One of the side effects of international travel is that you lose the luxury of thinking of yourself only as the citizen of your hometown or country. Unless you cloister yourself in a walled resort, you’re going to come into contact with citizens of other countries and places, and you’re suddenly going to realize how closely your lives are linked — your politics, your economies, your environment.
Becoming a good global citizen is a difficult thing to do, and it can be incredibly overwhelming if you’re confronting your place in the world for the first time. Here are some easy things you can do in 2014 to make yourself a better global citizen.
1. Learn about the stuff you buy.
Look, for the time being, we live in a capitalist’s world. We’re not getting rid of consumerism and rapacious free markets any time soon. But as a relatively affluent member of a relatively affluent country, you have the ability to buy your food, clothes, and gadgets not because they are cheap, but because they are ethical. Of course, it’s insanely difficult to be a totally ethical consumer: Should I eat meat? How do I find locally made gym shoes? Does the company that makes my Extra Virgin Olive Oil actively campaign against gay rights? Does my bubble tea company pay its employees a living wage?
And so on. There are some things you just can’t buy ethically, and to some extent, you’re probably going to fail in your effort to be a conscious consumer. But here’s one hugely positive step you can take: Get out your smartphone — yes, the one made with conflict minerals — and download the Buycott app. Buycott allows you to join user-created campaigns that you believe in, like “Campaign for Ecological Responsibility” or “Say No to Monsanto” or “Equality for LGBTQ.” Next, take your phone into your pantry, closet, or fridge and start scanning your products’ barcodes. Buycott will tell you — based on your campaigns — which of your products are ethically made, and which aren’t.
You may not be able to buy everything ethically, but you can certainly start.
2. Travel sustainably.
Unfortunately, travel can leave a pretty huge carbon footprint if you’re not careful. So how can you get from Point A to Point B without poisoning the lungs of your great-great grandchildren? If you have the time, try traveling by bike, or walking, or kayaking, or sailing, but if you need to be moving a little faster than that, check this out: The Union of Concerned Scientists put together a guide a few years back for traveling green. Turns out, the best way is one of the cheapest: Take a motor coach. You can see the best travel methods ranked here (they depend on the number of people you’re traveling with and the distance you’re going), but the worst ways to travel are to fly first class or drive in an SUV.
3. Volunteer locally.
The popular maxim is “Think Globally, Act Locally.” If you’re trying to help make a better world, the best place to start is in your own little corner. One way to do that is to volunteer. If you’re at all like me, you always mean to but never quite get around to it. Here are a few resources to help you get over that hurdle.
The first is VolunteerMatch. Punch in your location, your email, and the causes you’re interested in, and each week they’ll send you a newsletter with opportunities nearby that you can sign up for. Another similar site is Idealist.org, which can do the same but with jobs as well as volunteer opportunities.
4. Donate, but donate smart.
Philanthropy is important to being a good global citizen, but it’s far from the most important thing you can do, and is also one of the most fraught decisions you can make. You may have read the excellent Three Cups of Tea a few years back, about an American named Greg Mortenson who built schools for girls in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was an awesome story, so naturally a ton of people rushed to donate to Mortenson’s charity, the Central Asia Institute. Problem was, a lot of Mortenson’s story was a lie, and his charity was horribly managed. So if you donated money, it likely wasn’t going towards building those schools.
How can you know which charity to trust? Fortunately, there are a number of sites that do this work for us. The first is The Life You Can Save, an organization founded by philosopher Peter Singer that’s focused on giving your charity money the most bang for its buck. Very few charities meet their very high standards, but they hope to add to their list over time.
Another site to check out is Zidisha, a microlending site. You’ve probably by now heard of Kiva, the more famous microlending site that allows you to lend money to causes and small businesses around the developing world. Zidisha is similar but cuts out intermediary institutions, making it more of a peer-to-peer website than Kiva. Zidisha also has a much lower interest rate for borrowers, which is important for those that worry that microlending simply puts the borrowers into serious debt. Kiva, on the other hand, has a slightly higher repayment rate. Since this is, in fact, lending and not giving, you could theoretically use the same $25 over and over again endlessly, and support countless small businesses in the developing world.
For a full breakdown of the differences between Kiva and Zidisha, check out this article.
5. Read everything you possibly can.
This sounds simple, but one of the best ways to engage with your world is to read everything you possibly can. If you aren’t a big reader, start listening to podcasts. If you’re a more visual person, start watching the news. If you aren’t a big TV person, try comics journalism. Seriously — it’s a thing, and it’s incredible.
The point is that, to a critical reader — a reader who’s skeptical of the source and its bias and engages with the material instead of accepting it — nothing is harmful. Not even bullshit-heavy conservative mouthpieces like Fox News. And this isn’t even limited to nonfiction — there’s no shortage of thought-provoking fictional material out there. The goal, with your reading, is to get yourself thinking in different ways and to be more engaged in the world around you. To find new stuff, check out Goodreads, TasteKid, and Shelfari.
6. Get involved in politics.
Volunteering is great, but at the end of the day a lot of the problems with the world are systemic, and volunteering is usually focused on a more personal level. Fortunately, most of the people reading this page right now are probably in democratic countries, where there are plenty of avenues to legally make a difference in the political system.
Getting involved in politics can mean any number of things (and don’t believe the assholes who tell you democracy ends at the voting booth, and that if you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain). The quickest way is to start letting your representative know what you think about the issues that are important to you. If you’re in America, here’s a tool to find your Congressperson’s Twitter account. Here’s how to find their email. Trust me — someone’s at least gonna glance at your missive.
If you don’t like your representative, campaign for their rival. The New Organizing Institute is a great organization with a ton of awesome resources designed to help you organize for political campaigns. You can also, on a lower level, give to campaigns you approve of. It may sound boring, but politicians do operate on money, and they do need your money just as much as they need your time.
Finally, if you belong more to the “We Shall Overcome” crowd, Lifehacker put together a great guide on how to safely protest, the law blog LegalFish did a piece on how to legally protest, and the Economist explains why, if you’re going to break the law protesting, you should do it peacefully. Let us know your tips for being a better global citizen in the comments!