The ever-increasing ease with which people can travel, freight can be transported, and information shared, is rapidly changing the world. We call the physical and social effects of this Globalisation.
Moving goods over long distances began before written history with the invention of the wheel and the development of trading ships. Long distance trade was well established by 5000 years ago.
By 2500 years ago, the facility with which ships can move heavy loads had been extended by the development of canals. A Nile river to Red sea canal appears to have existed in Pharaonic times.
And an 1800km canal connecting China's Yangtse river to the Yellow river was begun in the 5th century BC, though not completed until the 6th century CE.
The next advances came in the 19th century with steamships and railways, enabled by the invention of the steam engine. By the end of the 19th century, railways traversed every major land mass except the Antarctic.
The 20th century bought containerisation, which spread rapidly after its introduction by Malcom McLean, an American trucking operator in 1956. By 1976, containerisation is credited with having increased international bilateral trade by nearly 8 times.
That the development of global freight systems has had such profound effect on the human condition is because of economies of scale. With the entire world as a market, farmers, manufacturers and service suppliers can specialise. From what I see locally, the productivity gain from large scale arable farming is x's 10 or more, with similar gains for manufacturers. A rough rule of thumb for manufacturing is that every doubling of quantity reduces costs by around 20%- without apparent limit.
Together with the mechanisation of farming, the specialisation and economies of scale enabled by efficient international distribution systems has cut the time we spend on feeding ourselves from more than 90% 1000 years ago to less than 5% today (leaving aside fine dining which is a leisure activity). Extended education, health care and myriad activities from the arts to sports that were previously only available to a small elite are now generally accessible. This, to my view, is an almost unqualified good, especially when the levelling effects of international trade are also factored in. Sure, businesses in rich countries moan that they can't compete against the labour rates of poorer countries, but the net effect of this is to eventually make the world more equal.
That travel has become much easier is also a net good. Until domestication of the horse and similar, walking was the only way to get around on land, while crossing water was slow, dangerous, and subject to the vagaries of wind. Railways and steam ships provided the first real breakthrough, followed soon after by the development of cars and the network of roads they require. But it is air travel that has really changed the dynamics of people movement. Because it's quick, safe and cheap, air travel is now by far the preferred means for people to travel longer distances; around the world in a few days for as little as US$1000. Air travel has increased by more than 10 times since 1970*.
As the world becomes more physically connected there has also been a trend towards integration of language, laws, culture and government. These social effects of Globalisation are more equivocal.
Language standardisation is overwhelmingly beneficial by improving communication and understanding- but there is a cost to those stranded in dying dialects and languages.
Globalisation has also brought useful convergence of shipping laws, air travel, road rules, contract law, and units (weights and measures), but for matters that impinge on national interests there has been little progress. The 'International Court of Justice' in the Hague is a travesty; only able to take action against offenders from small and weak countries. This is a violation of the most fundamental principle of law; that it should be applied equally to everyone without fear or favour. Nor are there any real prospects for significant improvement, given that larger countries deny it jurisdiction.
Cultural convergence is happening rapidly, driven by entertainment and media as much as by tourism and migration. On the plus side, cultural differences underlie all genocides, so reducing these should make the world a safer place for minorities. But then again, disputes seem to occur just about as often within cultures as between them. Like language, culture is an identity issue, capable of arousing strong passions, but objectively, what are the costs and benefits of diversity? My view is below -can you guess where I stand on this?
Government convergence: A gradual strengthening of supranational bodies, taking over many of the functions presently exercised by nation states is seen by many on the Left as the best and perhaps the only way to confront some of the intractable problems we face- like war, inequality, environmental degradation and climate change. Some on the Right fear that world government is the ultimate goal and intent of globalisation, and this is a common theme for conspiracy theories. If the United Nations is a model for how such a body would work, then there is good reason to be alarmed. Essentially the UN gets hijacked by blocs who use it to further national agendas at the expense of the common good. For example, the UN Human Rights Commission has been taken over by representatives from countries with some of the worst human rights records, against which it therefore never raises a voice- choosing instead to lambast countries with relatively clean records for minor infractions. With this dynamic at play there a frightening potential for a world government to become tyrannical- just imagine a global North Korea- how could it ever be overthrown? Fortunately, it doesn't seem probable that nations will ever cede enough control to make such a prospect likely.
But there is a very sound reason other than fear of tyranny why we should not countenance world government.
The best way to keep governments honest is by making them compete with other governments as desirable places to live. When a country has to build a wall to prevent its citizens from leaving, everyone knows it's a failure. Eventually it either collapses from its inherent inefficiencies (like the USSR) or looks to countries that have people clamouring to get in, and starts copying what they do.
This is the best mechanism we have for making the world a better place.
And for the same reason, cultural diversity is desirable.
Culture is mutable, it's a belief and behaviour system that we can change if we want it to. No culture is perfect and every one probably has features worth preserving. The rural NZ culture I was raised in has plenty of aspects that could do with improvement - which exposure to other ways of doing things during the 500 or more kite flying events I've been to in other countries makes obvious. So why is criticising a culture so controversial? It shouldn't be, because open discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of different cultures, and being willing to change, is surely the way to a better world.
We need globalisation because it provides us all with longer, healthier and happier lives
And we need Singapore and Denmark to show us how to do things better- and Somalia and North Korea as examples of what not to do.
Peter Lynn, Ashburton, New Zealand, August 1st, 2019