The Threat of Globalisation

The Daily Ablution complained to the BBC about a poll they ran that concluded US is bigger threat than terror. Well, that was the headline, anyway; the real conclusion was that the US and globalisation combined were a bigger threat than terror, at least given the online poll they did. Apart from being an online poll, there were other methodology problems that were worth criticising and that make the conclusion fairly tenuous. But whatever. The BBC guys who did the the survey were kind enough to respond to his complaints, not just once by email, but again in the comments of that blog entry:

While it is interesting to speculate on methodological issues – most of which are irrelevant – wouldn’t it be more useful to consider the meaning of the results. […]

The fact is, people from around the world – including a large number from North America – were more likely to list the power of the USA and global corporations as among the world’s biggest problems than global warming, wars or terrorism, communicable diseases such as AIDS, or hunger, or lack of sanitation. Isn’t that interesting. But what does this mean? Where has it come from? What do people who disagree feel would be an appropriate response?

The responses tended to be like:

Jeremy. No, it’s not worth addressing. To paraphrase: a fatuous survey has ludicrous results, but the results are so interesting (ie they confirm all my prejudices) that as to how they were actually compiled and whether they are remotely worthwhile… well that’s just nit-picking, isn’t it?

Personally, I think that’s stupid. A large number of people really do think the US and globalisation are serious dangers, and unless those of us who disagree are planning on exterminating all of them (did I miss a memo?) working out how to understand how they tick, and ideally work out a way of convincing them that they’re wrong is surely valuable. Maybe the poll’s wrong or it draws to broad a conclusion. So what? It was a sincere attempt, and the people who ran it seem to be interested in listening to people’s thoughts (although apparently they’re not so interested in criticism of the methodology. tsk).

Anyway, I think the real issue is that unlike the other threats — war, terrorism, hunger, climate change, corruption — the US and globalisation aren’t harmful in and of themselves; they’re not dangers, so much as powers. It’s a similar thing to saying “science” is a threat. It’s not naturally a danger, but you might feel threatened by it anyway because it gives more power to people you don’t trust, whether by providing dangerous weapons that might be used to kill you or your friends, or persuasive arguments that you worry might be used to trick you into doing things that are dangerous.

There are a reasonable similarities between this treatment of “science” and “globalisation”: both have been decried as unqualified boogeymen at the same time as people are reaping their benefits by being better fed, better entertained, better educated, and generally leading fuller and richer lives. Maybe Nike, Microsoft and McDonalds are evil, but the Internet, Greenpeace, and Linux are equal beneficiaries of globalisation. Maybe you’re not happy that globalisation means you get to watch crap Hollywood movies all around the world, but it’s also what lets you watch Bollywood movies. You might be sick of pop-trash like Britney, but without globalisation there wouldn’t be a “world music” genre, by definition.

You don’t have to go back many decades to find people seriously concerned about the horrible things science can create; and people’s hearts still flutter when thinking about things like cloning and genetic modifications. But that’s kind-of the point: it’s not science itself you should be worrying about; it might make various catastrophes possible, but it also provides the tools to understand, predict and prevent catastrophes. Thinking about the risks and minimising them is the correct approach; not giving up and wishing we didn’t know anything about anything, or have to have anything to do with people who live over the horizon. Sure globalisation provides lots of possibilities to do harm, but it also provides the possibilities to avoid or diminish the risks it creates. McDonalds might put your favourite hometown restaurant out of business, but the Internet lets you email the chef to get a copy of one of his recipes from the other side of the world, so his meals can live on. Fluid labour markets might mean you have to leave your family and friends in order to work at the job your best at, but global markets also make it at least affordable if not outright cheap to visit them back at home, or to keep in touch with them.

Which is to say, I think the people responding to the poll are making the same mistake about globalisation that luddites have made about science. It’s something to talk about and think about, but the soundbite itself doesn’t have any real truth to it, that I can see.

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