We tend to think of globalization as uniquely modern, a product of 20th century advances in transportation, technology, agriculture and communications. But widespread dispersal, from a few centers, of culture, language, political ideas and economic systems -- even genetically modified foods -- is actually quite an ancient phenomenon.
The first wave of globalization began around 8500 BC, driven primarily by genetically modified foods created in the Mideast and China, and to a lesser extent Mexico, the Andes and Nigeria. As those foods spread to the rest of the world, so did the cultures that created them, a process that reshaped the ancient world in much the same way the U.S., Europe and Japan are reshaping today’s world.
Our ancient ancestors’ method of genetically modifying food was of course much different from the way it is done today. When humans lived as hunters and gatherers, they had to make do with whatever wild plants and animals they found. It turned out, though, that some of the wild species upon which humans relied for food could be domesticated. Early farmers soon learned not only how to cultivate the resulting crops and raise livestock but also how to select the traits they valued, thereby genetically modifying foods.
In choosing to sow seeds from wild plants with particularly desirable traits -- often the result of mutations -- early farmers changed genetically, albeit unconsciously, the foods they raised.
Take the case of peas. Most wild pea plants carry a gene that makes their pods pop open on the stalk, causing the peas to spill onto the ground. It is no surprise that early farmers sought out mutant plants with a gene for pods that stayed closed, which made for an easier harvest. As a consequence of their preference, by selecting, over many generations, seeds from the plants that best served them, they ended up with a genetically modified variety of peas.
Would-be farmers in some regions had a huge advantage. It turned out that only a few species of wild plants and animals could be domesticated, most of them native to the Mideast, China, Mexico, the Andes or Nigeria -- precisely those places that became ancient centers of power. The crops and livestock of those five restricted homelands of agriculture still dominate our foods today. Many of the lands most productive for modern agriculture -- including California, Europe, Japan and Java -- contributed no species that were domesticated.
Ancient people lucky enough to live in one of the few areas with wild plants that could be domesticated radically altered their societies. Hunters and gatherers traded their nomadic lifestyles for safer, more settled lives in villages near their gardens, orchards and pastures. Agricultural surpluses, like wheat and cheese, could be stored for winter or used to feed inventors and bureaucrats. For the first time in history, societies could support individuals who weren’t directly involved in producing food and who therefore had time to govern or to figure out how to smelt iron and steel. As a result of all the extra food and stability, farming societies increased in population density a thousandfold over neighboring hunter-gatherers.
Ultimately, ancient genetically modified foods conferred military and economic might on the societies that possessed them. It was easy for armies of 1,000 farmers, brandishing steel swords and led by a general, to kill or drive out small bands of nomads armed only with wooden spears. The result was globalization, as early farmers spread out from those first five homelands, carrying their genes, foods, technologies, cultures, scripts and languages around the world.
It is because of this first wave of globalization that almost every literate person alive today uses one of only two writing systems: an alphabet derived from the first Mideastern alphabet or a character-based language that grew out of Chinese. This is also why more than 90% of people alive today speak languages belonging to just a half-dozen language families, derived thousands of years ago from a half-dozen languages of the five ancient homelands. The Indo-European family that includes English, for example, originated in the Mideast. But then as now, there was also a cost: Countless other ancient languages and cultures were eliminated as the early farmers and their languages spread.
The first wave of globalization moved faster along east-west axes than along north-south axes. The explanation is simple: Regions lying due east or west of one another share the same latitude, and therefore the same day length and seasonality. They are also likely to share similar climates, habitats and diseases, all of which means that crops, livestock and humans can spread east and west more easily, since the conditions to which they have adapted are similar. Conversely, crops, animals and technologies adapted to one latitude spread only with difficulty north or south to another latitude with a different seasonality and climate.
There are certainly differences between modern globalization and that first ancient wave. Today, crops are deliberately engineered in the laboratory rather than unconsciously in the field. And globalizing influences spread much more quickly by plane, phone and Internet than they did on foot and horseback. But the basic similarity remains: Now, as then, a few centers of innovation and power end up dominating the world.
Even in our modern wave of globalization, genetically modified crops tend to spread along an east-west rather than a north-south axis. That’s because crops still remain as tied to particular climates as in ancient times. Plant breeders at U.S. firms like Monsanto concentrate on genetically modifying wheat, corn and other temperate-zone crops rather than coconuts, oil palms and other plants that grow in the tropics. That makes good business sense for American plant breeders, because the rich farmers who can afford their products live in the temperate zone, not in the tropics. But it also contributes to the widening gap between rich and poor countries.
Does this mean that tropical Paraguay and Zambia are eternally cursed, and that their citizens should accept poverty as fate? Of course not. Europeans and Americans themselves enjoy no intrinsic biological advantages: They just had the good luck to acquire useful technologies and institutions through accidents of geography. Anyone else who now acquires those same things can reap the same benefits. Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan already have; China and others are trying and will probably succeed. In addition, some poor countries that don’t acquire enough technology to become rich can still acquire enough technology (like a few nukes, missiles, chemical weapons, germs or box-cutters) to cause a lot of trouble.
The biggest problem with today’s wave of globalization involves differences between the First and Third worlds. Today, citizens in North America, Europe and Japan consume, on average, 32 times more resources (and produce 32 times more waste) than the billions of citizens of the Third World. Thanks to TV, tourism and other aspects of globalization, though, people in less affluent societies know about our lifestyle, and of course they aspire to it.
Vigorous debates are going on today about whether our world could sustain double its present population (along with its consumption and waste), or even whether our world’s economy is sustainable at its present level. Yet those aren’t the biggest risks. If, through globalization, everyone living on Earth today were to achieve the standard of living of an average American, the effect on the planet would be some 10 times what it is today, and it would certainly be unsustainable.
We can’t prevent people around the world from aspiring to match our way of life any more than the exporters of culture during the first wave of globalization could expect other cultures not to embrace the farming way of life. But since the world couldn’t sustain even its present population if all people lived the way that those in the First World do now, we are left with a paradox. Globalization, most analysts feel, is unstoppable. But its consequences may overtax the Earth’s ability to support us. That’s a paradox that needs resolving.