Globalism Is Dead

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

Washington, DC -- Globalism is dead. Until historians complete the autopsy, we won't know the exact moment it expired, by my own guess is that it breathed its last on 9/11. The funeral was two days ago in Geneva, when Pascal Lamy, head of the World Trade Organization, declared the Doha round of trade talks dead because "he no longer had hope of overcoming resistance in wealthy countries to sharply reducing domestic protection for their politically powerful farm industries."

Globalism's mainstay was "free trade." But, as Lamy had to admit, globalism's entire fabric of trade agreements has been based on anything but "free." These agreements have allowed U.S. drug companies to forestall competition from more efficient producers in Brazil and India by forcing those countries to copy U.S. protectionist patent laws. They forced Mexico to open its borders to heavily subsidized U.S. grain and meat, creating dissatisfaction that propelled an outsider and populist, Luis Obrador, to within a few thousand votes of Mexico's presidency. Joining the European Union forced the same kind of disadvantage on Polish farmers, which has resulted in a rightwing resurgence that is accompanied by upturns in of nationalism and anti-Semitism.

But now the era of such deals -- and of the belief system that sustained them -- is over. Europe rejected the proposed constitution for the European Union, which was probably the most enlightened of the world's major trade pacts. From Bolivia to the Ukraine, political forces aligned with globalism have been abruptly thrown from power. But what is taking their place is often ugly or chaotic. This is no time for celebration.

We need to be clear: What is dead is not the reality of globalization -- the removal of technical barriers to the ever more rapid transmission of information, goods, services, and people. The Internet will not stop spreading. Satellites will still beam Al Jazeera past the censors in places like the Sudan. The thousands of miles of fiber optic cable laid in the 1990s will still make it possible to call anywhere in the world for free on Skype. And Boeing and Airbus will continue competing with new generations of jumbo jets.

No, globalization will not go away. But globalism was different. Globalism was a particular fantasy -- an ideology that promised, when the Cold War ended, that we could all become free and prosperous if only we would worship the speed that new technology made possible and, in particular, that speed with which capital that's been freed from governmental and societal constraints could move. That ideology has collapsed. It just couldn't deliver. It turned out that speed was no substitute for security or dignity. Fetishizing speed turned the world into a global, winner-take-all lottery whose motto was "The race is to the swift, and the devil take the hindmost."

This happens at the very moment when the first genuinely universal global challenge -- climate change -- is reaching a crisis. And it happens at a time when no obvious alternative ideology for ordering the world has appeared. This may be why fundamentalism is on the march. Fundamentalism of all kinds promises an escape from diversity and interconnectedness -- ecological, cultural, or political. Ironically, it offers to shelter people from the one truly modern reality -- that there's no place left to hide.

Fundamentalist ideologies, like globalism, are delusions. But unless we find something more authentic to offer as a way to deal with modern complexity, including the complexities of climate, oil, and energy, things could get much, much worse. It's time for some serious vision and dreaming. As the Chinese proverb reminds us: "You can not prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from building a nest in your hair."

It's time to wake up and pay attention.