According to Thomas Friedman (2005), globalization has evolved over three phases across recent human history: phase one (1492- 1800) was the globalization of countries, phase two (1800-2000) was the globalization of companies and phase three denotes our current version of reality (2000 till now), the globalization of people.

The promise of globalisation is that human ingenuity at scale, through technology, will make the world a better place for everyone. Advocates of economic globalisation consider matters of proportionality and attention to local culture to be distractions, delaying tactics in the march towards the global networked economy. And so, as an ideology, it exhorts us to remember that playing small and thinking local will not get us to a single global economy.

Stewart Wallis [1], a renowned economist, in his paper A Great Transition(2011) reviews the last 30 or more years since the 1980s when Thatcherite and Reaganite policies super charged globalisation.

His commentary is an absolute indictment of economic globalisation, noting that our ecological, geo-political, and economic world is hanging on by a thread as a consequence of ‘massification’. Contending that massification otherwise known as expansionism has triggered a crisis of planetary proportions: “Our economy is unsustainable, unfair, unstable, and is making us unhappy”.

On a planet with millions of species, humans are not the only ones suffering. Yet, humans continue to consume the planet and then dump the detritus of that consumption at a rate nothing short of ecocide. In the last thirty years we have gone from consuming one planet worth of resources, to our current rate of 1.3%.

Not surprisingly, this intolerable burden and the pyrrhic gains of globalisation are not shared equally across the planet. The Global South is picking up the ecological tab for the excesses of the Global North. Wallis and others rightly point out that if everybody made the same life style choices that Americans made, we would need five planets to sustain the demand. The UK is not far behind; consuming by their standards we would need three planets.

The consequences of so seriously overrunning our planetary boundaries are already evident: 15 out of 25 major ecosystems are in decline, or serious decline. It is clear from more recent commentaries from the likes of Naomi Klein [2], and the hugely compelling research emerging from the Stockholm Resilience Centre [3] that confining our concerns to discussions on climate change alone is naïve. The environmental consequences of this level of abuse are of a planetary scale and effect near every aspect of our lives and the ecosystems through which we live and die.

The systematic deregulation of corporate activity, unrestricted free trade and the privatisation of enterprise have all but neutered the powers of Sovereign states to do anything about these issues; disabling them from protecting their workers, the health of their populations, their ecologies and their indigenous cultures.

Globalisation, as we know it today, was feted as an attempt following World War II to prevent another World War, through the creation of a new centralized system to accelerate worldwide economic development. We were assured this would trigger technological and consumer revolutions at scale, ensuring enough for all. In actuality the reverse has happen.

The great divergence between the wealthiest and poorest countries and individuals within these countries has accelerated in the last 30 years to a point unprecedented in human history. Wealth distribution is now profoundly out of kilter with any generally acceptable measure of fairness. 99% of the worlds population to one degree or another have become ‘debt slaves’, or to soften the term, indebted to the wealthiest 1%.

It is, for these reasons, essential that we tune into a conversation about active citizenship that has been flourishing on the fringes of society for decades. At the edges of the status quo, a conversation is happening that holds critical insights into how we can live into a better future. This edgy conversation is not about:

  1. How we can use civic muscle and our precious collective efforts to change a disinterested technocratic (Priestly) elite, fired by the moral mission of “society’s best and brightest, in service to its most needy”.
  2. Reforming systems, or how we can get our leaders to be better leaders, or even how we can lobby for better policies or legislative frameworks.
  3. Getting more people to vote or volunteer.

Though clearly all of the above are important in many quarters, they are impudent in the face the challenges described immediately above. So, in the realm of active citizenship and democracy, what’s left? Well, when democracy is framed in government-centric terms, very little. However, when democracy is framed in citizen-centered terms, the field of discussion opens up significantly. This outlying conversation [4] presents a vision of democracy that places citizens at the center and puts governments, technocrats and corporates in the servant’s quarters.

Walt Whitman crystalizes the present democratic dilemma when he says:

We have frequently printed the word Democracy. Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps… a great word whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten because that history has yet to be enacted.

Any hope for a more citizen-centered democracy exists to the backdrop -of a dominant narrative of consumerism, technocracy and globalization- that has devalued, demeaned and overwhelmed the talents and tacit knowledge of regular people (citizens), and their indigenous communities.

We will not, therefore, advance the cause of social justice through positive psychology or the naïve pursuit of ‘Happiness’. There are of course those that would tell you Asset-Based Community Development is about thinking positively, about being happy, about getting your therapeutic techniques just right, getting in the right state of mind. These are the great misguiders of our time, convincing only because they have managed to first misguide themselves.

The objective truth is that justice, wisdom, health, and a sustainable life for all and our planet, are social and political matters. While there is no rule against having fun as we take on such challenges issues, we should be very cautious indeed of those who peddle the notion that we can change the world by fixing ourselves, or fixing someone else. This journey is not about self-improvement but about inclusive community building. The two objectives can complement each other but former should never replace the latter, for when it does the result is no more than air-conditioned misery.

Cormac Russell


[2] Naomi Klein


[4] Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle (2015)

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