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We Need a Global Declaration of Interdependence
Published on Saturday, July 6, 2002 in the Toronto Globe & Mail
We Need a Global Declaration of Interdependence
The Western ideal of comfort and wealth holds a hollow promise for the rest of the world and provides fodder for extremists
by Wade Davis
 

On Sept. 11, in the most successful act of asymmetrical warfare since the Trojan horse, the world came home to America. "Why do they hate us?" asked George W. Bush. This was not a rhetorical question. Americans really wanted to know -- and still do, for their innocence had been shattered. The President suggested that the reason was the very greatness of America, as if the liberal institutions of government had somehow provoked homicidal rage in fanatics incapable of embracing freedom. Other, dissenting voices claimed that, to the contrary, the problem lay in the tendency of the United States to support, notably in the Middle East, repressive regimes whose values are antithetical to the ideals of American democracy. Both sides were partly right, but both overlooked the deeper issue, in part because they persisted in examining the world through American eyes.

The United States has always looked inward. A nation born in isolation cannot be expected to be troubled by the election of a President who has rarely been abroad, or a Congress in which 25 per cent of members do not hold passports. Wealth too can be blinding. Each year, Americans spend as much on lawn maintenance as the government of India collects in federal tax revenue. The 30 million African-Americans collectively control more wealth than the 30 million Canadians.

A country that effortlessly supports a defense budget larger than the entire economy of Australia does not easily grasp the reality of a world in which 1.3 billion people get by on less than $1 a day. A new and original culture that celebrates the individual at the expense of family and community -- a stunning innovation in human affairs, the sociological equivalent of the splitting of the atom -- has difficulty understanding that in most of the world the community still prevails, for the destiny of the individual remains inextricably linked to the fate of the collective.

Since 1945, even as the United States came to dominate the geopolitical scene, the American people resisted engagement with the world, maintaining an almost willful ignorance of what lay beyond their borders. Such cultural myopia, never flattering, was rendered obsolete in an instant on the morning Sept. 11. In the immediate wake of the tragedy, I was often asked as an anthropologist for explanations.

Condemning the attacks in the strongest possible terms, I nevertheless encouraged people to consider the forces that gave rise to Osama bin Laden's movement. While it would be reassuring to view al-Qaeda as an isolated phenomenon, I feared that the organization was a manifestation of a deeper and broader conflict, a clash between those who have and those who have nothing. Mr. bin Laden himself may be wealthy, but the resentment upon which al-Qaeda feeds springs most certainly from the condition of the dispossessed.

I also encouraged my American friends to turn the anthropological lens upon our own culture, if only to catch a glimpse of how we might appear to people born in other lands. I shared a colleague's story from her time living among the Bedouin in Tunisia in the 1980s, just as television reached their remote villages. Entranced and shocked by episodes of the soap opera Dallas,the astonished farm women asked her, "Is everyone in your country as mean as J.R.?"

For much of the Middle East, in particular, the West is synonymous not only with questionable values and a flood of commercial products, but also with failure. Gamel Abdul Nasser's notion of a Pan-Arabic state was based on a thoroughly Western and secular model of socialist development, an economic and political dream that collapsed in corruption and despotism. The shah of Iran provoked the Iranian revolution by thrusting not the Koran but modernity (as he saw it) down the throats of his people.

The Western model of development has failed in the Middle East and elsewhere in good measure because it has been based on the false promise that people who follow its prescriptive dictates will in time achieve the material prosperity enjoyed by a handful of nations of the West. Even were this possible, it is not at all clear that it would be desirable. To raise consumption of energy and materials throughout the world to Western levels, given current population projections, would require the resources of four planet Earths by the year 2100. To do so with the one world we have would imply so severely compromising the biosphere that the Earth would be unrecognizable.

In reality, development for the vast majority of the peoples of the world has been a process in which the individual is torn from his past and propelled into an uncertain future only to secure a place on the bottom rung of an economic ladder that goes nowhere.

Consider the key indices of development. An increase in life expectancy suggests a drop in infant mortality, but reveals nothing of the quality of the lives led by those who survive childhood. Globalization is celebrated with iconic intensity. But what does it really mean? The Washington Post reports that in Lahore, one Muhammad Saeed earns $88 (U.S.) a month stitching shirts and jeans for a factory that supplies Gap and Eddie Bauer. He and five family members share a single bed in one room off a warren of alleys strewn with human waste and refuse. Yet, earning three times as much as at his last job, he is the poster child of globalization.

Even as fundamental a skill as literacy does not necessarily realize its promise. In northern Kenya, for example, tribal youths placed by their families into parochial schools do acquire a modicum of literacy, but in the process also learn to have contempt for their ancestral way of life. They enter school as nomads; they leave as clerks, only to join an economy with a 50-per-cent unemployment rate for high-school graduates. Unable to find work, incapable of going home, they drift to the slums of Nairobi to scratch a living from the edges of a cash economy.

Without doubt, images of comfort and wealth, of technological sophistication, have a magnetic allure. Any job in the city may seem better than backbreaking labor in sun-scorched fields. Entranced by the promise of the new, people throughout the world have in many instances voluntarily turned their backs on the old.

The consequences can be profoundly disappointing. The fate of the vast majority of those who sever their ties with their traditions will not be to attain the prosperity of the West, but to join the legions of urban poor, trapped in squalor, struggling to survive. As cultures wither away, individuals remain, often shadows of their former selves, caught in time, unable to return to the past, yet denied any real possibility of securing a place in the world whose values they seek to emulate and whose wealth they long to acquire.

Anthropology suggests that when peoples and cultures are squeezed, extreme ideologies sometimes emerge, inspired by strange and unexpected beliefs. These revitalization movements may be benign, but more typically prove deadly both to their adherents and to those they engage. China's Boxer Rebellion of 1900 sought not only to end the opium trade and expel foreign legations. The Boxers arose in response to the humiliation of an ancient nation, long the center of the known world, reduced within a generation to servitude by unknown barbarians. It was not enough to murder the missionaries. In a raw, atavistic gesture, the Boxers dismembered them and displayed their heads on pikes.

However unique its foundation, al-Qaeda is nevertheless reminiscent of such revitalization movements. Torn between worlds, Mr. bin Laden and his followers invoke a feudal past that never was in order to rationalize their own humiliation and hatred. They are a cancer within the culture of Islam, neither fully of the faith nor totally apart from it. Like any malignant growth they must be severed from the body and destroyed. We must also strive to understand the movement's roots, for the chaotic conditions of disintegration and disenfranchisement that led to al-Qaeda are found among disaffected populations throughout the world.

In Nepal, rural farmers spout rhetoric not heard since the death of Stalin. In Peru, the Shining Path turned to Mao. Had they invoked instead Tupac Amaru, the 18th-century indigenous rebel, scion of the Inca, and had they been able to curb their reflexive disdain for the very indigenous people they claimed to represent, they might well have set the nation aflame, as was their intent. Lima, a city of 400,000 in 1940 is today home to 9 million, and for the majority it is a sea of misery in a sun-scorched desert.

We live in an age of disintegration. At the beginning of the 20th century there were 60 nation states. Today there are 190, many poor and unstable. The real story lies in the cities. Throughout the world, urbanization, with all its fickle and forlorn promises, has drawn people by the millions into squalor. The populations of Mexico City and Sao Paulo are unknown, probably immeasurable. In Asia there are cities of 10 million people that most of us in the West cannot name.

The nation state, as Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell wrote, has become too small for the big problems of the world and too big for the little problems of the world. Outside the major industrial nations, globalization has not brought integration and harmony, but rather a firestorm of change that has swept away languages and cultures, ancient skills and visionary wisdom. Of the 6,000 languages spoken today, fully half are not being taught to children. Within a single generation, we are witnessing the loss of half humanity's social, spiritual and intellectual legacy. This is the essential backdrop of our era.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I was asked at a lecture in Los Angeles to name the seminal event of the 20th century. Without hesitation I suggested the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. Two bullets sparked a war that destroyed all faith in progress and optimism, the hallmarks of the Victorian age, and left in its wake the nihilism and alienation of a century that birthed Hitler, Mao, Stalin and another devastating global conflict that did not fully end until the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989.

The question then turned to 9/11, and it struck me that 100 years from now that fateful date may well loom as the defining moment of this new century, the day when two worlds, long kept apart by geography and circumstance, came together in violent conflict. If there is one lesson to be learned from 9/11, it is that power does not translate into security. With an investment of $500,000, far less than the price of one of the baggage scanners now deployed in airports across the United States, a small band of fanatics killed some 2,800 innocent people. The economic cost may well be incalculable. Generally, nations declare wars on nations; Mr. Bush has declared war on a technique and there is no exit strategy.

Global media have woven the world into a single sphere. Evidence of the disproportionate affluence of the West is beamed into villages and urban slums in every nation, in every province, 24 hours a day. Baywatch is the most popular television show in New Guinea. Tribesmen from the mountainous heartland of an island that embraces 2,000 distinct languages walk for days to catch the latest episode.

The voices of the poor, who deal each moment with the consequences of environmental degradation, political corruption, overpopulation, the gross distortion in the distribution of wealth and the consumption of resources, who share few of the material benefits of modernity, will no longer be silent.

True peace and security for the 21st century will only come about when we find a way to address the underlying issues of disparity, dislocation and dispossession that have provoked the madness of our age. What we desperately need is a global acknowledgment of the fact that no people and no nation can truly prosper unless the bounty of our collective ingenuity and opportunities are available and accessible to all.

We must aspire to create a new international spirit of pluralism, a true global democracy in which unique cultures, large and small, are allowed the right to exist, even as we learn and live together, enriched by the deepest reaches of our imaginings. We need a global declaration of interdependence. In the wake of Sept. 11 this is not idle or naïve rhetoric, but rather a matter of survival.

Vancouver-born Wade Davis is Explorer-in-Residence with the National Geographic Society in Washington. His latest book is The Light at the Edge of the World.

© 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc

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