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Globalization and Metaphysics: An unlikely pair? Think again.

The World Bank’s Annual World Development Report[i] was released this week, on Tuesday, September 15th. Its focus for 2010 is the subtle interplay between climate, development and global poverty. A grim statistic is that more than 1 billion people are hungry on planet earth, even through great strides have been made in lifting millions out of poverty. It is true, weather patterns are changing all around the world; extreme or unusual weather events are becoming more common. All of this is exacerbating the problems for millions of displaced people and refugees, as well as governments seeking to address these crises. At the same time the demographics of financial crisis coping are changing. 1-MexicanPaintbrushAs millions of people around the world lose their jobs; the geography of place becomes more unstable. Reverse migration patterns are beginning to show up; from urban to rural areas and from developed countries to developing and emerging market countries.

Beyond that, volatility in commodity prices, questions about the continued hegemony of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and growing concern about NATO county involvement in Afghanistan is being voiced in mainstream and alternative media outlets around the world.

The culprit in all of this is often cited, although not by the World Bank, as “globalization”…the modern whipping boy of modern populists. In fact, some would argue that globalization is dead as a result of the global financial crisis of 2008.

But seeing the forces of globalization as a modern age phenomenon is not doing it justice. It is really an extension of a world view that has been imposing itself on the entire world for centuries. Globalization is just the most recent manifestation of Western civilization’s “will to power” as defined by Nietzsche[ii]. This impulse, expressed in the dark ages through a hierarchical church-based social infrastructure has gone through many transformations since then, first through the reformation, then the scientific revolution, then the renaissance, and then the industrial revolution[iii]. However, its reliance on a metaphysical interpretation of the universe, regardless of what guise the object of deification has been, provides the common thread that ties it to the current globalization thrust.

Even the transformation of the will to power applied during the age of reason could not squelch the fundamental reliance of the Western mind on a metaphysical interpretation of reality. This can be attributed, in part, to a reliance on Biblical mental constructs which are intertwined with notions of freedom and democracy. The evangelical spiritual framework bleeds over into the secular world and manifests in economic constructs, many of which have been used to guide public policy actions. The “rational man” that invests in businesses and allows for the surplus profit to “trickle down” and “lift all boats” is a secular statement based on a metaphysical construct.

Comments in periodicals as diverse as the Wall Street Journal to Al Jazerra are pointing out the fallacies in these models and their role in the form of mass self-delusion that allowed for excessive abuses that led to the 2008 drop in the global markets. Few are willing to go so far as to claim globalization is dead, however. Current events on the world stage refute that fact. For example, we have seen a flurry of activity in the number of bilateral trade agreement negotiations reported upon as many countries are losing hope that there can be resolution of the logjam of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Doha Round.

People that apply an apocalyptic interpretation of current global events run the risk of missing the most important lesson that is staring us in the face; that is that blaming the forces of globalization does not address the root cause of our global problems. The widespread uncertainty about the future of the global climate really stems from the combination of resource shortages and continued unchecked population growth, both of which are man-made. And, both of these phenomena stem from a continued reliance on a metaphysical interpretation of reality. Here, not only Christianity is to blame. All of the major world religious constructs are equally guilty of taking this descendant view, as Ken Wilber would define in his important book Sex, Ecology, Spirituality[iv].

Natural resource use and extraction, without a sense of the natural limits to growth or the balance in the ecosystem itself is an insidious form of self-delusion. And, if we reference back to the work of Nietzsche, it is the dashing of all forms of self-delusion that allow for a modern human being to live honestly and meaningfully in the world. Similarly, an irrational individual approach to reproduction stems from cultural norms that were appropriate for a planet with 2 million, not almost 7 billion people. Globalization as a technological response to global transportation and communications challenges was the natural outgrowth of the Western mind’s metaphysical approach and problem-solving skills. It was, according to its proponents, to be the herald of a new age where millions were lifted out of poverty through the power of the markets. Prophets of this new secular religion evangelized this message and spread the gospel far and wide.

We now need a set of conceptual and analytical tools that will help us, the human race, understand the very profound nature of the challenges that are facing us. We need a more holistic way of seeing that recognizes that the will to power is grounded in a physical AND a metaphysical framework. With that, we might be able to see that globalization is not dead; it was just taking a nap.


[i] A 35-page summary is available in PDF form here: http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTWDR2010/Resources/5287678-1226014527953/Overview.pdf

[ii] McGreal, I.P. (1992). Great Thinkers of the Western World. NY: HarperCollins.

[iii] For a well developed treatment of this theme see Richard Tarnas’ The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View. NY: Ballantine Books, 1991.

[iv] Wilber, K. (1995). Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution. Boston: Shambala.

  • Jane: Thanks for this explanation of the conceptual tools to which you refer! I do not know of Porritt’s framework but will investigate it further!!

    Not sure that we shouldn’t work to help globalization to sleep a little longer!!

  • HI Jane,

    You raise a huge range of interesting and deep perspectives. While I am not sure I understand your thesis completely, i do like your link between globalization and metaphysics.

    Absolutely love your points on the delusional state of mind. We do seem adverse to genuinely interrogating our reality.

    What ‘tools’ do you have in mind??

    Cheers
    Scott

    • Scott: I guess first and foremost are the conceptual tools I’m alluding to. For example, Jonathan Porritt’s Framework for Sustainable Capitalism, which he writes about in his book “Capitalism: As if the World Matters” is one of the best formulations I’ve seen. It, thankfully, avoids the pitfalls of metaphysics.