It wasn't very long ago that "globalization" was lauded by virtually every politician as the future of the world. We were told the global marketplace was going to revolutionize our societies and bring us a host of wonderful goods and services that, thanks to global competition, we'd get at the lowest prices possible. My, my, how times have changed. With societal and governmental upheavals rocking the planet, strange and violent weather events destroying predictability for everything from manufacturing to crop production, and raging economic chaos, the death knell for globalization may be ringing.
There were certainly some among us who refuted the globalization theories back when they were in vogue, for many reasons that are now proving substantive. First and foremost, people with any societal or environmental consciousness knew that globalization actually meant a rather ugly equation. Wherever raw materials could be obtained with the least regulation or environmental protection, they'd be cheapest. Cut down old-growth hardwoods in Indonesia to build cheap furniture? Sure. Ruin the Niger Delta for cheap oil? Not a problem. Run copper mines in South America that kill entire watersheds and rivers? It's fine, as long as you grease the palms of the local officials.
Same went for labor. If you can get things built for pennies instead of dollars per hour, the final cost winds up being less. So what if you hire children and chain them to work tables instead of sending them to school? So what if they're working in polluted environments that slash years off their lives? So what if they live in hovels with raw sewage flowing by in stinking gutters? What a boon to predatory capitalism that there aren't any pesky unions to get in the way—you don't have to worry about picking up the tab for Social Security and, if you play it right, you don't even have to pay taxes. The bottom line is that you go where the labor is cheap and disposable and add some of the difference between there and civilized working conditions to the fat bonus checks at the end of the year.
And then there was that nagging, unanswered question about how everything was going to be shipped globally when the energy sources such transportation relies on are not only finite, but volatile. And it's not just the energy consumed that has come to plague us, but the subsequent pollution that's now on the verge of killing the planet. We can argue 'til the cows come home about whether or not Peak Oil has already occurred, but it's getting tougher and tougher to deny the effect global pollution is having on our atmosphere and seas, as well as our drinking water and soil. We can surely ship Montana's coal to China, but just as surely we'll be getting the mercury and acid rain back from the emissions to poison Montana's fish and ravage our lands.
What many didn't predict was the economic turmoil that would engulf the globe and the effect that would have on the emerging global marketplace. No one expected the United States to fall to the crippling effects of the Great Recession, to actually see our economic rating downgraded, to witness tens of millions of Americans losing their jobs and homes. In the simplistic equations of globalization zealots, the greenback would always be strong, our consumer society would always want more of everything, and, of course, we'd always be able to afford whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted.
But that's not quite the way it worked out. Instead, when America's economy tanked and people quit spending so profligately, the world economy rocked. China, for instance, can make all the cheap goods we could possibly consume—but not if we can't afford them. Toss in the difficult time the Euro nations are facing now and the situation grows even more perilous. One consequence of globalization is that when the economic dominoes start to topple in one nation, it wreaks havoc on a much greater scale than was ever possible before.
It's always interesting to see how economic theories actually play out in the real world. Globalization has been a leading economic theory for some time now, but as with so many theories, the unforeseen circumstances, unknown variables, and unexpected synergisms have a way of throwing wrenches into the works.
So why talk about it now? Well, for one thing, it's harvest season in Montana. We have a cornucopia of healthy, fresh foods pouring forth all around us. And much of it comes from backyard gardens and local producers whom we know and trust, not from some multinational corporation looking to their bottom line and doing whatever it takes to get there. The horror stories about imported foods are endless, the consequences often grim, if not fatal.
Then there's the whole transportation concern. Food travels an estimated average of 1,500 miles from where it was produced to Americans' tables, so buying locally drastically reduces everything from fuel to packaging to pollution. And that says nothing about the difference in quality. If you have to transport it across the continent, you can bet it won't be ripe when it's picked.
Now might be a very good time to re-visit the entire concept of self-sufficiency as the cracks in globalization continue to grow. Do we really want to sell coal to China and get cheap goods in return? Do we really want to eat food produced in industrial feedlots and chemically-intensive factory farms a thousand miles away, tended by immigrant labor for the lowest possible cost? Doesn't it make a lot more sense to spend our time and money supporting ourselves and our local producers?
Sure it does. And then we can tell the globalization proponents: "We hear the death knell ringing, and we know for whom it tolls."
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.