Our Global Village: Thinking Outside the Border

Oct. 8, 2009

Community efforts are making headway to improve sustainability on local levels, but what needs to be done to solve our global challenges?

You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker that reads “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Maybe you took it seriously and decided to get better informed about an important world issue and involved in local change. Or maybe you were briefly puzzled about what exactly it meant before continuing on your way. Or, most likely, you just ignored it completely. It’s tough to find time to think globally in our busy lives, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t connected to global issues.

A recent report on the radio described Mongolian herders who supplied cashmere for luxury goods in the West. The cashmere-producing goats they added to their herds to meet the demand were causing serious desertification of their grazing lands. The price the herders were getting for cashmere dropped by half when Americans switched to cheaper cashmere products from China, leaving the herders with crashing incomes and a severely damaged local environment.

Here at home, we are greening our offices, participating in community improvement organizations, getting our LEED® accreditation, donating to environmental groups, giving used clothing to the Salvation Army, searching for products with lower health impacts or carbon footprints, and maybe buying more locally produced food. We’re “acting local” to improve our communities.

What about our global village? We know it’s out there when we read the news or see “Made in China” labels. Who’s looking after the rest of the planet? What guides their work? Are they doing any good? A few, like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are in the news but who is going to help decrease the impact of our cashmere sweater consumption on Mongolian herders and grasslands?


  1. Edwards, Andres R. The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of a Paradigm Shift. 2005. New Society Publishers.
  2. The Millennium Development Goals Report, 2009.
  3. Roots of Resilience: Growing the Wealth of the Poor, A Guide to World Resources. 2008. UNDP, UNEP, World Bank, World Resources Institute, Washington, D.C.

Fortunately, there are world organizations out there that have recognized the connectedness of our global village impacts and have good ideas for mitigating them. Unfortunately, they’re seriously overwhelmed.

A year after its founding in 1945, the United Nations (UN) negotiated its first international environmental treaty, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whales. Over its next 50 years, the UN had a key role in negotiating 240 international, issue-specific, environmental treaties among nations. But the global environment continued to deteriorate. While global groups separately sought solutions to issues of the human condition in specific regions of the world, practitioners in the fields of environment, economic development, and social equity were sometimes at odds with or unaware of each others’ goals.

In 1987, the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) recognized that human activities could no longer be compartmentalized “within broad areas of concern (environment, economics, social)”; and that “these are not separate crises … they are all one.” The recommendations of the Commission focused on population and human resources, food security, species and ecosystems, energy, industrial production/efficiency, and urbanization—all with the recognition that each area has environmental, economic, and social equity impacts. Thus the concept of sustainable development was born.

The 1992 Earth Summit debate then resulted in a global “blueprint for survival” known as Agenda 21. Possibly the most comprehensive solution ever devised, Agenda 21 defined 27 principles “with the goal of establishing a new and equitable global partnership through the creation of new levels of cooperation among states, key sectors of societies, and people. …” Agenda 21 was enthusiastically launched in many countries (not the United States) and in various sectors.

Sadly, the blueprint has been mostly lost in the shuffle of world affairs. Is our attention span too short to think globally to save our planet? Is a plan hatched in 1992 too old and boring to hold our attention today?

Fortunately, our global village continues to have some tenacious advocates who work tirelessly for solutions. They have put forward a variety of guiding principles1, such as the Global Sullivan Principles of Social Responsibility; the CERES Principles; the Equator Principles; the Precautionary Principles; the Asilomar Declaration for Sustainable Agriculture; the Marine Stewardship Council Principles; and the Living Building Challenge.

The guiding principles and their advocates focus on various aspects of global sustainability, and some common themes run through them, such as stewardship; respect for nature’s limits; interdependence of the three Es of sustainability (equity, economy and environment); economic restructuring for local cooperation and efficiency; fair distribution of resources; intergenerational perspective for long-term decision making; and nature as teacher.

Will multiple programs with varied goals finally solve our global challenges?

In September 2000, 189 nations adopted the UN Millennium Declaration to respond to global development challenges through eight goals:

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality and empower women
  4. Reduce child mortality
  5. Improve maternal health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability
  8. Develop a global partnership for development

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are recognized as interdependent and most were intended to be met by 2015 to drastically reduce world poverty and all the related issues that situation carries with it. Environmental sustainability is one of several goals, but all are dependent on it and all relate to the three Es of sustainability.

Since one can’t manage what one doesn’t measure (a familiar phrase in manufacturing), the MDGs have 21 quantifiable targets and 60 indicators (a few of which were added to the original ones). Of those, goal No. 7, “Ensure environmental sustainability” (with a total of 10 indicators) has the following four targets:

  1. Integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programs; reverse loss of environmental resources
  2. Reduce biodiversity loss, achieving, by 2010, a significant reduction in the rate of loss
  3. Reduce by half the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation
  4. Achieve significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020

So, how are we doing in this and the other seven goals?

The United Nations Development Program, numerous other UN offices, and a wide variety of outside experts have roles in encouraging countries to adopt the MDGs, move toward their achievement, and annually report their progress. Implementation of the MDGs has been a struggle in many countries, but realized some successes up until 2007. Successes have slowed and even reversed due to the global economic slump. In addition, UN programs lack the power to demand action from signatories, many of whom chose to work on a few goals while ignoring the others. The UN programs also lack significant funds to assist countries’ efforts.


Keri Luly has elected to donate her monetary compensation for the articles she writes to an environmentally proactive organization of her choosing. This issue, she has selected the Earthwatch Institute, an international nonprofit organization that brings science to life for people concerned about the Earth’s future. Founded in 1971, Earthwatch supports scientific field research by offering volunteers the opportunity to join research teams in the areas of rainforest ecology, wildlife conservation, marine science, archaeology, and more around the world. Through this process, they educate, inspire, and involve a diversity of people who actively contribute to conserving our planet. Visit www.earthwatch.org to learn more.

It isn’t all bad news. Extreme poverty has decreased, education has increased, childhood mortality rates have improved, and ozone-depleting chemicals have been drastically reduced since the MDG project began2. As the global economy picks up, the hope is that further improvements will track with it.

Returning the focus from our “global” to your “local,” I like to leave readers with a few suggestions for taking action. First, continue “acting locally” on those activities mentioned early in this article. Second, learn more by reading some relevant resources. And third, consider contacting your national elected officials to encourage their support for the UN MDG efforts. Volunteer for an Earthwatch Institute research trip. If you’re just finishing a degree, consider volunteering or interning for a year with an international organization. If you’re in a career reevaluation period and looking at new options, consider world service. If retirement isn’t far off, plan to give some of your time. Act globally, when you can—it will enrich your life—and maybe buy yourself that bumper sticker!

Keri Luly, LEED AP, is Allsteel’s stewardship coordinator and regular contributor to EnvironDesign Notebook. She can be reached at [email protected].

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