An Open Memorandum

January 1994

TO: Participants in the Global Sustainability Movement

FROM: Helena Norberg-Hodge, International Society for Ecology and Culture

RE: Building the Case Against Globalization and For Community-Based Economics

Those who promote the cause of free trade are misleading the public on two fundamental points. First they argue that economic globalization is inevitable. The only option is to adjust by becoming globally competitive. Second, they argue that though there may be some temporary dislocation, in the long-run everyone will benefit. They are wrong on both counts. Many people are being harmed by globalization in both the short and the long-term for the benefit of a few. Furthermore, there are alternatives that are far more attractive and beneficial for almost everyone.

Those of us who are mobilizing efforts around the world to counter the false and irresponsible claims being made in support of the economic globalization agenda must think through how we can most effectively present our argument. I offer the following suggestions.

1. Social and cultural issues need to be stressed more than they have been. Since the majority of people are frightened of losing their jobs, the increase in unemployment has to be a central argument. Another more tricky but very important aspect of the social critique should be that globalization and monoculturization lead to much of the ethnic conflict, racism and violence we see everywhere. We should point out that:

  • A loss of individual self-esteem inevitably accompanies the erosion of cultural identity, and is the root cause of much of today’s conflict and violence. This is particularly true in the less ‘developed’ parts of the world, where ethnic diversity is most pronounced but under the greatest attack. This issue is of critical importance, yet it is rarely discussed. In fact, the myth that erasing cultural differences will end ethnic violence has been allowed to go virtually unchallenged.
  • Centralization inevitably leads to competition between different groups vying for a small number of positions of power in the political and economic arena. Conversely, a world comprised of large number of local economies offers far more opportunities for individuals to have real influence; and large numbers of relatively independent communities allow ethnic identity to be a source of stability rather than conflict.
  • The global economy creates artificial scarcity as diverse cultures are forced to compete for the same resources. Balinese bamboo houses, Tibetan mud dwellings and French stone structures are being replaced by the same cement and steel buildings, a pattern that is repeated for food, energy and other needs. The result is a dramatic increase in the competitive pressures on people throughout the world.
  • Community is everywhere threatened by globalization. The importance of community is going to be a recurrent theme in the 90s, and it deserves more emphasis in our strategy. More and more professional analysts are arriving at the conclusion that the loss of community is responsible for increasing violence and crime, drug abuse, health problems and family breakdown.

2. We need to make the connection between agriculture and transport policy. At the moment macroeconomic pressures are encouraging not only monocropping, standardization, and chemical-intensive agriculture, but also a dramatic increase in the transport of food. We should quote a study by the Wuppertal Institute in Germany that calculated the miles of transport of the ingredients of a container of yogurt–from the strawberries and the milk to the cardboard and ink for the container. While all of these could have been produced within 50 miles, they in fact were transported a total of over 7000 miles. It’s not difficult for people to recognize the absurdity of the situation, nor is it hard to convince them that spending more of their tax dollars on increasing the transport infrastructure is not in their best interest. Furthermore, the arguments become even more persuasive when we show how shortening the links between farmers and consumers allows free market pressure to work in favor of small farmers, organic production, crop diversity, healthier food–even community–all at once.

3. Our analysis should make a clear link between globalization and public investments in infrastructure. Massive public investments to expand the transport and communications infrastructure have made the current level of globalization possible; further globalization requires still more of this form of subsidy. We need to make clear that the kind of infrastructure we support determines the kind of society we will have. Investing in more superhighways, computers, satellite links, biotechnology, etc., not only leads to taxpayers subsidizing their own unemployment, but to further community breakdown and pollution as well. On the other hand, those same monies could be used to develop an infrastructure that invests in people instead of technology, an infrastructure that really helps small entrepreneurs and small-scale industry in developing regionalized production. We need to get the word out that producing more at home means more jobs at home. We should start ‘buy local’ campaigns (emphasizing that this is not robbing people in the Third World of jobs, rather it’s allowing them to produce for themselves instead of providing cheap labor for us.)

We also need to start looking at the legislation that has become necessary because of problems inherent in large-scale production that now puts an unfair burden on small-scale producers. For instance, the risk of salmonella on a battery farm with millions of chickens necessitates strict controls, health inspections, etc. If a farmer has five chickens on an acre of land, the rules should be different, but they aren’t–and this adds to a burden than makes it even more difficult for the small producer to compete. Similar regulations mean that setting up a small bakery at home to produce bread or biscuits entails an investment in an ‘industrial’ kitchen that puts it out of the reach of the small entrepreneur.

4. We need to take a careful look at education. While many subsides for high-tech have been brought into the discussion, what is almost never broached is the increasing focus placed on specialized science and high technology in the modern education system. This is true from top bottom–from the billions of dollars universities are pouring into genetic research all the way down to the trends in pre-schools to put 5-year olds onto computers. Clearly the education issue is a delicate one, since many parents fear that their children will be ‘out-competed’ by other children–here or in Japan–for high-paying prestigious jobs. But it is an issue that will need to be addressed sooner or later, and I believe that people in the industrialized world are better prepared to hear it than we may think. Even proponents of high-tech, when pressed, admit that all the computers, modems, fax machines, microwave ovens and cellular phones have only served to speed life up, giving us all less time and more stress. Very few people in the West actually want a future–for themselves or their children–based on genetic manipulation, virtual reality and a total separation from the natural world. In fact their vision usually includes more time with family, a stronger sense of community, and more contact with nature. But they feel trapped by the argument presented by Clinton and others that ‘the world is changing, and we have to move with it or we’ll be left behind.” We would do well to emphasize both the emptiness of the high-tech vision of the future, and the fact that current policy decisions–not evolution–are responsible for changing and speeding up the world around us.

5. It’s crucial to point out that globalization does not help the South. There are many in America, for instance, who say that allowing Mexico to develop a la the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will reduce illegal immigration by creating new jobs in Mexico. We need to stress that what will really happen is that many people will be displaced from rurally-based local production including small-scale family farms that cannot compete with gigantic subsidized agribusiness corporations. Some of these will end up in factories providing cheap labor for Northern markets, while others will merely become part of the growing army of unemployed in urban slums. We are not doing the people in the South a favor by using them to stitch our clothes, make our shoes, and grow our food when their need for these same products is far greater than ours.

6. We have to focus attention on the role of the corporations. It’s common today to blame environmental destruction on consumer greed, on a Northern middle class that not only despoils the environment, but also robs the Third World of their resources. Without blaming the individuals in corporations, we need to show that consumers in the North are being manipulated to consume more–that corporations spend millions trying to make even 3-year olds greedy for new toys.

7. We have to emphasize the difference between internationalizing the environmental movement and the very different and destructive trend towards a global economy. One of the main reasons why far too many environmentalists have been in favor of the various trade treaties is because they believe that environmental problems like the ozone hole and the greenhouse effect–which of course transcend national boundaries–need to be solved on an international level. They don’t realize that free trade means a scaling-up of economic activity at the expense of hard-won environmental protection on a national level. On the other hand, it’s important to point out that environmentalists in North and South do need to ally themselves with each other in pressing for more effective international environmental agreements that strengthen local efforts.

8. We need to include a positive vision. The arguments against globalization are most effective when we lay the critique side-by-side with the positive alternatives. This, I believe is a powerful methodology. Women in particular have a very hard time even thinking about GATT and trade, but they long for positive alternatives and are much quicker at penetrating the significance of going small. Men, on the other hand, find it more difficult to envision moving in the direction of smaller scale economic units, but the notion can seem far less utopian and idealistic when it is presented alongside the catastrophic consequences of continued globalization.

However we phrase it, a real strengthening and diversification of local, regional and national economies is essential. We need to argue for a balance between local production and trade. It shouldn’t be very difficult to persuade people of the need to produce more food for local markets, and that can be a starting point to get them thinking about producing other needs closer to home. Nor is it so difficult to convince people that we need to divert government subsidies away from an infrastructure that supports ever larger-scale corporate production towards a real decentralization–providing infrastructures that support ecological agriculture, smaller shops, and smaller towns. People are longing for community, so promoting the idea of community-based economies may not be as difficult as many seem to think.

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