07/19/2010 01:05 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Think Locally, Act Globally

The last several days have sharply reminded me just how connected our local, national, and environmental challenges are -- and how important it is to think locally before we act globally, not just the other way around.

I spent several days last week, first in D.C. and then in San Francisco, with Reema Nanavaty, the director of the Self Employed Women's Association. SEWA has about 1.5 million members -- all women in the informal sector in India -- who look to it to help them improve their economic situation, develop their jobs (whether as laborers or street vendors), and eventually move out of poverty. 

Green jobs -- the goal around which SEWA has joined the Sierra Club as a primary partner in our India-based Center for Green Livelihoods -- are at the heart of SEWA's strategy, but we're not talking high tech here, for the most part. We're talking about small cotton farmers who produce organic cotton (they can't afford chemical agriculture) -- but have no way to get it certified. Refuse collectors who not only sort paper from the rest of the waste stream, but also make pens and other products from that waste paper, by hand. And salt-pan workers, who spend most of the year away from villages out on salt flats in the blazing sun, who can now assemble their own solar lanterns.

But as you sit with Reema and discuss how various projects are going (cook stoves to help women stop using polluting, fuel-wasting, open-pit fires; biomass gasifiers to turn ag wastes into gas for cooking and lighting; solar lanterns to replace kerosene), time and again the barriers that arise are because the innovators and technologists who are creating the green future aren't tuned in to the largest group of future consumers: today's poor. 

Because the technologies haven't been tweaked for the poor, many opportunities to create green livelihoods, slash pollution and environmental destruction, and restore ecosystems and the climate go to waste. That's what we hope the Green Livelihoods center can help change. As Reema puts it: "Research, but action research." It also means thinking about how we invest in innovation here in the U.S. differently -- thinking about the local needs of a villager in Rajasthan even as we design global technology priorities.

But this is not only an issue in places like India. On Sunday morning, I was fortunate to have a small, intense, and rewarding breakfast with Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota. Ellison, the only Muslim in Congress, has a long history with the Sierra Club. He founded Environmental Justice Advocates of Minnesota, which went on to lead campaigns to clean up arsenic from old pesticide factories and to convert coal-fired power plants to cleaner fuels. 

Ellison drove home the point that it's not enough just to do the research for innovative clean-energy technologies. We also need to set the right policies to ensure that those technologies can be deployed here. Already we've seen wind turbines and solar cells -- two innovations where U.S. science (largely publicly funded) took an early lead -- shift their manufacturing focus overseas, both to high-wage and low-wage economies because of the failure of U.S. economic policy to support manufacturing. Ellison reminded me that if we want to make sure that wind turbines get manufactured in Cleveland, as well as constructed in South Dakota, then U.S. global policy on issues like trade is a critical ingredient -- and one on which Congress and the administration still don't have it right.