New Internationalist

One World Against Many Worlds

Issue 232

new internationalist
issue 232 - June 1992

Illustration by P J POLYP
One world
against many worlds
The evaporation of the world's languages... The underdeveloped take the
place of the savages... Lifeboat ethics and the threat to diversity

Roughly 5,100 languages are spoken on the earth at the moment. Just under 99 per cent of them are native to Asia and Africa, the Pacific and the Americas, with just one per cent in Europe. In Nigeria more than 400 languages have been counted, in India 1,682, and even Central America, which is geographically quite small, boasts 260 languages. Mountain valleys; islands, deserts and forest: these are often the places where tiny linguistic worlds assert their existence. A patchwork quilt of linguistic areas, large and small, covers the planet. But all indicators suggest that within a generation not many more than 100 of these languages will survive.

Languages are dying out every bit as quickly as species; just as plants and animals are disappearing from the history of nature never to be seen again, with the demise of languages whole cultures are vanishing from the history of civilization. Entire conceptions of what it means to be human are evaporating in the heat of 'development'.

And yet, the death of languages is only the most dramatic signal of the worldwide evaporation of cultures. Although the individual effects of this often enough remain on the surface, the aggregate effect of transistor radios and Dallas, agricultural advisers and nurses, the regime of the clock and the iron laws of the market, triggers a historically unprecedented transformation. Whichever way you look at it, a global monoculture is spreading like an oil slick over the planet.

We have now had 40 years of 'development', fashioned on the model of 'one world'. The upshot of it all, if appearances do not deceive, is a looming vision of horror. Ideas such as 'world domestic policy', 'unified world market', or even 'global responsibility' have stimulated noble minds and are bandied about with a tone of moral pathos, today even more than a few years ago. But their innocence in an age of cultural evaporation is tamished.

The shadow side of 'humanity'
At least there is a brass plate, in San Francisco's Fairmount Hotel, to remind the passing conference visitor that it was here, on 4 May 1945, that a global hope was initialled. In room 210, delegates from 46 countries agreed on the text of the United Nations Charter.

Hitler's Germany was finally defeated and time would soon run out for Japan too; the Charter promulgated those principles which were designed to usher in an era of peace. Down with acts of national egoism! Long live international understanding! The unity of 'mankind' was invoked on all sides, universalism was the idea of the moment. Roosevelt's four freedoms were to apply 'in all parts of the world', and 'all people in all countries' were to be granted 'the conditions for economic and social progress'. Only within the horizons of a global society of human beings with equal rights, according to the vision, would violence and war be banished from the face of the earth.

One-track mind. The development idea knows only one direction - West. This causeway carries cars from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain.
CHRISTINE OSBORNE / CAMERA PRESS

The United Nations appealed to ideals which had taken shape during the European Enlightenment, when 'humanity' took over from Christianity as the dominant collective concept. From then on 'humanity' became the common denominator uniting all peoples, causing differences in skin colour, religion and social forms to fade into insignificance.

Not that this had obliterated the image of The Other! Just as Christians had their heathens, philosophers of the Enlightenment had their savages. But whereas 'heathens' populated geographically remote areas, the Enlightenment's savages inhabited an earlier stage of history. The unity of humankind could be envisaged by placing differences in a temporal context: 'savages' were human beings who were not yet fully mature and responsible.

The Enlightenment's idea of one humankind suggested that, as history ran its course, differences would dissolve into one 'civilization'. 'Development', especially as exemplified by the UN Charter, closely follows this tradition to conceive of 'one world'. The 'underdeveloped' have taken the place of the 'savages', but the arrangement of concepts remains the same: a global society endowed with peace does not yet exist, but must first be achieved through the 'development' of backward peoples. Whatever is different is seen as a threat which must be neutralized through 'development'. Consequently, the unity of the world is going to be realized through its westemization.

Today it seems almost strange, but the founders of the United Nations as well as the architects of development policy were inspired by the vision that the globalization of the market would guarantee peace in the world. Instead of violence the spirit of commerce was to reign on all sides; productive power rather than firepower would be decisive in the competition between nations. Global order was conceived, after the Second World War, in terms of a unified world market.

With a naivety hardly distinguishable from deception, the prophets of development polished up a utopia envisioned in the eighteenth century, as if time had stopped and neither capitalism nor imperialism had ever appeared on the scene. After Montesquieu, the Enlightenment had discovered commerce as a means of refining crude manners. In their eyes rational calculation and cold self-interest, precisely those attitudes which make the passion for war or the whims of tyrants appear self-destructive, would spread with trade. And trade creates dependence and dependence tames.

This is the logic which runs from Montesquieu through the UN down to the 'New World Order'. It can hardly be denied that, at least after World War Two, this logic was to some extent validated: as European integration and the Pax Americana illustrate, the conquest of foreign territories by bellicose states has yielded to the conquest of foreign markets by profit-seeking industries. Nevertheless, in the age of multinational banks and corporations, it has become evident that a fixation on this 'yesterday's utopia' leads into all kinds of pitfalls.

The world market, once brandished as a weapon against political tyranny, has itself become a closet dictator under whose dominion both rich and poor countries tremble. The fear of falling behind in intemational competition has become the predominant organizing motive of politics in North and South, East and West. It drives developing countries further into self-exploitation, for the sake of boosting exports, and industrial countries further into the wasteful and destructive mania of production. Both enterprises and entire states see themselves trapped in a situation of remorseless competition, where each participant is dependent on the decisions of all the other players.

Gentle persuasion. Westernized development sometimes needs 'securing', as under Marcos in the Philippines.
TOM FAWTHORP / CAMERA PRESS

United in Spaceship Earth
What falls by the wayside amidst this hurly-burly is the possibility for a policy of self-determination. All attempts to organize society creatively are repeatedly thwarted by the need to compete in the world market. Some countries cannot do without agricultural exports, others cannot drop out of the hi-tech race.

There is scarcely a country today which seems able to control its own destiny; in this respect the differences between countries are only relative. The United States certainly enjoys more scope than India, but itself feels under intense pressure from Japan. For winners and losers alike, the constraints of the global market have become a nightmare.

Since the late 1960s, a further image of 'one world' has edged its way into our consciousness: the globe in its physical finiteness. From creeping desertification to impending climatic disaster, signals multiply and ring out in shrill concert that life processes on earth are going askew. Local acts such as clearing forests or driving cars add up to a global disaster. The unity of humankind is no longer an Enlightenment flight of fancy but thrusts itself upon the peoples of the world as a bio-physical fact.

What used to be conceived of as an historical endeavour - to establish the unity of humankind - now reveals itself as an illboding fate; instead of hopeful appeals, sombre wamings provide the accompaniment. The formula 'one world or no world' captures this experience; the destructive power of human beings has become so great that they must curb themselves and take on their global responsibility on pain of self-destruction. Seen in this light, humanity resembles a group of individuals thrown together by chance in a lifeboat, where no one person can rock the boat without causing all to be united immediately - in their collective destruction.

Amidst the wailing sirens of this kind of lifeboat ethics, things do not look too rosy for the patchwork quilt of cultures that is our world. For the appreciation of variety will swiftly vanish as soon as worldwide strategies are implemented, even in remote villages, in order to prevent the boat from capsizing. Can one imagine a more powerful motive for forcing the world into line than that of saving the planet?

It is perfectly conceivable that the urge for efficient consumer behaviour and extensive resource planning - where possible assisted by satellite observation and computer models - will push diversity further into the shadows. An ecocracy which acts in the name of 'one earth' and aims to get the world out of its criminal rut and make it fighting fit can soon become a threat to local communities and their lifestyle.

But this insight does not help us out of the dilemma which will have a determining influence on the coming decades: it is self-destructive both to think in categories of One World and not to think in categories of One World. On the one hand, it is sacrilege in our age of cultural evaporation to apprehend the globe as a united, highly integrated world. On the other, if we see the globe as a multitude of different and only loosely connected worlds, we still cannot dispense with the idea of unity in the face of lurking violence and the destruction of nature.

It was certainly an epochal mistake in the period of development to endeavour to keep the world together by means of westernization. The promise of unity tumed into the threat of uniformity. But will it be enough to see the 'one world' as a dialogue between civilizations?

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