John P. Clark

[Presented at a seminar on “Globalization and the Third World,” August 10, 2002, Central Public Library, Dhaka, Bangladesh.  Sponsored by the Bangladeshi NGO WISER (Work for Integrated Socio-Economic Efforts in Reconstruction). ] 

It is a great honor and pleasure to be here in Dhaka at this auspicious event, the first public conference organized by WISER. I would like to thank Prof. Syed Anwar Husein, our moderator and President of WISER, Prof. Mujibur Rahman, the host for our visit and Vice-President of WISER, and all the other members of WISER who are here tonight.

My topic this evening is globalization and global social justice.  My plan was to raise a number of theoretical and philosophical issues related to globalization, and then to relate these issues to the present historical reality of globalization, especially as concerns justice for the Third World.

To my surprise and great satisfaction, Prof. Husein, in his remarks at a meeting last night and in his introduction this evening, expressed eloquently many of the same ideas that I also see as essential to a philosophical assessment of globalization. In addition, I was given a detailed paper by Mr. A. K. M. Maksud (who is with us tonight), in which he discusses “Globalization and Bangladesh.” In this thorough and comprehensive analysis, Mr. Maksud outlines quite clearly and convincingly all the essential points concerning the nature and social consequences of the globalization process.

I was therefore forced to conclude that everything that I have to say about globalization is already quite well known by your own capable thinkers who are here in the room with us tonight!  Indeed, they have made many points far better than I possibly could.

I hope, however, that I might still make some contribution the discussion of our topic.  For example, I hope that by reflecting further on some theoretical issues from my own philosophical perspective, I might open up some areas of useful dialogue.  I suspect, however, that the most important role I might play is to point out what we have in common in our analyses of globalization and in our visions of social change, so that we might work toward greater cooperation in our common endeavors for global social justice.

Prof. Husein began with some reflections on history.  Similarly, I would like to begin with a few comments on the history of globalization.  Though one might think so from much of the current discussion of globalization, it is not a phenomenon that began in the late twentieth century, or even in the modern period.  Rather it has roots far back in the beginnings of human history and even beyond, in prehistory. 

For example, one finds the beginnings of the globalization process in the early migrations of humanity from East Africa, across Africa and Asia, then to Europe, the Pacific Islands and the Americas.  These migrations brought with them the spread of socially introduced biodiversity, vast transformation of existing ecosystems, and the domestication of many species of plants and animals across the globe.  Even in prehistory, humanity began to play an important role in shaping ecosystems and transforming landscapes, in transforming climate, in causing species extinction, and, generally, in creating a planetary social ecology.

The globalization process continued with the rise of the early empires and their imperial expansion across large regional areas.  With this history came far-reaching social and ecological transformations, including more extensive domestication, enormous increases in human population, the emergence of urban concentrations, and the transformation of vast areas through mechanized agriculture. In this period we see the first anthropogenic regional social and ecological crises, with such consequences as widespread soil loss, degradation of lands, desertification, and at times, social collapse. 

This phase of globalization continued with the waves of conquest and the colonial expeditions that eventually spread empire and colonialism to every corner of the planet.  This history (which is more or less synonymous with what we conventionally call “history”) cannot be discussed in any detail here.  But in summary we can say that it culminated in the modern period with the expansion of the world market (allied with colonialism) and the creation of a global economy, a global political order, and a global culture, all of which are presently in a process of further development.

Today, “globalization” has a more specific meaning in relation to this larger global historical context.  It generally refers to the system of global corporate capitalism, the allied global state system, and the global commodity culture that the corporate-state system propagates so effectively throughout the world.  “Globalization” refers both to this system, to the degree to which it is already an established social reality, and also to its processes of further expansion and its seemingly inexorable drive toward worldwide dominance.

This is the conventional connotation of the term. I would emphasize, however, that there are in fact, several “globalizations” existing in the contemporary world, and that we as global citizens are faced with a choice both a social and an ethical choice -- between competing paths of global development.

As Prof. Husein has so pointedly reminded us, globalization is not a phenomenon that we can avoid. We are inextricably involved in history, and globalization is part of our history.  There is already in existence a global economic system, a global political system, and global systems of communication, information, transportation, and so forth.  So the question is not whether we will accept globalization, but rather how we are to live in an already globalized world, and how we can help determine the future path of global society.

In this context, there are two contending paths of globalization.  There is on the one hand the prevailing path of globalization from above, and on the other a diverging, alternative path of globalization from below.  I will return to this topic presently, but first I would like to comment on what is at stake in our choice between these two paths.

It is my contention that we are in the midst of an unprecedented world historical social and ecological crisis.  Human society has created enormous economic, scientific and technological powers.  These powers are at present producing such consequences as growing global social injustice, increasing antagonism between peoples and societies, dissolution of human communities, and the possibility of military destruction on an unprecedented scale.   In addition, we have been thrown into one of the great ecological crises in the three billion year history of life on earth, and the integrity of the biosphere itself is at risk.

The social and ecological crisis is exhibited in a multitude of specific problems.  I would like to elaborate very briefly on three of the most important of these dimensions of crisis.

People in South Asia should be more familiar than anyone with the lessons of the Green Revolution.  A generation ago, corporate capitalism proposed the Green Revolution as a solution to hunger and malnutrition in the world.  According to the glowing descriptions of its proponents, there would be an abundance of food for all as a result of its programs of high-tech, capital intensive agriculture.  World hunger would be banished forever from the planet.

The results of the programs have been precisely the opposite.  Artificial fertilizers, poisonous pesticides and toxic herbicides have polluted the environment, damaged human health, and created prohibitive costs for small farmers.  Irrigation and dam-building projects have salinated, waterlogged and ruined the soil, while displacing tens of millions of the worlds poorest people, often flooding their villages, destroying their traditional lands, and sending them to squalid refugee camps.  Hybrid and genetically altered seeds have raised costs to prohibitive levels, and now “terminator technologies” (crops producing sterile seeds that cannot be saved and planted) threaten to hold small farmers hostage to corporations or destroy them entirely.

Most ironically, as all this destruction has taken place, there has been no scarcity of food at the global level, and a surplus has existed even in most of the poorest countries in which there remains widespread malnutrition.  One-fifth of the people in the world suffer from chronic malnutrition while another one-fifth suffer from obesity.  Present production of grain alone could supply a diet of 3500 calories to all people, while most people in some countries subsist in half that, while at the same time producing crops for export.  Total agricultural production could supply 4.3 pounds of food per capita, including about 2 ½ lbs. of grain, beans and nuts, a pound of fruit and vegetables, and a pound of meat, milk and eggs (according to the Institute for Food and Development Policy).

In the midst of all this abundance, over a billion people suffer from malnutrition as the result of the transfer of food to areas in which surplus consumption already exists.  Almost 2500 years ago the Chinese sage Lao Zi remarked that “the Way of Nature is to take from where there is excess and give to where there is deficiency,” whereas “the Way of Man is to take from where there is deficiency and to give to where there is excess.”  The disordered, imbalanced condition of society observed by Lao Zi is still with us today, albeit to a greatly aggravated degree. The problem of world hunger is a problem of injustice, not one of “scarcity.” The Green Revolution has conclusively demonstrated the bankruptcy of the corporate capitalist system and its model of development and globalization.

Secondly, the problem of global warming shows the non-viability of the dominant social and economic order and its path of growth and maldevelopment.  The prevailing mode of production has generated unprecedented levels of profit, productivity and concentration of economic power.  Yet at the same time it has built within itself a dependence on technologies, energy sources, and production processes that accelerate the generation of greenhouse gasses.  Even the most far-reaching proposals, such as the Kyoto Protocols, are sadly inadequate, if we follow the “precautionary principle” of avoiding courses of action that have a significant probability of producing socially and ecologically disastrous consequences.  But even these rather modest proposals face strong resistance by major polluters and their political allies.

As a result of continuing trends, present projections foresee a rise in global temperatures of between 2 and 6 degrees Fahrenheit, and a rise in sea levels of 1½ to 2 meters over the course of the century.  Coastal areas will be inundated, most disastrously the case of low-lying areas such as Bangladesh, where perhaps 20% of the land area may be flooded, tens of millions of people may be displaced, and an already struggling economy devastated.  My own historic and beautiful city of New Orleans, which lies almost entirely below present-day sea level, is likely to disappear after 300 years of history.  The worst victims will be certain island nations that will disappear entirely.  In addition, desertification is likely to spread, some of the earths most fertile agricultural areas will lose much of their productivity, and our present struggles to feed humanity fairly and adequately will perhaps be doomed.

As disturbing as these potential effects may be, if I were to choose one problem that has the most far-reaching social and ecological consequences, it is that of biodiversity loss.  We are now in the midst of one of the six great periods of mass extinction in the history of life on earth.  For the first time, however, massive extinction is the result not of a natural disruption but rather of the activities of one species, homo sapiens.  Biodiversity experts have estimated that we are at present losing as many as 50,000 species per year globally and that the rate of extinction is increasing.  Conservation biologists estimate that present loss is as much as 100,000 times the natural background rate of extinction.  Moreover, biodiversity loss is not only a matter of species extinction. Anthropogenic factors are also causing the destruction, shredding and fragmentation of entire ecosystems.  In addition, particular populations within species are destroyed, reducing the genetic diversity and adaptability of the species, and its long-term capacity to survive.  At the same time that habitat is destroyed and degraded by deforestation, pollution, and other factors, it is increasingly transformed by global climate change.  In addition, urbanization and widespread development create large areas over which species cannot migrate, further eliminating their ability to adapt to rapidly changing conditions. 

The long-term consequences of global biodiversity loss cannot be determined.  It is often pointed out that a large percentage of human nutritional and medical resources have come from the planets vast reservoir of biodiversity.  In the future, much of this natural wealth will disappear.   It is impossible to gauge the effects of the destruction of much of the ecological complexity of the biosphere.  It is at least possible that disastrous consequences will result for more complex life forms, including our own species.  The global economic game that presently prevails on this planet is gambling with the future of life on earth, and the long-term odds are not encouraging.

If we are to begin to reverse the processes that lead to problems such as global warming, world hunger, and biodiversity loss, it is essential to ask the question: “What is the fundamental cause of social and ecological crisis in the contemporary world?” If we look back at the social oppression and ecological devastation under the ancient empires, the cause seems quite obvious.  The imperial system itself, which subordinated all other values to its goal of increasing its own power and domination, was the cause of both the human and the ecological catastrophe.   In each historical epoch, major social and ecological trends can be traced to basic structural qualities of the prevailing social order.

So we should ask the question today: “What structural features of contemporary society are at the roots of social and ecological crisis?  Though the complex world system usually seems mystifying to the public, there is a distinct logic, and indeed, a distinct rationality underlying crisis. The processes that have led to massive ecological disruption, unprecedented threats to humanity and the biosphere and the devastation of most of the world's traditional cultures have been the result of conscious, deliberate planning in accord with the structural constraints of the world system. The expansion of large-scale agribusiness and industry has taken place through careful planning and policy-making under the direction of powerful economic and political forces seeking profit and power. Colonial exploitation resulted from conscious decision-making and calculated investment by the colonial powers, backed up by military force. Similarly, neo-colonialism, corporate globalization, and neo-liberal economic policy are the result of concerted efforts by transnational corporations and their governmental allies, also backed up by military force.  While the dominant system legitimates itself through an appeal to unquestionable “natural laws of economics,” its power in fact depends on carefully designed social policies enforced through a relative monopoly on effective power.

The correlate of this exercise of power is the effective social disenfranchisement of the vast majority. Historically, the indigenous and peasant majority of the world has had little control over the revolutionary changes that have transformed or destroyed their communities, since they have lacked both political and economic power.  Today two-thirds of the land in Latin America is owned by one and one-half percent of the landowners.  In Africa, three fourths of the agricultural population owns only four percent of the land. In China, the only major country in which private ownership of land does not predominate, control of decision-making is concentrated in a de facto corporate oligarchy, the centralized bureaucratic state. Even where formal democracy prevails, oligarchic control over electoral processes, communications media, and other institutions insures continued concentration of power and wealth.  The dominant oligarchical system of production was imposed without deliberation by or the consent of the vast majority, and it operates today without the need for public debate or decision-making concerning its goals or method of operation.

In view of its deep roots in the established social structure, it seems unlikely that the social and ecological crisis will be resolved without far-reaching, fundamental changes in the dominant institutions, cultural values and ideologies. The global technological megamachine, the global corporate capitalist economic oligopoly, the global depoliticized system of centralized nation-states, and the global monoculture of mass consumption operate in an inherently anti-ecological and anti-social manner. A reversal of the destructive course of history will therefore require a radical devolution of power through the democratizing of political, economic, and informational systems.  It will require a radical transformation of values that encompasses a break with economistic values, consumer culture, and the egocentric self.  In short, it will require a radical break with the political institutions, the economic institutions, the technological system, the means of communication, the ideology, the imaginary and symbolic expressions, the cultural values, and the forms of selfhood that are now dominant. 

Our choice is between two paths.  One is the dominant paradigm of corporate capitalism and its ally, the centralized nation-state. This paradigm is based on concentration of economic and political power in hierarchically structured organizations, control by corporate and state bureaucracies, the increased mechanization of society, reliance on manipulative high technologies, and expanded social and ecological exploitation. 

The alternative path is one of communitarianism, voluntary cooperation, decentralization of power, democratic control and participatory structures, federation for common goals, utilization of appropriate human-scaled technologies, egalitarian relationships, ecological integrity, and an ethos of respect for human beings and the natural world.

This second path is the one for which I work as a member of the global Green Movement, which defines itself through its fundamental values of ecology, peace, social justice, grassroots democracy, and community-based economics.  I have been delighted to discover that here in Bangladesh the members of WISER are working for similar goals, based on similar social and ecological values. I have been inspired by their organization and initiatives and look forward to cooperation and mutual aid in our common endeavors on behalf of humanity and of the earth.  May we all have success in working for both. Thank you very much.