Date: Sun, 11 May 1997 07:54:46 -0700
From: Steve Cisler

International Forum on Globalization: Teach-In 3, Berkeley, California

Steve Cisler

Having just participated in a conference about "Virtual Diplomacy" I happened to see a flier about a conference organized by Jerry Mander and the International Forum on Globalization (IFG), held in Berkeley, California, April 11-13, 1997.The Virtual Diplomacy conference looked at what is happening to the nation-state as a result of the electronics revolution, where the rapid communications networks serve as lubricants to the flow of workers, ideas, money, entertainment, values, and artifacts of cultures.

R.F.M. Lubbers of Harvard traces the term Ďglobalizationí back to MacLuhan (The Global Village) and to the Club of Rome and its famous study, The Limits to Growth. Later, Tofflerís The Third Wave provided a context for many to understand (and worry about) the advances in computing and telecommunications networks.

The origins of the IFG can be traced back to the opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by numerous unions, NGOs, activists, and populist politicians like Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan.

With the end of the Cold War and the elimination of the so-called Second World, that of communist states, NAFTA and the World Trade Organization marked the ascendance of market-oriented G7 countries in the decision-making process that went beyond pure economic matters.

Lubbers points out that the social responses to globalization are hard to interpret and should not be underestimated. Part of the tension comes from the globalizing forces pushing "we-cultures" into "me-cultures" marked by freedom, choice, individualization, democracy and market forces. There are also "me-cultures" trying to work toward a more community-driven ethic. The Berkeley conference was one such effort.

IFG is funded by Douglas Tompkins, a retired clothing manufacturer with a passion for aggressive ecological action, and the bank account (over $100 million) to carry that out. One of the tenets of the anti-globalization forces is that ecological degradation is increasing because of the global forces weakening existing regulations by nation-states. Tompkins also funds the Foundation for Deep Ecology and has purchased more than 1000 square miles of a province in Chile to form Pumalin, a wilderness area for public use. There was a rumor at the conference that Tompkins was withdrawing further support for the IFG and the Deep Ecology Institute, but this meeting seemed well-supported and overlapped with another, smaller meeting of technology critics and neo-luddites called the Jacques Ellul Society. Some of the speakers were in Berkeley for both meetings.

The conference was set up as a series of plenary sessions with four or more speakers per panel. In addition, there were four time slots for a number of breakout sessions on more narrow topics. Last year Mander edited a book, The Case Against Globalism (Sierra Club $28.00), and many of the authors featured in the book were present in Berkeley. All told, there were more than 80 speakers scheduled over the three days. Unfortunately, the format for the conference was heavily weighted toward lecturing the audience about a particular crisis with no feedback from the listeners. In the plenaries there was little time for breaks and no time for questions. Why? Because the organizers overscheduled and put too many people on each panel. Also, few of the speakers were able to keep to the allotted time, even with a bell being rung by the moderator. Most of them were so absorbed in their message (sermons, in some cases) that they would ignore the one minute signal and keep talking for a long time. I thought it was ironic that so many of the people spoke about community and judicious use of resources in the global sense but were unable to apply it to the precious resource (time) that the conference community had come to share. This carried over into three of the four breakout sessions that I attended: more panels with interesting but overly long presentations by the experts and little input from the rest of us.

Among those who did get to make comments, several began with tedious infomercials for their books or accomplishments and wasted more time. Other people said that their breakout sessions went somewhat better than those I attended, but one woman was so distraught that she had been shouted down in some feminist discussion that she fled from the room and cried for a long time. There were no evaluation forms for the teach-in, but I thought it was a good deal for $80. Others complained about the fee but not the content. The folder of information included the program, the contact addresses for exhibiting organizations and co-sponsors, as well as the many speakers, whose fax and phone number were listed but no email addresses.

Having run several conferences myself I know the problem of overscheduling events, so I enjoyed the meal times and breaks when people roamed the line of tables for different non-profits, magazines, and causes relating to bicycle promotion, Central and South American Indian rights, organic/non-exploitative coffee plantations, bookstores, ecology groups, activist travel agencies, and local currency guides. This was about the only place to have unstructured discussions. I only knew a couple of people who arrived at the end of the conference, and most of the speakers had commitments at mealtime so my encounters with other attendees were not that profound.

Having rated the interactivity of the teach-in as low, I would rate the content (even though it was more of a broadcast) as high, and it did help to achieve one of the goals of the organizers: to help people see how interrelated many of these events, trends, crises are. NAFTA and migration of ex-corn farmers from Mexico to California and the loss of factory work in the Northeast are related in ways we should be aware of.

Basic Themes

The speakers were in general agreement about the basic themes; some held much more radical views about development and about correct responses to ecological degradation than did others. Each point of view was supposed to fit into larger themes.

Here are some of the ideas most of the speakers supported:

1. Globalization mainly benefits large, trans-national corporations and their stockholders, not the public, and usually not the nation-states that have little control over these companies. David Korten said that 51 of the 100 largest organizations are corporations; the rest are countries.

2. In order to stay competitive, nations are engaged in a "race to the bottom" as far as environmental laws, labor regulations, and cultural preservation is concerned. Companies and job will flee (or flow) to the areas with the fewest barriers to moving currency, intellectual property, people, raw materials and goods, so countries are pressured to match the operating environments of countries desperate for investment dollars.

3.Localized and decentralized systems are good. Though the corporations are strong centralized machines, they, like the Communists, will fall too. The optimists believed this would happen sooner, before too much damage is done, Many others warned of the scenario in idea 2 (above).

4. Indigenous groups are very vulnerable; their lands harbor the raw materials desired by corporations and by nations eager to improve the balance of payments. Vickie Tauli Corpuz Indigenous Peopleís Network, Philippines, described her work resisting a dam financed by the World Bank (favorite target for many speakers including Catherine Caufield, the author of Masters of Illusion. A few speakers, like Martin Khor of the Third World Network in Penang, Malaysia, admitted the World Bank had tried to change. Ismail Serageldin, VP, Environmentally Sustainable Development for the World Bank, lectures on the problems of the gross inequities that are a byproduct of the current stage globalization.

5. Commercialization of culture, of biological species like the Neem tree in India was another major theme. Vandana Shiva, director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and a Natural Resource Policy in Dehradun, India, has written a book on "bio-piracy" and spoke about the fight over American patents of seeds and processes needed in India.

6. National and international bodies are imposing unreasonable regulations and law on local cultures and jurisdictions. This includes the FCC plans to overrule local Public Utilities Commission rulings that seek to protect local businesses.

7. Protectionism doesnít have to be a dirty word, but some of the speakers would have liked a less pejorative term for legislation to encourage local enterprise and culture. At the national level the French are upset over the dominance of American culture in movies, television, and music. They have responded with a series of measures that the American government sees as insular and restrictive. Many at this conference believe that such measures are indeed necessary not just as a national level, but at a regional or municipal level.

8 Globalization leads to monoculture and should be resisted. This is one of the themes of Benjamin Barberís 1996 work "Jihad vs. McWorld".

The Attendees

Before reporting on a few of the more interesting talks, a few vignettes of attendees and idea-vendors is in order. The mix of people was quite telling. Only a couple of people in suits (Mander, Jean Pierre Page a French labor leader who organized massive street demonstrations against the G7 meetings in France), and a good mix of ages but with incomes less than many international gatherings. Most of the people from outside the US were speakers and had their expenses covered. I had a sense that few had incomes that allowed them to travel from very far away. I met one elderly woman who had planned to sleep in her car, but she found a friend who let her crash on her floor. Somehow, I had only imagined young people "crashing", yet that was the term the old woman used.

845 am on Saturday, and the first pamphleteer of the day was out with brochures on organic gardening and sustainable agriculture. Later, people selling a Green Party newspaper pursued attendees, but most of the other vendors of cause-related information were not so aggressive. I think what must kept some folks here going is that they feel/know that their small local acts can, in the aggregate, have an effect on the whole world. One woman was convinced that she should change those she encountered:

A middle-aged Asian woman is eating a sweet roll with a golden brown crust. Flecks of pastry fall back into the white bag that she uses to cradle the food. An older looking white woman in a bright blue nylon jacket walks up to her and begins explaining the evils of white sugar. "Go to Whole Foods in Berkeley and get some honey cookies, store them in your refrigerator and when you crave evil junk, have one of those, not that poison!" She goes into a history of her own addiction to sugar and rattles off several books about sugar, yeast infections, and gets around to the subject of astrology (which she practiced for 25 years). After prying the sugar- eaterís birth sign from her she says, "Use your Aries willpower to fight the urges, and stay away from that sugar." The Asian woman is giggling nervously as the preacher retreats, "I donít snack. I missed breakfast, and did not have much lunch today." As if to say "What did I do wrong just eating a sweet roll." To the preacher it is all part of a big problem, and she wanted to make a conversion and fit that one more piece of the mosaic into her picture of a sugar-free world.

Gaia bookstore was the booth with the largest crowd . It was run by Patrice who seemed to know all the books displayed on her tables. A person would leaf through the book, and sheíd make some helpful comment. I chose a couple of books, and she commented "Oh, two of my favorites!" and then spoke with some knowledge about each author. This crowd may like speeches, and they may use or at least tolerate the web, but in their hearts they were book people, and this store did a great business.

I am a slow writer with a pen, and I borrow a new computer my company is selling. The eMate is a melted-looking little portable that is deep water sea green, and it has a quiet keyboard and batteries that last at least a day, so it was perfect for the endless speeches. Of all the many hundreds of people in the audience, in the booths, and on stage, I saw not one other desktop or laptop computer. Nobody treated me like a guy eating pork ribs at a vegetarian dinner, but it did point to the gulf between the communities with toys and tools (Silicon Valley and its counterparts) and those without.

As I re-read my notes (67 KB) there were so many facts, and claims, and warnings, and jeremiads that I find it impossible to link all of them together for an inclusive summary.

Jerry Brown, former California governor, came on stage and rambled about global expansion and local contraction in Oakland where he lives and may run for mayor. Since he has a talk show, I think his speaking style as loosened up. Nobody was allowed on the stage after his talk, and some of us thought he wanted to maintain a safe distance from unknown questioners.

Kevin Danaher of the Global Exchange was one of the more spirited speakers. he reminded me of a more committed George Carlin. He had some of the same rhythm in his speech, and he was much more upbeat than Carlin: "Donít analyze the way things are, think of the way they could be!" He downplayed the importance of markets: "they are just money" but economist Gary Becker would disagree. Many of the speakers knew they were addressing their choir and perhaps trying to teach them a new hymn. He urged the audience to touch peopleís emotional side, and quoted Emma Goldman, "If I canít dance, I donít want to be part of your revolution!." Global Exchangeís booth publicized a number of interesting tours to Cuba, Latin America, and other developing countries as part of their political travel programs.

Fritjof Capra, the famous physicist and author of The Tao of Physics, Uncommon Wisdom and The Web of Life, gave a dense and sober talk (he kept to his time limit!) about the use of computers in education. He felt that our culture was eliminating the alternative world views, and was leaving only the technological view.

He faulted the technophiles for saying that information is the basis of thinking. He claimed the minds uses ideas not information. When you respond with an answer "10:15 AM" when someone asks the time of day, you are referring to a complex set of ideas about cyclical time; itís not just information. Because of computers kids are assembling facts and information but few ideas, and he claimed that computers are reductionist, that the scarcity of information in email is because itís out of context and that much of software (like Storybook Weaver) is a teaching tool for reductionist thinking.

Wolfgang Sachs of the Wuppertal Institutefor Climate, Energy, and Environment in Germany, had some of the most interesting views. Of all the speakers, his ideas surprised me the most and made me want to read more of his past works. He conducted a survey (soon to be published in English) that asked of German respondents "In the name of what kind of future do we propose globalization?" He said that Germans are becoming aware of the amount of resources and energy that they are putting into the engine that cranks out the goods and services of the German economy, and that ideally they need to reduce it ten-fold over the next fifty years. He says this is a design issue: How can the turn limits into opportunities and to think of this change in civilization as a work of art. We have to confront the old utopias of the 19th century and look more carefully at innovative product design. He said there were three components: time, space, and volume.

* Time: we need to live less hurriedly, to be more attentive. This will mean slowing down. "The challenge is to live elegantly within limits." * Space: the 19th century goal was to use transportation (railroad, then car, and airplane) to remove obstacles to movement. But with the advent of fast networks, the new telecomms annihilates space. * Volume: Having fewer things should be a goal, partly because the many things we now have are time thieves. "There is a subterranean link between pleasure and austerity." Not exactly Dionysian sentiments of a romantic German, but it went over well (I think) with the audience. Sachs was a cerebral speaker, but he was also warm and did well in a smaller group at one of the breakout sessions.

Stephanie Mills of the Great Lakes Bioregional Group is the author of many books including the forthcoming Turning Away From Technology: A New Vision For The 21st Century. She seemed to be the most deeply pessimistic, and she has been writing and lecturing for 25 years on ecological devastation. She took the loooong view: "We are on a 13,000 year experience with technology. It has always been antithetical to the wild...If I were a weeper, Iíd take my 15 minutes and just cry." Being a deep ecologist, she supported ideas like the "Wildmanís Project" where North America would be divided into a series of natural areas for wild predators, and they would be large and interconnected. Theyíd need about 50% of the land area of North America to keep a "spontaneous flow of genetic material across the ranges." This reminded me of the old plan for a buffalo commons whereby the midwest would be given back to the buffalo, since everyone was heading into Omaha or Oklahoma City or Des Moines anyway. She ended her downbeat talk with the quip, "Nature bats last."

David Morris (from an area that might be part of the buffalo commons) spoke next, and he had a very different take on our ability to control globalization and technology. Morris is the head of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota and has backed a number of interesting economic initiatives like hemp growing, medium-scale ethanol production for Minnesota farmers and has written books such as "Self Reliant Cities" and "Be Your Own Power Company" and his monthly columns in St. Paul newspaper included a pitch for readers to support changes in FCC rules for wireless data communications.

Ambivalence about the Net

Iím skipping many of the other speakers in order to report on the final session I attended and the only one with much participation from the audience. It was entitled "Technology, Ecology, and Democracy" with Jerry Mander, Andrew Kimbrell, Richard Sklove of the Loka Institute, and Langdon Winner who has written extensively on technological system design. Much of the discussion dealt the ultimate usefulness (or evil) of the new telecomms networks, especially the Internet and the tools needed to use them: the personal computer. Mander and Kimbrell were the most opposed; they thought they offered much more power to companies and far less to small groups and individuals, but they did not necessarily advocate not using them at all. One person asked Mander if he applied that reasoning to the international telephone network, and he said heíd have to think about it. Mander admitted neither he nor anyone else was "pure" that he drove a car (electric) and used an electric typewriter and the phone.

Richard Sklove suggested putting a global tax on the international telecomms infrastructure and talked about the 38 community research centers in Holland which they are modeling some US initiatives on. In addition, the Loka Institute is having lay people meet to listen to complex ideas about technology and then work out some plans for consideration by the Massachusetts legislature. The results of this experiment are on Lokaís web site at xxx.

Langdon Winner seems to be a bridge between the anti-technologists and those who will live mainly by technology. He teaches at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York and says that young people are living their lives in relation to global technological change. The future has been foreclosed for the young who see their careers globalized, and their goal is to fit into a technological niche (write code, design webs, do multi-media) in the global economy.

Many of the questioners were sympathetic to the speakers, but they were also users of the Net, and they found it useful, even if it seemed like a deal with the devil. the panel suggested separating the idea that a technology is useful personally from the idea that it may be ultimately damaging to the world. It was unclear if the conclusion was to abstain,but I donít think anyone was planning to do that. At last yearís Second Luddite Congress, people did vow to give up certain technologies, just as a back slider might come out of a religious revival and throw away the fifth of whiskey he had hidden in his car. I think most of the attendees felt they had to use to use the tools that were being used by the opposition.

I spent the rest of the afternoon talking with Langdon Winner, trading ideas, web sites, and experiences at Apple. Winner spent the next few days at the Jacques Ellul Society before returning home. I bicycled to the public rail system and rode south to Fremont and reflected on the mega-dose of ideas and ideology that overloaded me for the next week. This report is not at all complete, so readers might check out Ken Cheethamís list on his web site.