MORAL CHALLENGES OF GLOBALIZATION
A Sermon by Sarah Oelberg delivered on January 13, 2002
It seems that there were four people in a small airplane that was spinning out of control and about to crash -- George W. Bush, Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama, and a hippie backpacker. There were only three parachutes. President Bush said, "I'm the leader of the free world, so I need to have one of the chutes." He took one, and jumped out of the plane. Bill Gates then said, "Listen, I'm the smartest man in the world, so I'd better take one, too." He took one and leaped out. Then the Dalai Lama said to the hippie, "I am an old man and have made my mark on the world, but you have your life ahead of you. Go ahead- you take the last parachute." The hippie looked at him and calmly said, "Chill, man. Not to worry. The smartest man in the world just jumped out of the plane with my backpack."
This, suggests my colleague Dick Gilbert, is a parable of globalization. In a world of limited resources, we are faced with the competing values of politics, corporate power, religion, and simple humanity. President Bush represents the power of political pressure in a world in which the United States is the only superpower. Bill Gates stands for the corporate triumph of the free market over all other economic forms, and its potential hazards. The Dalai Lama symbolizes the altruistic and moral spirit of religion, which is largely missing in our haste to globalize the world. The hippie backpacker represents all of us; bystanders watching the others control our lives, with a serious stake in what is happening.
Globalization is the name given to the reality that the world is becoming more and more closely linked by international trade, monetary policy, investments, and high-speed telecommunications. It is no longer a choice; it has already happened. If you don't believe me, just look at the labels on your clothes, the country of origin of manufactured goods, and the sources of your food. It is getting harder and harder to find anything made in the good old U.S. of A. anymore. I have one friend who wanted to display an American flag after September 11 to show her patriotism, but couldn't find one made in America, and decided it wasn't very patriotic to fly a flag made in China, or Costa Rica, or Mexico, or South Korea, so she gave up.
Globalization per se is not evil; in fact, it is both inevitable and desirable. The world is not the same as it was in the past; we are necessarily part of a world community, and that community needs to work together to make life better for everyone. That is the promise of globalization, and that is why many people support it. In the eyes of its proponents, it is the result of forces driving a powerful engine of technological innovation and economic growth that is strengthening human freedom, spreading democracy, and creating the wealth needed to end poverty and save the environment throughout the globe - the interdependent web made manifest. It certainly sounds good; it even appears to fit right into our UU principles. We should all be for globalization, right? So, when "Economic Globalization" was put forth as one of the proposed study-action issues to be voted upon at the General Assembly last June, I did not vote for it. For one thing, I had swallowed the claim that this was a humanitarian movement, designed to bring a higher standard of living and more equality to people all over the world. Oh, I knew there were some problems with it, problems that had concerned many people to the point that they had protested meetings where globalization was discussed, but I thought most of these protesters were single-issue demagogues who were using globalization as a way to raise their issues. Also, I did not vote for it because it seemed to me to be way too complicated and removed from our individual lives for us to be able to be very effective.
Well, it turns out I was right about the complexity of the issue, but I was dead wrong about the rest. Now that I have studied and learned more about it, I am ready to agree with those who characterize economic globalization as the ultimate threat to humanity. I believe that corporate globalization is enriching the few at the expense of the many, replacing democracy with rule by corporations and financial elites, destroying the real wealth of the planet and society to make more money for the already wealthy, and eroding the relationships of trust and caring that are the essential foundations of a civilized society. And, I realize that, while each of us may have little effect on the powers that are driving it, globalization is certainly not removed from our individual lives; in fact, it effects us in many ways each and every day.
The problem is that today's globalization is driven by multi-national corporations, who don't think and act in terms of human consequences, but are solely concerned with their own interests and bottom lines. This globalization has bullied and seeped its way into every nook of humanity, with results that are indeed sobering, if not downright scary. Some of the results include loss of democracy, human rights violations, rapid environmental degradation, expanding poverty and inequality, and increased starvation. We should not fear globalization as such, but we should be afraid of globalization as it is being played out according to the imperialistic goals of a few rich people.
You may have read the article in the UU World which discussed the most compelling global issues, according to activists. The one that experts are most alarmed about is the expansion of private corporations, both in size and in influence. There is fear and evidence that corporations are usurping the role of elected governments in determining working and living conditions around the globe. The bigger the corporations get -- and they are merging and growing all the time -- the more distant they are from the consequences of the decisions they make, and the impact on people's lives. Corporations focus on the bottom line and their own interests, no matter what the consequences to workers, the environment, and the wishes of the people. We are certainly seeing an example of this in the current Enron situation. It now seems evident that Enron "bought" members of the government, from the president on down, in order to assure that laws were passed that were favorable to Enron -- but destroyed the environment, democracy, and the lives of its workers. Another great concern is the growing economic inequality. The gap between the rich and the poor is getting greater. We now live in a world where 1.3 billion people are living in abject poverty on less than $1 per day; where another two billion are barely scraping by on about $3 per day; but where one company's annual sales is larger than the entire economic output of 85% of the world's countries; and where the combined wealth of more than one-third of the entire world's population is surpassed by the combined wealth of just 358 people.
The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have become the strong arms of finance that benefit the global elite. Their two major functions are now to create a risk-free environment for predatory speculative financing, and to open world markets to investors. Before they became so powerful, most capital flowed in order to benefit economic growth and development. Now it is estimated that 95% of capital is speculative, which results in quick returns for the investors and dangerous instability for markets worldwide. The IMF and World Bank lend crisis-stricken countries huge amounts of money at very high interest rates, and then insist that bank repayment be the first priority of those countries.
The poor people of the poor countries must then bear the burden of repaying the loans. Taxes are raised, lands that used to be farmed by locals to feed their families are turned into crops for export in order to gain money, and people are left to starve. In Brazil, for example, almost the entire country's fertile soil was sold to corporate agribusiness and is now used to raise cattle that are exported to the North American fast food culture -- because it is cheaper than raising them in the U.S. The Brazilian people, deprived of their land, either wind up in huge, overcrowded slums in the cities, or they penetrate further and further into the rainforest, destroying the delicate natural ecosystem. And so the cycle continues. This is the perfect example of money being extracted from poor countries to rich countries -- Robin Hood in reverse. Sadly, even though the World Bank claims it has already accounted for the potential failure of payments, a call to forgive the debts of the poorest countries at the millennium was not heeded -- the greed of the rich knows no humanity. Now we are seeing the most recent result of that decision in Argentina -- and it is time to cry for Argentina. For those of us who believe issues of economic equality do matter, the lending policies of the World Bank and IMF are immoral, not to mention illegal. The theft of land and labor should be a punishable offense. As Martin Luther King said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
For many UU activists, the greatest threat and the most important problem facing our world is environmental degradation. Global warming has special urgency, as I think we all know after this exceptional winter. The chief cause of the rising temperatures is carbon dioxide in the atmosphere resulting from industrial and civilian use of fossil fuels. Environmental activists all over the world are working to shift to cleaner energy resources, but the United States, by far the worst offender, refuses to participate in reduction initiatives -- again because of the political power of oil companies and manufacturers.
Another cause for concern is the global attack on democracy, even as we hold it up as the ideal (only) legitimate form of government. But the World Trade Organization is an international tribunal of three men, appointed by the richest countries. It is the arm of the Washington concensus that controls trade in the world, ensuring that "free trade" benefits corporate interests. A casual examination of its record will horrify anyone who believes in the advantages of democracy. A country that joins the WTO must abide by the rulings of the tribunal or face severe economic punishment. This allows the Washington consensus to breach the sanctity of another nation's domestic policy. For example, most European countries are against genetically modified foods, and they resent that U.S. agri-corporations, like Monsanto, are establishing a monopoly on them and driving small European farmers out of business -- like has already happened in the US. But when the European nations tried to keep GMO's out, the WTO ruled that they had created a barrier to free trade, and either had to capitulate or pay heavy fines. Most decided to pay the fines, but poorer countries do not have that choice.
There are many other aspects of globalization that are causes for concern -- overpopulation and urban sprawl; rapid technological innovations that are actually widening the gap between rich and poor (the U.S., with less than 5% of the world's population, has more computers than the rest of the world combined, for example); genetic engineering (already more than half of the processed food in the supermarket contains genetically engineered substances and we don't yet know what the long-term effects of consuming them might be).
One of the most ludicrous aspects of globalization is the idea that growth is good. But the main consequences of growth have been that most of us are now working harder to maintain a declining quality of life. And economic accounting practices measure many of the costs of growth as economic gains, even though they clearly reduce rather than increase our well-being! For example, the costs of cleaning up the Exxon Valdez oil spill and, you can depend on it, the costs of cleaning up the damage from the terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center and rebuilding something in its place, will be counted as net contributions to economic output. In other words, disasters that are tragic for the people and the environment are beneficial to society!
Speaking of terrorism, a case can be made that there is a strong relationship between the events of September 11 and globalization. To terrorists and their sympathizers worldwide (yes, terrorism is also a global movement), the World Trade Center symbolized the global nature of corporate money and power, and the Pentagon symbolizes the U.S. military's protection and enforcement of this global system. Because much of the resulting poverty and suffering exist in the Muslim world, Osama bin Laden has little difficulty recruiting his followers. The resultant widespread discontent fuels terrorism, as we saw on Sept. 11 The truth is that it is not necessary for a nation to have particularly high economic output in order to meet the basic needs of its people. In fact, some countries with relatively modest economic output do better in this regard than other countries with much higher GDPs. If the priority is to provide people with a good diet, shelter, clothing, clean water, health care, basic transport, education and other essentials of good living, then it is within the means of most countries to do so and thus alleviate human deprivation within existing levels of productive output. In fact, an argument can be easily made that it is those countries that are not engaged in a race to growth where people are faring better in many ways. For example, countries with high income levels are experiencing increases in rates of cancer, respiratory illnesses, stress and cardiovascular disorders, and birth defects. A growing body of evidence links all these phenomena to the by-products of economic growth -- air and water pollution, chemical additives and pesticide residues in food, high noise levels, and increased exposure to electromagnetic radiation.
I now know why I have been so drawn to our little village in Transylvania. Romania is one of the few countries that have not been greatly influenced by globalization. They do not belong to the WTO, or NATO, or anything else -- although they think they would like to. In the small villages, there are still human contacts and interactions as people meet on the road, and congregate in the church and cultural center, and create family and community entertainment. Everyone works together to carry out the neighborly functions essential to the maintenance of healthy, caring community. Both women and men carry out the activities through which they meet their basic needs for food, shelter, clothing, child care, and so on. Because of this, the full value of the goods and services is shared and exchanged within the family and the community, among those who actually create the value. The result is an extraordinarily efficient use of resources to meet real needs. When basic functions are transferred from the social economy to the market economy, much of the work of the people goes to pay the overhead costs -- as we have found here in America, even with two wage earners and longer work hours, many families cannot adequately meet needs they once met quite satisfactorily on their own.
In Benced, the people still live on their land, and in spite of what we would consider to be a state of poverty, most people have adequate food, shelter, and clothing, and the countryside has a prosperous appearance. Most farming is done on open fields, with families holding the rights to farm small, scattered strips of land. Even those without such rights are able to provide for themselves from the common lands, which provide grazing for their animals, wild plants and animals to eat, and wood for their fires. Everything is natural -- no pesticides, fertilizers, hybrid seeds or genetically modified crops -- and the lack of automobiles, industry and excessive waste means the air is pure and clean. The people are healthy, and live to ripe old ages, in spite of a lack of modern medical facilities. It seems that human uses of the environment are in balance with the regenerative capacities of the ecosystem, and the land is used to allow all the people to have the opportunity to fulfill their physical needs adequately and to pursue their social, cultural, intellectual and spiritual development.
I think we in the affluent U.S. can learn a lot from people in places like Benced, especially as quality-of-life indicators become part of the global discussion. Rather than measure the success of an economy or country on the basis of the gross domestic product (which includes, of course, the cost of weapons building and pollution cleanup costs), quality-of-life indicators measure it by how well the average people are doing. Redefining the world according to people, not profit, needs to be the ultimate objective of globalization. We need to put the human common good ahead of the corporate private gain.
Free trade and globalization are here to stay, and that is not altogether a bad thing. What we must do, however, is to challenge unbridled free-trade globalization with even more interconnectedness, always focusing on the human element. We can, with appropriate public knowledge and pressure, make globalization more ethically and morally responsible. This is the purpose of the UU study-action issue; it also must be the goal of every concerned, moral person.
Information and excerpts for this sermon were taken liberally from:
- A sermon by Richard Gilbert, "The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Globalization and You," First Unitarian church of Rochester, NY, October 24, 1999.
- David C. Korten When Corporations Rule the World, 2nd ed., Kumarian Press, 2001. (This is the book recommended by the UUA)
- Neil Chetik, "Global Issues," UU World, Nov, 2000.
- Andrew Hartman, "The Globalization of a Movement," The Humanist, Nov, 2001.