From Misery to Hope 3/03

A new anthology diagnoses the disease and explores the possibilities

In its lengthy introduction, Alternatives to Economic Globalization: A Better World Is Possible is described as an offshoot of dialogue among associates of the International Forum of Globalization (IFG). “The immediate priority is to frame the issues,” say the editors, “recognizing that to arrive at a consensus among even a few people – let alone millions – is a far more complex and difficult task than building agreement on what we oppose.”

Noting that protests are being staged all over the world, it specifically mentions the thousands who gathered in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001 and 2002 for the first World Social Forums. Titled “Another World Is Possible,” those events were intended to carry forward the process of popular consensus, building toward a world that works for all. Yet the book doesn’t adequately acknowledge the historic protest in Seattle that preceded Porto Alegre, or the 2001 Quebec City mobilization.

Over the past decade, millions of people have taken to the streets around the world – from India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia to the Philippines; in Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, and Venezuela; Canada and Mexico; New Zealand and Australia; Kenya and South Africa; France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, US, and many more. There have been countless demonstrations against the institutions and policies of globalization. For the first time, the real possibility exists that a new world will emerge, with real communal democracy, human rights for everyone, and, as anarchism insists (I’m an anarchist myself) a voice in the local and national policies of their own countries. But the path for every country shouldn’t be identical, since each has its own geography and traditions.

Assessing the Damage

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the number of chronically hungry people in the world declined steadily during the 1970s and 80s, but has been steadily increasing for about a decade. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that, by 2008, two-thirds of the people in sub-Saharan Africa will be undernourished, along with 50 percent of those in Asia. In a world where a few enjoy unimaginable wealth, two hundred million children under five are underweight for lack of food.

About 14 million children die each year from hunger-related diseases. A hundred million are living or working in the streets. During the 90s, 300,000 children were conscripted as soldiers and six million were injured in armed conflicts. Eight hundred million people go to bed hungry every night.

This human tragedy isn’t confined to poor countries. Even in the US, 6.1 million adults and 33 million children experience outright hunger. Some 10 percent of US households, or about 31 million people, don’t have access to enough food to meet their basic needs.

One of this book’s virtues is that it lists such figures and many more. For example, it mentions that, due to fossil fuel combustion, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide increased in 2002 to the highest levels in 20 million years. According to the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental think tank, weather-related disasters, including storms, floods and fires, affected more than two billion people and caused at least $600 billion in worldwide economic losses during the 90s. In 1998 alone, three hundred million people were displaced or forced to resettle due to extreme weather conditions.

The processes of corporate globalization are destroying the real wealth of the planet, while advancing a winner-take-all competition that inexorably widens the gap between rich and poor. Although many people have participated in protests in the face of such facts, equally important and potentially more numerous are those who struggle each day to rebuild their communities and economies.

Local dominance and self-determination is at odds with economic globalization. A democratic commitment to communal self-determination means that it’s up to the people – and that includes every indigenous group or locality. But the World Bank, IMF and World Trade Organization violate this principle to such an extent that the authors recommend they be decommissioned, and their functions assumed by a strengthened and reformed UN.

In Brazil, the focus is on the rights of workers, the poor and the landless. In Bolivia, a mass movement of peasants and workers has successfully blocked the privatization of water. In Mexico, the Mayan people have re-ignited the spirit of Zapata in a movement to confirm the rights of indigenous people to land and resources. French farmers have risen up in revolt against trade rules that threaten to destroy small farms. In the UK, construction of new highways has brought out hundreds of thousands who oppose the desecration of the countryside to meet globalization’s relentless demand for more high-speed transport.

These are only a few examples of the initiatives and actions underway worldwide. Some are purely local, others national or international. The authors indicate a preference for Gandhi-style, community-based, self-reliant family units of production. This means trade mainly within communities and regions, and only occasional exchanges with the rest of the world, based on need.

Global Monoculture

Corporate hyper-growth is fueled by the constant search for new resources, new and cheaper labor sources, and new markets. That’s why there is such excitement about China joining the experiment. It offers all three. The impediments are usually environmental, public health and food safety laws, regulations that protect workers’ rights and opportunities, as well as laws permitting nations to control their cultures and investments on their soil.

Indigenous seeds, developed and shared by agricultural communities for thousands of years, are now subjected to long-term monopoly ownership through patenting. There is similar pressure to privatize freshwater –rivers, lakes, and streams – probably the most basic form of sustenance, always considered a part of the global commons. Privatization is also overtaking public services, including many previously reserved for governments: education, health, water delivery and treatment, sewage and sanitation, hospitals, welfare, police and fire services, social security, railroads, and prisons. Both in the US and worldwide, many of these services have already been seriously compromised.

Economic globalization tries to integrate and merge the economic activity of all countries into a homogenous model. Countries with varied cultures, economies and traditions are to be served by the same few global corporations, the same fast food, hotel and clothing chains. We’re all supposed to wear the same jeans and shoes, drive similar cars, watch the same films and TV shows, listen to the same music, live in the same kind of urban landscape, engage in the same kind of development schemes, and even adopt the same personal, cultural and spiritual values. It’s a global monoculture.

A related idea is that every country should produce only those products that provide it with a relative advantage. Thus, some countries now specialize in single crops like coffee, sugarcane, forest products, or high-tech assembly. Theoretically, they can meet their other needs by using export earnings to buy goods and services. But increased global trade also increases fossil fuel use, contributing to global warming. Ocean shipping carries nearly 80 percent of the world’s international trade in goods. The fuel commonly used by ships is a mixture of diesel and low-quality oil known as “Bunker C,” which is particularly polluting because of high levels of carbon and sulfur.

Increased air transport is even more damaging. Each ton of freight moved by plane uses 49 times as much energy per kilometer as a ship. The emergence of the West Nile virus in the US is a result of increased transport activity. So is the spread of malaria and dengue fever.

The Unfair Deal

The Economic Policy Institute reports that median hourly wages are down by 19 percent in real terms over the past 25 years. In the computer industry, which has made a few people incredibly wealthy, 80 percent of assembly and production workers are temps, earning $8 an hour with no benefits and no unions. Even the CIA admits that globalization will widen the gap between regional winners and losers. The world’s 475 billionaires are now worth as much as the bottom half of humanity. The combined sales of the top two hundred firms grew faster than overall global economic activity between 1983 and 1999, reaching the equivalent of about 30 percent of world Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Yet these firms employ less than one percent of the global workforce, and continue to replace workers with machines, buy up competitors, and eliminate jobs.

Mainstream media neglects to mention the role of international trade agreements in making life impossible for those who migrate. NAFTA played a major role in destroying the self-sufficient corn-farming economy of Mexico’s Mayan people. In India, Africa and Latin America, mega-development schemes have displaced millions of indigenous people and small farmers to make way for gigantic dams and other development projects. As a result, more people join the landless urban masses. In 1980, the total debt of all development countries was $609 billion; in 2001, after 20 years of structural adjustment, it was $2.4 trillion. In 2001, sub-Saharan Africa paid $3.6 billion more in debt service than it received in new long-term loans and credits. Africa spends about four times as much on debt service payments as it does on health care.

In 1994, the old GATT trade contract was replaced by the WTO. Given a powerful enforcement system, it took on tasks previously handled by the IMF and World Bank. For instance, it does not permit Third World countries to provide inexpensive generic drugs, calling that unfair to foreign drug companies that profit handsomely from brand-name products. Europeans were told that they could not give preference to bananas produced by 200,000 members of small farm cooperatives in the Caribbean because that would be unfair to Chiquita and Dole, giant US agribusinesses that already control half the world’s banana trade. When Europe refused to comply, the WTO approved a retaliatory move by the US to impose 100 percent tariffs on a wide variety of European exports. In 2002, the US announced that it would be imposing tariffs of up to 30 percent on some of its steel imports in order to protect its domestic steel industry.

Basically, the WTO is a blueprint for the global hegemony of the largest corporations in the US, Japan, Germany, France, the UK, Italy, and Canada. To support needless consumption in these dominant countries, most other nations must export goods and services while their people lack the financial means to obtain even the most basic necessities.

Encouraging Words

While most of the book is devoted to the evils of corporate globalization, it also offers a series of alternatives, as well as ten core principles for sustainable societies. These include new democracy, subsidiarity, ecological sustainability, common heritage, diversity, human rights, jobs, food security and safety, equity, and the precautionary principle. Subsidiarity, for example, refers to the fact that most people still survive through local production. Thus, decisions should be made as close to the level of the individuals who will bear the consequences as feasible.

New democracy means limiting the rights and powers of absentee owners, as well as new forms of participation. Concerning jobs, sustainable societies must protect people both in the formal and informal sectors, as well as the underemployed and those who have no work.

Since economic globalization has widened the gap between rich and poor, equity requires the cancellation of illegitimate debt. And when a practice or product poses a significant risk to human beings or the environment, the precautionary principle means that it should be restricted or banned. The burden should be on those who want to introduce a product to prove that it’s safe. Germany and Sweden have made this national policy, and other countries are poised to follow suit.

Although the text becomes repetitive at times, it highlights many valuable and encouraging developments. In Chicago, for instance, 20 percent of all energy used by government must come from renewable sources. In San Francisco, voters have passed a referendum that will turn city rooftops into solar collectors to generate clean power. Meanwhile, 600 US hospitals say they want to purchase renewable power. Faith communities are also getting involved in efforts to reduce their emissions, and several universities have adopted the Kyoto protocol, following up with analysis and reduction strategies.

It was also encouraging to read about Amsterdam, which doesn’t allow private cars in most of the city center, while accommodating bikes, light rail, canal barges, and small lorries for business purposes. In Copenhagen, 32 percent of all trips are by bicycle, and throughout Western industrial countries, bike riders, often organizing under the banner of “Critical Mass,” are demanding dedicated bikes paths and access to public transportation with their vehicles.

Although many places report increasing hunger along with increasing agricultural exports, not all the signs are discouraging. For example, in Cuba the impacts of the Soviet Union’s collapse and a tightening US embargo include an 80 percent drop in pesticides and fertilizer imports. Huge state-controlled farms have been broken into smaller worker-owned collectives, and agriculture has been re-oriented toward basic needs. Cuba has also encouraged diversification, crop rotation, and soil conservation. Due to fuel scarcity, oxen have been bred to replace tractors. And urban gardeners have played a larger role. By 1998, there were over 8000 gardens in Havana, cultivated by 30,000 people. The front lawn at the Ministry of Agriculture has been replaced with a garden of lettuce, bananas, and beans. Many ministry employees lend a hand.

Finally, Alternatives to Economic Globalization deals with various aspects of the UN, criticizing its shortcomings but more often offering support. In this regard, it follows the lead of the Group of 77, developing countries who exert considerable influence in the General Assembly. Supporting the emerging resistance to corporate globalization, they called in 2000 for a transfer of some responsibilities for global economic policies to the UN. That won’t produce a perfect world. But as the book’s subtitle suggests, it would clearly be an improvement.