Breaking up the Monoculture

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Pooja Nayak

Globalization is Sameness

The president of Nabisco once defined the goal of economic globalization as “a world of homo-geneous consumption”, in which people everywhere eat the same food, wear the same clothing and live in houses built from the same materials. It is a world in which every society employs the same technologies, depends on the same centrally managed economy, offers the same Western education for its children, speaks the same language, consumes the same media images, holds the same values, and even thinks the same thoughts: monoculture.

Although this sameness suits the needs of Trans National Corporations — which benefit from the efficiencies of standardized production and standardized consumption — in the long term a homogenized planet is disastrous for all of us. It is leading to a breakdown of both biological and cultural diversity, erosion of our food security, an increase in conflict and violence, and devastation for the global biosphere. The myth of globalization is that we no longer need to be connected to a place on the earth, that our every need can be supplied by distant institutions and machines. But long-term solutions to today’s social and environmental problems require small, local initiatives that are as diverse as the cultures and environments in which they take place.

The myth of globalization is that we no longer need to be connected to a place on the earth. Our every need can be supplied by distant institutions and machines. Our desires can be satisfied by maximizing our choice of commodities from across the world. Our contact with other people can be through electronic media. It is as though we could live afloat in space, unconnected to a locale or community. Globalization is creating a way of life that denies our natural instincts by severing our connection to others and to nature. And — because it is erasing both biological and cultural diversity — it is destined to fail.

Adapting locally

Every place on Earth is unique. Each has its own particular soils, the product of eons of geological and biological activity, and its own micro-climate, the result of complex interactions among wind regimes, ocean currents, latitude, altitude, shelter and slope. This geological and climatic diversity provides a generous range of environmental niches for an even greater diversity of plants, animals, and microorganisms. Over time, these all adapt to their local ecosystem, and in turn change their surroundings by their presence. Living organisms and the places they occupy are thus engaged in a continuous, interdependent, evolutionary dance, each step of which more tightly links biodiversity to the diversity of place.

Human societies, too, have always been embedded in their local ecosystems, modifying and being modified by them. Cultural diversity has come to mirror the biological and geographic diversity of the planet. In arid environments, for example, pastoral or nomadic societies are entirely logical, since they enable people to use more of the sparse
resources of their region than would a settled way of life. In tropical rainforests, abundant resources are nearer to hand and so different adaptations — often based on hunting, gathering, and swidden agriculture — have been the solution. Cultures near coastlines evolved sophisticated sailing and boat-building abilities, offering a means of transport and the ablity to gather resources from the sea. In mountainous regions, cultures have adapted by growing hardy cereal grains and raising animals — like the yak and the llama — that can survive high altitudes and cold winters.

Through such local adaptations, people have met their needs generation after generation, often altering their ecosystem without compromising its stability. In many cases, human cultures enhanced both food security and ecosystemic stability by consciously increasing local biodiversity. Farmers in the Peruvian Andes, for example, cultivate over 40 different varieties of potato in an acre plot, far more than would be found naturally. As recently as a generation ago, farmers on Chiloé Island off the coast of Chile grew so many different strains of potato that they could eat a different kind each day of the year. And through centuries of cultivation, by traditional farmers in varied ecosystems, more than 17,000 different varieties of wheat have been created. The agricultural biodiversity that exists today is the product of many generations of such farmers selecting seeds for success in a particular place.The idea of localization runs counter to today’s general belief that fast-paced urban areas are the locus of “real” culture, while small, local communities are isolated backwaters, relics of a past when small-mindedness and prejudice were the norm.

Globalization, which attempts to amalgamate every local, regional and national economy into a single world system, requires homogenizing these locally-adapted forms of agriculture, replacing them with an industrial system — centrally managed, pesticide-intensive, one-crop production for export — designed to deliver a narrow range of transportable foods to the world market. In the process, farmers are replaced by energy- and capital-intensive machinery, and diversified food production for local communities is replaced by an export monoculture. Thousands of local plant varieties disappear. In the US today, for example, 96% of the acreage devoted to peas is planted with just two varieties; for other vegetables — like potatoes and snap beans — as much as three quarters of production comes from just three or four closely-related strains. This trend is occurring worldwide. The same Chiloéan farmers who once grew several hundred varieties of potato now grow just three, primarily for export. Biotechnology is accelerating this trend, as natural genetic diversity is replaced by clones created and grown in laboratories.

There is increasing awareness of the folly of destroying wilderness areas, the wellspring of the earth’s biodiversity. And it is clearly the case that reductions in the planet’s gene pool — well underway — may eventually have catastrophic results in planetary pandemics among vulnerable plants, animals and humans. But just as foolish is the way in which global economic development is destroying traditional cultures and the farmers whose seeds contain most of the planet’s agricultural biodiversity. The loss of agricultural biodiversity is of crucial importance, among other reasons, because the pests that attack farm products are continuing to expand their genetic diversity, even while the diversity of our food supply narrows.

Stifling of Cultural Diversity

Much of the cultural diversity that remains in the world today exists in the South, where the majority still live in villages, partly connected through a diversified, local economy to diverse, local resources. Because of pressures from globalization, those economies are being destroyed, and villagers are rapidly being urbanized and homogenized.

But what happens when rural life collapses, and people who once relied on nearby resources become tied to the global economy? Consider traditional architecture, in which structures were built from local resources: stone in France, clay in West Africa, sun dried bricks in Tibet, bamboo and thatch in the Philippines, felt in Mongolia, and so on. When these building traditions give way to ‘modern’ methods, those plentiful local materials are left unused — while competition skyrockets for the monoculture’s narrow range of structural materials, such as concrete, steel, and sawn lumber. The same thing happens when everyone begins eating identical staple foods, wearing clothes made from the same fibers, and relying on the same finite energy sources. Because it makes everyone dependent on the same resources, globalization creates efficiency for corporations, but it also creates artificial scarcity for consumers, thus heightening competitive pressures.

Uprooting people from rural communities by selling them an unattainable urban white dream is responsible for a dramatic increase in anger and hostility — particularly among young men. In the intensely demoralizing and competitive situation they face, differences of any kind become increasingly significant, and ethnic and racial violence are the all but inevitable results.

I have witnessed the impact of economic development over several decades in the Himalayas, in both Ladakh and Bhutan. In Ladakh, a Buddhist majority and a Muslim minority lived together for 600 years without a single recorded instance of group conflict. In Bhutan, a Hindu minority had coexisted peacefully with a slightly larger number of Buddhists for an equally long period. In both cultures, just fifteen years’ exposure to outside economic pressures has resulted in violence that left many people dead. …Assumptions about what constitutes progress are so deeply embedded that they often operate at a subconscious level. Disturbingly, they echo the elitist and often racist belief that modernized people are superior — more highly evolved — than their ‘underdeveloped’ rural counterparts.

In the industrialized world, the assumption is that violent conflict is mainly the result of differences between people. By implication, the notion is that homogenization is civilizing. This attitude is even quite prevalent in the South, where the West’s homogenized, secular society is held up as the ideal. On the other hand, when groups of people manage to maintain their own cultural identity, the result is called ‘tribalism’, with its underlying connotations of savagery and violence. The basis for these beliefs often comes from comparing the ‘civilized’ colonies of the Third World with the chaos after the colonial powers departed. This Western analysis doesn’t take into account the way colonialism universally destroyed the indigenous economic and cultural bases and their systems of governance, as well as the diversified economies that allowed people to produce for their own needs. It may well be that the authoritarian hand of the colonial powers held in check the conflict, violence and resistance that would naturally accompany such upheaval, but the roots of the violence are in the suppression of successful cultures and economies. It has little to do with any innate intolerance of differences.

Localization: Solution to holistic development

 

There is still time to shift direction, restore diversity and begin moving towards sustainable, healthy societies and ecosystems. How do we begin? In principle, the answer is straightforward: we need to convince our governments to shift support and subsidies away from globalization towards economic diversification and localization. This does not mean an end to all trade or intercultural communication, as some have unfairly charged. Nor does it mean that industrialized society must change from a culture of cities to villages.

However, the idea of localization runs counter to today’s general belief that fast-paced urban areas are the locus of “real” culture, while small, local communities are isolated backwaters, relics of a past when small-mindedness and prejudice were the norm. The past is assumed to have been ‘brutish’, a time when exploitation was fierce, intolerance rampant, violence commonplace — a situation that the modern world has largely risen above. These assumptions about what constitutes progress are so deeply embedded that they often operate at a subconscious level. Disturbingly, they echo the elitist and often racist belief that modernized people are superior — more highly evolved — than their underdeveloped rural counterparts. Such beliefs are widespread even among rural populations themselves. This is not surprising: the whole process of industrialization has meant a systematic removal of political and economic power from rural areas, and a concomitant loss of self-respect. In small communities today, people are often living on the periphery, while power—and even what we call ‘culture’—is centralized somewhere else.

Making the shift from globalization to relocalization would benefit from two complementary but very different sorts of strategies: those that counter further globalization, as well as those that can bring real and lasting solutions. Because of the urgent need to halt the runaway global economy, efforts to counter globalization need to be implemented as rapidly as possible; they would best be broad-based and highly inter-nationalized, linking North and South as well as social and environmental movements in order to pressure governments to take back the power that has been handed over to corporations. Globalization is creating a way of life that denies our natural instincts by severing our connection to others and to nature. And — because it is erasing both biological and cultural diversity — it is destined to fail.

But, such efforts would not in themselves restore health to economies and communities: long-term solutions to today’s social and environmental problems would also require small, local initiatives that are as diverse as the cultures and environments in which they take place. Many such efforts are already underway — from community banks
and local currencies to community-supported agriculture projects, localized education systems, rediscovered traditional knowledge, and more. Unlike halting the global economic steamroller, these small-scale steps require a slow
pace and a deep and intimate understanding of local contexts, and would best be designed and imple-mented by local people themselves. If given the support they need to flourish, these location-specific initiatives would inevitably foster a return to cultural and biological diversity and long-term sustainability

Extracts from a paper on ‘Breaking Up The Monoculture’. To read the full paper visit www.isec.org.uk. Printed with permission from Helena Norberg Hodge, ISEC.

Helena Norberg-Hodge is a pioneer of the localisation movement, and the Founder and Director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC). (www.isec.org.uk) ISEC is a non-profit organisation concerned with the protection of both biological and cultural diversity.