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The other day a bear tore up part of my house.
I know, it sounds strange, but it happens fairly often here in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Bears get hungry in the spring and summer, and they need to eat about 8000 calories a day just to maintain their health. The bear that stopped by decided he wanted to explore my trash can—hard to believe, but something in it must’ve smelled appetizing—so the bear tried to get into the fortified enclosure under the stairs where I keep the can. I’ve made that enclosure pretty bear-proof, so all this one managed to do was rip a few boards off the outside of the structure. Apparently, he went away hungry.
But at least I didn’t come home to discover a bear in my house, happily eating the food in my refrigerator, like a neighbor did last year.
Anyway, I decided I needed to replace those splintered boards and reinforce them with some angle iron to prevent further ursine incursions, so I went to the hardware store. In my small town, we have two basic choices for construction materials—the locally-run domestic hardware store—good quality, but expensive—and Kmart, the discount chain store. Guess what? The boards and iron I needed cost exactly half as much at Kmart.
Like most people would, I bought what I needed at the lowest price. But when I got my construction materials home, I noticed tiny labels on the angle iron and the wood: Made in China, and Product of Indonesia. Oops.
Those labels made me think hard about global trade and its impact. I tried to envision the Chinese factory worker who made my newly-purchased angle iron; and think about the Indonesian logger who cut down the tree that produced my boards. I imagined two people who worked extremely hard at physically-demanding jobs; and I figured that their salaries—probably much less than a comparable worker in the developed world—were the major reason for the lower prices I had paid. I wondered about the environmental laws in China and Indonesia, and thought about the impact of a coal-fired smelting factory, and a logging industry that might not plant new trees to replace they ones they cut down.
Since I like to think of myself as an environmentally-conscious person, I felt pretty bad about those purchases. I realized, upon further reflection, that the bear and I were a lot alike. The bear needed to eat, and didn’t care where he got food, or whose house he damaged. I needed to repair the bear’s destruction, and didn’t initially notice or consider what damage my decisions could do to the Earth.
Most of us make these kinds of unconscious decisions every day of our lives. We buy grapes from Chile, coffee from El Salvador or Ethiopia, clothes from Vietnam, computers from Taiwan, Italian shoes and Korean cars. Many times we’re not even aware of the origins of the things we buy and use. To add to the confusion, the world’s nations have become so economically interdependent that buying locally, or even domestically, has become almost impossible with most products.
If you’re an American, for example, try buying a new car that’s a hundred percent made in America. It can’t be done. The highest “domestic content” of any new American car is nowhere near 100%. Guess what car most surveys rank as the “most American?” Based on more than 75% of its labor and parts originating in the United States, it’s the Toyota Camry. How about a Chevrolet Camaro, that American icon? Sorry—it’s made in Canada. Jeeps? Many are made in Mexico.
We have become, in other words, a completely interdependent world:
In this day, however, means of communication have multiplied, and the five continents of the earth have virtually merged into one. And for everyone it is now easy to travel to any land, to associate and exchange views with its peoples, and to become familiar, through publications, with the conditions, the religious beliefs and the thoughts of all men. In like manner all the members of the human family, whether peoples or governments, cities or villages, have become increasingly interdependent. For none is self-sufficiency any longer possible, inasmuch as political ties unite all peoples and nations, and the bonds of trade and industry, of agriculture and education, are being strengthened every day. Hence the unity of all mankind can in this day be achieved. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 31-32.
Some politicians would like us to go back to the old days and the old ways of purely nationalistic domestic production, convinced that we should continue thinking about nations as completely independent and self-sufficient entities—but we’ve driven a long way beyond that intersection. Take a look at your cellphone, if you don’t believe it. The major cellphone manufacturers source their cases and chips and speakers and designs and keypads and rare earth minerals from all over the world. If cellphone production were restricted to any single country, we would have no cellphones.
This means, as the Baha’i teachings tell us, that “the bonds of trade and industry, of agriculture and education, are being strengthened every day.” That trend will undoubtedly continue. Globalization, as some people call the trend, means that an increasingly complex and interwoven web of forces draws us closer and closer together as each day goes by. That Chinese factory worker and that Indonesian logger—they are now connected to me in a way that was never possible before now. Their work has become part of my house. (Thanks, guys.)
Baha’is believe that trend is inevitable and unavoidable. It ultimately brings us closer to a unified, interconnected world. With that undeniable reality in mind, it becomes obvious that every new tariff, tax and trade restriction separates nations and their people from each other. Instead of trying to impose old standards and ideas on our advancing global unification, we need to act in concert with the spirit of the age—and do everything we can to help bring about the unity of the planet.
By the way, I did rethink my bear-proofing purchases. I went to the locally-run hardware store in town to check out the labels on their lumber and angle iron. You guessed it—Made in Taiwan, the tiny label on the iron said; and the label on the wood said Produced in Canada.
Next: Zero-Sum: Can One Nation Prosper When Others Don’t?