Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Globalization: A very old trade

What we know today as 'globalization' has actually been around for tens of thousands of years, says Nayan Chanda in his new book, Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, and Warriors Shaped Globalization, reviewed recently in The Economist:

Nayan Chanda, director of publications at the Yale Centre for the Study of Globalisation, provides background facts for less lazy thinking in a lively book that is packed with incident, anecdote and derring-do.

He points out that globalisation is a new word to describe an old process. The word was introduced in the late 1970s and had gained widespread currency by 1999, the time of Mr Bové's visit to McDonald's. Many thought it described a wholly novel phenomenon. But globalisation really began about 60,000 years ago, when the first migrants walked out of Africa. Human history ever since has been a process of growing interconnectedness.

Mr Chanda organises his argument around what he takes to be the four groups that have done most to bring about this interconnectedness: traders, preachers, adventurers and warriors. Though the motives of these groups—to profit, convert, learn or conquer—have usually been selfish, the overall effect of their actions has been to draw us all closer together.

Globalization has its pros and cons. Pros include the spread of knowledge — scientific/technological as well as artistic/cultural, also the factual and the theoretical — and the trade of goods. Cons include the effects of the trading of goods: the spread of diseases, or non-native plants and animals that damage the environment, or the exploitation of a less powerful country by a more powerful one, or the proliferation of negative ideologies and movements. It opened the door for imperialism and colonialism, but also for the spread of gunpowder from one civilization to another. It brought European diseases like smallpox to the 'New World' while also enabling a vaccine invented in Switzerland and manufactured in America to help people in Indonesia confront the latest pandemic.

Globalization helped bring about today's global warming, but might also be the key to solving it. Cooperation, however, is essential. Part of globalization is of when one party dominates, conquers, or forces another to accept their terms; part is an indirect and/or unintentional (or intentional) spread; part is a mutual acceptance and awareness.

Globalization allows people in Argentina read a blog written by a United Nations peacekeeper in Palestine — heck, without an international network there wouldn't be a true UN. Sure globalization is primarily associated with an economic connectivity ("to profit"), but we also see cultural hegemony ("to convert"), a more pacified spread of ideas ("to learn"), and the most abrasive ("to conquer").

We meet globalization's challenges and reap its benefits, and never do we see it relinquish its status as a controversial phenomenon. If humans are naturally curious, then globalization is our way to connect and spread all aspects of our society, and sometimes to accomplish individual aims — invade country X, seek new riches, convert the people of land Y to religion A.

Nowadays we view globalization as the reason Pakistanis suffer in sweatshops to make our Nikes or why France's traditional fine tastes are being corrupted by American fast-food. We sometimes think only of the traders and warriors. Globalization has an ugly past too, such as the African slave trade, but we are all the more aware of its effects now, ironically because of it: the spread of this knowledge, a result of communication which itself is a result of globalization. Sometimes we miss the bigger picture. Without globalization, would I be writing or you be reading this blog?

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