Friday, June 25, 2010

Globalization and culture

Much of the backlash against globalization stems from a fear that it will lead to a homogenization of culture. This process has operated throughout history, but electronic media and global transportation have accelerated the process because they have removed barriers to the exchange of information. Without barriers, random processes cause the entropy of the global social system to increase, eventually leading to homogenization. It's like the classic experiment that explains entropy and diffusion. Divide a box into two chambers and fill each with a different gas. When you remove the divider, Gas A molecules begin to diffuse into the Gas B chamber, and vice-versa. The entropy, or disorder, of the system increases as the two chambers change composition from pure gas to increasingly similar mixtures of A and B molecules. When the process is complete, the two chambers have the same compositions. Both entropy and stability are at their maximum values.

Likewise, geographic and communication barriers have historically divided world cultures. A diverse array of cultures developed in isolation, which led to decreased stability and increased conflicts. The modern removal of communication barriers inevitably reversed the process of cultural divergence by increasing the efficiency of information exchange and removing cultural obstructions. Theoretically, the subsequent cultural 'blending' will ultimately (over long periods of time) lead to cultural homogenization and societal stability, but in the short term the process can be disruptive and painful. However, the force driving this process is relentless, so stopping the process would be difficult or impossible, and undesirable since it leads to an increase in stability. As long as humanity has affordable global travel and digital communication, fighting against cultural homogenization on a global scale would be futile. The only way to slow or prevent it is to slow or stop the exchange of information, which is neither desirable nor acceptable.

Just as a homogeneous mixture of two gases is more stable than the segregated pure gases, cultural homogeneity should encourage stability. Removal of cultural differences and barriers increases understanding, which decreases fear and hatred, which increases stability. However, we also previously argued that decreased diversity leads to decreased resilience. A system is most resilient when diversity is at a maximum. For example, ecosystems with high biodiversity are more resilient than those with low biodiversity. In a farm or garden, a polyculture is more resilient than a monoculture. Reasoning by analogy, high cultural diversity corresponds to greater resilience. Cultural diversity makes it more likely that society will find solutions in the face of global threats such as global warming. In the past, some cultures were better prepared to deal with adversity, while other less adept civilizations collapsed. For example, in contrast to the Easter Islanders who practiced unsustainable logging practices until no trees remained, Japanese leaders successfully dealt with timber shortages in the mid-17th century. They invoked Confucian principles of limiting consumption and accumulating reserve supplies to develop sustainable forest management (Diamond 2005). In our global society, one culture may provide the seed of knowledge or understanding that will lead to the preservation of global civilization. What if that culture were wiped out during cultural homogenization? Global homogenization of culture would decrease the resilience of humanity.

Therefore, sustainability requires stability and diversity. We must maximize the two at different spatial scales. A community containing people with similar cultures and beliefs can be stable; a country containing diverse communities can be resilient if those communities respect each other’s differences. To promote sustainability, society should adopt policies that reduce intracommunity diversity and increase intercommunity diversity. For example, many cities in the northeast like Buffalo, where I grew up, have multiple ethnic neighborhoods (Polish, Italian, and Irish in Buffalo), and these neighborhoods have coexisted peacefully for more than one hundred years.