Globalization and its discontents

Global trade, in all its complexity, is the subject of a new 10-week series on Knowledge Network

19 mins read

Too many people have lost the work they thought they could rely on for an entire career. Others can no longer afford the homes they lived in their entire adult lives.

Communities built around single commodities or employers are suffering from the flight of their young people—and the drug addiction of those who remain.

Some people not too far away seem to be doing very well: they own enormous houses, golf courses and beautiful cars. When bored, which is often, they travel anywhere on the globe that suits them.

If you’re in the West, whether you’re part of the dwindling middle class or are part of the wealthy 1%, you can rely on a supermarket filled with foods from all over the world. The lights turn on when you flick a switch. Your clothes are very inexpensive, and you didn’t have to make them yourself. Your home is full of modern conveniences. Your children have colourful toys in abundance. There are thousands of products to choose from, just to keep yourself fit and clean.

If you had to rely only on the goods you could produce with your own hands, and on materials that were available at your feet, your life would be very different. Trade in itself can be a positive thing. If you want something that I have, and we agree to a rate at which a trade seems fair, we are both better off. But what if the terms aren’t fair, and I end up taking much more from you than you get in return? And what happens if I then enslave you to keep producing what I want at a low wage, or if I steal your land so that I can take your resources, and if my actions are backed by the power and military of your government, so you don’t stand a chance of fighting back?

This continent has been in the business of global trade since the Europeans bumped into it while looking for their intended trading partners in Asia. Whether driven by the demand for beaver pelts to make hats for the fashionable, the demand for whale oil to light streets and homes or the 20th-century demand for petroleum and its many derivatives, Canada has always been a place where people have traded resources for goods and money. The railway that ties the country together was built to enable trade and export of resources, after all.

Globalization, as the current integration of trade, finance, communications and politics is called, feels different, although the people who lived here prior to European contact might say it feels familiar. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, wrote a book called Globalization and Its Discontents (2002), in which he described the “growing opposition in the developing world to globalizing reforms.” As the results of the 2016 American election demonstrated, opposition to trade has expanded to so-called “advanced economies” as well. Ordinary people were promised that all would be better off as a result of freer trade; instead, they feel betrayed by political promises, including the failure of governments to tax the wealth generated by new technologies and free trade in order to fund services and income redistribution to those adversely affected. Stiglitz’s conclusion was that globalization was not the problem; it was the poor management of it that was a disaster. But was he correct?


British Columbia’s public broadcaster, Knowledge Network, has taken on the ambitious task of explaining Globalization and Its Discontents through a 10-week programme of documentaries from Canada and around the world.

Knowledge Network receives funding from the government of British Columbia, and it does not accept any corporate sponsorships. Its greatest source of funding is individual citizens. “Everything that we program is in the public interest,” Knowledge Network president Rudy Buttignol told an audience at the 2016–17 season launch, according to an article in The Georgia Straight. “It’s there to help educate people, inform. It helps people stimulate debate, examine an issue that they’re interested in, get people talking. It’s really about public space owned by the public for the public, and it’s partner support that makes that possible.”

This fall, Knowledge Network is taking a different approach to programming documentaries. Many broadcasters have a documentary strand, in which a series of documentaries that may be unrelated are presented at a consistent hour and day of the week. It’s highly unusual for a broadcaster to dedicate 10 weeks at multiple hours and days to a single theme. Citizens of British Columbia, one third of whom are regular viewers of Knowledge Network, are about to get an education on the history, structures and consequences of globalization.


The programme includes feature documentaries and multi-part series from Canada and around the world. It covers many bases: the history of trade and the companies that built the world; the impact at home of the free flow of money; China’s ambitious plan to expand its markets and influence throughout Africa, south Asia and southern Europe. Commodities, like oil, and transportation, especially shipping, are also featured. Many of the films describe the close collaboration between governments and mercantilists throughout history. We can learn a great deal about the structures and mechanisms of globalization, and feel the powerlessness of local people to manage the impacts through the shows picked for the series.


Canadian filmmaker Charles Wilkinson addresses the very local impact of globalization. His film Vancouver: No Fixed Address (2017) focuses on the city’s housing crisis. One of the most interesting challenges posed is: whose land is it anyway? David Suzuki talks about growing up near the water and the trees and clearly feels at home in Vancouver. But Musqueam playwright Quelamia Sparrow reminds us that her people fished in the Fraser for countless generations prior to the arrival of Europeans, let alone the current Chinese investors. The film closes with Sparrow’s provocative question: “How does it feel to live on stolen land?”

The actions and decisions that have led to an apparent explosion of Chinese investment in Vancouver real estate are due to the decisions of individuals, many of whom want alternatives to what is going on in their homeland. The government of China is also intentionally investing heavily outside of the country, not to hide its resources but to build and reach markets that will ensure jobs at home. The Maritime Silk Road, a six-part series, explains why the Chinese government is building vast ports both at home and throughout Asia and Africa and into the Mediterranean. The series does not question the merits of the strategy. A delegation from Papua New Guinea is shown trying to negotiate a deal with the Chinese to expand a port because they have so much palm oil and lumber to export. Viewers of other documentaries, such as The Borneo Case or When Two Worlds Collide (both 2016), may have a different view of the wisdom of facilitating the destruction of the planet’s natural resources, not to mention the homes of Indigenous peoples. In those works, the intentions of the local population are contrasted with the ambitions of the corporations and governments, alerting viewers to how globalization is working from East to South. This situation isn’t isolated to the needs and desires of the West.


The discovery of oil and, even more significantly, the thousands of ways in which its components can be refined and used, has shaped our lives for the last century or more. It is hard for us to imagine the world as it was in the mid-19th century, when whales were routinely slaughtered for their oil to provide fuel to light homes. The first discovery of black gooey liquid in the ground that could be turned into a lighting fuel happened in the United States. The genius of the American capitalist John D. Rockefeller was to figure out how to move the fuel by rail to where it would be used, and to force all other producers out of business, in collusion with the railways. Rapacious, monopolistic capitalism, relying on government intervention to build and maintain infrastructure, while hiding behind the benign face of philanthropy, was the modus operandi of the new wealthy class from the 1870s to World War One. Rockefeller was able to dominate the American market, but the lighter oil found in Baku by the Caspian Sea went to European competitors, who then took over the Asian market.

The story of the evolution of the so-called Seven Sisters (the companies which controlled oil from the Forties to the early Seventies) has been told elsewhere, but Planet Oil (2015) does a good job of explaining how the companies came to dominate supply and market access, and how the British, led by Churchill, and the United States, led by Roosevelt, came to divide up the political map.

Military uses became paramount as Prime Minister Winston Churchill recognized the benefit of rebuilding his naval fleet to retire coal and use oil instead, literally to keep up with the German fleet. International agreements, both public and private, and the sharing of the victors’ spoils led ultimately to the “sharing” of the Middle East by the United States and Great Britain.

Planet Oil tells the dramatic tale of our growing dependence on “Texas tea,” with a side-glance to the enormous creativity unleashed by the discovery of the variety of uses made possible by its many components. First useful as kerosene, later useful as gasoline, benzene and more, petroleum is now used in every aspect of our lives.


Oil, and the invention of containers and tankers, has enabled enormous growth of shipping as a means of moving goods, both high value and low, around the world quickly and cheaply. Like oil, and in fact with oil as fuel and cargo, shipping moves around the world invisibly. Some shipping magnates own well-established, law-abiding firms that purchase new, sound ships, and some are speculators who buy second- or third-hand ships that are not seaworthy. Shipwrecks are an almost daily occurrence, although we rarely hear about them, and often the cheapest, dirtiest oil drives the cargo. The damage to the oceans and to life within them is incalculable.

The ability of governments to regulate, inspect and enforce this worldwide trade is key to whether globalization benefits everyone, or only the few. The law of the sea stipulates that governments control the first few miles off their shores, can use the first 200 miles off shore for their own uses (such as fishing or oil extraction), but have no influence on the so-called high seas. Piracy has long thrived out of the reach of governments, along with extreme exploitation of the people (usually men) who operate the ships. Ships are supposed to operate under the laws of their home country. All ships seem to fly “flags of convenience,” taking them away from the reach of the law, and thus enabling their owners to profit enormously, without paying proper wages, let alone taxes.

Freightened: The Real Price of Shipping (2016) raises the issue of externalities: the costs of production that are not borne by the end user, let alone the business owner. We do not pay for the pollution created by steel mills. We do not pay for the health and safety conditions of garment workers. We do not pay for the ballast dumped into the seas. Our addiction to cheap goods continues to fuel the demand for larger ships, faster loading and unloading, cheaper labour and the construction of unimaginably enormous new ports. Governments—taxpayers—are thus left to pay for disasters after they happen.

One of the elements of global trade that has been enabled by cheap shipping is the treatment of the entire world as one factory. Instead of producing all of the components of an automobile, for example, in one enormous plant in the suburbs of Detroit, each component is designed in one place, produced in another, assembled into a slightly larger component somewhere else, and only finally assembled into the finished product after travelling around the continent or even the world, perhaps more than once. To say that a car, or a suit jacket, comes from the U.S.A. or Japan is misleading at best. One expert in Freightened suggests that labels should indicate where all of the components come from, and how far all the pieces have traveled to reach the consumer.

We cannot turn the clock back to a time before global trade. Most of us like the benefits, but would like to see them shared more equally. We would probably also like to see the negative consequences of our consumption reduced for the sake of the future of the planet. We only see the disasters after they occur, when it is too late for the land and its people. If we aren’t aware of those consequences, we won’t demand that governments (and businesses) take action.


It is obvious to many people when factories close. Jobs are lost, other businesses close, housing prices fall as people move away. Stable families are disrupted. But many of the structures and impacts of globalization are invisible—often intentionally so—and thus are difficult to understand. And if they are difficult to understand, it is hard to know how to respond, or how to talk about the problems and find solutions.

Disappointment, sadness and bitterness on an individual level appear on the streets as collective anger. But who are we mad at? What do we think needs to be done, and who should do it?

It’s highly unusual for a broadcaster to invest so heavily in one theme for an extended period of time. Knowledge Network has collected a very interesting set of feature documentaries and mini-series to bring a multitude of perspectives to its audience in British Columbia.

For those who are able to invest the time in watching many or all of these films, there is the benefit of a far broader and deeper understanding of how our world works and how it came to be that way. They will also have a sense of where the opportunities for change might be. Will activism follow?

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