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Climate action at 45 degrees

Updated: Nov 26, 2019

Can we make transformative changes across our nation without invoking nationalism? The rallying cry of nationhood can be insidious, as loyalty to the state is intentionally built up to surpass more local concerns. As a consequence, the view on any level less than the nation state becomes belittled as less significant. It is no coincidence that patriotism applies to nation states only and not, for example, to cities; there is no single word in the English language to express the sentiment of loving your city. It is no coincidence either that parochialism is mocked as backward looking and irrelevant to the serious business of state: the particulars are undervalued when there is a broader, abstract worldview for statesmen to contemplate.


However, the places where we live have their own distinctive ethos that reflects the thinking and actions of local residents. Towns and cities, as much as states, are often the places of collective self-determination. In comparison to the size and complexity of the nation state, cities denote the small and the specific and the human scale. Often those people who have retained their sense of belonging to a place do not need a strong dose of nationalism to feel good about themselves or to motivate themselves to engage in civic life. The top down narrative of nationalism is not a substitute for localism, but instead should make room for its rise.


No one level of society has a superior view or a monopoly when it comes to leadership in addressing the environmental and climate emergency. Given our increasingly urban population, citizens have formidable power because towns and cities are the focal points of implementation. As former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg said, “the difference between my level of government and other levels of government is that action takes place at the city level”. These are the places that are the first to experience trends and the first-responders in a crisis. Engaged city residents and independently minded cities can move faster than their sprawling nations, and this is a critical advantage given the urgency of the need for change.


Neal Lawson neatly sidesteps the hierarchical view of top-down nation state and bottom-up community groups. Instead, he argues that a new society dynamic is emerging along a 45 degree fault-line between national institutions and civic society, where top-down policy making authorities meet grounded practices in local communities. Along this diagonal, people and organisations on either side of the line interact in transformative ways, as the forces of vertical power (‘design’ in systems theory) join up with the forces of horizontal power (‘emergence’ in systems theory). The implication of this joint leadership dynamic is the huge potential for us to make big climate action plans more local and local climate actions much bigger.

Copyright 2019 Ric Casale

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