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Needless to say, there is a great deal of diversity in both the kinds of change being experienced in these places and the local reactions. To some, change offers job opportunities, peace, and improved infrastructure; to others, it means pollution, eviction, and a loss of livelihood. What all residents have in common is a loss of political autonomy. The decisions shaping their lives are being made further and further away from the specific locales where they live.
One example from our research is a town in the Peruvian Andes where water was becoming scarce a few years ago. The locals suspected that a new mine was using their water, and they went to complain. However, the mining representatives claimed that it was not their fault and blamed global climate change for the erratic water supply. The question of who to blame and what to do suddenly became insurmountable for the townspeople. What could they do—send a worried email to then U.S. President Barack Obama and the Chinese government, urging them to curb greenhouse gas emissions? The gap was, naturally, too dizzying. Instead, some of them resorted to traditional healing rituals to placate the spirits regulating rain and meltwater. They trusted Pachamama, the goddess of Earth, more than their government or distant international organizations.
Meanwhile in Lunsar, Sierra Leone, people were looking forward to job opportunities in a new mine (which, in any event, never opened) and a biofuel plantation (which did open). Globalization had brought them many benefits, notably an improved infrastructure. They relished the fact that, for the first time, they could buy bread from a roadside vendor that wasn’t covered in dust, since the road had finally been paved. But even in the midst of some positive outcomes, rapid change is creating discontent and frictions, not least over property rights. In traditional African societies, land was not considered property and could not be traded: It was allocated by the chief, used as a common resource available to all, or cultivated according to customary law. More recently, land has been privatized and turned into a form of capital, and suddenly, boundaries need to be drawn in an unequivocal way. Needless to say, these boundaries are contested.
Various stakeholders try to work out a land dispute near Lunsar, Sierra Leone, in connection with a mining project.
In the mid-1800s, when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, capitalists were easily identifiable. They were typically men, and the property owner was the proverbial man in the top hat, with his waistcoat, paunch, cigar, and gold watch. Today, the situation is far more complicated since ownership structures are transnational, corporate, and complex. Even in democratic countries, where political leaders are elected, there is a widespread feeling that the “powers that be” are further away and less approachable than before, and that there is nowhere to go with your complaints. In other words, both the economy and politics are less manageable, more difficult to understand, and harder to effectively react to.
There are alternatives to the current situation of powerlessness. One way to counter globalized power is to globalize the response by forging alliances between local community groups and transnational organizations that are capable of putting pressure on governments, public opinion, and corporations. This has been a successful strategy among feminists, trade unionists, and environmentalists in the recent past. Another option—an opposite yet complementary strategy—is to resist the forces that threaten to overrun and disempower local communities. One of the most striking examples of this strategy is the burgeoning support for locally grown food.
Gladstone is unique compared to previously traditional societies in that it is enmeshed in the economic globalization, which makes the little man and woman even smaller than they used to be. The city’s rise to prosperity was indeed a result of globalization. Yet, the same forces may well cause its downfall. Crucially dependent on fossil fuels, the city may once again become a dusty backwater should the world find better energy solutions.
Signs of the city’s vulnerability are already evident: Since coal and gas prices began largely declining in 2013, and then a major construction project ended in 2015, the city has seen an unprecedented rise in unemployment and a steep fall in real estate prices.