Welcome to the ‘Glocality’

A group of academics and commons practitioners has been meeting at the recent International Association for the Study of commons (IASC) European Regional conference in Bern. The conference this year was entitled Commons in a “Glocal” World: Global Connections and Local Responses.

The focus was an exploration of the changing relationships between people and their local community in a world where multi-national corporations and global organisations impact the environmental, economic, and social conditions of people everywhere through control of key resources such as food, water, timber, and minerals.  This is the ‘Glocality’, where the global activities of governments, international organisations, multi-national corporations, and local lives collide; an interaction of unequal forces often resulting in damaging loss of local access and rights, the appropriation of common resources, and growing inequality.


View of the Jungfrau Massif from Bern University   Photo: Kate Ashbrook

Sitting in Bern, in the middle of Europe, with the high peaks of the Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn World Heritage Area framed in the window of the lecture theatre, it was easy to forget that we were in one of the centres of the global economy.  Switzerland is a conundrum – a small country at the heart of Europe – yet not part of the European Union, a country of mountains which have formed both a barrier to trade and protection from outsiders.  It’s a country with a decentralized political system and strong local government steeped in (now decreasing) cooperation and community action yet has become a focus for worldwide commodity trading and the massive centralisation of global economic power.  It is estimated that up to one third of globally traded oil, two thirds of base metals, half the coffee and sugar trade, and two thirds of cereals, are bought and sold in Switzerland.  Not that these materials ever come near the country, traders are merely buying abroad and re-selling the goods on to others.  A recent review suggests that the concentration of such trade requires greater oversight due to risks from “…illicit financial flows, environmental damage, human rights violations, and lost opportunities for poor countries”.

The ‘glocality’ goes further than the global economic dependencies we have created, it also relates to the complex interconnections between human society and the ecological systems on which we rely for survival.  ‘Socio-ecological systems’ such as climate operate on a global scale but have multiple local impacts.   In a keynote speech Professor Jesse Ribot explored the social causality of the ‘climate crisis’ as a means of understanding the ‘root causes’ of crises so that we can develop more effective solutions.  He noted that although climate change is clearly a global issue that influences local lives in many parts of the world, ‘root-cause’ analysis is missing from most climate change assessments.  The presentation focused on aspects of our ‘vulnerability’ to the effects of climate change, making the argument that it is not sufficient to examine the risks of climate change, or our capacity for adaptation, as the causes of ‘risk’ are tangled up with the social order.  Without understanding what makes us vulnerable to the effects of climate change we cannot possibly adapt in ways that will be effective, or socially and economically efficient.  To understand vulnerability we must address issues of power within causal chains, and our ability to influence the forces that control entitlements and access to resources.

Bern city centre Photo: Kate Ashbrook

Taking note of Professor Ribot’s comments a quick look at the way in which energy, water, land, and food are provided in the UK, often through complex supply chains, would suggest that it is no longer a case of stronger countries disempowering weaker ones; what we are now discovering in the fallout from living in the glocality is that we are all equally powerless.  In the face of global change we are all affected by the potential impacts of environmental degradation.  Through the privatisation of common resources we find that even in the developed world we are losing entitlements and access to basic resources such as land and water.  In short, we have all become more vulnerable, both to economic and environmental change.   This picture was reinforced by other keynote speakers, such as Maude Barlow from Canada, who highlighted problems arising from the privatisation by non-local interests of essential resources, such as water.  The result being that local people become disenfranchised from the local resources on which they rely for basic living.

Equally significant was the question posed by Professor Ribot regarding what happens to society when the damage to nature we see around us is caused solely by human action.   In other words, what will happen when we can no longer blame ‘acts of God’ or the vagaries of nature for our environmental problems, but only ourselves?  The suggestion made was that we would end up looking for others to blame (i.e. blaming each other), with the outcome being a deepening distrust between people.  Not a good premise for tackling the ecological and environmental problems we face which increasingly require greater levels of common action, cooperation, and trust, not only between people within a single locality, region, or nation, but at a global level across the world.  How we address these problems will focus our attention for the rest of the 21st century – welcome to the Glocality!


John Powell’s free Ebook ‘Commons: Governance of Shared Assets‘ can be downloaded in PDF or EPUB version.


The old city of Bern is built on the inside of a bend in the River Aare       Photo: Kate Ashbrook