Sink or Swim? ; as Borders Fall and Local Customs Increasingly Meld in the Wake of Globalization, Will Cultural Diversity

Article excerpt

Running for cover from the pelting rain, tour guide Luis de la Cruz ducks into a thatched showroom where native beads, necklaces, and grass skirts hang from the rafters. A bare-breasted woman approaches.

"She is trying to preserve the culture," Mr. de la Cruz explains. "But the teenagers want Western clothes.... In three years, all of this will be gone."

Such scenes repeat themselves daily across the globe. As Western consumerism pushes into remote areas, critics of globalization worry that it will raze non-Western cultures and create what one critic calls "McWorld," which looks and acts alarmingly like a bland American suburb.

That compelling image - globalization as cultural bulldozer - has recently fueled protests from Seattle to Quebec. In reality, the picture is more complicated and surprising. Globalization is indeed changing cultures, often in unexpected ways and with sometimes hopeful results.

"We see the process of globalization replacing the good with the bad - but sometimes replacing the bad with the good," says Rogate Mshana, a Tanzanian economist who is program executive for economic justice at the World Council of Churches in Geneva.

"I really do think we could go into an era where war doesn't happen - major war among established nations," adds Michael Mazarr, president and chief executive officer of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a Washington think tank working on issues of national security.

One reason globalization provokes so much debate is that it means different things to different people. Those who concentrate on economic globalization find much to criticize. Those who focus on the spread of communication technology or human values see pluses as well as minuses. Culture is an equally slippery term, involving deeply rooted historical, social, and religious traditions. What sparks the most protest, however, is the most visible aspect of globalization: the spread of Western consumer culture.

Here in the Amazon River Basin, a two-hour boat ride from Iquitos, Peru, that wave has already hit. Shorts and T-shirts are so prevalent here that even first-time visitors complain that the only time local people don traditional garb is when they're staging a tourist show.

On the other hand, if tourists didn't come, locals wouldn't practice the old traditions at all, says an American doctor who works in the area.

The local tour guides, employed by lodges along the river, offer the most dramatic example of the spread of consumerism. In a single generation, several of them have leapfrogged a century of development. Some of them speak several languages and read Western novels. With Eddie Bauer clothes, Nike shoes, and Japanese cameras, they're poster children for the power of globalization. With tips, they earn up to 100 times what their farmer fathers might make.

Critics don't begrudge their material success. But they worry that powerful and concentrated Western media are creating an exaggerated yearning for material goods.

"The economics are really outpacing our ability to deal with it," says Nancy Snow, associate director of the Center for Communications and Community at the University of California Los Angeles. "I don't think the marketplace should be defining who we are as a people."

American triumphalists, who see in these trends an Americanization of the world, are almost certainly wrong, cultural observers agree.

"A world made over in the image of Disney, Nike, and McDonalds is not necessarily a world made safer for democracy," says Michael Sandel, professor of government at Harvard University. "We shouldn't assume that the world's enthusiasm for American pop culture necessarily translates into an embrace of democratic values or of individual liberties."

"You see people wearing blue jeans and drinking Coca-Cola. …