10/20/2011 09:13 EDT | Updated 12/20/2011 05:12 EST

Occupy Wall Street Protesters Should Think Globally and Act Locally


Last week I travelled from Nunavut, near the top of the world, to Australia, near the bottom, to participate in community dialogues on new ways of making policy and delivering government services.

Long journeys like this often take on a symbolic character in our minds, perhaps because we have so much time to reflect on things, as the hours pass. On this trip, I thought about all the young people taking to the streets and rising up against Wall Street.

In part, I was pleased, but I also wondered: What do they think of the pro-globalization dictum, 'Think globally, act locally'?

Yes, I know, it is a tired cliché, but as I watched the Arctic Ocean, the Great Lakes and, finally, the Pacific, slip past below, its point became disarmingly clear: The people of Iqaluit and Melbourne, I thought, really do live just down the road from each other. This is not the world I grew up in.

When I was young, Australia was a foreign country, which is to say it was seductively mysterious, but reassuringly distant. I knew Australia was out there somewhere, but its existence was of no more consequence to me than planets in the midnight sky or the remnants of the ancient world. Australia was a tantalizing thought and not much more.

Now I must travel there and back in less time than my father budgeted for our annual camping trip to the mountains, some 350 kilometres from my hometown of Edmonton. The world has changed that much in my lifetime.

The sense of urgency around these changes pulses through the Wall Street protests. To their credit, young people are thinking globally. They know instinctively that old boundaries are being redrawn. They know too that governments have resisted the implications for far too long and that, as a result, this 19th century edifice is now creaking like an old ship.

Those people in the streets are right to want change, I thought, but do they really know what kind of change they want? If they are thinking globally, are they acting locally, I wondered?

My thoughts turned to the dialogues in Nunavut and Australia. A sense of urgency also courses through them. Like the young people in the streets, the people in these communities know that the old boundaries have shifted, and that lines are being redrawn.

This can be menacing. Poverty, environmental degradation and unemployment are no longer just local, regional or even national concerns, to be addressed by the appropriate level of government. They are part of the new global order -- a vast expanse of interconnectedness -- that calls for new multi-lateral solutions.

Like the crowds on Wall Street, the people in these dialogues are doubtful that our governments really know how to devise or deliver such solutions. But their response is different. Rather than take to the streets, they gather in community halls and church basements to work with each other and government to forge new ways to respond to a changing world.

The contrast left me wondering how different the Wall Street protests really are from the industrial-era politics these protesters want so badly to leave behind. Taking to the streets to demand change only makes sense if you believe that government knows how to deliver it. Ironically, almost no one thinks they do, least of all the protesters.

The challenge is daunting. Globalization creates interdependence and, in an interdependent world, changes in one part of the system bring about changes in another. As interdependence grows, issues like poverty, fiscal shocks or climate change affect families, homes, workplaces and businesses in all kinds of unexpected and unforeseen ways. Every community is different. The more interdependent the world becomes, the more complex are these interactions.

Our governments were not designed to handle this kind of complexity. Rather, they were designed to produce one-size-fits-all solutions in relatively self-contained nation-states. Until recently, this worked well enough, but in the last 30 years, things have utterly changed. If governments want to remain relevant in this new environment, they must learn to cope with exploding complexity.

A critical step in this involves learning to act locally -- and that is exactly the point of a community dialogue. It is a technique for building a closer working relationship between government, on one hand, and a particular community, on the other, so that government has the knowledge, skills and networks to respond to a community's special circumstances.

Now, just to be clear, I am NOT saying that the crowds on Wall Street (and elsewhere) are wrong to protest. My point is that, in the global village, finding sustainable solutions to our problems is more complex than that and will require a level of public effort and involvement that goes far beyond simple protest. High-level, top-down changes will be a part of this, but if the real goal is to change how things work for people on the ground, these top-down changes must be complemented with a bottom-up approach that is rooted in the community.

As I finally drifted off to sleep, I thought of the Inukshuk, which leads the Innu safely home when they travel out to hunt and fish on the land. Community dialogues, I thought, are like the Inukshuk: a solitary cairn of stones, pointing us back to our communities and homes.

Yes, think globally, but act locally.