The First Global Event

The novel coronavirus outbreak may be the first time in our species’s 250,000 year history that virtually everyone is being affected by the same event simultaneously. As Joshua Keating of Slate notes:

“Global event,” in this case, means a distinct occurrence that will be a significant life event for nearly every person on the planet. This is not to say that we’re all experiencing it the same way. Some become ill or lose loved ones; others lose jobs or livelihoods; for others, it’s merely a source of inconvenience or anxiety. And different countries and local governments are responding to the crisis in very different fashions, leading to wildly divergent outcomes for their citizens. But as the writer Anna Badkhen puts it, not since human beings first began spreading across the globe has a single event “affected everyone, on every continent, as instantly and intimately and acutely as the spread of coronavirus, uniting us as we fear and think and hope about the same thing.” It’s the truly global nature of the crisis that French President Emmanuel Macron was referring to when he called the coronavirus an “anthropological” shock.

This truth says as much about the era in which COVID-19 emerged as it does about the virus itself. It was only in the past 500 years that people in all regions of the Earth even became fully aware of one another and in the last 200 that they’ve been able to communicate more or less instantaneously. And it’s this very interconnectedness that allowed the virus to spread so rapidly across the globe. (The Black Death felt like the end of the world to many who experienced it, but more than a century before Columbus, entire continents of people were unaware of it.)

Previous events have had global impact in the past. Billions of lives have been affected by, say, the French Revolution, or 9/11. Contemporaneous writers have made cases for various events as the “shot heard round the world” or Ten Days That Shook the WorldBut these events were not experienced by the entire world at the same time—not even close.

Even the world wars, contrary to their description, did not impact the day to day lives of most people in Latin America, Africa, and parts of Asia. By contrast, COVID-19 has forced virtually every country in the world to either implement life-changing lock-downs or to endure the impact of the subsequent economic slowdown. Previous pandemics, including the deadly 1918 “Spanish”, were either limited in their geographic spread or occured when the world lacked an international forum for coordination or communications. These things still felt very much localized.

This matters because our species has only recently reached a level of consciousness and moral awareness that extends beyond the interrelated bands and tribes that were the norm for most of our quarter-of-a-million-year existence. Suddenly, we’re feeling for victims across the world, in places most of us have never been; learning from countries we otherwise never give much thought to (or in some cases can’t even find on a map); and enduring the same sorts of shocks to our routine as billions of other humans we pretty much forget exist. (Of course we know there are billions of other humans out there, but how often do we stop at any moment to consider how their lives our playing out at the same time as ours?)

As Keating notes, those of us with an internationalist bend are largely disappointed with the fractured and even divisive response by the world community. The notion that a bigger threat might finally unite humankind in a productive and cohesive response has yet to be proven. (Will it really take an alien invasion or robot uprising!?) I’m a tad bit more optimistic though: Though beleaguered and under siege, international institutions like the World Health Organization are still doing their thing; many countries and international organizations are coming together to pool their funds, resources, and knowledge to tackle this threat. As always, progress is never neat and linear.

However this global even hashes out, one thing is probably certain: Most people will pay more attention to what goes outside their respective countries.

Perhaps a more realistic expectations is that people may change how they view far away events—events like a mysterious virus cluster in Wuhan. Those of us who write about world news are used to making the case that people should care about events that happen in other countries and continents because it could eventually affect them—that political developments in Russia or a drought in Central America can very quickly become a major event in American life. Perhaps after the common experience we’ve all just shared, it will be a little easier to grasp the importance of faraway wars, revolutions, famines, and even “massively distributed” problems like climate change, feel a little more empathy for those directly affected by them, and have a little better sense of how they might soon affect us. For the first time ever, it feels like it’s literally true to say that international news is just news that hasn’t become local yet

While there have been no shortage of wars or diplomatic crises that should have roused us from our parochialism and insularity, maybe the first truly global even should do the trick.

The Perils and Promise of Globalization

I know my bias for internationalism and globalization are obvious. But I genuinely believe this pandemic has made clear that however we feel about global interconnectedness, there is simply no other way to fight something like a pandemic without the world working together.

Global threats like viruses, terrorism, environmental degradation, and the like don’t adhere to borders. They’re too big, spread out, and complicated for even the most powerful countries to handle them on their own. At the very least, countries need to coordinate and keep each other informed, but they also need to pool their resources, know-how, and ideas, too.

Consider this pandemic: On the one hand, globalization did make it easier for it to spread, given the unprecedented amount of travel, migration, and business that occurs across the world. But there’s really no preventing that: Even seven hundred years ago, the world was connected enough for the Black Death to sweep through much of Asia and Europe, wiping out a quarter to half of the societies it struck. Good luck going back to pre-Medieval levels of international engagement.

Plus, on the other hand, globalization is helping us tackle this virus and prevent another Spanish Flu, which claimed 50-100 million lives beginning during World War I, when most nations weren’t working together. (Heck, it’s called Spanish Flu precisely because Spain was the only country to report openly about it; the U.S. and the rest of Europe kept it under wraps so as not to appear weak in the war.)

Notwithstanding its poor initial response, China quickly acted to contain the virus and assist the world (whether for charitable reasons, to save face, or both, is irrelevant). As early as January, Chinese scientists figured out the genetic code of the virus and shared it with the world. Australian researchers quickly found a potential treatment, followed by scientists in Canada, Israel, Germany, the U.S., and elsewhere.

The west African nation of Senegal—all too familiar with pandemics given Ebola’s impact on the region—worked with the U.K. to develop one of the fastest testing rates and a possible treatment.

Thailand, Vietnam, and China have found novel drug combinations that may be effective; the Vietnamese have done well enough that they’re aiding their poorer neighbors and even the West with supplies.

Taiwan has become recognized as a global leader in pandemic response, aiding other countries with both medical supplies and its highly effective strategy (which have been emulated to great success by other countries, such as New Zealand).

Italy found a way to 3-D print lifesaving respiratory valves, while an Irish-based research group is making similar techniques openly available to the world.

For all its flaws, the U.N. World Health Organization has proven beneficial on balance. It’s brought together dozens of top researchers across the world to discuss solutions; has provided supplies to countries around the world (including the U.S.); and is leading a “Solidarity Trial” involving labs across the wold to test the four most promising treatments. (Recall that the W.H.O. led the effort to eradicate smallpox, which has killed hundreds of millions, and helped discover an Ebola vaccine.)

Speaking of global efforts: the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) is also leading the charge for a COVID-19 vaccine. Based in Norway, it brings together governments and organizations all over the world to tackle the worst infectious diseases bedeviling humanity.

Towards a Universal Time

On this day in 1879, at a meeting of the Royal Canadian Institute in Toronto, Scottish-Canadian engineer and inventor Sandford Fleming proposed the idea of standard time zones based on a single universal world time. He suggested that standard time zones could be used locally, but would follow a single world time, which he called “Cosmic Time”. The proposal divided the world into twenty-four time zones, each one covering 15 degrees of longitude. All clocks within each zone would be set to the same time as the others but differed by one hour from those in the neighboring zones.

An amazing innovation we take for granted. Wikimedia Commons.

We take time zones for granted today, but for most of human history, time was kept locally, based on how people in each town or city measured the position of the sun. Most humans did not travel beyond their community, and the few who did would takes days or weeks, so it never really made a difference whether one city was hours off from another one.

But the development of rail travel in the late 19th century posed a huge challenge. For the first time in history, people were crossing through multiple towns in the span of hours, leading to the absurd practice of having to continually reset clocks throughout the day.

An 1853 “Universal Dial Plate” showing the relative times of “all nations” before the adoption of universal time. Wikimedia Commons.

As the first country to industrialize, Great Britain was the first to deal with this problem on a large scale; in response, it established Greenwich Mean Time, which was the mean solar time on the Prime Meridian at Greenwich, England. (Ironically, this had been developed to resolve the same issue with respect to ocean navigation. Each country had its own prime meridian in its navigational charts to serve as something of a starting point; it usually passed through the country in question, until the navally dominant British developed the Prime Meridian that most others would soon follow.) Clocks in Britain were set to this time irrespective of local solar noon.

Anyway, Fleming’s proposal gave way to a flurry of international discussion about how to address this issue. The British government even forwarded his work to eighteen foreign countries and several scientific bodies to determine a solution. The United States called an “International Meridian Conference” in 1884 that gathered delegates from around the world to set up a universally recognized basis for time. It was announced the Greenwich Mean Time would be used, for the simple reason that by then, two-thirds of all nautical charts and maps already used it as their prime meridian

By 1972, all major countries adopted time zones based on the Greenwich meridian (since 1935, called “Universal Time”). The saga of universal time is yet another example of our species’ move towards a more global and interconnected community.

The Marvels of Globalization

Globalization is something. The laptop where I am typing this is Chinese (Lenovo), and the antivirus software I use to protect it is Russian (Kaspersky). The world wide web I am using was invented by a Briton (Tim Berners-Lee) and first tested in Swiss-based lab operated by a consortium of 22 mostly-European countries (CERN). My browser of choice, Chrome, was developed by a firm co-founded by a Russian Jew (Google). The messaging system I use most was invented by Swedes, Danes, and Estonians (Skype). The gas station I use most is a British-Dutch conglomerate (Royal Dutch Shell). Continue reading

The Clout of Countries

The term “soft power” was first coined by American political scientist Joseph Nye to describe a country’s ability to exercise influence abroad without the “hard power” of military force, sanctions, and the like. It is an idea I had encountered often during my undergrad studies of political science and international relations, but its inherent fuzziness made it difficult to assess and measure; you can count tanks, troops, missiles, etc., but how do you determine something as categorically intangible as “soft power”?

To address the paucity of data on the subject, in 2015 London-based PR firm Portland teamed up with the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy to create an index of soft power: The Soft Power 30, the most recent update of which was released last month. Countries are ranked based on a combination of two sets of data: polls measuring how the countries are perceived abroad, and quantifiable variables such as the number of diplomatic missions abroad, the size of foreign-aid budgets, the number of intergovernmental organizations they are members of, and so on. Continue reading

Our Globally Centered Economy

Believe it or not, there is a lot to celebrate about the economy as of late, both here and elsewhere.

The U.S. stock market is going strong, with the S&P 500 at an all-time record. But the German and Japanese markets are up by more, and markets in the U.K., Canada, South Korea, Taiwan, and elsewhere are also seeing record growth.

While the U.S. unemployment rate is the lowest in almost two decades, Japan’s is also the lowest since then, with the U.K. and Germany seeing the lowest rate since the 1970s.

Although America’s GDP growth is above expectations this year, so is Japan‘s and the eurozone’s (the 19 European Union countries that use the euro). In fact, the eurozone grew faster than the U.S. economy, contrary to popular belief about its imminent collapse.

The point of this isn’t to make light of our well needed economic gains, but to point out that our success is part of a broader global trend, and that we depend on numerous other countries and trading blocs to stay afloat.

Without having global partners to serve as our suppliers, consumers, and labor force, we would not be doing so well, and our economy would not be as large and diversified in the first place.

Nowadays, all our biggest and most innovative companies are multinational in character, relying on talented people from across the world to design or create their products (if not run the companies entirely). In such a globalized era, diplomacy is paramount.

Source: Vox.com

The World’s Most Ambitious Megaproject

China is marking its entrance onto the world stage as a great power in an unprecedented way: the $4-6 trillion One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative, an extensive network of infrastructure — railways, roads, pipelines, and energy grids — that will link China with 65 countries across Asia, Africa, and Europe. By the time it is completed in 2049, OBOR will span 62% of the world’s population and 40% of its economic output.

china-one-belt-one-road Continue reading

Italian Firm Joins Global Effort to Develop Nuclear Fusion

Globalization at work: Italian energy company Eni — one of the “Big Six” fossil fuel companies and the eleventh largest company in the world — is working with researchers from the U.S. and worldwide to produce energy from nuclear fusion, perhaps the most promising form of energy conceivable (it is a safe, sustainable, virtually inexhaustible source of power that creates virtually no pollution or emissions).

The Italian firm is investing $50 million into a company founded by former MIT scientists to create the first commercially viable nuclear fusion plant, and is also carrying out research with MIT on plasma physics, advanced fusion, and electromagnetic technologies.

Problems this big need all the capital, resources, and talent humanity can muster. Italy is just one of several nations working towards this cause. We need more cross-border coordination of this sort.

How Global Inequality Undermines Global Democracy

Yet another massive leak of offshore banking documents has revealed the remarkable extent of the world’s “parallel economy”, in which a large and growing proportion of global wealth is secretly stashed away in a complex and opaque network of tax havens.

In addition to the obvious diversion of literally trillions of dollars of capital that could be better spent alleviating the needless suffering of billions (with plenty left over to spare), this development is arguably a threat to democratic governance the world over, as Matt Phillips at Vice argues. Continue reading

United Nations Day

On this day in 1945, the Charter of the United Nations came into effect, establishing the U.N. as the world’s premier international organization and setting forth, for the first time in history, an aspirational global standard for human rights, international cooperation, and global security — hence the observation of United Nations Day.

The United Nations emerged during the Second World War as the formal name for the Allies that opposed the Axis powers, although the idea of creating a new world organization — to replace the moribund League of Nations that was created after WWI — was conceptualized by the U.S. State Department in 1939.  Continue reading