The Impulse to Truck and Trade
Devin Stewart interviews YaleGlobal Online editor Nayan Chanda about his new book, Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, and Warriors Shaped Globalization.
October 23, 2007
Nayan, when you came to the Carnegie Council last year you presented part of your globalization story. You clearly take a big view on the history of globalization. As you see it, when did the process begin or has it always been with us?
One can say that the process began when the first humans left their original home in Africa. But strictly speaking, the connections between dispersed human communities in an increasingly sustained fashion started only after humans had developed sedentary civilizations in different parts of the world and after they had accumulated surplus food and other commodities to barter. Over the past ten thousand years, and especially in the past five centuries, these connections have accelerated, and more and more goods and ideas have been transferred, and humans have developed connections and become interdependent. As this process became increasingly visible, it required a term to describe it—globalization—which entered the English dictionary in 1961.
What was the first thing to be globalized? Was it a commodity, an idea?
It is hard to differentiate commodities from ideas. When humans found out that the volcanic obsidian rock's sharp edge could be used like a blade to cut meat or harvest crops, obsidian emerged as one of the first commodities to be traded widely—if not globally in the strict sense of the word. The Turkish village of Catalhoyuk, located near two active volcanoes, produced the commodity that embodied the idea of a cutting tool. It held a virtual monopoly on the trade in obsidian in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Levant in the seventh millennium BC.
When people ask me if globalization is good or bad, I often say that is like asking whether an ocean current is good or bad. What is your answer?
That's a good answer. I would say it is more like weather which brings both balmy days as well as drought, thunderstorms, and floods. As solar energy acts on different earth surfaces, it produces rather unpredictable variations in weather. Similarly the desires, ambitions, and fears of billions of people interact to produce both good and bad forms of global interconnectedness and interdependence. But simply calling it bad and calling for a halt won't work because nobody is in charge.
In your book, you use four archetypes to tell the globalization story. Why did you pick traders, preachers, adventurers, and warriors? Who are notable examples of each?
I chose the four archetypes to simplify the very complex motivations that lay behind man's desire to leave home and go somewhere. That act of leaving home is critical in the development of global connections. There are of course, myriad motivations, but the human impulse to "truck and trade," as Adam Smith put it, the urge to win over fellow human beings to one's faith, the desire to explore the unknown, and the ambition to dominate others and conquer land and resources are some of the more enduring impulses.
The lone trader carrying bales of wool on a donkey in Mesopotamia some 4,000 years ago has now metamorphosed into thousands of multinationals who transport their wares on container ships and jumbo jets. Religious preachers today use cable TV and the Internet and have been joined by modern preachers like human rights and environmental activists to connect the world. In place of the old Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta, we now have hundreds of millions of tourists and migrants crisscrossing the earth.
The modern political order has ended the adventures of old-style warriors, but the Iraq war still shows that the desire to create a "universal empire" of democracy lives on. The unintended consequence of the Iraq war has been to raise global awareness of the region's problems, and the coalition effort in Iraq has connected the armed forces and businesses of many countries closer than before.
Which of the four do you identify with?
As a journalist I identify with adventurers who left home to discover new places and people. The adventure is not only in geographic space but in the intellectual realm as well.
What has running one of the world's premier websites on globalization taught you? Did it factor into your book?
YaleGlobal is an everyday reminder about how small the world is becoming and also about the amazing reach of the Internet. A small online magazine launched in November 2002 has grown to attract over three million hits per week from some 160 countries.
Writing the book has been an exhilarating journey. I feel a bit like a detective in search of the origins of the everyday objects in our life. I learned how the serendipitous discovery of coffee beans in Ethiopia and its acceptance by Islamic Sufis as a stay-up-late-to-pray drink set coffee off on a world journey, turning Brazil into its biggest grower and Starbucks into a multi-billion dollar corporation. Searching for sources on the Internet has landed me with books, articles, and references that I would have never known by a simple catalog search in a library. Once I found the references the magnificent collection of the Yale university library opened the door to information that would have otherwise lay hidden.
Global disparities in income and access might be one of the universal problems facing globalization right now. Do you worry that the process is slowing or could reverse? If so, what can we do about it?
Disparities between the world's rich and poor have always existed, but the vast scale of global trade and accelerated connections have propelled this gap wider at great speed. More than the physical size of the gap between the haves and have nots is the growing visibility of this rising disparity. Five hundred years ago, the poorest residents of India had no idea what life was like in far-off places like Beijing, London, or Tokyo. Today, whether one is in a slum in Johannesburg or Jakarta, thanks to the media revolution, one is only the click of a TV remote control away from real-time images of a richer, freer, more glamorous world.
Trying to bridge the gap and include billions of people outside the globalized world will be the biggest challenge of our time and it will have to be addressed collectively by international organizations, governments, and NGOs. Building strong local communities able to take part in and withstand the accelerating flow of goods and ideas is an urgent task without which the world risks being broken up into interconnected bright islands of prosperity floating in the dark sea of poverty.
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