On Friedman: A Spiky World and Individual Action

According to Thomas Friedman, popular columnist for the New York Times, due to globalization and expanding communication networks, the world is becoming “flatter,” essentially leveling the playing field for all members of the planet, broadening opportunity for all and increasing their wealth.  This is the central thesis of his book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century.  I, however, along with Richard Flordia, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, have a completely different assessment of the situation.  Flordia writes in his book Who’s Your City that the world is becoming “spikier” –in terms of wealth distribution, opportunity, economic activity, you name it.  An excerpt from his book reads as follows:

A Chinese student of mine summed it up succinctly: ‘In Shanghai , regular middle-class people live better than those in the United States, while in the countryside, just outside the city, people live what can only be described as precivilized conditions.’  His impressions are borne out in statistics: 17 percent of China’s population lives on less than a dollar a day, almost half lives on less than 2 dollars a day, and 800 million farmers cannot afford to see a doctor.

Flordia’s thesis is that globalization is creating huge disparities.  Large cities/regions the world over are developing expertise in various industries, and people are flocking to these regions, leaving others behind, in order to keep pace with the global work place –to go where the jobs are, essentially.  Friedman believes that the global work place is anywhere there is a laptop or a mobile phone, but this is simply not true.  Jobs are concentrated in cities like New York, D.C., the San Francisco Bay Area, London, Paris, Berlin, etc.  Globalization and cheap oil just make it easier to relocate to these places.  How crowded our airports are on holidays speaks to how many people live where they or their family grew up.

Wendell Berry noticed this trend in the year 1970 in his book of essays, A Continuous Harmony.  In one titled, “The Regional Motive” he writes of what we have lost with this system:

[In The Woodlanders Thomas Hardy writes] though a place “may have beauty, grandeur, salubrity, convenience,” it still cannot be comfortably inhabited by people “if it lack[s] memories.”  And in a letter to H. Rider Haggard about the effects of migration of the English working people, Hardy [states], “there being no continuity of environment in their lives, there is no continuity of information, the names, stories, and relics of one place being speedily forgotten under the incoming facts of the next.”

….

At present our society is almost entirely nomadic, without the comfort or the discipline of such memories, and it is moving about on the face of this continent with a mindless destructiveness, of substance and of meaning and of value, that makes Sherman’s march to the sea look like a prank.

Without a complex knowledge of one’s place, without the faithfulness to one’s place on which such knowedge depends, it is inevitable that the place will be used carelessly, and eventually destroyed.

And so Wendell Berry connects our migration patterns to the leaving behind of our connection to land, place, memory, which is ultimately responsible for our destructiveness.  Since we are attached to so few places, it makes large scale destruction seem small because it is –in large part– unseen.  Most of us don’t live in rural areas anymore.  We live in alleyways and cul-de-sacs.

Of course, that’s not all it does.  It also creates forgotten people such as the rural Chinese mentioned above in Flordia’s book, and the American Farmer.  Less than 2% of our nation’s population produces the vast majority of our food.  With the help of Oil, the average farmer grows nearly 500 acres, according to U.S. Census statistics, as the marketplace makes it harder and harder to grow less and support a family.

A tale that might be even more close to home is that of our mid-sized cities where more and more businesses are merging or are being acquired, presenting fewer and fewer job prospects even for the more educated among us.  Those who are lucky enough to have a job are presented with strange situations where teleconference calls are orchestrated across world time zones in the name of “efficiency.”  Have any of you experienced this?

Mergers and acquisitions replace small businesses in the name of short term profit.  A high stock price floats the transaction, shareholders are happy with their profit, and the resulting company floats the debt into the resulting company, thus causing downsizing, or as many in corporate America call them, “synergies.”  But is it more efficient to have you coworker on the other side of the planet, where you cannot have a face-to-face meeting with them, where their natural language is likely not your own.  All this reminds of a certain story in Genesis 11:

1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As men moved eastward, [a] they found a plain in Shinar [b] and settled there.3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 6The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel [c] —because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Tower of Babel, 1563

According to Genesis, the reason we do not speak the same language, the reason we were scattered across the globe is because good things don’t happen when we are living in one place, speaking a common language.  We build monuments to ourselves, and hence (my own interpretation) we don’t understand our natural connection to the Earth.

The economic forces driving us more and more to our cities are the same ones that are driving our farms to become larger and larger.  A farmer who cannot remain profitable gobbles up his neighbors farm, to attain more short-term revenue.  But in the long-term, maintaining a larger operation can produce so much debt, that he as well will be ruined if he’s not careful.  The equipment necessary to maintain such a farm is expensive.  A combine, for example, costs more than a typical farmer’s house.

As time goes on, and this move towards Big becomes Bigger Still, the metrics for understanding what is efficient in terms of our resources, our time, or even wise in the long term are lost.  According to Berry, we can only take back what is being lost one person at a time.

For most of the history of this country our motto implied or spoken has been Think Big. A better motto and an essential one now is Think Little… the discipline of thought is not generalization, it is detail, and it is personal behavior… the citizen who is willing to Think Little and accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his own, is already solving the problem…. A man who is willing to undertake the discipline and the difficulty of mending his own ways is worth more to the conversation movement than a hundred who are insisting merely that the government and the industries mend their ways.

There is an awful lot of power in each individual person’s actions.  We shouldn’t forget it.  We all still have power to work within our own contexts.  The important thing to remember is to not give up the fight.

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