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Globalization

Are you for or against globalization?

 

Is globalization just the affirmation of capitalism and Western values; a form of Eurocentrism, Americanization, or Westernization; a process that increases the wealth and advantage of the few to the detriment of the less fortunate; the West versus the Rest?

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Globalization, loosely defined as the increasing interconnection and interdependence of the world’s countries, a process that appears especially pertinent to our times. There seems to be strong connection between the ideas of globalization and sustainability since both are concerned with the entire community of life on Earth and its mode of interaction. Devising meaningful categories under which subsequent discussion can be pursued is itself contentious but sustainability has settled on the interdependency of society, economy, and environment. The category ‘society’ may be supplemented by or interpreted to include political, cultural, religious or ideological dimensions, these being additional popular categories. First used in the 1940s the word ‘globalization’ exploded onto the world stage in the 1990s. It is now the task of the new academic generalist of the interdisciplinary Global Studies (the first conference was held in 2009) to put some order into this debate. This academic study has condensed into the Global Studies Consortium.

The free movement of goods, capital, services, people, technology and information. The constant creation of new connections, multiplication existing connections, many with 24-hour continuity. It is the action or procedure of international integration of countries arising from the conversion of world views, products, ideas, and other aspects of culture. Advances in transportation and in telecommunications infrastructure have been major factors in globalization, generating further interdependence of economic and cultural activities.

A Broader Definition

Before getting started perhaps we should try to define our terms more precisely – what exactly is meant by globalization? A glib answer would infer the way something has become world-wide, or the trend towards global integration and development. But it is a concept that has drawn considerable and heated debate so it is no surprize that ‘globalization’ presents us with a classic case of polysemy: it is used in many senses and with many applications – as a process, a condition, a system, a force, and an age.[1] No wonder it can generate confusion and ambiguity among both scholars and the public.

Globalization

The idea of globalization brings with it several associations:

 

  • The idea of borders, boundaries, and territories – their role and relevance – the possibility of their elimination
  • A questioning of nationalism and sovereignty – the word ‘globality’ may be used in contradistinction to ‘nationality’[1]
  • The changing perceptions of social hierarchy, equity, and globality over nationality
  • The possibility and development of an agreed global value system or world view based on our common humanity and a sustainable future
  • Global diparities of health, wealth, and wellbeing
  • Rapid development of technology with an acceleration and intensification of information and communication
  • A subjective compression of the world (a global village) in which we must seek the harmonious balance between the global and the local – the ‘glocal
  • The acceptance of English as the global lingua franca for academia, economics, and politics

Historical development

Globalization is a human process but it is not confined to humans. The building of cities marked the movement of humans out of nature and into a local evolutionary environment of their own making. The naming of the most recent geological epoch as the Anthropocene (a period defined by human influence on the world’s biogeochemical cycles), demonstrates how humans now impact the environment of evolutionary adaptation for the entire community of life. This is not just climate change. One obvious manifestation is the transformation of global landscapes by the Plant domestication that created agriculture, forestry, and horticulture, the progressive homogenization of the world’s flora and fauna. This aspect of globalization is discussed as cultivated plant globalization.

The interaction of humans with their environment is a reciprocal process. The study of long-term globalization is the study of forces of natural selection acting on humans – at first simple biological evolution, but later supplemented by cultural evolution: it is an account of human radiation and diversification as it has gathered momentum over the last 70,000 years.

For convenience we can divide this process into five phases, summarizing their major characteristics:

Scheduled airline flights in 2009
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Jpatokal Accessed 8 June 2017

1. prehistory & Bronze Age

The development of language, perhaps about 100,000 years ago, facilitated the increased sharing of information and the the possibility for cooperation that looked beyond family and tribal groups and interests.

Stepping out of Africa about 70,000 years ago modern humans would, by about 12,000 BP have walked into and occupied the world’s five continents. Around 12,000-4,000 BP, during the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, the domestication of plants and animals arose independently in centres on the fertile sedimentary soils of river valleys – the Fertile Crescent of Europe, which included the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates, the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers in China, the Indus Valley in India, also in North and South America and highlands of New Guinea.

Over time agriculture made possible the construction of Bronze Age cities with hierarchical social organization and division of labour on a scale that would encourage the later development of technologies and transport systems that would revolutionize modes of exploration, conquest, and trade. Social cohesion was assisted by the development of a communal religion, ideology, and legal system now recorded in written language. With both oral and written communication traditions operating within large communities there was now the much-accelerated operation of cultural evolution superimposed on the former slow biological evolution.

Paths of human migration based on mtDNA
Numbers refer to thousands of years ago
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Accessed 18 June 2013

2. Early Empires, the Axial Age, & Premodern World

By the 6th and 5th centuries BCE peoples across the world had entered what is now known as the Axial Age, subjecting old beliefs to critical examination and developing new social structures, religions, and philosophies. In this period of intellectual introspection we see the emergence in the East of Chinese Taoism and Confucianism, in India Buddhism and Jainism, and in Persia Zoroastrianism. In the Near East there was the Hebrew religion of Judaism that existed before the rise of the later Abrahamic religions Christianity and Islam.

Greek Pre-Socratic philosophers and those of the Classical Era, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle would have a lasting impact on Western thought and the development of science. Bronze Age cities expanded their sphere of influence to become nation states and empires began to emerge. Empires could be cruel and authoritarian but they could also impose order on disparate and warring factions. The invention of the wheel c. 3000 BCE, and the domestication of the camel at about the same time, revolutionized transport systems and saw the introduction of carts, permanent roads, and thus trade routes that hastened the transmission of technologies, ideas, cultures, ideologies and religions, goods, and disease. In the West there were the Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Hittites, followed by Persian, Greek, Macedonian, and Roman empires. In Asia the Indus Civilization continued and in China the Han dynasty rivalled the Roman empire in sophistication. In Central and South America there were the Incas, Aztecs and Mayans. Later manifestations include the Holy Roman and Byzantine Empires, Islamic Caliphates and Ottoman Empire as well as African Empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay.

Following the collapse of the Roman Empire the West Europe was divided into multiple kingdoms squabbling over Christian theology until the revival of Classical Greco-Roman learning in the Renaissance. In the East was the far more advanced pre-modern culture of imperial China. The Qin emperor of Chinas first imperial dynasty (221-206 BCE) unified northeast China. The Qin dynasty was followed by the bureaucratic Han (206 BCE–220 CE), Sui (581-618), T’ang (618–907), Yuan (1279–1368), and Ming (1368–1644) who would produce great philosophers and advances in mathematics, chemistry, and astronomy. Many technological advances in this period pre-dated or were more effective than those in the West advancing social organization. They included: clocks, compass, gunpowder, sophisticated hydraulic engineering and metalwork, paper including paper money, printing, clever plough design, silk fabrics. To this can be added elaborate infrastructure of irrigation systems, canals, river and road transport, elaborate legal systems and bureaucratic record-keeping, weights and measures, coinage and modes of commerce.

One lasting legacy was the Silk Road that linked East and West, gathering impetus as an exchange between the Roman and Han Empires. In the 15th century vast fleets of Chinese ships under Admiral Zheng-he, each dwarfing their European galleon counterparts, had sailed as far as Africa returning to China with animals like the giraffe. But these were not colonial voyages and China now adopted a more inward-looking policy of self-sufficiency. The most active trade routes at this time were overland along the Silk Road and Incense Route, in northern India, the shipping and land routes of the Mediterranean including North Africa and the sea trade of southeast Asia that connected China, Japan and Western Indonesia.

3. Early Modern Period (1450-1750)

As China became more inward-looking the European Renaissance was beginning in Italy and setting in train a series of connected developments:
 

  • increasing resistance to the perceived wisdom of the past inherited from the Bible and classical philosophy including a distaste for magic, the occult, and superstitions of various kinds

  • increasing resistance to absolute monarchy and political tyranny

  • a Scientific Revolution associated with the improvement of technology used for navigation and shipbuilding

  • advent of the printing press c. 1450

  • desire to circumvent overland Arab traders by opening up maritime trade routes to India and beyond. This leads to an Age of Discovery as the expansion of trade mostly by Spain, Portugal then Holland and finally France an Britain, that is, from northwest Europe first in a highly lucrative circular Atlantic trade between Europe, Africa (slaves) and the New World (plantations), then into the markets of the Indian and Pacific Oceans

  • formation of increasingly successful commercial business enterprises like the joint stock companies of the British and Dutch East India companies, often supported by their governments

  • advent of the nation-state in the 18th century

4. Modern period (1750-1980)

Most of the world was now part of a web of interconnected trade routes on both land and sea that were being managed by Europeans with a strong sense of progress and their own social, moral, and intellectual worth as guardians of civilization. European political, economic, and cultural traditions were introduced to new parts of the world as Neo-European Canada, North and South America, Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands including the Philippines, and more. These colonies provided the resources needed to feed hungry factories and an exploding European population. A major phase of biological exchange (the Columbian exchange with the New World) was under way as temperate agriculture was introduced to temperate regions of the world along with its associated pathogens, diseases (both human and other), and invasives. Tropical horticultural crops were distributed between east and west hemispheres. The world began to share the economy of its beverages, culinary traditions, and social customs: coffee, tea, cocoa, spices, sugar, opium, tobacco, wheat, rice, potatoes, rubber, cotton, and silk. There was now a gathering nationalism – the deliberate cultivation of a national identity and nation-state with a national (sometimes racial or religious) heritage, mythology, literature and, often, language developed from the 18th century.

Commentary

This article has interpreted long-term globalization as a form of Big History. Over the span of 300,000 years considered this becomes not only a social and economic phenomenon but a biological one too. Globalization is, in part, the natural experiment taking place between humans and their environment, an experiment that includes the climate, natural resource stocks, and ecological structure and function (ecosystem services). 

Current trends indicate that on a global scale there is an increasing integration (‘homogenization’) of the Earth’s natural systems and a parallel convergence of social and economic systems the challenge being to maximize the social benefits and minimize the detrimental effects of this process.

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