Think Global/Act Local: Who Profits?

By Jeannie Russell

One of the challenges to creating a meaningful service curriculum within our humane education framework is finding ways to link the kind of complex, multiply-determined issues we care about – like industrial and animal agriculture, environmental racism, climate justice, and the exploitation of non-human animals in all of its various forms – to actions that young people can take within their own communities.

We want humane education to promote a model of empowerment and activism that is as committed to championing the interconnectedness and inherent value of all living beings as our in-class lessons. We also want to support direct, meaningful, local action, but these local actions might not always, by themselves, help students understand the larger context and different ways an issue can impact various groups. I often struggle with the concern that the kinds of projects my school-age students can really grasp and implement independently might function inadvertently as examples of the kind of ‘green-washing’ exercises that deflect examination of real causes and genuinely effective actions, with respect to a given problem, away from those with an interest in perpetuating and profiting from it. If we want to teach our students to ‘think global’ in the sense of understanding the complexity of our relations with all living beings and our responsibility to respect others’ needs and wants through our actions, we also need to make sure that our efforts to ‘act local’ don’t obscure the lines of power and profit that underlie so much of the suffering we want to alleviate.

This semester, I’m introducing some issues to my students to generate service project ideas. I’m using video and class discussion to explore global examples of exploitation against humans, other animals, and the natural resources that sustain our living homes. We’re going to be taking some time to explore each topic from a variety of perspectives, in each case trying to locate how an example of exploitation that has global dimensions (e.g., modern-day slavery, commodification of non-human animals, and the appropriation and privatization of public water supplies) is linked to local community examples of each of these types of exploitation. We will do this by determining who profits from these practices.

By framing our research into these issues explicitly around recognizing patterns of exploitation and identifying the interests that profit from them, I’m hoping that my students will develop local projects for action that have greater depth of understanding, even if their goals are modest, given our time and resource constraints. I’m asking them to look at the problems in their community through a lens that recognizes the connection between a polluted local waterway and a huge, multi-national beverage corporation; between the abandoned animal on their sidewalk and a nation-wide network of puppy mills; between a neighbor or even family member, working as a day laborer for low wages and no benefits or job security, and the global corporate-driven economy.

As the engaged and caring community members we encourage in all of our programs grow up, they will need to address problems that are increasingly global in scope, including climate change and many other environmental, social, and economic consequences of our industrialized world. Meaningfully connecting the small but deeply significant acts of kindness and support for our fellow beings, that we are all capable of, to these seemingly insurmountable challenges can foster hope and the kind of collective action that builds real change.

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