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Published: March 12th 2010
I’ve had the most profound culture shock since starting back at University this last autumn after more than 10 years on the road. Today something very strange indeed happened, which made me feel I may be over all that. In fact I may be more than over it; I think I’m in it. Today I didn’t have anything to do. When it comes to reading up on articles, writing papers and marking exams etcetera, I am the procrastination meister
. Today a lull…a big gaping void of a lull… and I don’t know what to do with myself. Those pointless meaningless trivialities that can keep me occupied for hours held no interest for me, their allure lost in the gaping lull. I locked up my office, came home and vacuumed the car, took out the mats and gave them quick perfunctory shampoo, and now I sit here, about to write my first blog in a year. From a trip I took a year and a half ago. And therein lies the problem; if you travel a lot, and -- as I have at times -- incessantly, you never get time to catch up on your memories and reflect; to analyze the purpose
and draw conclusions… the sad truth in this case (and a few subsequent cases and countries) is I’ve never even really had time to look at the photos stored away in some folder on some drive (the modern day draw or attic, dusty, unsorted, and never looked at). A rolling stone gathers no moss.
I do however remember waking up on a train as it trundled through a massive monstrosity of a city beginning with “W”. I could easily track this city's name on a map from where I sit via the wonders of the net, but you’ll never have heard of it, as I hadn’t. Though I might not be good with names, I never forget a face or place, and its image is indelibly etched in my mind. As we trundled across a large steel bridge, beneath us “W” spewed a wide murky dying river. I looked out into the gray air at the gray buildings stretching to the horizon. It appeared that millions upon millions of people lived in this ugly city. Reaching its periphery, roads and partially built houses were attempting to populate the land beyond. “W” literally grew before my eyes, all in the
name of something, amongst other things, commonly defined as ‘economic growth’, ‘progress’ or ‘civilization’.
Beijing was our destination. A city steeped in Chinese history. Yet what struck me most during our time there was that in places its modernity and wealth made any city in the world seem tired, old and strapped. You don’t need to be an economist to know where the vast majority of this wealth has come from, just look at where practically everything you own comes from. The abundant wealth of China now stems from a labour force as cheap and vast as any the world has ever known, the globalization of demand, driven by global competition to produce the cheapest products, and the ability to transport those products using equally cheap fossil fuels to all corners of the world for a pittance, brings money in and spews widgets out, money in, widgets out. Surplus Value the likes of which Karl Marx could never have dreamed.
Globalization has set working people in competition with one another worldwide. As long as China has one of the poorest and cheapest workforces in the world, ironically, 'China's' economic growth will continue and the gap between rich and
poor will continue to widen; China's economic wellbeing depends on it. One could linger on the irony of this nation's claim to communism, but I’d like to go further back.
The Great Wall of China is as large and magnificent a project as all the widget factories of 21st Century China combined. Looking out over the horizon as it snaked its way over tops of hills as far as the mind could possibly imagine, I thought of how it was all built without fossil fuels, solely man and, undoubtedly, some form of mule power. I pondered; perhaps everything will be OK when the oil runs dry. Maybe our Barbie Dolls won’t be made in factories at 2 cents a unit by 12 yr old girls who earn a dollar a day, and bought by 12 yr old girls on the other side of the planet for $8.94. Maybe we’ll realize this process isn’t economically viable when oil inevitably becomes a luxury commodity. We’ll keep on keeping on...and then I remembered.
The purpose of the wall was to keep out the barbarian hordes that lived outside of civilization. Because of course, at any given moment in time we are
at our most civilized and it goes without saying that it is always we that are the civilized. I just hope globalization, despite its predatory traits - and erasure of bio and cultural diversity - brings people of this planet closer to being one, so that one day the civilization we come to define ourselves as nullifies the need for building walls and drawing borders that divide us from them, and them from us.
Our visit to China coincided with the remnants of Beijing 08 and as a result emblazoned on the hillside Hollywoodesque fashion, beside the Great Wall, was written “One World One Dream”. Just before we boarded the plane to Urumqi in the far west of China, I caught the back end of a news story on TV in which a Chinese government finance bigwig answered questions on how China may be able to help the world out of the ‘economic crisis’. He said they'd do what they could, after all Chinese prosperity is dependent on the world's ability to buy, although China of course wouldn't risk overextending itself in the process …and I wondered; just what dream is it that truly encompasses the world at the
beginning of the 21st Century?
As I come to the end of this piece I just noticed an hour has passed. Furthermore, after I find, upload and caption 21 pictures to fill this page, we may be looking at another half-hour… unless I get distracted; because you know I really should go for a run before Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares begins. Maybe I haven’t lost my ability to procrastinate after all. Maybe everything's not lost.
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