Michelle Long recently cofounded the Transparency Center, a nonprofit organization focused on facilitating transparent, stakeholder-inclusive models of trade.

Sunday, 6 May 2001

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.

Hello. Welcome to my world and my work. Opening my day to all of you presents an interesting opportunity — and also a challenge. In the challenge of reducing what I do each 24 hours to the incidents, thoughts, and conversations I believe are most worthy of sharing, I also have the chance to reflect on what I see as most important. In a way, this is really an opportunity to make sure I’m working day-to-day to get closer to my vision. My goals for the week are to share why I am so passionate about what I do in order to arouse passion and action from you, and to make myself available for thoughtful critique and advice.

I’m typing this Sunday night from the San Francisco airport, waiting my flight home to Seattle. I’ve spent the past four days at two meetings.

This morning and yesterday, I spoke to a crowd of about 600 members of the San Francisco World Affairs Council at their 55th annual conference at Asilomar, south of San Francisco on the Monterey Peninsula. The topic of the conference was “Globalization — Going Global in the Information Age.” The conference grounds were lovely and the audience was engaged, but while there were several academics presenting gently alternative views, the general theme from business executive presenters was, “Globalization is good for business, and since business represents progress and wealth creation, and since those things mean a higher standard of living, globalization is good for everyone.” In fairness, I believe the World Affairs Council did try to represent opposing perspectives — certainly Jane Wales, their executive director, recognizes the two-edged sword that is globalization — and it’s possible that the few cancellations skewed the whole. However, by this morning, I couldn’t help but remember some of those 1950s commercials where kids sit at picnics on the farm under the spray of DDT clouds. At the end of those commercials, the big, fat, happy corncob and tomato sing, “DDT, good for you and me!”

Recently, Thomas Friedman, a well-known analyst of globalization and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of such books as The Lexus and the Olive Tree, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, in part about our work at the Transparency Center. I had the opportunity then to speak with him for several hours, and I agreed completely when he said, “Anyone who thinks globalization is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ doesn’t understand globalization.” Globalization is, more simply, the system of our time. For as long as people have existed, they have conducted trade to the maximum abilities of their transport and technological tools. Now those tools allow us to trade and communicate globally. The real question is, what rules of globalization should we choose to follow? The 10,000 pages of rules in the WTO’s guidelines are merely one possible set of rules.

When it came time for my morning plenary talk, I’d spoken with enough of the conference participants to recognize their dissatisfaction with the sunshine speak. The participants represented an above-average cross section of wealth, age, and education, but the unrest brewing across our land of plenty was alive and noticeable within these people. Therefore, when it came my turn to speak on a panel alongside Kevin Warner, senior director of worldwide education at Cisco; Suhas Patil, founder of Cirrus Logic; Jane Wales of the World Affairs Council; and moderated by Elizabeth Farnsworth, senior correspondent on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, I spoke to this unrest. I addressed the feeling that, if we continue in the direction we’re headed, we’re going to get where we’re going … I spoke to the growing sentiment that our spirit is being co-opted and that as the individual-to-individual communication possible via the Internet allows us to pull back the curtain behind the singing corncob, we’re … strongly concerned.

We (to be broad and sweeping) want “consumption options” but not at the real expense of people and planet. The term “sweatshop” is … not pleasant, the environmental degradation taking place where regulations are lax is … bothersome. We’ve heard globalization as it stands — free trade — is good for newly employed workers. So why then do we learn that factory workers in the newly privatized south of China make less in pay and benefits working in the factories where Wal-Mart and Kmart source than they did in factories under communist rule?

I recently clipped an ad in an airline magazine because the tag line was “the reason you work so hard every week” and the photo was … a mall! Pottery Barns and Banana Republics line a corridor with happy shoppers milling about, after “working hard” most of their life that week to be there. This advertising opiate is beginning to lose effect for more and more people. In a recent Business Week poll, half of all respondents said, “What’s good for business is not good for them.” Yet as we look around groggy-eyed, we realize that under the current rules of globalization, a nation doesn’t have the sovereignty to choose based on collective principles because those moral sentiments interfere with trade — and we’re starting to fear that “we the people” aren’t in charge anymore.

However, to jump ahead, I also spoke of the potential opportunities of a globalization scenario done well — for and between individuals. We can’t separate the term globalization from the Internet, and the Internet can be used for amazing liberation. (Look at my ability now to freely share thoughts with you online through Grist.) You’ve heard it before, but for emphasis, just as the printing press enabled information to be exchanged amongst all classes and populist organizations for a democracy of the people, the Internet can bring precious information to those currently disenfranchised and exploited. I’ve seen it time and again in my work. We’ve used the Internet as a tool to get information to artisans and farmers in developing communities that allows them to participate in opportunities directly and fairly. We’ve worked with people in small villages that have seen the market for their skills dry up — for example, metal workers who, like their great-grandfathers before them, create hand-hammered copper water jugs, but whose skill is now not valued because of cheaper imported plastic buckets. Many of these people have left their villages for megacities to look for work as taxi or tuk-tuk drivers, living in polluted squalor. Using the Internet to communicate new design ideas with the metal workers, as well as information on export and import restrictions — where their products are going, what people are looking for, and how they respond to their products — we were able to find new markets for old skills. The Internet allowed them to preserve a skill, bring people back to the village, and engage in continued self-ownership with dignity.

I believe that the best solutions, the ones that will actually save us all, will come from communities where people live more sustainable lifestyles — where they already ride bicycles, eat plant-based diets, and reuse more commonly than not. When our trade interactions move from viewing developing countries as “low-cost labor” to collaborating and engaging brains, we will find sustainable solutions to our challenges and see the next generation of positive potential through globalization.

And the Internet and global communications allow us to mobil
ize and transparently share the information we need to make better decisions as citizen consumers … but I’ll talk about this later. To conclude, let me just say that the response I had at this conference was one of gratefulness. People are relieved to hear their concerns aired, as it seems to give them the reassurance of their own power to act.

It’s a ripe time for making change; people are ready — they just need credible information with which to make decisions. I have faith.