Globalization: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

During our orientation for MCC (which seems like a lifetime ago) we covered racism, economic privilege, sexism, harassment, cross-cultural issues and the mundane details of how to get paid and fill out forms. We also talked about two intertwined topics that easily cause controversy, globalization and development. Both of these concepts are intimately bound up with the themes of this blog: consumerism, food and theology.

Definitions are always a good place to start. A good question to start with about definitions is “Who gets to make the definitions?” Certainly in the case of development this is a huge issue. Globalization also gets defined variously depending on whether one considers it an overall positive or negative thing. My goal is not to be comprehensive or definitive, but to cover some of my thoughts on what globalization is and how I see it.

What is Globalization? Here are some things I think we can say about globalization. It is a historical process. It did not burst on the scene all at once. There was no product launch for globalization. It has evolved over time. We can see elements of it throughout the history of civilization. The difference may be that never before has there been a need to come up with a term to define what is happening on a global scale. So, it is a matter of the scope of our current economy. (The History of the WTO or a Quick Guide to the History of World Globalization are some good links to give context)

It’s also about the nature of the global economy. Trade has always happened. Trade between countries and continents has been going on for quite a while now. While there appear to be many similarities in terms of trade, the financial system connected to that trade is drastically different. Commodity prices are not determined by supply and demand, but speculation by investors on Wall Street who have no connection to that particular trade except a financial investment. In other words, prices are manipulated and traded for profit by people that care nothing about the crops they’re trading. Modes of communication and transportation have also radically changed in recent history as many have pointed out. Though I don’t agree with his overall rosy outlook, Thomas Friedman’s Lexus and the Olive Tree continues to be one of the best descriptions of the nature of globalization (since that book he has changed his views significantly, but certainly not transformed into an anti-globalization activist like Naomi Klein and others).

The Good I’m not a total pessimist. There are aspects of globalization that are positive. Through the internet and growth in communication more people have access to more information. We’ve seen how twitter can be used to organize protests in places like Iran and Macedonia, not to mention the current uprisings throughout the Arab world.

Globalization has made it possible to decrease the percentage of the population that experiences food insecurity, because food surpluses are better distributed (though not necessarily equitably) across the globe. Because of climate change, we face a common global crisis. We are forced for the first time in history to really understand the common humanity shared across the globe. The cross-cultural effects of globalization make this more possible than ever.

The Bad The motto of globalization is that the “rising tide will lift all boats.” Well, it turns out that the actual gap between rich and poor continues to grow. Certainly some people working in factories all over the third world are better off than they would be, but if we’re not willing to trade places with them I think something is still wrong. The statistics still clearly show that real inequality is growing.

The same can be said of hunger. Depending on how you look at the statistics you can claim that we’re better or worse off. The reality is that the actual number of hungry people has increased. As a percentage of global population there has been a decrease, but I’m not sure that makes the actual hungry people feel better. It does make those of us who benefit from globalization feel better.

My point here is primarily to say that the view from the top is pretty rosy, but when you listen to those on the bottom you get a different picture. It’s nice to theorize about how to fix the world from our positions of privilege, but if we don’t listen to those feeling the effects of globalization we will never understand their problems.

The Ugly My theory is that globalization is a vehicle for promoting a never-ending growth economy based on consumerism. Sounds good if infinite growth is possible, but it’s not. I believe consumerism is a destructive force in many ways. It creates needs where there is none. A radical reassessment of “need” is in order. Just because people buy something or someone can sell it does not mean it is beneficial to individuals, society or the earth.

It also destroys communities, cultures and languages. Wal-Mart in China is a telling example. The big box store contextualizes its products for the country. So, it sells chicken feet in the produce department and other relevant items. The effect is to put small markets out of business and introduce new “needs” and the consumer religion to the people. Wal-Mart’s primary export is not its products, but consumerism. It could not continue to sell cheap useless stuff, if it did not convince people it was necessary. Meanwhile, there is a loss of relationships and a detrimental effect on the local economy as Yuan spent are funneled out of the local economy and back to Arkansas.

Many would claim that the homogenizing effect of globalization is a good thing. The positive spin is certainly the aforementioned possibility of facing a global crisis like climate change as a common human family. I think the human family, like natural ecosystems, thrives because of diversity. We should do all we can to protect this diversity. Instead of working towards a unified global system, we should be learning from local systems. I’m not advocating some form of parochialism, but recognizing that we need the diversity of local cultures, communities, practices and beliefs in order to survive whatever the future holds for the common humanity.

As always there is much more to unpack. The history of globalization’s evolution reveals that the power and influence on its development came from Western powers, the United States in particular. Although some now think the decline of the USA’s dominance in the world signals a shift in this power and influence, the system continues to display the effects of this history and will continue to benefit those who designed it disproportionately. There is the possibility that the attempt to steer history and the global economy to the benefit of the West will in the end backfire, just as the efforts of Spain and Portugal to colonize the world and spread Christendom contained the very seeds of pluralism and postmodernism as it came into contact with religions and cultures across the globe.

As usual, I intend to provoke. Let the commenting begin.

Next up… Development

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