Doomed If We Do, or Doomed If We Don’t?

Globalization cuts both ways. On the one hand, it’s a capitalistic assault on indigenous knowledge, a conspiracy orchestrated by neoliberal nuts who want to turn nation-states into market states, outsource wage-labor and military tasks, and dump the true costs of business on an already impoverished developing world. On the other hand, it’s a Tom Friedman fantasy in which cell phones and fast food bring peace and prosperity to people otherwise shackled by repressive ideologies, religious fanaticism, and bureaucratic regimes. Both portrayals are exaggerated, and both contain dashes of truth.

Perhaps understandably, the vast majority of books published on globalization attempt to negotiate these extremes, with varied results. As the two books under review demonstrate, the polarized nature of the debate tends to demand either a stifling of common sense or a radical reassessment of assumptions.

Thus we have Stan Cox, whose angry but well-documented book ends with a proposal that’s more fantasy than reality, facing off against Robert Paarlberg, whose similarly angry and well-documented book ends with an alternative perspective on globalization that will inspire open-minded skeptics to rethink the matter.

Cox, a senior scientist at the Land Institute in Salinas, Kansas, makes a radical anti-globalization argument that we’ve been hearing an awful lot of lately: Human exploitation of natural resources dooms the earth to ecological apocalypse. Corporate food and medicine are the vehicles by which Cox vents his anger. With considerable evidence, he demonstrates the many ways that multinational corporations mass-produce bourgeois commodities to enrich the managerial class and fleece the masses, all the while expecting the downtrodden and the environment to absorb the costs of production. (Cox, as we will see, relishes this sort of Marxist lexicon.)

As pure polemic, the book sings, and Cox’s nose for irony is sharp. “An industry dedicated to health,” he writes, “ought not be feeding the endless economic growth that threatens the biological systems on which human health depends.” His delivery of the choice statistic is equally well honed. The human carnivore can’t be told too many times that it takes 68 times more water to make a pound of beef than it does to make a pound of wheat flour. Like much of what Cox has to say, the figure makes one pause.

Sick Planet

Even casual readers are likely to recognize Cox’s statistics-packed tirade against agribusiness and the pharmaceutical machine, but Cox’s discussion of what might be called second-tier environmental problems might alarm even experts in disaster, providing worthy reminders that the ecological plagues currently making headlines are just the tip of the (melting) iceberg.

The massive input of natural gas required to manufacture nitrogen fertilizer, the impact of “global dimming pollutants” on rain patterns in Southeast Asia, and the chemical terrors of Teflon are only a few of the lesser-known hazards that Cox adds to the growing list of depression-inducing factoids. “I will warn you now,” Cox writes, “that this book does not include a hopeful final chapter plotting a sure, safe route out of this mess.” Fair warning.

It perhaps comes as no surprise that on the afternoon I finished reading Sick Planet, I found myself atop a barstool staring into a glass of beer. Alongside sat a friend who knows environmental matters well. Maybe it was the beer talking, but I uncharacteristically declared that maybe there is no hope, the avalanche has started and there’s no holding it back, we’ve driven our Hummer across the Rubicon. I wandered over to this tempting dark side because Cox’s “solution” struck me as so utterly desperate, so detached from social and political reality. I mean, why not just save your breath and accept that the earth is dying a painful and protracted death?

OK, so it was the beer talking. The fact remains that Cox concludes his litany of environmental despair with an inherently unachievable proposition, if not a complete cop-out: a Marxist plea for what he and other radicals are calling “ecosocialism.” Individual efforts do not matter, Cox argues, if they don’t challenge profit motive-the insidious disease at the heart of our environmental predicament.

Our supposedly virtuous choices to buy local or drive a hybrid are, in Cox’s curmudgeonly estimation, undermined by the fact that “[w]ould-be green capitalism is nothing but a publicity stunt, a label for the purpose of selling a commodity.” It makes no sense to “streamline a global economic system that refuses to be fixed” because, in Cox’s final assessment, “we cannot have both capitalism and a livable planet.” The answer, then, is to eliminate the profit motive, redefine our “wants,” and rebuild the world economy on the principles of Marxian socialism. With apologies to any Observer-reading Marxists out there: Good luck!

Robert Paarlberg, a political scientist at Wellesley College, offers a more complex and malleable analysis of globalization in Starved for Science. Rather than dismiss globalization’s many excesses with an abrupt Marxist swat, he molds them into something more applicable to our environmental and humanitarian dilemmas. Paarlberg’s thesis is that genetically modified crops-a form of biotechnology routinely castigated by anti-globalization critics, among others-deserve a place in Africa’s stagnant agricultural system. Paarlberg is no apologist for Monsanto Co., the world’s premier owner and supplier of GM technology (and a notoriously ill-behaved corporate citizen), but rather a pragmatic believer in separating babies from bathwater. The fact that current applications of GM technology primarily benefit a handful of corporations does not deter Paarlberg from envisioning a scenario in which nonprofits and private African corporations might employ GM technology to serve the increasingly dire needs of African farmers.

Paarlberg has no intention of challenging capitalism. He works instead from the premise that American agriculture’s current emphasis on genetically modified soybeans and corn does not preclude using the technology to mass-produce drought-resistant sweet potatoes or insect-resistant cassava-crops that have already been developed, but lack public support in the locales that would most benefit from their implementation.

“Factory farming and corporate concentration in agriculture are appropriate targets for nongovernmental organizations’ action back home in Europe and North America,” Paarlberg writes, “but the danger in Africa’s impoverished countryside is that private companies with modern technologies will invest too little rather than too much.” It’s a critical distinction, and one that the anti-globalization brigade has an obligation to address.

Paarlberg’s contention that opposition to GM crops “is a rich-world argument that is hurting the poor” is controversial. But as he develops his argument, it begins to look intuitively appealing, systematically supported, and ultimately convincing. Underscoring his thesis is extensive documentation of Africa’s agricultural emergency, which the current rise in global food prices is finally highlighting. In sub-Saharan Africa today, a third of all people are undernourished-double the figure for the rest of the world. “The sorry truth,” Paarlberg writes, “is that food-crop production and export-crop production have both faltered badly in Africa in recent decades.”

The gist is this: Africans farm a great deal, but they’re still hungry. Political instability might be one factor behind this paradox, but the main reason, according to Paarlberg, is that African farmers are just not producing enough food to be regionally self-sufficient.

There is ample evidence that GM crops could play an important role in addressing the shortfall by increasing yields and reducing costs. The safety of eating these crops has been repeatedly affirmed. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics declared in 1999, “… we have not been able to find any evidence of harm” in its in-depth investigation of GM crops. This opinion has been affirmed over the years by august institutions including the French Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society of London, and the American Academy of Sciences.

Starved for Science

However, entrenched first-world opposition to GM technology, based on superficial, anti-corporate ideology rather than honest understanding of the technology itself, has pushed NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth to resist such yield-enhancing technology in Africa. They have done so, in part, by convincing African political leaders that the acceptance of GM technology would have detrimental economic consequences. (Europe, for example, is a major opponent of GM crops, but a huge importer of African food crops.) Such pressure has led to some outrageous outcomes, such as Zambia’s decision in 2002 to reject a shipment of GM maize intended to feed the country’s 3 million citizens on the verge of starvation. “Simply because my people are hungry,” President Levy Mwanawasa explained, “that is no justification to give them poison, to give them food that is intrinsically dangerous to their health.”

While Paarlberg effectively highlights the absurdity of that decision, his dogged advocacy of transgenic technology obscures some perfectly valid concerns African nations might have regarding such agricultural techniques. Paarlberg notes that the technology would be best removed from the realms of bullying patent lawyers and monopoly control, but remains somewhat tone deaf to larger fears about cross-contamination of GM crops with traditional ones, a scenario that could undermine African exploitation of lucrative markets for organic vegetables. Paarlberg seems more interested in lambasting Europeans for what he sees as their Luddite view than exploring the underlying nature of Africa’s caution.

Despite his reluctance to engage the more nuanced negatives associated with GM technology, Paarlberg demonstrates well how the Zambian logic has been praised and perpetuated by NGOs. He rails against their tendency to approach African agriculture as a ripe opportunity to create a continent of organic farmers. It’s a questionable goal at best, and in all likelihood one that’s out of touch with Africa’s true agricultural issues.

For one thing, the vast majority of African farmers already practice organic methods, if for no other reason than that they can’t afford chemicals. Thus we have first-world reformers-coming from countries where a mere 2 to 5 percent of the population farms-trying to turn 70 percent of Africa’s population from de facto to de jure organic farmers.

“[M]any international NGOs do not take poverty and hunger as a starting point,” Paarlberg writes. “Many are in the business of exporting to Africa visions of environmentalism, anti-corporate populism, and organic food purity that exclude science and are a mismatch to Africa’s needs.”

In support of this proposition, Paarlberg quotes Greenpeace scientist Doug Parr, who says, “There is no direct relationship between the amount of food a country produces and the number of hungry people who live there.”

It’s worth wondering what a hungry person might think of such an assessment. Paarlberg has, resulting in an insightful book that deftly balances the benefits and drawbacks of globalization, all within parameters conforming to the real world, the one in which we live.

So, yes, globalization is a double-edged sword. In Sick Planet, Cox does the critically important work of illuminating the abuses that globalization has spawned, but his solution skirts political and economic reality. Paarlberg, by contrast, offers not only a concise argument about a specific issue-GM crops in Africa-but also a clarion call for corporations and NGOs alike to revisit issues that have been ideologically polarized rather than rationally examined. How else to seek realistic answers to the challenges that Cox so deftly portrays?

Contributing writer James E. McWilliams is a fellow in the Agrarian Studies program at Yale. His book, American Pests: The Losing War on Insects from Colonial Times to DDT, will be published in July.

James McWilliams is an Ingram professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.

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Published at 12:00 am CST