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Globalization and Its Discontents: War of Lifestyles

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If you consider the most famous pictures from Scandinavia (Munch's "The Scream") and the Mediterranean (Monet's "Water Lilies"), which place would you choose to live?

This is more than an intellectual exercise, as a united Europe (European Union, or EU) becomes more homogenized, and as globalization impacts the entire world. The EU, for example, increasingly establishes social policy across the continent, if not officially, then through international agencies like WHO and through the spread of what are considered universal best practices.

I am especially interested in this dynamic because (a) I am studying and debating international alcohol policies, (b) I have come to Italy immediately following the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA) conference held in Liverpool.

I am writing this looking out over fruit trees and the Alps in a converted farmhouse outside the town of Cuneo, which is 90 km from Turin. This morning I rode a bike down a trail from the home where I'm staying, dismounting to walk to and to sit by a river. Later my host and I picked a free-growing vegetable which she cooked in a pasta. We also ate cheese and fruit we bought at the market this morning. We had wine and espresso. We ate outside in their garden. My colleague and I were joined by her partner and her son, who came home from work and school.

I like Liverpool, and especially the side trip some colleagues and I took a bit north to the beach along the estuary where the Mersey River meets the sea. Liverpudlians are, as one colleague put it, the salt of the earth. But Italy has certain advantages -- wine, sunshine, olives, open-air markets for buying fruit, cheese and vegetables, and a lifestyle that many people seem to relish.

Moreover, you still see throughout the United Kingdom debauched, noisy nighttime drinking that doesn't occur for the most part in Italian cities. In Liverpool, I fear my diet also deteriorated. No, it wasn't the beer instead of wine -- I count the pint of "bitter" I had daily as a plus. But (and this is my own fault) I am addicted to "pasties" -- those encrusted confections of meat, potatoes and mushrooms they seem to sell at every intersection. Fresh vegetables are at a much higher premium in the United Kingdom, and much less of a staple there.

Globalization is reducing some of these cultural differences, however. In Northern European countries, as well as the United States, many people (particularly in higher social strata) are adopting elements of the Mediterranean lifestyle, including wine, olive oil, pasta, darker coffees and fresh fruit and vegetables. On the other hand, fast food outlets and prepared foods in supermarkets are much more evident than before in Italy and France.

European policies are likewise passing each other going in opposite directions. In Scandinavia, historically characterized by binge drinking of spirits, and where high taxes and strict controls have traditionally been imposed, alcohol tariffs and prices have been lowered lately. Southern Europeans, meanwhile, have started adopting Northern European alarmist policies towards alcohol. My colleague told me that Italian authorities had recently reduced the designated low-risk level of alcohol for seniors to one drink daily. Since someone having wine with lunch and dinner would exceed this, media have been announcing a crisis in drinking by Italian seniors.

Experts tend to acknowledge that the Italian lifestyle can't be imported willy-nilly into northern regions. Globalization, on the other hand, has accomplished something like that. While policy experts had predicted that Nordic drinking would range out of control with lower alcohol prices, Scandinavians seem to have adjusted to the new situation. Although consumption increased somewhat immediately following initiation of lower taxes, it has since declined, and a recent study found people are actually reporting fewer alcohol problems in Scandinavia. I suspect that greater familiarity with the Mediterranean lifestyle due to travel and the Internet has played a role in this moderation of Nordic drinking styles. In Stockholm, I noted that professionals in a high-end pub drank in what I reckoned was the "normal" style for such establishments internationally.

Where all of this will end up, nobody knows. Sometimes, while dozing lazily in the Italian sun after a second glass of wine, I imagine a plot is being spearheaded in the US. Since we are only able to import the Mediterranean lifestyle to a limited degree, I think that Americans and Northern Europeans are secretly trying to create alcohol and emotional problems in Southern Europe. At dinner, the preparation and eating of which occupied all evening, the Italian family expressed incomprehension over adolescent diagnoses of ADD, depression and bipolar disorder. "How naive they are!" I could hear my fellow Americans saying.

In my imagined plot, it is only when we and they discover that many Mediterraneans (and their children) are really alcoholics, depressed, and require massive doses of psychiatric meds will we feel justified in our own way of life.