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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2009

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Editorial - Scale Still Matters

The last two years have illustrated in sharp definition just how interconnected our planet has become. As 2007 drew to a close, climate change was firmly on the global agenda. The global economic crises that struck in late 2008 have underscored how interdependencies in global financial markets produce daily impacts felt around the world. As the United States and other nations seek remedies to reverse the economic downturn, we must remember that global processes are compressing in the timing of impacts and their geographic distributions. The world is rapidly shrinking, and what happens in one location has repercussions in others. The relationship between macro and micro scales is vital in understanding the globalization of economies, and it is equally important in understanding environmental change and sustainability.

Nearly a decade ago, Environment editors Thomas Wilbanks and Robert Kates published in Climatic Change the seminal article, “Global Change in Local Places: How Scale Matters,”1 in which they highlighted the fundamental importance of scale. To understand global change, they wrote, we should expect that “things simply work differently at different scales.” Also implicit in their arguments is geographer Waldo Tobler’s formulation of the first law of geography: “Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.”

Approaching a problem from a top-down perspective can produce dramatically different comprehension and solutions than when looking at the same problem from the bottom up. We have learned a significant amount during the past decade about the role of scale, and much of the current global change research now focuses on linkages between households and communities and regions. Downscaling global processes to more regionally specific impacts is one of the key contributions of the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change effort, for example. Building systems for localized long-term monitoring and observation of global processes is the under-lying rationale for the U.S.-focused National Ecological Observatory Network, a bottom-up data collection program.

In this issue of Environment, we see how scale matters. Esther Mwangi and Elinor Ostrom address the mismatch between institutions and the social-ecological conditions on the ground, where the solution is to recognize that coping with a diversity of ecologies requires a diversity of institutions. Similarly, the top-down strategy for ecotourism development, led by the Kenyan government with ownership by elites or international corporations, has not necessarily improved the livelihoods of the local communities or wildlife conservation and management, as Martha Honey finds in her article. The global-local nexus also plays out in donor countries’ distribution of foreign assistance and the ways aid can serve as a mechanism to protect and improve the environment of recipient nations, as Timmons Roberts, Bradley Parks, Michael Tierney, and Robert Hicks point out. And global challenges such as the need to reduce greenhouse gases also begin at the local municipal level, according to Merrian Fuller, Stephen Portis, and Daniel Kammen. Working from the policy goal of transitioning to a low-carbon sustainable energy future, they propose the use of alternative financing mechanisms for property owners who adopt clean energy options for their homes.

While the question of scale is not new, it is worth revisiting. The economic decline first felt in the United States and now globally will have profound implications for our collective transition to a more sustainable non-carbon energy future. Many nations are already backpedaling on carbon emissions targets, believing them too costly given the present economic circumstances. Declining fuel prices in the last six months and reductions in credit and available financing for alternative energy sources (including research, development, and capitalization) point away from investments in renewable energy, at least in the near future. Because our local and national actions have global repercussions, this is precisely the time to focus on long-term solutions, not short-term temporary fixes. It is not a choice between two paths—the economy or the environment, but rather one path—the economy and the environment. We need bold leadership and action to solve both problems concurrently. Unless we can forge a path that rewards fiscal responsibility while simultaneously promoting environmental goals, we may not get to the sustainable future so many of us desire for our children and grandchildren.

—Susan L. Cutter

1. T. J. Wilbanks and R. W. Kates, “Global Change in Local Places: How Scale Matters,” Climatic Change 43, no. 3 (November 1999): 601–28.

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