As the borders between countries erode and different economies and cultures start to interweave, the world begins to be more and more defined by globalization. The new technologies and methods of communication and transportation make distances less and less of an obstacle, and it becomes easier to establish commercial and cultural connections and increase the global integration.
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This process has many aspects to it and is both a natural and a controlled occurrence. On the one hand, it is a natural consequence of growing populations and economies, coupled with increasing ease of travel. This creates a flow of human, financial and ethnic resources from one country to another. It is normal for entrepreneurs to look for new opportunities and new markets if they cannot find a niche locally.
On the other hand, globalization requires many factors, such as economic freedoms, free trade and movement of capital, which can only be achieved through conscious agreements between governments and businesses. The latter have had the biggest interest and, as a result, the biggest influence on the progression of globalization.
Ultimately, globalization has always been about capitalism and achieving the highest profits. This has been true since the times of the Silk Road, which connected the trade markets in the East and the West. Naturally, as with capitalism itself, there are some aspects of the society which benefit from it, and some which suffer.
Discussing globalization objectively in its entirety is a challenging endeavor, since it touches upon almost every aspect of the modern world, and its influences differ from one region of the globe to the other, and consequences run across the whole scale from “Disastrous” to “Life-saving”. A good way to observe this dichotomy is by studying the influence globalization has on the lifecycle of goods in the current society.
The Story of Stuff
The adverse side of this impact is explored in a short animated documentary called The Story of Stuff, written and narrated by Annie Leonard. The short film follows the lifecycle of physical products in the modern, globalized world, explores the dangers of excessive consumerism, and touches upon sustainability as a possible solution.
It engages with these concepts by studying them in the American society and follows through five stages of the product lifecycle: extraction, production, distribution, consumption, and disposal. Leonard observes this process as a linear system which is reliant on the constant flow of new resources, and which produces only trash at the end of this lifecycle, which is not only seemingly useless and toxic but also accumulates.
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Such a system cannot work indefinitely on a finite planet. Besides this danger, the short film also studies other problems which are inherent in the current system. For example, she examines how globalization allows resources to be drawn from third world countries, negatively affecting their ecosystem and society, forcing the citizens to leave their countries and seek better conditions elsewhere.
They often become the part of the production process, at times in horrible conditions, further reinforcing the existing system. The production cycle produces goods for customers’ consumption. Leonard argues that not only these products often contain toxic elements, but the production process itself creates a lot of dangerous industrial waste.
Leonard discusses how the modern society is designed to make customers feel bad about not owning commodities they do not necessarily need, and forces them to consume more by having introduced planned obsolescence (“Planned Obsolescence” par.1-8).
Planned obsolescence is a policy in industrial design, with roots in the first half of the twentieth century, based on devising products with an artificially limited lifespan, so that the customers are encouraged to purchase new goods after some time.
Again, obsolete products are disposed of. While Leonard acknowledges recycling as an effective method of dealing with waste, she argues that recycling cannot cope with all of it, leading to garbage, often toxic, being either dumped into landfills or incinerated. Both of these methods pollute the environment.
Finally, Leonard suggests an alternative to this faulty system. She states that by uniting together, people can work towards as sustainable society, which will rely less on rampant consumerism, and will make the lifecycle of a product, appropriately, a closed circle with no waste.
Annie Leonard indeed brings several very pressing and relevant issues to the surface. However, since the purpose of the short film was to be accessible to children and easy to understand, it overlooks various relevant factors about the lifecycle and provides a very critical view of the modern globalized society.
While this perspective is useful for inspirational purposes, for instigating social action and increasing awareness of the problems, it can draw ire from more critical and analytical minds. Also, such one-sided arguments can create misplaced antagonism and attacks from the public on aspects of the global society which are useful.
A good example of this would be the planned obsolescence. While it can be misused in a way that misleads the consumer and creates the issues Leonard associated it with, such attitude is seen as bad business, and can’t survive in a competitive market.
For example, American car producers attempted to take control of the market through planned obsolescence but failed when faced with a foreign competition from Japan. Something that was only possible due to globalization.
Also, planned obsolesce allows for increased longevity of companies. If a company saturated the market with products with an indefinite or at least very long lifespan, it would destroy the demand. This would cause the companies’ bankruptcy, loss of jobs, and would doom the products to a slow but inevitable breakdown, without a producer to replace them.
Similarly, while Leonard discusses the environmental and economic dangers globalization poses to developing countries, she ignores the positive effects it has on their economies.
Globalization provides jobs and economic security to thousands of people in third world countries, improves their standing in the global market and provides more available goods and services around the world, improving the global wealth equality in a way that local economies cannot replicate.
Finally, it is important to note that the self-sustaining society Leonard is describing can only be possible through technological advances and financial investments produced by the current consumerist society. The best example of this is the current energy policy led by the United Arab Emirates.
Despite being critically reliant on non-renewable oil export, which goes in line with Leonard’s arguments about resource exploitation, it also finances the construction of the Masdar City, a planned city which is meant to rely mostly on renewable energy to create a sustainable environment (Walsh par.2-5).
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This development and research reflects the plans of the UAE to move towards renewable resources in its principal cities. Most first-world countries have similar research going on, which would have been impossible without the money and infrastructure provided by globalization.
Globalization needs to be evaluated objectively, based on the pros and cons it has. Many of the issues that are attributed to globalization are slowly being resolved through methods which only globalization can provide. Ultimately, it is neither inherently good nor bad but is simply a sign of change.
“Planned Obsolescence.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper Limited, 23 Mar. 2009.
The Story of Stuff. Dir. Louis Fox. Perf. Annie Leonard. The Story of Stuff with Annie Leonard. Tides Foundation & Funders Workgroup for Sustainable Production and Consumption, 2007.
Walsh, Bryan. “Masdar City: The World’s Greenest City?” Time. Time Inc., 25 Jan. 2011.