Monday, July 18, 2011

Global Down-turn

A few months ago, I attended a lecture from Miroslav Volf, a very well-known theologian from Yale. The title of the lecture was, "The Intersection of Faith and Globalization," a lecture he's given a number of times in many places (see here as one example). The basic assumption of the lecture was something like this: globalization is here to stay, so we have to adapt to it. Now, I like where he goes on the basis of this assumption, but that's not where my problem lies. 

My problem lies in the widespread belief that we should embrace a globalized world. 

Globalization, as it currently stands, doesn't exactly resemble the democratic, egalitarian utopia that many proponents of globalization want us to believe. More importantly, even should every country and culture in the world get on board with living in a global community, even then we wouldn't live in a world governed by mutual consent and characterized by mutual prosperity. The reason for this isn't an outright cynicism on my part regarding human nature; it has to do with my cynicism regarding the forces that are leading to our increasingly globalized world.

Let's reflect for a moment on these forces (after the jump...)

This list won't be exhaustive, but it names the major players: technology, commerce, colonialism, and oil. In our cultural discourse, the first two are unmitigated goods; the third is an unsightly, if not partially positive historical legacy; and oil remains both our dearest commodity and the root of our deepest fears (at least for oil-hungry Americans). Yet I think we have been too quick to grant asylum to technology and commerce, too ready to call these things boons to our race. They have, of course, led to many positive developments (e.g., I couldn't communicate with you without either of them).

Technology, in our industrialized society, operates according to a very simple principle that many of us have forgotten: technology attempts to replace human labor with that of machines (a point made frequently by Wendell Berry). Even simple technologies like the pen and parchment served to eliminate the need to rely only upon human memory and speech to communicate. Within our culture, however, we have reached a point where we now find ourselves enslaved to technology rather than its masters (example: how many of us know how to do even mid-level mathematical calculations?). What's more, technology and industry does not benefit all people equally. In the lop-sided economy of the globalized world, people in the US enjoy cutting-edge technological devices at the expense of hazardous working locations for manufacturers in China and at the expense of techno-garbage dumps in West Africa (equally, if not more hazardous). Yet Americans, Europeans, and most emerging markets (e.g., China) seem all too ready to blissfully adopt this devil's bargain.

Commerce and trade also contributes to a lop-sided global economy. When the basic ethos of production is to buy low and sell high—taking into account, mind you, only dollar amounts, rather than real costs of production on environments, cultures, or human lives—then it should not surprise us that those who can exploit the most material and labor at the cheapest cost and reap the greatest benefit stand at the top of a gigantic global pyramid of wealth. Commerce, like technology, might bridge Texas and South Asia, but that bridge seems to carry two kinds of traffic in opposite directions: cheap, disposable "convenience" goods for the Texan, and a devastated environment, dependent economy, and dehumanized factory worker for the Asian.

I assume that the intelligent reader will know that I have little good to say about colonialism and oil. Let it suffice to say this: (1) Colonialism has bequeathed its legacy to our technocratic industry, which continues colonialism's attempt to impose its will on other peoples and lands in order to exploit them. (2) Oil has made transportation easier, but is itself the queen of technologies in our age. As such, its primary masters are those who know how best to exploit it to their benefit without consideration of (or even to the detriment of) anyone else.

At last to the title: Global Down-turn. Globalization in its current form is a force that persons concerned with the well-being of others should not only seek to reform, but rather resist (or, turn down—sorry for the bad pun). Globalization inherently thinks in terms of all environments, all cultures, all trade relationships, etc. This, I think, is a new and unhealthy way of interacting with our world. When we think globally, we tend naturally to elide important distinctions of specific locations, environs, etc. The human mind simply cannot weigh the impact of any action taken at a global level. 

What the human mind is perfectly capable of doing, however, is thinking locally: I can know what the weather, people, culture, economy, etc., is like in my town. I can measure, with relative accuracy, the effects a particular governmental or economic action in my hometown.  I can visit farms affected by unusual weather patterns; I can talk to a banker regarding the impact of economic policies made by local government. The same cannot be said of policies or weather patterns on a global scale: who has not felt the frustration of not knowing who to yell at when global events negatively influence our lives?

My rhetoric has, perhaps, tended toward a hyperbolic denigration of globalization. I recognize that my position in life, my awareness of other cultures, my access to goods and services (and, indeed, knowledge) would be radically different apart from the consequences of globalization. Moreover, I am no xenophobe; I'm exceedingly glad for colleagues and friends with whom I can stay in touch despite thousands of miles between us, and whom I came to know because of our "smaller" world.

Nevertheless, we need a growing number of people who will champion not the policies of globalization that benefit first and foremost the technocrat and the corporation (they are one and the same). We need voices who will prioritize the importance of local economies, local ecologies, and local cultures. With healthier local communities, we may then be able to reconsider globalization in a way that suits better the common good.

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