Our Small World

What in the World Is Globalization

Globalization. You see that word everywhere nowadays. What you might not see is a simple definition of it. That’s because the term is a broad label for a host of political, economic, cultural, and even biological changes.

Globalization is like a car. Driven wisely, it can get you to some great places. Reckless driving, though, can land you in a heap of trouble. These are some of the complex issues raised by globalization.
  • Rapid information flow can aid businesspeople and scholars. It can also aid terrorists.
  • People can tap natural resources that were once inaccessible. That can mean more stress on ecosystems.
  • Migration can give families new opportunities in new places. It can also spark clashes as immigrants settle into new cultures.
click to enlarge image
Migration generally flows from economically poor areas to those that offer jobs and opportunity. This chart gives an overall picture, but doesn’t capture movement within regions. Source: Global Policy Forum
  • Consumers have more and cheaper choices. Yet local businesses and workers who can’t compete may face hardship.
  • Multinational corporations can boost efficiency. Yet governments may find it hard to ensure they obey laws and pay fair taxes.

E-mails zip between Connecticut and Cairo. Shoppers in D.C. buy fruit from Chile and chocolate from Belgium. An ATM in South Africa churns out money from an account in Germany. Kids in Baltimore watch Japanese cartoons. A doctor in India reads an x-ray from a patient in New York. Avian flu (also called bird flu) travels from Asia to Africa, and eventually to North America. These are just a few examples of globalization.

Look closely, and you’ll find a common thread among all those examples—movement. People and products, information and ideas: They’re moving ever more rapidly from one place to another. As they do, they’re changing things around the globe.


Today, it seems obvious that the Internet is our most popular tool for moving information. But in the 1960s, when research on the Internet began, experts thought that it would be useful only during military emergencies.
Source: Global Policy Forum



You could argue that globalization is nothing new. After all, people have traveled and traded for thousands of years. Caravans plodded the Silk Road to bring spices and textiles from Asia to Europe. Explorers returned from the Americas with tomatoes, potatoes, and other unknown crops.


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This ancient network of trade routes linked goods, people, and ideas from distant lands and diverse cultures.
Source: Art Institute of Chicago


Ideas traveled too. Martin Luther King journeyed to India to learn from the followers of Mohandas Gandhi, who, in turn, had been influenced by the writings of Henry David Thoreau, a 19th century American author.

So what’s different? Global movements are much faster and more widespread than ever before. A few examples:

  • Compare this slow-moving early locomotive from 1825 to today’s bullet trains that travel 200 mph. Before trains, no one could travel on land faster than a horse could run. Trains launched the present-day era in which only ingenuity limits how fast we can move.
    A generation or two ago, few ordinary people traveled internationally. Today even many kids are world travelers.
  • Colonial Americans waited months and paid dearly for imported goods, such as sugar and cloth. Modern Americans can find inexpensive items from around the world just by driving to the local megamart.
  • Soldiers in the Vietnam War handwrote letters that could take weeks to get back home. Today, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan post blog entries that their families can see seconds later.

    In 1969, a GI in Vietnam wrote this letter, now preserved by The Legacy Project. It makes us think about how instantaneous communications have changed the way we express ourselves.

These changes, and many more, are part of the tide of globalization that is remaking our world.



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