Think Global; Act Local: A Post-National Cultural-Ecological Perspective


Last night was the final night of Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival, a fantastic celebration of local music and its connections to cultures across the globe. Remarking on its successes, the Scotsman’s arts editor Andrew Eaton-Lewis has observed, ‘The guiding principle, it seems to me, is that Scotland is a gateway to the entire world – on its own terms.’

Last month, I was delighted to be invited to offer a perspective at the Cultures of Independence event at the Glasgow School of Art. The theme of the seminar was ‘interindependence.’ ‘Inter’ means ‘between,’ ‘mutually,’ ‘reciprocally.’ Themes of connectivity, reciprocity and relationality resonate with the language of ecological thought. Taking liberty with my interpretation, my contribution explored the ‘connectedness’ of cultures from a cultural-ecological perspective, thinking through the themes of cultural diversity, cultural democracy and cultural renewal.

I am an ethnologist by training. Ethnology, as an academic subject, is primarily about recognising, understanding and celebrating cultural difference. It is often defined as a discipline that spends a great deal of of time thinking about that problematic and contested word ‘tradition.’ In Scotland, the traditional arts have often been associated with the insidious ‘cultural cringe,’ written off as nostalgic, eccentric – or worse, as a product of dangerous nationalism. Yes; tradition can be used as a negative force – as an excuse for not changing, even when change is clearly needed. Yet, in celebrating cultural difference, tradition remains entirely relevant – crucial, even – to the modern world. In his wonderful book Voicing Scotland, Gary West reminds us that it is partly within tradition that cultural difference is stored, that the vast richness of human creativity is represented, and that place, locality and belonging are given meaning. I argue here that we must re-imagine tradition not as a shackle tying us to the national past, but rather as a radical and positive part of our post-national cultural landscape, vital for the cyclical process of becoming: of cultural renewal.

Cultural Ecology

In theory and practice, ethnology is concerned with the various relationships between people and culture, between people and place. It seeks to find what is deeply communal in the singular. The capacity to be ‘local’ to a place is universal: it is founded on ecological principles. Naturally, such ideas point in the direction of ecological awareness.[2]. In our world today, at a time of shifting paradigms, when environmental issues of sustainability and a growing discontent with global capitalism question the dominant ways of looking at the world, recognising the value of the local in the context of the global is an increasingly felt need.

When ‘ecology’ is mentioned, many people conjure up ideas to do with climate change and global warming, with recycling, or something like that. Something that we might feel a little guilty about, perhaps. For, me ecology has to do with amazement, inspiration, consciousness, creativity, awareness, open-mindedness: a sense of wonder and engagement with being alive.

Ecological thinking moves beyond binary thinking towards thinking in terms of connectivity, of unity in diversity and the webs of relationships which underlie the complexities of contemporary life and culture. Instead of isolated phenomena, the potentially infinite network of their inter-relationship moves into focus, implicating the infinite in the particular. Transforming postmodernism, ecology also recognises the existence of different paradigms – ways of looking at the world – and sees them as complementary rather than incompatible or incomplete. The notion of an ‘ecological worldview’ arises from the identification of ecology as an ontological metaphor to contrast with the metaphor of mechanism (which informs much of modernist thought). Fixed states are replaced by processes and relations, hierarchies by networks. The basic tension is one between the parts and the whole: the emphasis on the parts is mechanistic, reductionist or atomistic; the emphasis on the whole is holistic, or ecological.

Ecological thinking enables you to think of the deep inter-connection between people and their environment; between the local and the global and the cosmic and all levels in between; between emotions and the intellect, the rational and the non-rational. It also requires that we think temporally, or inter-generationally, of past, present and future. Ecological thinking is therefore inherently ethical: awareness of our inter-connectedness engenders in turn an awareness and care for each other and for the planet

Some would take a reductive view and define ecology as simply being the inter-relationships between population, environment, resources and development. This isn’t good enough for those of us working in the Humanities. Human beings are, by their very nature, cultural beings. Cultural ecology recognises that literature, art, music – all forms of cultural imagination and creativity – are both necessary and vital to continually restore the richness, diversity, and complexity of those inner landscapes of the mind, equally important for human beings as their external environments. Such a view goes together with an equally emphatic recognition of the diversity of life and the uniqueness of its individual manifestations, which are each seen to have intrinsic value even in their most insignificant forms. The infinite manifestations of arts and cultures are poetic ways of making sense of the world through imagination and creativity. They are unique and precious expressions of humanity’s ecological relationships. It is easy enough for us to understand the importance of supporting biological diversity – that a precious wild flower, or a rare breed of bird is under threat – but it is much harder to convince people of the importance of cultural diversity, which is threatened by impoverishment from an increasingly over-economised, standardised, and de-personalised world.

Place and the Post-national

In a globalised world that emphasises cosmopolitanism and mobility, locality and regionality are perceived as historical and regressive. Such a world has had a profound impact on the ways in which nations construct and project their national identities. Cultural variation is warped into centrism. The concept of an essentialist ‘national culture’ is the product of an ‘imagined community’; a fiction, a construct. In recent years, in an attempt to reconcile troubling debates in multicultural identity politics, many people have become increasingly interested in the cultural significance and local distinctiveness of ‘place.’ In place, diverse individuals and groups find their common denominator, whatever may separate or distinguish them. For many people, place – and their cultural connections with it – is significant on multiple levels, including the spiritual, metaphysical, if we are not afraid to use these terms. But the notion of place is complex. The academic Peter Davis puts it well when he says, ‘place is a chameleon concept, changing colour through individual perception and changing pattern through time.’ Despite these complexities, there is no doubt that the elements of place – tangible and intangible – are vital in helping people to understand their own and other places in the world. They provide us with our cultural identity.

Traditional Arts

In the traditional sphere, the ‘local’ is central; not everything must be articulated at the level of the ‘national.’ The traditional arts – music, song, storytelling, dance – even craft – have their very origins in local place and in community. They are a collectively created expression of our ecological relationships, of an encounter with geographical, historical, psychological and social circumstance. For ethnologists, studying the traditional arts offers a unique way of understanding these relationships, opening up the possibility to explore identity and culture as stretching across place and time, whilst simultaneously being situated in a specific locality.These cultural forms suggest the things that are unique to us in this place as well as the things that we hold in common with other cultures: the deeply communal in the singular, the infinite in the particular. We might say that the totality of the traditional arts is like a kaleidoscopic picture of deep ecology: if we put all the songs, tunes and stories together we get a real picture of how we inhabit our place.

Cultural Democracy

Academic research into the traditional arts easily falls into the category of work that raises concerns about cultural equity, cultural democracy, diversity, sustainability, stewardship and advocacy. Cultural democracy, in the most basic terms, can be understood as the right to access, shape, experience, participate in and benefit from arts and culture, A culturally undemocratic nation is one dominated by ‘official culture’ and riddled with systemic barriers that prevent citizens from individually or collectively engaging with their own cultural heritage. A culturally democratic nation is a society that involves people in a community of creative artistic expression as a fundamental right, not as something reserved for the privileged few. One of the aims of cultural ecology is to discursively empower the manifold and diverse forms of culture that are overshadowed or even silenced by dominant grand narratives. Part of this, of course, is a recognition of minority languages, of regional variation. Linguistic variety is surely something to cherish as a continued contribution to cultural richness. The questions is often asked, in a Scottish context, why prioritise Scots and and Gaelic? And the answer is ecological: like nature, these particular forms of cultural expression are unique on this planet, and we have a responsibility to nourish their growth. To extend this biological metaphor, our cultural policy and arts management as it stands runs the risk of being like chemical fertilisers: artificial stimuli that feeds the plant but starves the soil.

Patrick Geddes: By Leaves We Live

The Victorian ecologist Patrick Geddes was one of the first environmental thinkers and advocates for cultural democracy. Geddes’ priority was about creating the conditions for the flourishing of all life, believing in a life energy, constantly growing, adapting and seeking expression. While he was a biologist in training, he was very much open to the positive currents of life that sprang from the people, developing a cultural awareness to balance his scientific interests. Known today most commonly as a town planner, a key part of his vision, often overlooked, was to find ways and means to sustain the ecological balance of local and regional arts and culture.

While the concept of ‘place’ was absolutely central to Geddes’ theories of cultural sustainability, he deliberately rejected a narrowly ‘nationalist’ perspective, adopting a seemingly paradoxical commitment to his own interpretation of cosmopolitanism. The paradox was resolved in that his sense of ‘national’ identity was built on a perception of local place. For Geddes, ‘place’ starts with the ground on which we stand, and spreads out into our local communities and regions, perhaps even including such social constructs as ‘nation states,’ and from there, towards the global. The basis of his thinking is the understanding that a rootedness in a specific locality is the fundamental condition for a truly international and positive global vision. In Geddes’ own words, we must “Think Global; Act Local.”

From this perspective, attending to local culture is not to be inward-looking. The very world ‘parochial’ has the same roots as ecology, oikos, meaning ‘beside the household’ [4]. From an ecological point of view, rootedness and globalisation are not binary opposites: they are inter-connected. The parish, in a sense, is the cosmos. The more knowledge we have about our own environment, we not only engender a connection and responsibility to that environment, but we see the connection between other cultures and our own.

Cultural Renewal

As Gary West observes, the traditional arts present a kind of invitation:

“Listen, this is old, it is from the past, I don’t know where or when it was crafted, but it has made it through, it has been reshaped on its own journey, and it has something important to say to me. Come with me, and I think it will have something to say to you too.”

To have such invitations regularly interspersed with new work, on the same album or in the same concert, is to assert that they belong together happily; that the combination makes sense, artistically, creatively, philosophically, ecologically.

The traditional arts, then, are characterised by re-creation, constant re-animation and reworking of material. Engaging with the traditional arts is inherently about rediscovering culture. New meanings are continually being created, where old and new combine into exciting entities of living value. In ecological terms, tradition is not static; it is constantly in process. Inevitably, therefore, the forms and patterns of cultural expression are ever changing and cross-pollinating. We might argue that the traditional arts are at their most vibrant and exciting when they fuse or ‘connect’ with cultures other than our own.

Far from belonging to our parochial past, the traditional arts are the symbolic medium of a particularly powerful form of cultural ecology: an agent of collective awareness and cultural renewal. Through the process of tradition – the very act of telling itself – we create a continually evolving sense of self, of community and identity.

Revival and Renaissance

The cyclical and continually evolving process of cultural revival has been a mainstay of Scottish cultural ecology since the 18th century. In this process, the traditional arts have influenced every other aspect of culture – from the visual arts, to music, to fiction and poetry – coming to life at particular historical periods. The so-called modernist ‘literary renaissance’ tends to dominate Scottish cultural discourse and debate. It is arguably wrong to think of this as a solely literary renaissance. The traditional arts played a vital and generative role.

The idea of a Scottish ‘renascence’ – of something important happening – had been prefigured by Patrick Geddes and the Celtic Revival earlier in the century. Geddes, Charles Rennie McIntosh, John Duncan Fergusson along with many others had a keen interest in re-evaluating the past to learn lessons for a Scottish future.These artists belonged to a whole generation of thinkers who were piecing together a critique of the Industrial Revolution and its social consequences, seeking to transform the 19th century ideal of progress from an ‘Individual Race for Wealth’ into a ‘Social Crusade of Culture.’ The shared belief was that, as a nation, Scotland could only be creative when it was actively seeking to implement its own vision of a ‘commonweel,’ where collectivity, rootedness in place and community involvement were key. This early renascence was ‘radical’ in the true sense of the word. Radical, from radicalis, means ‘to form the root.’ The key point here is that it this renascence not seen as ‘break’ from history: it was a future vision developed with, not against the past.

Arguably, and perhaps ironically, it was the polemic character Hugh MacDiarmid himself who put this collective process of cultural renewal to an end. MacDiarmid despised cultural mediocrity, and while he may have brought the Scottish art of literary flyting back into currency, his vision of the high-art literary renaissance marked a shift into the primacy of the personal and individual as the main motivator of creativity, as opposed to the collective vision of the earlier movement.. Later, in the mid-20th century, we saw the Folk Revival. Driven by another towering (male) figure, Hamish Henderson, this was a revival of a community largely hidden from official view and not part of the hegemonic culture as represented by the likes of the BBC. Henderson’s vision was, essentially, an ecological vision: empowering cultures overshadowed or even silenced by dominant grand narratives. Henderson saw the central task of revivalism as being the bridge between past and present, forging a new and modern culture in the process. ‘Gramsci in action,’ he called it. His vision was to establish a ‘new cultural field’ (and a highly politicised one at that!), which embodied the following characteristics, summed up by Gary West: ‘internationalist in nature, positive in mood, questioning in form, inclusive in attitude, decisive in action, challenging in tone, radical in outlook, rooted in place.’

Of course, such historical cultural movements have both undertones and overtones of cultural nationalism.

We have come a long way over the last few generations. What might we learn from what has come before? What will we take with us, and what will we leave behind? How will culture in a post-national Scotland evolve? Can we move beyond the cultural nationalism of the past and embrace a wider diversity of voices?

A New Story

‘We live at our best when engaged in acts of history making.’ That is, the ability to engage in the ontological act of disclosing new ways of being, of transforming the ways in which we understand ourselves and our world.The exciting question now is: are we living through a new ‘renaissance,’ where the personal and introspective is giving way once more to the collective and the visionary, the ‘commonweel’?

As artists and thinkers, we need to encourage an exchange of views and an exchange of creativity. Art has the magical power to connect worlds; it bridges the gap between the local and the global, between emotions and the intellect, between the rational and the non-rational. Art helps us to understand where we have been, and could be. The artists of our time need to help us understand our options and seize this sense of exciting possibility.

‘Tradition is a story, learned from the past, told in the present, looking to the future’ (Gary West 2012). This story has deep roots in the past, but in order for the story to continue to be told, it must grow afresh each season. We need a new story to live by. The historic era which we are now entering provides us with unmatched opportunities for participating in the writing of our own future. We must ask ourselves, what really matters? This new story must be a story full of meaning, potential and beauty. It must offer an alternative to the imperial narrative of neo-liberalist globalisation and cultural homogenisation.It must have the power to inspire, with space for diversity and abundant living.

For me, the cultural argument is about finding voice and growing in cultural confidence – becoming rooted, grounded, in a truly radical, outward looking sense. Scotland – as an ecological collection of ‘places’ – should be a gateway to the entire world. And with independence, we shall see this world for the first time, from our end of the kaleidoscope, on our own terms.

Dr. Mairi McFadyen
National Collective

1. Gary West Voicing Scotland (2012)
2. Ullrich Kockel, in Radical Human Ecology (2012)
3. Peter Davis, Ecomuseums: A Sense of Place (1999)
4. Alastair McIntosh in Radical Human Ecology (2012)


About Mairi McFadyen

Mairi McFadyen is a Teaching Research Assistant in Scottish Culture and Heritage at the University of Edinburgh and works freelance as an advocate for the traditional arts. She is also a member of National Collective.