On Globalization [Archives:2005/879/Opinion]

September 22 2005

The acceleration of Globalization has defined the 20th century. Yet while the phenomenon surrounds us constantly it is rarely understood. That's symptomatic of the way it affects people and the processes to which we owe its existence. The evolution of global integration has in the past been so oblique that it was often hardly recognized. Today we are heavily globalized, but not necessarily for the reasons we might imagine. Critics of Globalization tend to focus on trade without seeing the spectrum of interchange. Outsourcing, sweatshops and market rationalization are only a single face of an ever more amorphous world where the borders which defined the past are fast dissolving.

Often defined as the global transfer of goods and ideas, Globalization is really as old as the concept of exchange. It is therefore closely associated with trade, however not exclusively as ideas, technologies, religions and people seem to have always been on the move in one way or another. The manner of this cultural and material interaction were contested, renegotiated and re-imagined as people struggled with change and difference. Indeed the exoticism, desirability and expense of the foreign was often integral to the market culture to which trade roots catered. Since the advent of modernity Globalisation has largely been driven by the West, but the events of the last five to three hundred years should in no way credit the occident with its inception.

Innumerable civilizations have traded, educated, expanded and in a sense 'globalised'. The purpose or aspirations were as varied as imperial ambition, religion, avarice or exploration, but they all served to connect people, markets, goods and ideas. Of course many societies remained extremely introspective. But the xenophobia, fear and introspection of historical moments such as Tokugawa Japan are increasingly difficult to maintain. Today, societies all around the world have never been more extroverted or interconnected.

This interdependence occurs in so many ways it's almost impossible to appreciate. Teenagers in Tehran grow up listening to Guns and Roses and idolizing Metalica. There are now more functioning mosques in London than churches. Technologies such as the internal combustion engine, the watch, computer or telephone, which originated in the Western Hemisphere are used in every country of the earth. Newspapers are published around the world, but due to the internet, their readership is not limited by their distribution. Clothes are manufactured in South East Asia and profitably sold in Europe. Shrimp from the south Arctic is sold in enormous quantities on the domestic Chinese market. Species of exotic South American moth are used to control pests in the Australian outback. The most common number system, the Hindu Arabic, was used in India, adopted by the west, gloabalized by colonialism and now drives international commerce. The food we eat, the books we read, the air we breathe, the ideas we accept and the jobs we do are all influenced, if not defined by Globalization.

So why has this occurred? To a large extent, the acceleration of Globalizing forces was made inevitable by modernity. Although goods and ideas could and did flow around the world before the engine the process occurred with less volume and speed. Nonetheless, it occurred and it would be folly to think it didn't.

Think for instance of Islam, an archetype of global interconnectivity. The universalism of Islam coordinates the thoughts and beliefs of people from Western China to Nigeria, New York to Aden. There is diversity, but there is tremendous continuity of thoughts and ideas and all migrate to the epicenter of their faith at least once in their lives.

Another example is South American gold. After the brutal conquest of the Americas almost every ounce of Incan and Aztec gold left South America, was spent by Catholic Spain, traded by merchants in Venice, bought by Seljuks, exchanged in Safavid Iran and transferred across Mughal India into Han Chinese Imperial coffers. Indeed Yemen and the kingdoms of the Hadramawt profited handsomely by controlling the East-West commerce of the Red Sea by linking greater Asia, the Persian Gulf and the East African Coast to the Mediterranean and Western Europe.

When you consider how successful camel trains, caravels and commerce were at transporting goods, introducing species and infecting people with exotic disease and ideas, imagine for a moment the impact of the internet, air travel or satellite projected mass media. Modernity really represents an explosion of interconnectivity because of the ability of technology to reach beyond itself, to link people, to move ideas, thoughts, weapons, differences and commonalities around the world at unnatural speeds.

There are consequences to these changes as patterns of consumption, economics and religion are discarded, adopted, magnified and distorted. For many reasons the impacts have often been negative. The quality of life for many societies was higher before the structural realignment that 20th century Globalization caused. It's hard to imagine the desolation of so many people who's identity and environment have been irreparably changed, leaving them an identity only in history. I'm sure the Native Americans, Australian Aborigines and many other indigenous peoples could tell us more about Globalization than we would be comfortable to hear. Unfortunately, once set in motion, only a cataclysm can derail this human matrix. If anything, it is in our nature. We know from history that you cannot hide from Globalization, it will follow you to the last ends of the earth.