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Perhaps “Slowbalization” Is Exactly What the World Needs

A group of Italians started
the Slow Food movement back in the 1980s. Stay away from fast-food restaurants,
they urged: Eat local, focus on traditional recipes, relax and enjoy your
meal. 

The Slow Food movement
began as a protest against McDonald’s, which opened a new franchise near the
Spanish Steps in Rome. But it grew into much more than that. Slow Food was a
finger in the eye of globalization and its relentless transformation of culture
into uniform McNuggets of experience from New York and New South Wales to Dakar
and Dhaka.

Since that call to culinary
arms, the movement has spread to other branches of culture: slow cinema, slow
education, slow medicine, slow design, even slow travel. To a world addicted to
ever greater connection speeds, ever faster modes of transportation and ever
more caffeinated feats of multitasking, the go-slowers recommend a perverse
resistance to the frenzied scherzo of modern life in favor of a more
comfortable adagio. Now it seems that the global economy is finally catching up
to this fashion. 

Catching Up

Earlier this year, The
Economist identified several key indicators of what
it calls “slowbalization.” The portion of trade as part of global GDP has
fallen. Multinationals have seen a drop in their share of global profits.
Foreign direct investment tumbled from 3.5% of global GDP in 2007 to 1.3% in
2018. 

It’s possible that the
world has passed “peak globalization.” The US-China trade war is only part of
this story. Although escalating tariffs between the two countries could cost
the world nearly
half a trillion dollars
 in lost growth by 2020, a sudden
about-turn by the two countries wouldn’t necessarily reverse the current trajectory
of the global economy.

The real reasons behind
slowbalization are more structural in nature, The Economist reports: “The
cost of moving goods has stopped falling. Multinational firms have found that
global sprawl burns money and that local rivals often eat them alive. Activity
is shifting towards services, which are harder to sell across borders: scissors
can be exported in 20ft-containers, hair stylists cannot. And Chinese
manufacturing has become more self-reliant, so needs to import fewer parts.”

A tariff war is bad. So is
a global recession. The apostles of economic globalization fear that growth
will slow, poorer countries will be deprived of a chance to catch up to the
rest, and interstate conflict will sharpen without the softening
effects of trade
.

But perhaps slowbalization
is exactly what the planet needs right now. How else to reduce the global
carbon footprint, shrink economic inequality, and reorient national economies
toward local growth? The world faces a number of urgent crises. Perhaps
the ancients were right when they coined the phrase “festina
lente
” — more haste, less speed.

The Old Economy

The Howard Street train
tunnel in Baltimore, built in 1895 and running underneath the downtown, is a
marvel of engineering. It has been a key link in the circulatory system of
globalization for more than a century. But it’s 18 inches too short. 

Baltimore is the fourteenth
most important port
 in the United States. Ever since the Panama
Canal was expanded
in 2016
, however, container traffic to the East Coast has increased
dramatically. That’s great for Baltimore’s port, which has been upgraded
accordingly. But the main train tunnel at Howard Street is a major bottleneck.
It’s just a bit too short to handle a rail car with two stacked containers. So,
a lot of the containers go out by truck instead, and some ships are heading to
other ports that can handle the increased traffic.

The state of Maryland is
therefore looking
for money
 to remodel the tunnel, adding a notch to the arched
ceiling and lowering the floor. Such are the local modifications necessary to
sustain the greater commerce created by globalization. 

Upgrading the Howard Street
tunnel might sound like a modernization process. But, increasingly, the modern
economy is going in a different direction. Consider the greater automation of
factories. In the age of globalization, multinational corporations have
situated their manufacturing according to a number of variables, one of which
has been the cost of labor. That’s why so many American manufacturers relocated
first to Mexico and then to China, where workers earn considerably less than
their US counterparts. 

But if workers are replaced
by robots, then the need to offshore manufacturing becomes less pressing.
Indeed, the new state-of-the-art term is “reshoring,” which brings
manufacturing back home along with a shift toward more highly skilled labor and
better pay. Reshoring has created
over 16,000 jobs
 in the US manufacturing sector, which has
contributed, between 2008 and 2017, to a 20% increase in manufacturing
output. 

Beware the overly rosy
view, however, since automation will lead to significant job loss overall. And
not just in the manufacturing sector — just think about all those annoying
automated voice response systems that pick up when you call any large
institution these days. But automation can also be nudged in more sustainable
and less disruptive directions even as it eliminates 3D jobs — dirty,
dangerous, demeaning — that no human should be doing. 

Another longstanding
economic development involves supply chains. To avoid natural disasters, wars
and other
disruptions
 in the chain of production, manufacturers are
increasingly moving their factories closer to their customers. Also, market
preferences can change quite rapidly. According to one estimate, because it
takes so long to ship a product by sea in those huge container ships, as much
as half of what’s
produced
 goes unsold because customers don’t want those
particular products anymore.

Then there’s the
environmental impact of these global supply chains. Such logistics, according to the World Economic Forum, account
for fully 6% of total human-generated carbon emissions.  

Consumer preferences have
also evolved, with “local” acquiring greater cache. The “buy local” movement
has had perhaps the greatest influence in the agricultural sector.
Direct-to-consumer sales of food increased
more than threefold
 between 1992 and 2012. Buying locally
produced food, manufactured items and services employs more people,
decreases economic inequality, increases local tax bases and strengthens
communities. 

Port traffic is not going
to decrease significantly in the near future. Because of the nature of the
global economy, Maryland would be wise to fix that old train tunnel in
Baltimore. But an entirely different economy that doesn’t rely on huge
container vessels of iPhones from China or soybeans from Brazil is emerging
within the current system. And this evolution, in turn, is changing the
very definition of globalism.

What It Means to be Global

Economic globalization has
been part of the world system since the Silk Road, and even earlier. But the
modern version dates to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when
refrigeration, the railroad, the telegraph, modern factory production and mass
migration converged to create a new worldwide web of connections. As a
result of this global network, trade increased exponentially until 1914. The
outbreak of World War I that year stopped globalization in its tracks. World
trade wouldn’t recover fully to those levels until the
1960s
.

It’s no accident that the
birth of an international community coincided with the first wave of modern
globalization. The League of Nations emerged after the end of World War I.
International NGOs like Save the Children and the American Friends Service Committee
began operations at this time. In the 1920s, a new sense of modern
cosmopolitanism united American flappers, Japanese moga (modern
girls) and Weimar hipsters. 

It didn’t last long. The
nationalism, intolerance and xenophobia of the 1930s — typified by the rise of
fascism in Europe, Stalin’s anti-internationalist turn in the Soviet Union, and
an ugly isolationist movement in the United States — shut down this nascent
globalism. Only after World War II did another attempt at rebuilding the
international community begin with the creation of the United Nations and a set
of international financial institutions.

It’s common these days to invoke the 1930s when trying to understand the appeal of Donald Trump, the resurrection of tariff walls and the widespread fear of refugees. Globalization and nationalism seem to be involved in a rough-and-tumble tango across history’s dance floor, and it’s now the reactionaries’ turn to lead.

That interpretation inspires sources like The Economist to wax pessimistic about slowbalization: “Globalisation made the world a better place for almost everyone. But too little was done to mitigate its costs. The integrated world’s neglected problems have now grown in the eyes of the public to the point where the benefits of the global order are easily forgotten. Yet the solution on offer is not really a fix at all. Slowbalisation will be meaner and less stable than its predecessor. In the end it will only feed the discontent.”

The first two sentences of
this assessment don’t sit well with each other. If globalization made the world
a better place for almost everyone, who exactly shouldered all those costs that
too little was done to mitigate? And what about climate change, which has
accelerated as a result of all this economic growth and international
trade? 

Acknowledging the costs and
benefits of globalization is not enough. The Economist should pay
closer attention to the uneven distribution of those costs and
benefits — and how new economic trends can be shaped to help rectify these problems.

If it’s true that the old
system of mindless growth and unlimited trade is on its way out, then
slowbalization is not a speed bump in the further integration of the global
economy. It is an early sign, by markets and technology, that a global assembly
line powered by immense cargo ships will soon be as much a part of the “old
economy” as coal-fired power plants, typewriters and cassette tapes.

The challenge now is to
preserve the political internationalism necessary to address global problems
like climate change and, at the same time, retrofit the global economy so that
it meets the needs of people and the planet. This trick of separating the
beneficial internationalism from the dregs of economic globalization must also
be accomplished as quickly as possible. 

Festina lente!

*[This article was originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not
necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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