“… America is a new kind of society that produces a new kind of human being. That human being – confident, self-reliant, tolerant, generous, future-oriented – is a vast improvement over the wretched, servile, fatalistic and intolerant human being that traditional societies have always produced.”
— Dinesh D’Souza, What’s So Great About America
Implicit in all the rhetoric promoting globalization is the premise that the rest of the world can and should be brought up to the standard of living of the West, and America in particular. For much of the world the American Dream – though a constantly moving target – is globalization’s ultimate endpoint.
But if this is the direction globalization is taking the world, it is worth examining where America itself is headed. A good way to do so is to take a hard look at America’s children, since so many features of the global monoculture have been in place their whole lives. If the American Dream isn’t working for them, why should anyone, anywhere, believe it will work for their own children?
As it turns out, children in the US are far from “confident, self-reliant, tolerant, generous, and future-oriented”. One indication of this is that more than 8.3 million American children and adolescents require psychiatric drugs; over 2 million are on anti-depressants, and another 2 million are on anti-anxiety drugs. The age groups for which these drugs are prescribed is shockingly young: nearly half a million children 0-3 years old are taking drugs to combat anxiety.
Most people in the ‘less developed’ world will find it hard to imagine how a toddler could be so anxiety-ridden that they need psychiatric help. Equally difficult to fathom are many other symptoms of social breakdown among America’s children. Eating disorders, for example: the incidence of anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders has doubled since the 1960s, and girls are developing these problems at younger and younger ages.
If eating disorders are the bane of America’s young girls, violence is a more common problem for its boys. Consider the fact that there have been more than 150 school shootings in the US since 1990, claiming 165 lives. The youngest killer? A six-year old boy.
Sometimes the violence is directed inward, with suicide the result. In America today, suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year olds. In 2013, 17 percent of US high school students seriously considered suicide during the preceding year.
What has made America’s children so insecure and troubled? A number of causes are surely involved, most of which can be linked to the global economy. For example, as corporations scour the world for bigger subsidies and lower costs, jobs move with them, and families as well: the typical American moves eleven times during their life, repeatedly severing connections with relatives, neighbors and friends.
Within almost every family, the economic pressures on parents systematically rob them of time with even their own children. Americans put in longer hours than workers in any other industrialized country, with many breadwinners working two or more jobs just to make ends meet. Increasing numbers of women are in the workforce, so there are no adults left at home; young children are relegated to day-care centers, while older children are left in the company of video games, the Internet, or the corporate sponsors of their favorite television shows. According to a 2010 study of American children, the average 8- to 10-year old spends nearly eight hours a day with various media; older children and teenagers spend more than 11 hours a day with media. Not surprisingly, time spent in nature – something essential for our well-being – has all but disappeared: only 10 percent of American children spend time outside on a daily basis.
America’s screen-obsessed children no longer have flesh-and-blood role models – parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors – to look up to. Instead they have media and advertising images: rakish movie stars and music idols, steroid-enhanced athletes and airbrushed supermodels. Children who strive to emulate the manufactured ‘perfection’ of these role models are left feeling insecure and inadequate. This is one reason cosmetic surgery is on the increase among America’s children. According to the President of the American Academy for Facial Plastic Surgery, “the more consumers are inundated with celebrity images via social media, the more they want to replicate the enhanced, re-touched images that are passed off as reality.” What’s more, he adds, “we are seeing a younger demographic than ever before.”
It seems clear that what is often called ‘American culture’ is no longer a product of the American people: it is instead an artificial consumer culture created and projected by corporate advertising and media. This consumer culture is fundamentally different from the diverse cultures that for millennia were shaped by climate, topography, and the local biota – by a dialogue between humans and the natural world. This is a new phenomenon, something that has never happened before: a culture determined by technological and economic forces, rather than human and ecological needs. It is not surprising that American children, many of whom seem to ‘have everything’, are so unhappy: like their parents, their teachers and their peers, they have been put on a treadmill that is ever more stressful and competitive, ever more meaningless and lonely.
As the globalization juggernaut continues to advance, the number of victims worldwide is growing exponentially. Millions of children from Mongolia to Patagonia are today targeted by a fanatical and fundamentalist campaign to bring them into the consumer culture. The cost is massive in terms of self-rejection, psychological breakdown and violence. Like American children they are bombarded with sophisticated marketing messages telling them that this brand of make-up will inch them closer to perfection, that this brand of sneakers will make them more like their sports hero. But in the global South – where the ideal is often blue-eyed, blonde, and Western – children are even more vulnerable. It’s no wonder that sales of dangerous bleach to lighten the skin, and contact lenses advertised as ‘the color of eyes you wish you were born with’, are booming across the South.
This psychological impoverishment is accompanied by a massive rise in material poverty. Even though more than 46 million Americans – nearly 15 percent of the population – live in poverty, globalization aims to replicate the American model of development across the global South. Among the results are the elimination of small farmers and the gutting of rural communities, with hundreds of millions of people drawn into sweatshops or unemployment in rapidly growing urban slums. Meanwhile, many of those whose ways of life are threatened by the forces of globalization are turning to fundamentalism, even terrorism.
The central hope of the American Dream – that our children will have a better life than we do – seems to have vanished. Many people, in fact, no longer believe that our children really have any future at all.
Nonetheless policymakers insist that globalization is bringing a better world for everyone. How can there be such a gap between the cheerleading rhetoric and the lives of real people?
Part of the disconnect results from the way globalization’s promoters measure ‘progress’. The shallowest definition compares the modern consumer cornucopia with what was available 50 or 100 years ago – as though electronic gadgets and plastic gewgaws are synonymous with happiness and fulfillment. More often the baseline for comparison is the Dickensian period of the early industrial revolution, when exploitation and deprivation, pollution and squalor were rampant. From this starting point, our child-labor laws and 40-hour workweek look like real progress. Similarly, the baseline in the global South is the immediate post-colonial period, with its uprooted cultures, poverty, over-population and political instability. Based on the misery of these contrived starting points, political leaders can argue that our technologies and our economic system have brought a far better world into being, and that globalization will bring similar benefits to the “wretched, servile, fatalistic and intolerant human beings” in the remaining ‘undeveloped’ parts of the world.
In reality, however, globalization is a continuation of a broad process that started with the age of conquest and colonialism in the South and the enclosures and the Industrial Revolution in the North. From then on a single economic system has relentlessly expanded, taking over other cultures, other peoples’ resources and labor. Far from elevating those people from poverty, the globalizing economic system has systematically impoverished them.
If there is to be any hope of a better world, it is vital that we connect the dots between ‘progress’ and poverty. Erasing other cultures – replacing them with an artificial culture created by corporations and the media they control – can only lead to an increase in social breakdown and poverty. Even in the narrowest economic terms, globalization means continuing to rob, rather than enrich, the majority. According to a recent report by Oxfam, the world’s richest 62 people now have more wealth than the poorest half of the global population combined. Their assets have risen by more than $500 million since 2010, while the bottom 3.5 billion people have become poorer by $1 trillion. This is globalization at work.
While globalization systematically widens the gap between rich and poor, attempting in the name of equity to globalize the American standard of living is a fool’s errand. The earth is finite, and global economic activity has already outstripped the planet’s ability to provide resources and absorb wastes. When the average American uses 32 times more resources and produces 32 times more waste than the average resident of the global South, it is a criminal hoax to promise that development can enable everyone to live the American Dream.
The spread of globalization has been profoundly destructive to people’s ability to survive in their own cultures, in their own place on the earth. It has even been destructive to those considered to be its most privileged beneficiaries. Continuing down this corporate-determined path will only lead to further social, psychological and environmental breakdown. Whether they know it or not, America’s children are telling us we need to go in a very different direction.
Image: mojzagrebinfo/ CC BY 2.0
Helena Norberg-Hodge is founder and director of Local Futures (International Society for Ecology and Culture). A pioneer of the “new economy” movement, she has been promoting an economics of personal, social and ecological well-being for more than thirty years. She is the producer and co-director of the award-winning documentary The Economics of Happiness, and is the author of Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh. She was honored with the Right Livelihood Award for her groundbreaking work in Ladakh, and received the 2012 Goi Peace Prize for contributing to “the revitalization of cultural and biological diversity, and the strengthening of local communities and economies worldwide.”
Steven Gorelick is Managing Programs Director at Local Futures (International Society for Ecology and Culture). He is the author of Small is Beautiful, Big is Subsidized, co-author of Bringing the Food Economy Home, and co-director of The Economics of Happiness. His writings have been published in The Ecologist and Resurgence magazines. He frequently teaches and speaks on local economics around the US.