Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sustainable Globalization

Mainstream media has started making reference to the term "deglobalization", perhaps coined by Walden Bello, a Filipino professor and activist that published a relevant book with that title. This economic contraction the globe is experiencing these days could very well make the term the Spring fashion term. If that happens, the discussion about globalization could enter one of those deadlocks so common after 9-11: are you in favor or against it?

The point is not whether globalization works or not. There is no absolute criteria to approve or reject it as a valid hypothesis. We can agree that in terms of telecommunications, information, entertainment, religion, science, tourism, and trade, it works.

We can also agree that there are at least two global processes that seem to be suffering with the growth of the last phase globalization has had in the last 25 years. Those are the global environment and the social inequality standards. Although correlation does not imply causality, two researchers from the University of Siena, Italy, have proposed that these two processes have been deteriorating while globalization has been deepening worldwide. Borghesi and Vercelli have argued scientifically that the depletion and exhaustion of natural resources that has been taking place in the later decades is detrimental to all of us living on the planet. Also, that globalization has resulted in far greater opportunities for further development for those who already have the economic means to develop, say, through more and better training and education, than for those who have less economic means to do so.

Making a long-term projection, the process by which globalization promotes more production of more diverse products to sell in more open markets, tends towards the severe destruction of many ecosystems, some of which are vital for life in the planet. Think about the timber and logging industries that have compromised important forests in Brazil, Africa and Indonesia. Or about the need for biofuels or cattle meat that have also provoked higher rates of deforestation.

If globalization has been valuable for something, it has been for allowing global diagnostics of localized phenomena that a few decades ago we were unable to determine its global impact. Today we know that even though the skies in Europe are cleaner, the fact that they have shipped some "dirty" production overseas does not mean the planet's climate is cleaner.

If the expected economic growth will demand the corresponding growth in energy generation it is expected to require, and if the generation and consumption of energy does have an impact in the condition of the planet's climate, then there are reasons to worry about the tendencies towards global growth.

In terms of social inequality, even though there are more people coming out of poverty because there are more job opportunities where factories are opening and service centers are established to support larger-than-local demand, statistics show that the income gap between the rich and the poor is larger than ever. It is the case in the United States, in Latin American countries (with the fortunate exception of Brazil) and in Asian countries. For example, China. Only thirty years ago, everybody was nearly equally poor. Today, hundreds of millions have come out of poverty. Unfortunately, other hundreds of millions are still as poor as they were thirty years ago, while others are entering the list of the richest people in the world.

Generating wealth is not a problem. In fact, that is the mere virtue of capitalism. The problem is failing to distribute it in a way that deters inequality instead of promoting it. This may or may not be a weak link of capitalism. Perhaps we should start considering Adam Smith's second half of the explanation of what capitalism is and how it should work. He wrote Wealth of Nations and also wrote Theory of Moral Sentiments. Of the latter we know little about.

Truth is, the system seems to be not working well, and a crisis this deep at this time of economic evolution does not allow to argue otherwise.

This does not mean that we should embrace deglobalization necessarily. It means we should carefully revise the system's processes so we fine tune the weak links to make them stronger. In two words, what we need is to focus on sustainable globalization, or ways in which the interaction of all of us in this planet will ensure healthy environmental conditions not only for us and for our children and grandchildren, but for the seven generations yet to come after us. Also, to make sure we can all enjoy the process of global wealth-generation having dealt successfully with social inequality at a local and global level.

Both are insurmountable challenges, yes. At this time in history, when the promises of globalization seem to be failing, while the planet's ecosystems are changing so dramatically that dozens of species are becoming extinct every 24 hours, and where less rich accumulate more wealth than ever before in history, then it might be time to take on the challenges before an unsustainable system breaks down completely.

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