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Local Actions, Global Effects? Understanding the Circumstances in which Locally Beneficial Environmental Actions Cumulate to Have Global Effects

Thomas K Rudel, Department of Human Ecology, Rutgers University

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Abstract

Environmentally beneficial actions come in diverse forms and occur in a wide range of settings ranging from personal decisions in households to negotiated agreements between nations. This article draws upon both social and ecological theory to outline, theoretically, the circumstances in which localized actions, undertaken by citizens, should cumulate to have global effects. The beliefs behind these actions tend to be either ‘defensive environmentalism’ in which actors work to improve their personal, local environments or ‘altruistic environmentalism’ in which actors work to improve the global environment. Defensive environmental actions such as creating common property institutions, limiting fertility, reducing waste streams, using energy efficient technologies, and eating organic foods have cumulative effects whereas altruistic environmental action often occurs through threshold crossings following a focusing event. Defensive environmentalism expedites altruistic environmentalism by persuading politicians, after focusing events, that rank and file citizens really do want a regime change. The resulting political transformation should, at least theoretically, create a sustainable development state that would promote additional defensive and altruistic environmental actions.

Key words

altruistic environmentalism; defensive environmentalism; focusing events; local-global interactions
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Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087