CAMBRIDGE – The world economy will shrink this year for the first time since 1945, and some economists worry that the current crisis could spell the beginning of the end of globalization. Hard economic times are correlated with protectionism, as each country blames others and protects its domestic jobs. In the 1930’s, such “beggar-thy-neighbor” policies worsened the situation. Unless political leaders resist such responses, the past could become the future.
Ironically, however, such a grim prospect would not mean the end of globalization, defined as the increase in worldwide networks of interdependence. Globalization has several dimensions, and, though economists all too often portray it and the world economy as being one and the same, other forms of globalization also have significant effects – not all of them benign – on our daily lives.
The oldest form of globalization is environmental. For example, the first smallpox epidemic was recorded in Egypt in 1350 BC. It reached China in 49 AD, Europe after 700, the Americas in 1520, and Australia in l789. Bubonic plague, or the Black Death, originated in Asia, but its spread killed a quarter to a third of Europe’s population in the fourteenth century.
Europeans carried diseases to the Americas in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that destroyed up to 95% of the indigenous population. In 1918, a flu pandemic caused by a bird virus killed some 40 million people around the world, far more than the recently concluded world war. Some scientists today predict a repeat of an avian flu pandemic.