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Excerpt from Critical Mass: The Emergence of Global Civil Society edited by James W. St.G. Walker and Andrew S. Thompson

From the Introduction by James W. St.G. Walker and Andrew S. Thompson

“Think globally, act locally” was a popular slogan some thirty years ago, meant to arouse concern and inspire participation. Today we have discovered that global is local, and the consequences can sometimes seem threatening. For many citizens of the early twenty-first century, the concept of “globalization” is discouraging rather than inspirational. An increasingly integrated global marketplace can imply the dominance of transnational corporations concerned only for their own profits, ignoring the best interests of local populations. The creation of regulatory bodies designed to facilitate economic globalization means that decisions affecting the daily lives of millions of people are made beyond the bounds of the nation state, and therefore outside the authority of national governments and unaccountable to their voters. A suspected parallel process is cultural homogenization, which could suffocate local traditions and values. And while the influence of nation states seems to decline, new global issues are proliferating: climate change, infectious diseases, violations of human security and human rights, terrorism, nuclear weapons, environmental destruction, and economic inequality. These and similar problems cannot be isolated from each other or solved individually. Locally directed action may be dismissed as futile in the face of such overwhelming and inter-territorial issues, and global action is too complex for fast and ready answers. Climate change, for example, is intimately connected to sustainable development, energy usage, technological innovation, resource management, human rights and freedoms, personal health, power relationships, job security, individual standards of living, and the industrialization of regions long kept on the periphery of the world economy. What is an individual citizen to do?

The chapters in this book identify another phenomenon occurring today that offers not solutions per se but a process for engagement with the most pressing problems of our contemporary world: the emergence of global civil society. In recent years a consciousness of a global civil society has been reaching “critical mass,” in the sense of attracting attention and anticipating influence; it is a critical mass too in the sense that it is becoming better informed, and therefore critical, of the liabilities of globalization, and people are massing together in social movements, NGOs, and ad hoc demonstrations to confront some of the most encompassing challenges facing humanity today. Of course “civil society” as a concept has existed for centuries. The ancients wrote of a societas civilis, meaning the rule of law and active citizen participation in the public life of their societies; in the late eighteenth century, enlightenment authors distinguished civil society from the state, encouraging the awareness of a citizenry capable of mobilizing to achieve social goals and to counteract despotism and oppression. The campaign to abolish the Atlantic slave trade, launched in the 1780s, is frequently cited as an early example not only of a mass movement for social change but of its application to a transnational problem. A more formal and systematic role for civil society in international affairs accompanied the establishment of the United Nations (UN), when a group of “consultants” from civil society organizations (CSOs) attended the founding San Francisco Conference in 1945 and collaborated in drafting the UN Charter. That charter provided for a continuing relationship between the UN and civil society through the accreditation of certain non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Over the years this relationship strengthened, especially during the leadership of Kofi Annan. In 2003 the Secretary-General established a Panel of Eminent Persons on United NationsCivil Society Relations, chaired by Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The Cardoso Report, issued in 2004, concluded that “civil society is now so vital to the United Nations that engaging with it well is a necessity, not an option,” and it offered a number of reform suggestions toward that objective.(1) Reflecting these solid accomplishments, and other factors to be described in succeeding chapters, there has been a virtual explosion of civil society involvement in global issues. Most noticeably, the number of CSOs dedicated to global concerns has grown exponentially, and they have expanded their scope from aiming at specific targets like slavery or prisoners of conscience to fundamental matters of global governance. The process has been dubbed “globalization from below.”(2)