Global Consciousness

Think locally, act globally — John Naisbitt

Background: Some Preliminary Considerations for Understanding Global Consciousness

In the sense of being aware that we now live in “global village,” virtually everyone today has some form of what might be called “global consciousness.” Today, the events that intrude on daily life are no longer limited strictly to one’s own village, city, or nation. Everyone knows that there can be direct influences on their lives from events on the other side of the globe. Virtually everyone feels, in one way or another, the forces for both cooperation and strife that Globalization has unleashed. On the one hand, cooperative international trade has created new wealth and opportunities for hundreds of millions. On the other, political, moral and cultural differences are causing conflicts around the world. And many people, as Thomas Friedman has pointed out, are aware of cultural icons of our global village — “Super Individuals,” such as Madonna, Michael Jordan, Osama Bin Laden, to name a few — who have fame and influence worldwide.

In addition to this general awareness, many educational systems around the world now support a version of relativism that urges us to be aware that there many cultures and moral systems in the world and to “celebrate the differences” by studying these alternate systems. While this popular version of relativism offers little in actually understanding or dealing with, the complex issues involved in Globalization, it might also be called a form of global consciousness.

Global consciousness, as we shall understand it for the purposes of this course, includes, but also goes beyond, these general forms of awareness about our interconnected world and our being ready to accept the fact that there are many moral and cultural systems. Our concept of global consciousness also has different emphases. First, global consciousness, as we shall understand it, is primarily about finding unity, not differences. It finds ways in which people, political systems and cultures are the same. Second, it engenders not only a sense of belonging to a greater whole but of being willing to take some responsibility for action within that greater whole.

To understand this notion further, consider the following historical example from an earlier form of Globalization. In 212 C.E., the Roman Emperor Caracalla issued a decree making all free residents of the empire citizens of Rome. This included most of the area shown in the map below — the greater portion of the known world at the time.

Map of Roman World, 200 C.E.
The Roman Empire at 200 C.E., showing major trade routes. Source: (Houghton Mifflin Company)

Caracalla’s edict served, at least on paper, to make many of the residents of this vast area political equals, subject to the same laws. This edict was not just a change in the legal system. It had a profound psychological effect on the way the peoples of this region thought about themselves. Regardless of their prior religious or cultural backgrounds, they now had, as Roman Citizens, reasons find political, moral, and economic interests in common. Not coincidentally, there were at that time well-developed trade/communication routes that greatly facilitated this psychological shift. This shift in self-awareness, in turn, became an integral part of the economic life of the region.

Today (thankfully), we have no one to issue edicts to declare that we are all citizens of the world — but we do have an even more complex system of communication, and prototypes (however inadequate) for world governance already in place. One aspect of global consciousness, as it develops in our time, will, therefore, most likely be a spontaneous “grassroots” phenomenon, taking the form of increased awareness, that our “home” — the circle of our immediate concerns — encompasses the entire earth. The map below indicates roughly the same geographic area and one mode of the contemporary communications infrastructure that links it. Despite the “competing” languages and cultures, the new Europe, much like the old Roman Empire, has already become economically, and to some degree spiritually and culturally, unified. This, of course, is only one phase of a worldwide phenomenon now spreading to every region of the earth.

Telecommunications Traffic Flow Map © 2000 – TeleGeography, Inc.
See for source and for brief discussion of this and other maps.

Communications fosters community — a sense of home. What do you consider your “home” — your city, nation, region, or…. (see picture below)?

Earth photographed from space, Apollo 17 mission. Source: NASA

Toward a Contemporary View of Global Consciousness

The above description of global consciousness will no doubt be unsatisfactory to many since it might be criticized as being entirely too vague and nothing more than a feeling. Let us, therefore, expand on the notion of finding unity and specify more concretely what we mean. Global Consciousness, as we shall refer to it, involves, among other things, the following:

1. Awareness and understanding of the unifying conditions of human life worldwide.

  • Universal needs: food, clothing, shelter, health
  • Universal Human Rights: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to education regardless of gender, race, or economic circumstances
  • Emerging shared values and standards of justice: international laws, international courts, sanctions against terrorism
  • Emerging models of regional, transnational, economic development: cooperative rather than confrontational or competitive national economic policies

2. Awareness of the global implications of local actions.

As John Naisbitt pointed out, in today’s interconnected world the old saying “the flap of a butterfly’s wings one place creates a hurricane somewhere else” has become literally true. This is why he says we can put a new twist on the old phrase, “think globally, act locally.” We should understand that it is basically impossible to “act locally.” Our local actions always have global repercussions.

  • Cutting down rainforests reduces world oxygen supplies
  • Economic protectionism means jobs lost in another country
  • Support for single-commodity economies (e.g., oil) creates unstable conditions worldwide

3. A critical perspective on differences among cultural practices worldwide.

This means attempting to discern which differences matter in judging the value of a particular set of culturally-defined practices and which do not. One might argue, for example, that wearing a headscarf is a cultural difference that does not matter, while the practice of female circumcision is a cultural difference that does matter.

4. Awareness of changes in psychological, cultural, and economic modalities that may govern changes in 21st century personal, corporate, and national life.

  • Models of strong tribal/national identity that cause unnecessary conflict may be abandoned in favor of alternative modalities of personal identities, such as Cosmopolitanism.
  • Corporate cooperation, rather than competition, may become necessary for large research and development projects (e.g., hydrogen economy)
  • International intervention in the internal affairs of nations may increase as the rights of “sovereign” nations and the concept of “national autonomy” may no longer be understood to include the right of a nation to violate the universal political and economic rights of its citizens
  • National borders may disappear as economic growth of transnational corporations encourages dissolving artificial barriers between nations

5. At least at some level, a commitment to new forms of global political cooperation or global governance.

As you know from your study of other modules in this course, critics of Globalization have pointed out that the current structures of the U.N., IMF, and World Bank are undemocratic. While one can debate whether or not the current structure is sufficient for our immediate needs, it seems certain, given the rapidly expanding nature of global communications, that the future will call for some other form of governance.

There are, at present, no specific exercises for this module. Feel free to contribute your thoughts on this topic. Do you think global consciousness is a good thing? Or do you think ties to one’s own people, place, or nation ought to take precedence over global consciousness?

By Anthony Birch

Anthony Birch, Ph.D. has taught Business Ethics, Introduction to Ethics, Contemporary Ethics, and Introduction to Philosophy at a number of colleges and universities. He is the co-author of How to Ace Your Online Course, available at Amazon.

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