The well-worn admonition “think globally, act locally” takes on new meaning in recent conflicts over the Woodland-Davis Water Project. Media coverage of opposition to this project has tended to focus on controversies about the financial cost of drawing and treating drinking water from the Sacramento River instead of ground water wells.
However, like most seemingly simple natural resource conflicts, this one has ripple effects that extend far beyond the initial point of impact. How far beyond? How about all the way to Israel/Palestine and back again?
It turns out that one contractor under consideration for the project is Veolia Waters North America, a subsidiary of a France-based multinational corporation that also has contracts operating transit systems throughout the world, including in Israel/Palestine.
While debates over Israel are nothing new and neither are controversies over development in Davis, it is remarkable how these two streams of conflict have converged in the proposed water project. This convergence of the global and local can be captured in the term “glocal.” While it does not trip easily off the tongue, calling the conflict over the water project glocal helps us understand why the conflict is so complex and difficult to resolve.
The raging debate over the ethics of contracting with Veolia Waters has centered on the alleged role of the company in supporting Israel’s occupation of Palestine by servicing Jewish-only settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. According the critics of the deal, by awarding a contract to Veolia, the Woodland-Davis project would be complicit in the Israeli occupation. Likewise, by denying a contract to Veolia, the project would send a message opposing the occupation.
A proposal to boycott products by firms profiting from the occupation recently roiled the waters of the Davis and Sacramento food co-ops and other similar institutions around the country. Countering these critics are defenders of the Israeli government’s policies who perceive such calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions as rooted in anti-Semitism and an unfair demonization of Israel as it contends with violent opposition to its very existence.
What is remarkable about the dispute over the Veolia contract is the very local and place-based terms used in arguments on both sides. Instead of debating the issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in global terms (Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish homeland versus Palestinians’ right to their own homeland), competing letters to the editor and op-ed pieces in The Davis Enterprise have provided station-by-station analyses of the disputed transit routes and their inclusion or exclusion of Palestinian riders.
In this way, a global political drama (the Israel-Palestine conflict) is being played out on two distant but interconnected local stages (disputed transit routes in Israel and water projects in California). Where does the local and end and the global begin? It’s not just an academic question.
Instead, the line between global and local is a disputed and fuzzy boundary that leaders in Davis and elsewhere must walk. How far out should their ethical considerations extend? In this case, how should the Davis and Woodland city councils consider the international implications in their choice of contractors for their local project?
While over the years city councils have been asked to weigh in on anti-war, anti-nuclear and other international policy resolutions with the rationale that “all politics are local,” this conflict hits home in an especially grounded way. This is because, unlike a resolution to oppose the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, this debate is about how what we do here (hiring Veolia or not) projects our ethical values onto the world stage through the market signals of how we invest our public funds.
Not having been to Israel/Palestine or having deeply studied the intricacies of the conflicts there, I don’t have the factual basis to pass judgment on the merits of awarding this contract to Veolia. Likewise, it is challenging to ask local elected officials in places like Davis or Woodland to weigh in on matters so far outside their districts and areas of expertise.
However, just because it is difficult does not mean that it should not be attempted. Instead, I would argue that both we and our “local” leaders do have an ethical obligation to consider the global implications of our decisions and their investments. In our interconnected world, the Israel/Palestine conflict is not just “over there,” it is also right here.
Possible strategies to bridge this local-global divide could include redirecting some of our sister-city relationships to serve as learning networks through which information about the global reach of our local decisions can flow.
What might it look like for Davis and Woodland to create a core of civic ambassadors who could assist in conducting our due diligence by exchanging visits and analysis with those knowledgeable about the corporate practices of the firms who are bidding on local contracts; or the global sites where our food, clothing and energy are sourced; or the places where our wastes are dumped? How could such engaged learning be integrated into the curricula of our local schools, colleges and universities?
Such an initiative would not necessarily resolve conflicts such as that over Veolia’s proposed contract, but it would support a more informed civic debate about our place in the glocal world order.
— Jonathan London, Ph.D., is a Davis resident and parent. He shares this monthly column with Jann Murray-García. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org