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
"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
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
"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
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
"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. …