate experience with our natural systems. My farmer friend expressed it compellingly:
“I personally believe centuries of human activity has contributed to climate change, but even if I didn’t, I would still need to take necessary actions to continue farming. Debating the existence and/or causes of climate change is a red herring for me, because it distracts from dealing with what is happening in real time, right before my eyes.”
Place is real. Many find conspiracy theories irresistible, especially online. But when we’re meeting face-to-face about very local issues, it’s harder to get away with presenting “alternative facts.” In today’s world of nationalized and globalized debates, it’s weirdly refreshing to skip arguing about the truth, and move straight on to how we’re going to deal with it. And that’s what can happen at the local level.
In Florida, communities have been dealing with rising sea levels, flooding, and salt water in their wells for years. Having worked successfully with civic and business leaders to approve adaptation and mitigation measure there, Yale professor Dan Kahan argues that while these problems are caused by climate change, the most successful discussions are framed around local solutions.
The best way to overcoming the entrenched political economy at the national level is to activate demand at the local level, notes Kahan. Here, community members from planners to realtors to store owners can literally see, feel, and even taste the need for immediate action.
“It’s a practical discussion among people who have a common objective … Then it doesn’t matter whether they’re red or blue or whatever,” notes Kahan. “They all have a stake in it, and they trust each other because they can see that they all have the same relation to it.”
“What you don’t want to happen is for those conversations to become infected with the same kind of polarizing significations by which climate change as a national policy issue is characterized,” Kahan explains. “And what you really don’t want are people who … aren’t parts of those communities to come in and tell people, ‘oh, your conversation is about this.’ That really is counterproductive.”
Place is realer to some than to others. Social psychologists tell us that many of our dearly held values are not simply opinions. They are largely innate, and even help explain conservative, liberal, and libertarian worldviews. In his book The Righteous Mind, Prof. Jonathan Haidt explains why certain of these qualities gave us survival advantages evolutionarily, and that they are, to a significant degree, hard-wired.
Some humans may be more innately likely to focus on the local than others. Indeed, some researchers argue that whether we are more or less place-based may be a significant factor in today’s polarization. British journalist David Goodhart offers an intriguing analysis that divides modern cultures into two groups: what he calls the “Somewheres” and the “Anywheres.”
In Goodhart’s penetrating analysis, Anywheres are cosmopolitans. They have accumulated enough formal education and career success that they can live, well, anywhere. Their “achieved identity” is portable. They tend to be comfortable with new places and people; they value autonomy, mobility, and novelty. Anywheres have no problem thinking globally.
Somewheres tend to ascribe their identity to a particular place and group—often multi-generational, perhaps because their work is placed-based, whether it’s fishing or mining or factory work. They tend to value tradition and social contracts like families and community. While they do live in the real world, and evolve with changing norms about race, gender, and other issues, they prefer change to be moderate rather than rapid.
Goodhart argues that Anywheres, who often hold leadership positions, have increasingly not understood the values or the needs of Somewheres. He points to a gutting of vocational and apprenticeship education programs, and housing and transportation crises, that primarily impact Somewheres. And Goodhart offers extensive sociological data making the case that the misunderstanding and lack of respect between these two worldviews help explain both the rise of Brexit and Trump.
However, it would be an oversimplification to draw all place-based preferences simply along liberals vs. conservative lines. Political science professor Frank Bryan wrote that local democracy practitioners are “… perfectly situated on the nexus where traditional ‘local control’ conservatives and newer ‘small is beautiful’ liberals meet.”
While Somewheres sound more traditional and in some ways conservative, their value of place should be a value for environmentalists to celebrate. We can help ensure broader acceptance of environmental solutions by emphasizing what is, in fact, a common priority.
Place is Literally Our Commons
People’s amenability to difference, and to change, varies a lot. Some human beings will always resist rapid change, and we’re stuck with that truth—because some portion of these qualities is genetic. But we can work to diminish these negative reactions. A canny response to help create sustainable change is to lead with, focus on, and indeed celebrate what we have in common.
In the U.S., we have centuries of place-based sins to reckon with, from violently displacing Native American populations from their homelands to enslaving and forcibly relocating Africans to our shores. Whether or not by design, the U.S. is also a nation of multicultural communities, incorporating immigrants and refugees from across the globe. Whatever our histories, many people feel a strong, natural connection to what is now their home place—and experience a very human need to engage with it.
Looking at place from a social change perspective, even those of us who tend to “think globally” would do well to understand the values of those who focus on the local. It will strengthen our chances of creating policies that will gain broad acceptance.
Farmer and author Wendell Berry, famous for his understanding of place-based culture, has defined “community” this way:
“A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.” 
As is often said, there is no silver bullet to address the climate crisis—it’s going to take silver buckshot. It will require millions of individual actions combined, in service to our shared place—the very definition of community. The good news is that when place-based wisdom informs local solutions, the solutions are all the more sustainable.
 David Sobel, Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education (Great Barrington, Mass: The Orion Society and the Myrin Institute, 1996); https://www.davidsobelauthor.com/beyond-ecophobia.
 Richard Louv, Last Child In the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2005).
 Hungerford, H. R., & Volk, T. L. (1990). Changing Learner Behavior Through Environmental Education. The Journal of Environmental Education: Vol. 21, No. 3, pp. 8–21.
 David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (London: Hurst & Company, 2017).
 Susan Clark and Woden Teachout, Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012), p. x. Foreword by Frank M. Bryan.
 Stenner, Karen (2009). Three Kinds of “Conservatism.” Psychological Inquiry: Vo. 20: 142-159.