Author's Response to GTI Roundtable "Global Citizenship"

Robert Paehlke

I would like to begin by thanking to all who responded to my essay; I am pleased to participate in such a thoughtful discussion. We all understand that democratic global governance is essential –and a very great challenge. We appreciate that the idea of global citizenship must be advanced conceptually and within everyday political practice.

Several commenters felt that I did not go far enough—though there were differences regarding just what going further meant. Some urged placing a higher priority on challenging the moral underpinnings of neoliberalism (or, as Michael Karlberg put it more broadly, changing higher systems of meaning). Others look to prioritize institutional, policy, and legal changes at the global level. Both approaches are needed, and the comments offered will cause me to rethink many things. Likewise, the discussion regarding the best geographic scale for change has been especially interesting.

On balance, I lean toward prioritizing getting more people to appreciate that real change is possible. I am very much inclined to the idea of radical niches mentioned in the discussion. We need to create places that adopt concrete practices as laboratories, examples that can demonstrate that change is possible. Making place-based changes visible to like-minded people is why the citizen-based journalism of the Internet is so crucial. These niches can be made visible in words, pictures and sound instantaneously and globally. One obvious task of a global citizens’ movement is thus to create and grow outlets for citizen journalism (and to defend net neutrality).

Liisa Horelli highlighted the growth of glocalism. This is a potentially significant part of a strategy to build active global citizenship from the ground up: making changes that can be made where they can be made. In North America, that might be a big jump in minimum wages locally, then statewide, and then nationally; the introduction of Copenhagen-style systems of safe transportation; supports for local, organic agriculture; or the establishment of a state or province-wide carbon tax, feed-in-tariff, or renewable energy standard. Other comments offered examples of what can be done in very different political contexts, and, importantly, John Bunzl offers simultaneous action as a way to take change at the national level to the global even if we are not yet capable (or even necessarily willing) to establish global governmental institutions.

My view that concrete local changes focused on global concerns are critical to building political efficacy and, ultimately, a global citizens’ movement has been strengthened by this exchange. Such changes may not be transformative in and of themselves, but I now appreciate that they are a necessary part of breaking through the mindset of ‘today-as-an-inevitable-eternity.’ I now see that to succeed in this we must place and communicate these limited achievements in global and systemic contexts and to be clear that we ultimately seek global change. The many recent, seemingly modest, gains regarding food sovereignty, local food, solar energy, safer transportation, and citizen-based media limit the appeal of some of global capital’s favored outputs, but are only potentially part of undermining the neoliberal ethos.

The comments from Richard Falk and Peter Christoff are perhaps most challenging. They both focused on opposing entrenched power and the urgency of the task at hand. It is difficult to advocate for the modest steps that large numbers of people might be capable of taking when opposition to change is so well-entrenched and rising inequality and climate change so threatening to so many.

Urgency is a tricky matter. I agree with Richard Falk that should the planet get anywhere near to a projected 4-degree average temperature change, no one will be in any position to fix or prevent further climate impacts. Indeed, in my view, we will be lucky not to annihilate each other before that point. It is difficult to advocate modest initiatives, cautious about the risks of tyranny and locally oriented in the face of today’s risks, but so many of the people we must reach are cynical, pessimistic, and resigned. We will not easily reach them with additional bad news or through urging seemingly improbable change. At the same time, of course, we cannot simply pretend difficult changes are not needed. We face here a double bind and a balancing act. To paraphrase Camus in The Plague, we must do what we can (and do whatever we can to encourage others to follow).

Peter Christoff also gets to the heart of our problem—the one I freely admit to being unable to anything near fully resolve: power, both ours (how do we create it) and ‘theirs’ (how do we challenge it effectively at a global scale). All I can say is that mobilization is easier if we have well-chosen policy targets and achievable (and, therefore, limited) initial goals. I think we need to grow the numbers of people that self-consciously and actively seek global change, change that can only rarely at this point seen through at the global level. I agree that protesting at the G8 is not going to change much (though advocating a greater citizen voice in trade negotiations might strike a chord with many).

Broadly, the best hope of overcoming the global collective action problem that John Gillroy rightly identifies is a movement that promotes citizen action, shared values, and an increased sense of global commonality. The challenge of collective action problems is that too few are prepared to risk what they have. Our challenge is to convince people that the greater risk is in not acting and that not only do we run a risk of losing a great deal if we fail to act together, but we will also miss the clear and available chance to build better world.

Robert Paehlke
Robert Paehlke, a political scientist, is Professor Emeritus of Environmental and Resource Studies at Trent University and author of Hegemony and Global Citizenship: Transitional Governance for the 21st Century.

Cite as Robert Paehlke, author's response to GTI Roundtable "Global Citizenship," Great Transition Initiative (June 2014),

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