Globalization: You Can’t Stop Life

Globalization: You Can't Stop Life

Nayan Chanda
Thursday, July 5, 2001

There was yet another mass demonstration against globalization in June, this time in Barcelona. Although the World Bank had decided weeks ago to turn its planned meeting into a virtual conference, this didn't stop the protesters. Again, there was the Seattle-like spectacle of masked demonstrators trashing international-brand stores. And again, the demonstrators produced only sound and fury, rather than shed light on what exactly they are opposed to when they protest against globalization.

The word "globalization" seems to embody all that anyone can find wrong with the state of the world in all its forms. From American fast food and pop music to the perceived neo-colonial tinge of the World Trade Organization's rules to unemployment, child labour and environmental decay, everything is laid at the door of globalization. While using an ill-defined concept as an umbrella to assemble malcontents of all hues may get world attention, the lack of clarity about the "G" word cannot help its opponents in the long run. The crude slogans and violence of the protesters only lead to their characterization as backward-looking Luddites. This is unfortunate, because despite the deplorable antics of some protesters, they have raised many important issues that need to be addressed.

Before issuing the battle cry to "stop globalization," perhaps they need to consider what exactly is globalization. The International Monetary Fund defines it as "the growing economic interdependence of countries worldwide through the increasing volume and variety of cross-border transactions in goods and services and of international capital flows, and also through the more rapid and widespread diffusion of technology." This is good enough a definition of the phenomenon today, but it is extremely narrow and ahistorical. The fact is that globalization, in its dictionary meaning, "to make worldwide in scope or application," is a phenomenon as old as humans. The sequencing of the human genome has shown that our ancestors came from Africa. One can say that globalization began when the precursors of Homo sapiens started moving in search of better food and safety. That movement has never stopped.

In different times, the search for food, the drive to make new converts and even just the spirit of adventure have propelled humans to leave home. In every respect, what we are today, what we eat, how we dress, how we live and what we believe in is the result of an amazing fusion of products and ideas exchanged over the centuries. The very core of our identity--our languages, food, dress and beliefs--has grown out of the web of influences that have flown throughout history. What we consider to be traditional for one group of people was not always so. The traditional chilli-hot Asian food did not become "tradition" until Columbus brought to Europe the chilli plant from the Caribbean, and then this New World plant gradually diffused to the Old World of Asia. There was no outcry in Asia against the invasion of the fiery chilli threatening our culinary tradition, because it was not brought here rapidly, on the back of a billion-dollar TV campaign. There was no powerful multinational Columbus Chilli Inc. overwhelming the food habits of poor citizens.

Like the chilli, there are countless products and ideas in our lives that we claim to be ours but which actually come from elsewhere. As the elements of nature, water and wind shaped our planet over millions of years, human interactions over the continents imperceptibly continue to shape our lives. As a historical phenomenon, globalization has affected human existence the way the earth's surface has been sculpted by weather. Eternal dissatisfaction with one's condition and the perpetual effort to improve one's lot has led to inventions and movements changing human life the world over.

But to acknowledge globalization as a secular trend of human history does not mean accepting the unfairness, injustice and inequality that have come in its wake. The leisurely pace of the past is over. Goods, ideas and culture are rushing across national borders with unthinkable speed and unprecedented volume--overwhelming many, and affecting their lives in ways that are beyond their control. Today's protesters are right to draw attention to these negative aspects. Certainly, the pernicious aspects of globalization need to be addressed and prudently remedied. However, protesters are wrong to think that the restless movement of people and ideas across the globe can be arrested, and by so doing solve its marginal ill-effects. To be sure, fix globalization. But to demand a stop to globalization is to demand that life as we know it should cease.

The writer is director of publications at the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. With Strobe Talbott, he is co-editor of the forthcoming book “The Age of Terror: America and the World After September 11.” He contributed this comment to the Far Eastern Economic Review.

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