When I kicked off my #LocalYear life experiment in January, one of the many things I wanted to explore is being an engaged citizen on multiple geographic scales, from local to global. I saw this as experimenting with a cosmo-local identity. I wanted to go local, but not become parochial. I didn’t want to roll back my global perspective, but I could ramp up my local awareness and then perhaps blend the two perspectives into something new.
Well, I got my chance to experiment this past month. I’ve been active on the neighborhood, city, national, and global levels.
On the neighborhood scale, I developed a plan with two neighbors for irrigation and landscape conversion for our 57 household community. It builds on the work we’ve done over the last six months repairing our aging irrigation system, but will take things to the next level. That means a much more efficient irrigation system watering a much less thirsty, much more attractive, and functional landscape.
On the city scale, I’ve gotten a lot more involved in local elections this year. I donated to a local candidate for the first time, communicated directly with three candidates, and put more time into researching local issues. As an example of my engagement, I joined a webinar with an environmentally-minded city council candidate to discuss the possibility of starting a library of things. Nothing came of it through the candidate, but I’ve been working with another attendee to explore the idea further. Admittedly, this doesn’t sound like a lot of activity, but it qualifies as a big increase as I’ve spent nearly zero time on such things in the past.
On the national scale, I’ve gotten more involved in national elections too. I donated to five local organizations in Florida that are helping get out the vote in low-income areas. I wrote 45 letters to voters in Florida and Texas encouraging them to vote. I did some phone banking last Saturday morning. I signed up to be a poll worker, but I probably won’t get to do that. There’s been a huge spike in volunteers this year, so they may be full up now. I’ve also been more vocal politically on social media, which is a new thing for me. I feel a bit uneasy about it. I’m far from alone in thinking it’s a terrible medium for debate and I don’t want to add to the already extreme polarization. I’d be much more comfortable with an in-person, moderated, public discussion that included people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives, something that’s not possible at the moment due to COVID-19.
On the global scale, I’m helping to organize an online summit of activists, thought leaders, and city officials leading the Sharing Cities movement to be held in late November. Seoul Metropolitan Government is the summit host. I’ve been working with their representative to recruit participants from three continents. The goal of the summit is to forge pathways for greater collaboration between Sharing Cities.
So, what have I learned so far?:
No big surprises. I thought I might have a eureka moment. That hasn’t happened, at least not yet. It’s probably too early in my cosmo-local experiment to glean deep insights. I need more time to reflect.
This is like a second full-time job. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t see engagement as drudgery, but it does demand a lot of effort. While not always exactly fun, it has been meaningful and worthwhile. It’s just that it takes a lot of time and energy. Shifting my screen time to civic life has made this shift possible, but it’s also a more demanding lifestyle. The energy to live this way doesn’t automatically come with the additional time.
Thus, I feel spread thin and tired. Being active on all these levels means I can’t go deep on any one. I need to practice the cosmo-local lifestyle more dynamically. I can’t be heavily engaged at all levels simultaneously for long periods. However, I can shift my focus dynamically as needed, but with a foundation of relatively high and persistent local engagement as that is where I can have the biggest impact.
Action on the local level is much more satisfying. I have more control, I get feedback, there’s a big social component, and I can experience the fruits of my labor. So much of what I’ve done at the national scale feels like time and energy thrown into a void. I don’t get any feedback. I have no idea what impact I’ll have. I know it’s important, but it feels so disembodied and impersonal. This points to some ways our national political system needs to change.
While acting at these levels simultaneously didn’t produce a big a-ha moment, it did reinforce an important lesson from this year — that non-participation has a very high cost long term. For instance, non-participation in our neighborhood association has led to much higher costs and a situation where dramatic change in how we manage our land is required to avoid serious consequences. There’s no time left to delay and not enough money for professionals to fix it. The problem requires our involvement, right now.
This is our challenge at the national and global levels in microcosm. Thus, I’ve come to see non-participation as a form of passive corruption. Non-participation allows a governance system to degrade. It can reach a point of no return. Now I can see those points of no return on a neighborhood, national, and global scale. It’s sobering and hopeful. From my experiences this year, I believe we can turn things around if a critical mass of people get involved. Of course, it’s more complicated than that, but broad participation is a precondition for positive change.