Is globalization actually disempowering?
More than ever before, we're aware of the tragedy and suffering that goes on in the world. But does that mean we can do more about it?
Yann Martel is the author of The High Mountains of Portugal and Life of Pi, the #1 international bestseller and winner of the 2002 Man Booker (among many other prizes). He is also the award-winning author ofThe Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios (winner of the Journey Prize), Self, Beatrice & Virgil, and 101 Letters to a Prime Minister. Born in Spain in 1963, Martel studied philosophy at Trent University, worked at odd jobs—tree planter, dishwasher, security guard—and traveled widely before turning to writing. He lives in Saskatoon, Canada, with the writer Alice Kuipers and their four children.
YANN MARTEL: I don't think that globalization, globalism, this idea that the world is a village is true. In fact it's remarkable how culture bound we are. And that's not a limitation, that's just a feature of us as a species. We are animals and animals operate based on their empirical senses. So take a deer in a forest. A deer in a forest has the eyesight, the smell and the hearing that it needs to survive. And so there's an interesting concept in zoology of flight distance which is the distance that an animal needs to be aware of something that might endanger it that will trigger a flight response. So animals have different kinds of flight distances. So a flamingo if it sees a threatening animal needs a certain distance so that it can start flapping its wings and fly away. Flamingos are not natural flyers so they need – so it's like maybe 150 meters let's say. So they have senses that are good enough for them to survive. What we have done with our technology is so increased our sensorial capacity that if a ferry overturns in Bangladesh we hear about it here in New York 50,000 miles away which means our senses are overloaded with information which in an animal would stress it to death. If you increase the deer's capacity to hear beyond the whatever it can hear – let's say a deer can hear, I don't know what the distance is. Let's say a deer can hear 300 meters away. That's what it needs let's say. I'm sure it's closer than that but let's say it's 100 meters away.
You know a deer needs to hear that distance and if anything is coming or running towards it, a lion, a tiger, a wolf the hundred feet will be enough for it to turn and decamp and so it's not stressed. If there's a perimeter of 100 meters around a diameter, a radius, sorry. A hundred meters around it where there's no sounds it'll be at rest unstressed. If you gave a deer a hearing capacity of 1,000 feet you'd be hearing way more noises than it needs to process. You'd be hearing about wolves or tigers that are way too far to endanger it. Yet it's aware of them therefore it would be stressed. And I suspect in our world and this idea of globalization we are hearing things that are so far away from us that actually have no consequence on us as individuals. Now cumulatively of course they do. We are ultimately connected. There are six degrees of separation. So that's the reason behind human rights advocacy that when an individual is being tortured to death in Egypt or in China it should matter to us. It should. But in a practical way each one of us every single day there's only so many groans and cries and shrieks from around the world that we can hear where it keeps on being meaningful. At one point we block it out because it's too much. So I think globalization creates a sense of unity without empowering us that we can really do something about it.
And so that's – it's that schizophrenia that we live with every single day. You read about, you know, you read The New York Times which is a fantastic newspaper with an extraordinary coverage of many realities. Most articles there's very little you can do about. And so it's kind of disempowering. So I find globalization while in a sense being well-meaning giving us eyes around the globe is also some ways disempowering because it tells us things about which we can do nothing. So ultimately I think we have to limit the information and go deeper. And so I think that's what often happens.
You see that for example with NGOs, with charitable organizations who specialize. So, you know, they'll specialize about saving the panda bear or the human rights situation in Haiti or about educating girls in Africa. They will narrow their focus so they can have an impact. And that of course that has been helped by globalization. We are aware of more knowledge that it's overwhelming. It's a tidal wave coming our way and you sort of select which bit of the water, which bit of the wave you want to try to engage with meaningfully.
- All animals operate on empirical senses to survive. With technology, humans have so increased our sensorial capacity that we maintain a high stress level without necessarily being in danger.
- Globalization creates a sense of unity in that we are aware of what's going on in the world without being empowered to do something about the tragedy that occurs.
- By narrowing that focus, we can actually have an impact.
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