Sink or swim?

As borders fall and local customs increasingly meld in the wake of globalization, will cultural diversity ...

Running for cover from the pelting rain, tour guide Luis de la Cruz ducks into a thatched showroom where native beads, necklaces, and grass skirts hang from the rafters. A bare-breasted woman approaches.

"She is trying to preserve the culture," Mr. de la Cruz explains. "But the teenagers want Western clothes.... In three years, all of this will be gone."

Such scenes repeat themselves daily across the globe. As Western consumerism pushes into remote areas, critics of globalization worry that it will raze non-Western cultures and create what one critic calls "McWorld," which looks and acts alarmingly like a bland American suburb.

That compelling image - globalization as cultural bulldozer - has recently fueled protests from Seattle to Quebec. In reality, the picture is more complicated and surprising. Globalization is indeed changing cultures, often in unexpected ways and with sometimes hopeful results.

"We see the process of globalization replacing the good with the bad - but sometimes replacing the bad with the good," says Rogate Mshana, a Tanzanian economist who is program executive for economic justice at the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

"I really do think we could go into an era where war doesn't happen - major war among established nations," adds Michael Mazarr, president and chief executive officer of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington think tank working on issues of national security.

One reason globalization provokes so much debate is that it means different things to different people. Those who concentrate on economic globalization find much to criticize. Those who focus on the spread of communication technology or human values see pluses as well as minuses. Culture is an equally slippery term, involving deeply rooted historical, social, and religious traditions. What sparks the most protest, however, is the most visible aspect of globalization: the spread of Western consumer culture.

Here in the Amazon River Basin, a two-hour boat ride from Iquitos, Peru, that wave has already hit. Shorts and T-shirts are so prevalent here that even first-time visitors complain that the only time local people don traditional garb is when they're staging a tourist show.

On the other hand, if tourists didn't come, locals wouldn't practice the old traditions at all, says an American doctor who works in the area.

The local tour guides, employed by lodges along the river, offer the most dramatic example of the spread of consumerism. In a single generation, several of them have leapfrogged a century of development. Some of them speak several languages and read Western novels. With Eddie Bauer clothes, Nike shoes, and Japanese cameras, they're poster children for the power of globalization. With tips, they earn up to 100 times what their farmer fathers might make.

Critics don't begrudge their material success. But they worry that powerful and concentrated Western media are creating an exaggerated yearning for material goods.

"The economics are really outpacing our ability to deal with it," says Nancy Snow, associate director of the Center for Communications and Community at the University of California Los Angeles. "I don't think the marketplace should be defining who we are as a people."

American triumphalists, who see in these trends an Americanization of the world, are almost certainly wrong, cultural observers agree.

"A world made over in the image of Disney, Nike, and McDonalds is not necessarily a world made safer for democracy," says Michael Sandel, professor of government at Harvard University. "We shouldn't assume that the world's enthusiasm for American pop culture necessarily translates into an embrace of democratic values or of individual liberties."

"You see people wearing blue jeans and drinking Coca-Cola. You think: 'Aha, they're the same,' " adds Ron Inglehart, director of the world values surveys by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "They're not. It's quite remarkable how distinct Spain, France, Germany ... China, Russia, and the US have remained."

Dr. Inglehart is one of the few scholars with empirical evidence on how globalization is changing culture. For one thing, the spread of consumerism tells only half the story. Many cultures tend to become more materialistic as they move from an agrarian base to industrialization.

People, particularly younger generations, become less religious, more skeptical of traditional authority, and pursue economic growth at almost any cost. But once these societies reach a standard of living of $7,000 to $10,000 per capita, roughly equal to South Korea and Portugal today, attitudes shift again.

According to Dr. Inglehart, these post-industrial societies become decidedly less materialistic and increasingly emphasize issues of self-expression, quality of life, and environmental protection. Even supporters of globalization admit the process homogenizes the world somewhat.

"Even though I believe this cultural argument against globalization is unacceptable, we should recognize that deep within it lies an unquestionable truth," Peruvian author and former presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in the journal Foreign Policy. "This century, the world in which we will live will be less picturesque and imbued with less local color than the one we left behind. The festivals, attire, customs, ceremonies, rites, and beliefs that in the past gave humanity its folkloric and ethnological variety are progressively disappearing or confining themselves to minority sectors, while the bulk of society abandons them and adopts others more suited to the reality of our time."

But culture involves more than festivals and dress. History, religion, and politics continue to play a key role in how societies develop and view the world, Inglehart says.

For example, when he asks whether most people can be trusted, responses vary all over the map. On one hand, richer societies tend to trust people more than poor ones. On the other hand, even rich, historically Catholic nations, such as France and Austria, rate lower on interpersonal trust than historically Protestant nations, such as Germany and Sweden.

Culture experts say Protestant traditions engender high-trust societies.

So do Confucian countries. Roughly half of the Chinese and Japanese say they generally trust people, even though Japanese on average earn more than four times as much as someone living in mainland China. A long Communist tradition usually diminishes trust.

East Germans, despite their Protestant heritage and their relatively high earnings, are far less trusting than Taiwanese, who earn only two-thirds as much. These religious-based traditions persist even in countries, such as Norway and Denmark, where church attendance has dwindled to a small minority. There's "a growing tolerance of diversity," Inglehart says. "You have to be blind to history to say the net process is not positive for humanity."

In fact, the Nordic countries may represent the future of globalization rather than the United States, he adds, because the US remains far more traditional and church-going than most countries at its stage of development.

The globalization of telecommunications is also causing surprising fallout. Widely thought to be enhancing world understanding, it may also be causing more friction. For example: Where once Asian societies looked up to the US as a model for development, Hollywood images and CNN news reports of family decay and American social ills have soured their view, argues Francis Fukuyama, professor of public policy at the Institute of Public Policy at George Mason University in Virginia.

"Parents in Asia and in many developed countries are worried that they're losing their children to the West," adds Mr. Mazarr of the Stimson Center.

Cultural friction could grow, at least in the short term.

"Cross-cultural mistakes have multiplied because of the explosion of travel," says Peter Grothe, professor of international policy studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, in Monterrey, Calif.

Sometimes, the technology degrades understanding within cultures. Academics from Thailand recently complained to Mr. Grothe that e-mail was too direct, making their communication more angry than traditionally polite and indirect Thais are used to. Of course, not all cultural practices merit preservation, says Dr. Mshana, the economist from Tanzania. Although he chafes at the Western strictures imposed by the International Monetary Fund on his own country, he applauds the globalization of human rights that is challenging the traditional African practice of female circumcision.

"What may be really emerging is not a world that's global, but a world in which people can choose to be whatever they want," Mazarr says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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