Fight for humanity

June 1, 2001

David Cromwell asks why the media and politicians seem blind to the dangers of globalisation

It is the elephant in the room - the one big issue that politicians and media in this election have tried to sweep beneath the carpet. Globalisation.

The present system of conducting trade and investment, by which a few prosper, while many struggle or die, is surely not the end product of human capacity for organising society. Nor is it somehow immutable or inevitable, mythically linked with economic efficiency, democracy and freedom.

Economic globalisation is, in fact, being shaped with extreme vigour by powerful and wealthy corporate lobby groups in every international forum you have heard of, as well as many more you may not know. Influential corporations and investors have governments bending over backwards to create a "business-friendly environment".

Historically, enclosing the commons arose as a means for landlords to control land, forests, rivers and natural resources that had hitherto been public property in pre-industrial Britain. In England, the process reached a peak in the 15th and 16th centuries.

During the Highland clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries, people were evicted from their land and many were forced to emigrate to make way for the more profitable business of sheep farming. Between 1840 and 1889, about 35,000 people left Skye, most of them unwillingly headed for the New World. In other parts of the Scottish Highlands, glens that were once the homes of thriving communities are now deserted. Moreover, the famed Highland scenery with its bare mountains and wild moors is largely an unnatural scene of man-made dereliction and dwindling biodiversity.

The global enclosure movement of recent decades is a continuation of this process, with its demands for access to land and labour in the developing world and the global atmosphere and oceans for the dumping of industrial waste.

The most serious consequence is that our ability to respond to the threat of climate change has been compromised by vested interests opposing the transformation to a society based on local democratic control of renewable energy sources.

Political power is heavily concentrated in central government, but it is being sucked up by corporate groupings, such as the World Trade Organisation, or influential business lobby groups, such as the European Roundtable of Industrialists. These have all managed to rewrite the rules of international trade and investment for the benefit of transnational corporations.

It is important to comprehend, anticipate and oppose the corporate-driven mechanisms by which the transfer of public resources into private hands is taking place if there is going to be a healthy, just and ecological future.

Some writers unashamedly shine a spotlight on the mass media because this is the source of most people's information - or misinformation - about politics, democracy and the environment. But the overwhelming message of the mainstream media is that corporate activities are largely benign and not worth systematic investigation. This is entirely consistent, of course, with the corporate nature of the global media industry.

Meanwhile, an unsustainable thirst for endless growth is clearly unable to deliver the "consumer freedom" the media and politicians harp on about, including the freedom to breathe clean air and eat food untarnished by genetically modified organisms.

But what is the alternative to global capitalism? There is no single obvious prescription. As the US economist Robin Hahnel says, the bottom line is that "what we are fighting for is merely the substitution of the human agenda for the corporate agenda".

It is more vital to build a broad-based social movement than to have the correct "model of alternative living" worked out in advance, or even to have the right "set of demands".

That there is no clear path should not be an excuse to dither. As Susan George, author of How the Other Half Dies , notes: "We are in a similar position to that of the Americans or the French in the mid-18th century. They too were groping, not entirely sure how to get out from under an absolutist monarchy and move to a national democracy - to change their status from subjects to citizens. They did not have a perfect blueprint - no one ever has - and finally they had to fight." Fight we must, for the ultimate prize is not the preservation of capitalism, but our own humanity.

David Cromwell is an oceanographer at the Southampton Oceanography Centre and author of Private Planet , published by Jon Carpenter this month, £12.99.

  Election 2001 index page

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