Commentary: Globalization and Anthropology: Expanding the Options

By Cleveland, David A. | Human Organization, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Commentary: Globalization and Anthropology: Expanding the Options


Cleveland, David A., Human Organization


Key words: globalization, objectivism, constructivism, sustainability, epistemology, indigenous knowledge, agriculture The concept of "globalization" is spreading through out anthropological discourse as it is in academic and policy discourses everywhere. Hackenberg's (1999) suggestion that globalization would be a good "touchstone policy concept" for anthropology in the new millennium is, therefore, a good one. The concept seems critical for understanding the human situation in the 21 st century from many different perspectives-from climate change to AIDS and from the loss of cultural and biological diversity to the increasing complexity of electronic information networks.

I wish to suggest an expansion of the definitions of globalization, of applied anthropology, and of the range of possible responses to the problems of globalization, including ones that exploit some of its features.

Defining Globalization

Globalization is a result of biophysical as well as geopolitical processes. If we fail to try to contextualize globalization in the broad sweep of human history and the diversity of human-environment relations, we limit our potential as anthropologists to address the problems of globalization, making it difficult to provide the kind of analysis needed by society. I suggest that rather than seeing our current era as an abrupt disjunct in human-environmental history, it is more accurate and more useful to see it as the latest phase of a process that began about 12,000-13,000 years ago with the origins of agriculture.

Agriculture radically changed the nature of humans' interaction with the environment and with each other: we became involved in deliberately controlling the evolution of other species via domestication and subsequent selection and spread of domesticated plants and animals, and we began managing ecosystems to support these domesticates (especially the plants). Agriculture was a key factor in the rise of cities and of systems of hegemonic political control, and in a dramatic increase in population growth rates. Cohen (1995) estimates that annual rates of population growth were between 13 and 221 times greater in the Neolithic (12,000-2,000 BP) than in the gathering/hunting period that preceded it. The next larger increase in rates was during the industrial revolution, when they increased to a level 23 to 42 times greater than the Neolithic. The direction of causality at any given time between population growth and the development of agriculture, including industrial and scientific agriculture, is complex and disputed, but it would be impossible for the human population to have grown at these rates over these time periods without agriculture.

Today human population size is entering a "zone" that includes the majority of most estimates of the earth's human carrying capacity (Cohen 1995). The term "human-dominated ecosystems," until recently applied to local systems, now "applies with greater or lesser force to all of Earth" (Vitousek et al. 1997:494). When population growth and various measures of human impact on the environment are plotted against time, the curve looks exponential (or even superexponential), and this kind of growth can be very surprising. Given the current size of physical human impacts, doublings result in very large absolute numbers that give the impression of something coming out of nowhere. Recall the well-known story of the single lily pad on the pond that doubles the number of pads every day for 28 days but still only covers 25 percent of the pond-50 percent is covered the next day, and the whole pond is covered on day 30. If, in terms of the absolute size of human impact on the planet, we are, analogously, at day 27 or more, the absolute size of human impact on the environment, and of dominant cultures on minority cultures, is unprecedented. This may help explain why so much anthropological discourse on globalization seems to assume it is the forces of modernity or late modernity that are uniquely responsible for the problems caused by globalization. …

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