2016 will be marked as the year that globalization slipped. It isn’t dead by any means, and this may only be a blip, but it certainly took some serious steps backwards last year.
Globalization is the combination of a whole bunch of factors that lead to increased flows of goods, resources, people, and ideas around the world: trade, immigration, the internet, travel, etc. For the past century, globalization has been increasing: trade agreements lead to increased trade around the world, borders become more porous as neighbouring nations work together, and everyone everywhere can chat online. There have been enormous benefits of globalization: increased wealth, reductions in poverty and disease, innovation and shared knowledge. But there have also been enormous negative effects: environmental degradation, pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions on unprecedented levels; erosion of traditions and cultures as American/Western cultural dominance extends around the world; the development of complex but fragile economic structures and relationships that allow one nation’s economic crisis to become a global crisis in a matter of hours or days; the increasingly clear reality that almost every military conflict in the world is a global conflict, with foreign nations intervening and refugees crossing borders; and not least, the sense of complete overwhelm we feel as we watch our newsfeeds, with actually distant conflicts feeling close and personally impacting.
The list could go on and on, but I think it’s the last point that has turned so many people against globalization this past year. We all have problems of our own, but problems from the other side of the world seem to take precedence – not only in terms of what gets covered by the media, but also in regard to the attention of our governments, which are always engaging in some military action or other and waging proxy wars in the Middle East. So when the Middle East comes closer to home, in the form of refugees or immigrants, many feel like it’s the last straw. We’re getting tired of intervening in foreign conflicts, we’re getting tired of our employers shipping our jobs overseas, we’re getting tired of the sense of alienation we can feel when other cultures we don’t understand or agree with are suddenly right in front of us (virtually or actually) and we’re expected to tolerate and respect them, and so on. We still enjoy easy access to sushi, chimichangas, pomegranates, and tea, and we’re usually blissfully ignorant of who makes our cheap clothing and where, but the psychic and social costs of globalization are starting to wear us out. Being a “global citizen” is exhausting, dis-empowering, frustrating, and even heartbreaking. We’re running out of sympathy, much less empathy, and we have compassion fatigue.
Humans weren’t made to live in a global village. We evolved in small societies based on even smaller communities, and our minds are hard-wired to be suspicious of outsiders. What constitutes an outsider depends on the context: a neighbouring tribe might be considered an outsider, until people from a different race come along – then suddenly old enemies are re-contextualized as our closest neighbours, allies, cousins, and we can unite with them for safety from the other, more different outsiders. This helps explain why at least some of us are able to feel more affinity and less fear toward someone from, say, Norway, than for our neighbour who has a different skin colour; the part of our brain that determines insider/outsider is easily fooled by visible differences. Considering the multicultural makeup of most Western societies, that we get along in such a context at all is a miraculous example of the human ability to overcome our own innate limitations.
We do tend to get along in our multicultural societies, but it’s much easier to do that when times are good. It is when times get tough, and we look for reasons why, that neighbours who look different from us take on their role as outsiders again, and then as scapegoats. It is much easier for our brains to see the presence of an outsider as the reason why there are no jobs in our community, than it is to understand the complex and secretive trade deal that resulted in another nation gaining competitive advantage over ours in the industry in which my particular region once specialized, causing jobs to effectively be shipped overseas. We are also vulnerable to anecdotes: one story about an immigrant or refugee committing a crime is enough to overwhelm in many of us the knowledge that immigrants are statistically much less likely to commit crimes than people who were born here.
So many people in Western nations (especially in Europe and the US – Canada is thankfully still one of the most welcoming nations in the world) want to close their borders (and even build walls along them), pull out of international trade deals that result in job losses at home, and otherwise disengage from the global “community” – at least until they get things sorted out at home.
That this reaction is uninformed and often irrational is tragic, but in the end it doesn’t matter. The reality is that our attitudes toward each other, our ability to live and work together, are the deciding factor in virtually every issue and endeavour we face today. There are no problems in the world that are not social problems: we have the scientific knowledge and technology to solve climate change, world hunger, disease, you name it – but we have trouble trusting one another enough to implement solutions to those problems. There’s little point in sitting on a high horse and telling people that xenophobia is irrational and immoral; there’s little point trying to make everyone an expert on global trade. This desire to disengage, to circle the wagons and push out outsiders, is an evolutionary process: our attitudes – and indeed our brains – are reacting to a rapidly changing environment. Populism is effectively just giving voice to this process, this reaction to the exhaustion of too many stimuli, and there is no counter-movement that can somehow stimulate our brains to move past the way they are wired and toward the way we would actually like them to be. Whether we like it or not, the anti-globalization response is rooted in our biology, and that’s not something we can convince people away from.
But maybe we don’t have to. As I said in the beginning, there are a lot of terrible outcomes of globalization, a lot of reasons to want to slow it down or more carefully direct it. If we live in a moment in which globalization may be reversing, then we should seize that moment and direct it in the ways that we failed to direct globalization in the first place.
Right now in the political realm, globalism is shrinking back to nationalism. This is a terrible, terrible idea. Nationalism, particularly when fuelled by xenophobia and economic frustration, is a recipe for war and conquest. We’ve been down that road, and in many ways the rise of globalism was an attempt to fix the awful results of nationalism: the global governmental organizations (the United Nations, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund, etc.) all arose in some form or another from the ashes of the World Wars as attempts to bring peace, stability, and prosperity, to rebuild Europe and attempt to prevent another war of that scope from ever happening again. The current trend from globalism back to nationalism is reversing enormous progress that has made the world safer and more just.
We need to go further, or smaller, than nationalism. We need localism.
When we engage at a local level, we’re working with the wiring of our brains. We were made for small communities. As an indirect result of globalization, we have stopped engaging locally. Local politics has the lowest level of engagement, while federal politics and international affairs gets all of the press (and all of our attention), despite the fact that we have the least input and the least stake in it. We pay the most attention to what’s happening on the other side of the world, but our sense of security in the world is all about the community in which we live; if we see terror attacks on television, we feel unsafe in our own community. We need to be able to pull back from the other side of the world just to feel comfortable talking to our neighbours – something almost nobody does anymore. We make trade deals to make our nation prosper, but at the expense of sectors of our own economy, causing entire regions to suffer economically. We develop complex virtual lives online where we announce our thoughts to the world, but won’t talk to strangers in public. Our globalism has undermined our localism.
There are tremendous benefits to localism: local economies fight inequality and help us and our neighbours to prosper, creating more government revenues to reinvest in the community through services and infrastructure; local engagement is more effective at dealing with social problems such as poverty and discrimination; and local solutions are also better suited to addressing economic and environmental problems, because they can be tailored to local and regional conditions and markets.
The pro-globalization crowd tends to talk about globalization as if it is a package deal and a binary choice: we cannot pick and choose what types of globalization we get, and we can either promote globalization as a package, or be protectionists (a word very similar to “luddite” in its connotation). But who says that in order to focus our attention on local economies, politics, culture, and issues we have to unplug from the internet and turn our backs on the world? We can be glocalists, combining the best of the world’s resources and ideas with a deliberate and systemic focus on our communities. There are a number of ways that we can do this.
First, we need to prioritize municipal and provincial politics over federal politics. Right now, most of our attention is on federal politicians who, frankly, mostly live far away and deal with things that will only indirectly affect us. Part of this is because we tend to always appreciate and look for things that are happening on the largest scale possible, but part of it is structural. Canada’s federal government has the greatest ability to levy taxes, which means that the federal government has the most of our collective money to spend despite the fact that most of our government services are delivered at a provincial level and received in our local communities. Because the federal government is doling out this money, they tend to have preconditions on how that money is to be spent – which is why we all watch the federal government closely as they decide how our provincial government can fund our local medical clinic. While there is much to be said about having national standards for the quality and availability of services, this structure usually leads to decisions being made as far from the action as possible, with shocking amounts of intermediaries (i.e., bureaucracy) to manage it. Instead, we could have federally-mandated goals with flexibility in how they are achieved, allowing municipalities and provinces to create solutions that best fit their own context rather than asking a centralized government to come up with a solution that works for everyone (those rarely exist). Empowering the lower levels of government, whether through more flexible transfer payments or through a change in the structure of taxation, will lead to us paying as close attention to local politics as we currently do to federal politics – and as we can be more personally engaged in local politics, the result will be much more democratic engagement.
Second, we need to choose how we engage with global news. This is difficult, because endless stories of war in Syria is more emotionally engaging and impacting than reports on local issues and affairs, and our emotional engagement is what drives us to click, watch, and read (and buy). But as Paul Bloom points out in his new book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (covered by The Current this week), empathy can be very problematic. Empathy is not just feeling for someone (that’s sympathy) or caring for them enough to help meet their needs (that’s compassion); rather, empathy is actually feeling someone else’s pain. When we do that, we make it our own – and therefore subject to all of our own biases and prejudices. Which means that we tend to feel empathetic toward people who look like us more than people who don’t, toward good looking people, etc. And our empathetic response is often irrational and even violent: we sent thousands and thousands of teddy bears to Newtown, Connecticut after the school shooting there, as if compelled to do so by our own grief and emotional needs; and anecdotes about the crimes of outsiders against people who look like us often lead to hate crimes, prejudicial policies, and even war. When we watch global news, we take on the pain and suffering of people from the other side of the world, but we lack the understanding and context to make that meaningful, which leads to us doing stupid things.
It can also lead to us doing good things: I cried my eyes out when I saw the images of Alan Kurdi’s little body washed ashore, and so did my entire country – and we pushed to bring more refugees here. We can still do that, but we should do so with more local context. That is, we should sponsor refugee families (out of compassion rather than empathy) and then engage with them locally, getting to know them and understand the conflict in their homeland through them rather than only through the horror stories on the news.
Third, we need to encourage local innovation, both economically and socially, by sharing the best ideas from around the world in local forums. Saying that we’re going to come up with local solutions doesn’t mean that we have to reinvent the wheel in every small town across the country. Creating local social infrastructure, such as transition town movements, NGOs, or even book clubs, can bring people together to share and develop ideas to make their lives and communities better without waiting for some federal or supra-national group to do it. We need to solve big, global problems, but the best way to do it is every way. There is no silver bullet that will kill climate change, but a million local solutions will all do their part. The role of national governments, NGOs, and supra-national governments is to coordinate and direct, but not control. Nobody can do this for us.
There are so many other ways we can bring the power of globalization home to enrich our communities rather than undermine them. Globalism is declining, but we can’t let it slip back into nationalism. We need to make principled decisions now to empower local communities with the best ideas and resources of the global community.
(This post was inspired by Dr. Dennis Hiebert’s analysis here.)