Globalization: for nature or against nature

11 February 2003
Only in en
Jaan Kaplinski thinks about globalization - its advantages, disadvantages and its history. The diagnosis leads him to propose an utopian concept of rural life that is linked to the positive achievements of the present.

The word “globalization” has a very vague meaning, thus it is not
easy to understand what the demonstrants are demonstrating against or

what the politicians and economists are advocating. The word is an attempt to
describe the advancing integration, but also standardization of the
world, vanishing of borders and shortening of distances. But
globalization is also the growth of corporate power, the expansion of multinational companies. The problem with globalization is that – as many phenomena – it has never been planned in advance. What we are witnessing today and what we call globalization is the result of the invisible hand of market and technological forces that have given us both technical means and motivation to move towards a more integrated and uniform world. Globalization is something that we have met in our hunt for bigger profits and new gadgets, as well as new weapons.

Globalization is practically a creation of only one of the many cultures and societies of the planet – the Western culture (or civilization), first of all – of Europeans and North Americans. This means that for many other peoples globalization is nothing else than the expansion of the West, a continuation of a process that began with the Crusades and great geographical discoveries. It means spreading Western products and Western way of life. Such a process is not unique in history: the planet has witnessed many similar processes of cultural expansion in the past: the expansion of the Sumerian-Akkadian culture, hellenistic culture, Chinese Han culture and Arabic-Islamic culture. All these processes were connected with building of empires and subjugation of other peoples. The beginning of the Western expansion has been similar, the Europeans too created their empires. However, there is a difference between the big empires of the past and the present world. Nowadays the expansion is primarily not political or religious, but economic. The merchant, the manager, the banker has replaced the soldier and the missionary. The power of money has replaced the power of the gun, advertizing has replaced sermons, pin-up girls have replaced icons.

Thus globalization also spreads the Western modern system of values, is based on what Ernest Gellner has called “consumerist scepticism”. This system of values
and world view is not acceptable to many people in other parts of
the world, especially in the Islamic countries, but even in the
West it is not approved by many dissidents, as for example the
anti-globalization activists, the Greens and members of some
traditionalist religious communities.

In the empires of the past, unprecedented power was concentrated
into the hands of their rulers, kings and emperors. This was, first
of all, power over people. The emerging global empire of our age is characterised, first of all, by an unprecedented concentration of power over nature, natural resources into the hands of the modern kings and emperors – governments, dictators, but also CEOs of big
companies. On the modern world scene, the traditional statesmen
have to share power with today’s businessmen. Often these two
types of power are interconnected, even mingled. Big business
finances and supports rulers who often come from its ranks and
remain loyal to its interests. In both financial and political
domains, the power becomes concentrated into the hands of one or a
couple of superpowers, megacompanies and corporations. The system
mankind has created is to a great extent ruled by its own logic, it
has become a god we must serve and worship. Following the Finnish
philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright we can call this god of our

times technosystem. Its logic is the inexorable logic of growth,
efficiency, economy and concentration. Globalization is a
necessary, unavoidable logical step in the history of this
technosystem whose symbol was the World Trade Center in New York,
destroyed by the Islamic kamikazes.

We human beings and everything we create are necessarily part of a
larger system that is most often called nature. Nature has
undergone a process of evolution of probably more than ten billion
years. Its evolution as its present functioning has followed a
certain logic. This logic has also determined the evolution of life
including that of mankind as all other living things. One basic

element of this logic is that the development and functioning of a
subsystem, for example an ecosystem or a species must conform to
the logic of nature, otherwise it will not survive. Nature is a
system that can survive even if several or many of its subsystems,
be it species, populations or societies (including our own) become
extinct.

Life is a state of dynamic balance, it is a self-regulating homoeostatic process. But this homoeostasis is not perfect because of its dynamism. It contains the features that can lead to
self-destruction, primarily through the destruction of the
environment. This can happen to animal populations. This has
happened to human populations including probably some great
civilizations of the past in Mesopotamia, Northern India and
Central America and on the Easter Island. Despite this, humanity
as a whole has survived, thanks to the fact that it too was
organized in a “natural” way, being divided into relatively
autonomous tribes, societies and cultures. Even if civilizations
perished, barbarians and savages survived. This means that parts,

subsystems of nature are not necessarily capable of homoeostasis;
Life, the living nature is homoeostatic as a whole. Nature is a
self-regulating, self-preserving system that consists of
subsystems that are often not self-regulating. Life achieves its
homoeostasis, is capable of self-regulation because of its
enormous diversity. It consists of millions of species,
populations and billions of organisms. The homoeostasis is the
result of their interplay.

During the last couple of thousand years human beings have
achieved an uprecedented command over their environment,
especially over other living beings. We are less and less subjects
to the natural homoeostasis, to the regulating rules of nature. At
present, mankind is drastically changing the nature itself due to
the demographic explosion and the increasing exploitation of
natural resources. In particular, human activities are
diminishing the diversity of nature and accordingly impairing its
self-regulating mechanisms. As a result, nature, both animate and
inanimate, is becoming more unstable, prone to bigger vacillations.
As we humans are always a part of nature, we cannot escape these
vacillations, we are more exposed to droughts, storms, famines and
epidemics. The world has never been an especially friendly place

for us, now it is becoming more unfriendly. We have succeeded in
building our oases in the middle of its turbulence, but there are
not enough of them and keeping them needs more and more effort and
resources.

From this point of view, the process called globalization is a
double-edged sword. Insofar it is connected with concentration of
economical power and resources, with increase in uniformity, less
restrictions to mass travel and transportation of goods over state
borders, it contributes to potential instability of nature and
society. Examples are not difficult to draw. The recent outburst
of foot and mouth – and mad cow disease in Europe are a direct
result of concentration of animals in big farms and transportation
of cattle and cattle products from one country and region to
another. The spread of damaging computer viruses is the result of
the monopoly of Microsoft programs (As I don’t use them,
I have so far had no problems with computer viruses).

The terrorist attack on the Pentagon and the WTC has shown us once
more how vulnerable the modern world can be. The skyscrapers
lodging thousand of offices with tens of thousands of employees
and visitors were an extreme example of concentration of power and
decision-making, but also of economy of space in the capital of
the Western world. Here the stability was clearly sacrificed to
efficiency and economy with a catastrophic result. Such places of
high concentration of political and economic power as headquarters
of big companies, parliaments and government residences or huge
factories having the monopoly of some products will certainly be
targets of future terrorist attacks. Concentration, mass
production makes products cheaper, but increases the possibility

that one error, one toxic substance, one computer virus will have
devastating effect across the globe. If the terrorists had struck
the Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington, it would have
paralyzed the development of the monopolistic MS Windows
software. In contrast, the development of the rival Linux
operational system that is wholly decentralized, cannot be
seriously damaged by any terrorist attack.

Physical concentration of people and facilities, monopolies, mass
travel and unsrestricted transportation of goods are a potential
source of danger in the unpredictable and insecure world. And in
many cases, as in the examples above, these processes have clearly
surpassed all reasonable limits. This is true of the Western way
of life, especially of its American variety as a whole. This way
of life has effectively abolished most of the cultural diversity
of the world, spreading from country to country, continent to
continent, making more and more people dependant of the products
of a few corporations (Microsoft, Boeing, Intel and others). Now
we know better than ever that all people of the world cannot be
lodged into one skyscraper, but there are politicians,
missionaries, businessmen and writers who are making an effort to
lodge all humankind into one culture, one religion, one language,
one system of values.

Cultures, languages and religions are survival strategies in a
world that is very much a Darwinian one, and if we wipe out most
of them, we diminish our chances of survival in extreme
conditions, be it in a new ice age or in a world shattered by a
new world war. We should be more aware that world wars too have
been made possible by the globalization, by the worldwide
processes of integration and concentration.

Is the globalization then an evil that we should fight against, a
fatal error in the history of mankind and perhaps even of nature
itself? This is possible, if the negative aspects of globalization
prevail, if it means more concentration of economical and
political power, abolition of biological and cultural diversity in
the name of economical efficiency. But there are some other ways
open to globalization. In theory it’s perfectly possible to have
globalization that preserves most of the diversity and instead of
concentration supports dispersion, decentralization.

This is a chance given us by the combination of the advances of
modern information technology with the existing cultural diversity
and strong bond of many people to their culture as well as to
their home and homeland. We could have a world where people prefer
to live in small communities, many of them in the countryside,
cultivating their gardens, buying mostly locally produced food and
other essential consumer goods, and not travelling much. At the
same time are closely interconnected with other people all around
the world thanks to the efficient means of communication grown out
of the present internet. This world would in fact be two worlds,
in one of them space and place are of central importance, in
another there is no space, no distance. People live in both of
these worlds, partly in their home village, partly in the global
village, the cyberspace. In this utopian world there are many
borders and restrictions to the movement of people and goods from
region to region, but little restrictions to the free flow of
information.

This hypothetical utopia is close to the one expressed already in
ancient times by one of the first theoricians of self-regulation
and decentralization, the half-mythical Chinese thinker Laozi. As
to the political organization of the possible diverse, dispersed
but still globalized world, it should be a decentralized power

network. It remains to be said that the first man who created such
an organization, not a state but a network of communities was
nobody else than the Indian Gautama Buddha, one of the great
organization men of the world history.

One of the few ways of life that have proved stable, highly
adaptive and capable of surviving in very adverse conditions is
the traditional peasant way of life, the traditional peasant
culture, be it European, ancient Peruvian, Chinese, Indian,
African or Central Asian. We have no reasons to idealize the
peasant life that has never been idyllic, although it has often
been idealized. The classical Chinese literature has many clear
analogies to the antique and later Western Arcadian, bucolic and
pastoral motives. It is harder to find in traditional Chinese
literature contempt for the “idiocy of the rural life” of the
Marxist tradition, but I am sure it can be found too. Town, at
least city is usually a more interesting place than village. But
village is simply much more adaptive than town, and because of
that village has served as a refuge, a shelter, a place where
people could return after disasters that destroyed towns.

My first childhood memories are memories of bombardment, taking
refuge in shelters, but also of fleeing to the countryside, to our
relatives living there. This probably saved my life because the
house where we lived in 1944 was hit and burnt with all our
belongings. But our relatives could give us shelter and feed
us. Where can nowadays flee people living in cities, in the high
density residential areas or close to risky industrial plants and
other installations? The modern civilization is destroying the
village, the traditional peasant life, the farm, the garden, the
field. The modern agriculture is becoming more and more efficient,
but also more and more dependant on the whole fabric of the modern
society, industry and transportation. We can say that it is also
dependant on the conviction (belief) that no major disasters are
possible, that the emancipated nations need no refuges, no
shelters, no local-regional self-sufficiency, that the history as
a Darwinian process of selection has ended.

The tragic events of 11 September indicate that this can well be an illusory belief. It’s commonplace to compare the present Western world with the Roman Empire. After becoming rich and powerful,
Rome got rid of its peasantry, its agriculture becoming based on
latifundia. A lot of grain was imported to Italy from Egypt. The
Empire wasn’t a nation of peasants. The nations who conquered it
and the nations that later emerged from its ruins were nations of
peasants. After the Empire had fallen, people grew grain and kept
cattle on the Forum and other expances of the eternal city that
had for centuries ceased being a city. The pendulum of history
has already many times swung between town city and village. Isn’t
it wise to presume that this will not happen again? Isn’t it wise
to abandon a tradition, a way of life and a know-how that has
helped us to overcome big crises? Perhaps we should give some
financial and moral support to people who are willing to preserve
this tradition, to return to field and garden as is a traditional
saying in Chinese, immortalized by the great poet Tao Yuan-ming.

Published 11 February 2003

Original in English
First published in

Contributed by Vikerkaar
© Vikerkaar Eurozine

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