Today I watched a video in which BBC’s Hans Rosling and a team of IT peeps plot 200 years of wealth and health in real space:
The visualization was most interesting, and it just goes to show that creativity is a most important factor in bringing technology and education together. The user interface of “Minority Report” and the GUI (graphic user interface) from “Stranger Than Fiction” are not so far off—the bigger challenge, perhaps, will be upraising the education systems of the world and enabling all children to partake.
Bahá’ís actively promote the realization of universal education on various scales: we teach classes to the children of our neighborhoods, for example, and we (in the form of the Baha’i International Community, or the BIC) work with the UN to promote literacy and the education of the girl child.
But I have fooled you into thinking this post would be about education. Education is a vast and important topic, but one for other posts.
Instead, let’s talk about globalization. After I finished marveling at how cool the stats were made to appear in that video, I reflected on the 20th century and global prosperity. I know this sounds more like something Jeune Street would cover, but hear me out.
I’m not an economist by any means, but I do occasionally reflect on the economic challenges faced by the world. I chalk that up to the fact that I’m a Bahá’í (and an environmentalist), so I care deeply about the progress of humankind. One thing I noticed, while watching the visualization, was that despite the overall upward movement (toward “rich and healthy”), the gap between the rich and poor widened for some time. How, as a global society, can we address that? The Writings of the Bahá’í Faith provide an inspired perspective on prosperity, particularly given Bahá’u’lláh’s directive to abolish the extremes of wealth and poverty (that page also links to a more comprehensive statement, The Prosperity of Humankind).
The other thought I had, as I watched the little country bubbles bounce slowly toward “rich and healthy”, was that the 20th century was not so bad. Yes, it is infamous for a number of devastations (the two World Wars, the Cold War and other wars, civil wars, a huge number of gruesome genocides, AIDS and other public-health-related disasters, instability in the Middle East among other places, the rise of fundamentalist religious groups, the rise of the drug trade and human trafficking, the oppression and enslavement of women and children by various nefarious means—I could go on)—but underneath all that despair was a growing strength, particularly of international ties, and that cannot be overlooked as a significant step forward for humanity.
The document “Century of Light”, produced by the Baha’i International Community, correlates the occurrences—geopolitical, economic, cultural, etc.—of the 20th century with the Writings and history of the Bahá’í Faith. Its observations are astute, and after covering the establishment of the United Nations, the text goes on to highlight the advances and setbacks that arose during development and modernization: (Phrases in bold are emphasized by me.)
It became apparent … that pre-war conceptions regarding the use and distribution of wealth would have to be overhauled. Apart from principles of social justice, which doubtless motivated a significant number of those committed to this task, the economic dislocations produced by the events of the previous three decades had made it clear that existing arrangements were outdated and ineffective. Experiments to address such problems at the national level had been undertaken in several countries in response to the Depression during the 1930s. Now an interlocking system of institutions oriented to recognition that national economies constitute elements of a global whole was successively devised and put in place. The International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades, the World Bank, and various subsidiary agencies began belatedly to grapple with the implications of an integrating world, and with issues related to the distribution of wealth inherent in this development. Thinkers in developing countries were not slow to point out that such initiatives served primarily the needs of the Western world. Nevertheless, their emergence marked a fundamental change of direction that would increasingly open participation to a wide range of states and institutions.
A humanitarian initiative of a kind never previously conceived opened still another dimension of the global integration occurring. Beginning with the “Marshall Plan” devised by the government of the United States to rehabilitate war-torn European nations, those nations that were able to do so turned to serious consideration of programmes that might foster the social and economic development of rising nations. Widespread publicity awakened a sense of solidarity with the rest of the world on the part of peoples in lands that enjoyed reasonable levels of education, health care and the application of technology. In time, this ambitious initiative came under attack for the mixed motives attributed to it. Nor can anyone deny that the long-term results of development projects have been heartbreakingly disappointing in their failure to close the yawning gap between the rich and the poor. Neither circumstance can obscure, however, a sense of common humanity in its objectives that spoke perhaps most eloquently in the response it evoked from an army of idealistic youth of many lands.
Paradoxically, in the Far East particularly, even war had a certain liberating effect on consciousness. As early as 1904, the Russo-Japanese conflict had been seen in parts of the Orient as encouraging evidence that non-Western peoples could resist the apparently invincible might of the West. The effect had been heightened by the events of the first world war, and greatly advanced by the success of Japanese arms in withstanding for so long the massive Western effort devoted to defeating them during the period 1941–1945. The second half of the century saw this new technological expertise give birth to modern economies in half a dozen nations of the region, whose innovative products and industrial energy, particularly in the areas of transportation and information technology, were able to hold their own with the best that the rest of the world had to offer. (Century of Light, pages 75–76, source)
Century of Light goes on to discuss globalization:
The process of “globalization” that had been following a long rising curve over a period of several centuries was galvanized by new powers beyond the imaginations of most people. Economic forces, breaking free of traditional restraints, brought into being during the closing decade of the century a new global order in the designing, generation and distribution of wealth. Knowledge itself became a significantly more valuable commodity than even financial capital and material resources. In a breathtakingly short space of time, national borders, already under assault, became permeable, with the result that vast sums now pass instantly through them at the command of a computer signal. Complex production operations are so reconfigured as to integrate and maximize the economies available from the contributions of a range of specializing participants, without regard to their national locations. If one were to lower one’s horizon to purely material considerations, the earth has already taken on something of the character of “one country” and the inhabitants of various lands the status of its consumer “citizens”.
Nor is the transformation merely economic. Increasingly, globalization assumes political, social and cultural dimensions. It has become clear that the powers of the institution of the nation-state, once the arbiter and protector of humanity’s fortunes, have been drastically eroded. While national governments continue to play a crucial role, they must now make room for such rising centres of power as multinational corporations, United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations of every kind, and huge media conglomerates, the cooperation of all of which is vital to the success of most programmes aimed at achieving significant economic or social ends. Just as the migration of money or corporations encounters little hindrance from national borders, neither can the latter any longer exercise effective control over the dissemination of knowledge. Internet communication, which has the ability to transmit in seconds the entire contents of libraries that took centuries of study to amass, vastly enriches the intellectual life of anyone able to use it, as well as providing sophisticated training in a broad range of professional fields. The system, so prophetically foreseen sixty years ago by Shoghi Effendi, builds a sense of shared community among its users that is impatient of either geographic or cultural distances.
The benefits to many millions of persons are obvious and impressive. Cost effectiveness resulting from the coordination of formerly competing operations tends to bring goods and services within the reach of populations who could not previously have hoped to enjoy them. Enormous increases in the funds available for research and development expand the variety and quality of such benefits. Something of a levelling effect in the distribution of employment opportunities can be seen in the ease with which business operations can shift their base from one part of the world to another. The abandonment of barriers to transnational trade reduces still further the cost of goods to consumers. It is not difficult to appreciate, from a Bahá’í perspective, the potentiality of such transformations for laying the foundations of the global society envisioned in Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings. (Century of Light, pages 127–134, source)
These passages raise so many discussion points that it’s impossible to go on here, in a single post. Reconsidering (and possibly, necessarily redefining) the role of the nation-state in a globalized world is just one significant theoretical proposal offered by this rich document—and I’ll leave you with that for now, for I’ve already put a lot on your plate (and mine).
All this from a cool stats visualization!