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Toward a Gentler and More Enlightened Town
By Mary Pipher

In the last few years, I've traveled a great deal because of my books. One of them, Reviving Ophelia, has been translated into Portuguese, Korean, Croatian, Japanese, Danish, Italian, and other languages. It's been on bestseller lists in Saudi Arabia and Sweden. The book's success is not about me but about something much bigger--globalization. All around the globe, teenagers are being raised by boxes: boxes that pump out gangster rap, alcohol and nicotine commercials, sleazy sex, violence, and consumerism. All over the world, these messages cause trouble in families and communities.

Last May, I spoke in Poland about the way media affect families. As the Poles put it, "We finally got rid of the communists, and the Marlboro man rode into town." Before the 1990s, Poland had few consumer goods, limited media, and no advertising. Now billboards with anorexic supermodels line the highways, pushing everything from designer jeans to designer drinks. Ricky Martin posters are stapled to the telephone poles. Leonardo DeCaprio smiles from bus kiosks. Americans have built up some resistance to advertising, but the Poles have no antibodies for our culture of consumption. For this reason, among several others--including shock therapy economics and burgeoning corruption--their lives have gotten worse in the last few years. Parents and teenagers get into terrible arguments. Adolescent girls suffer eating disorders. Cities have problems with gangs and teenage alcoholics.

As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said on NPR, "There are two ways to make people homeless: one is to take away their homes, and the other is to make their homes look like everyone else's." Increasingly, the whole world has come to resemble an American strip mall. The world is flooded with our products. Along the coast of Scotland in the remote highlands near Morah, I saw a little girl picking blueberries with her grandmother. She walked near a peat bog and an ancient loch, but she wore Barbie doll boots and hummed the Power Rangers song. When I traveled to Southeast Asia, I saw Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets beside the noodle bowl and banana roti stands. In a Hmong village in Northern Thailand, teenagers gathered around a battery-powered television to watch "Dallas" reruns and MTV.

The world is becoming "one big town." On CNN we see people starving in Sudan, earthquake victims in Turkey, and casualties of war in Bosnia. Refugees come to us even in Nebraska, where I live. At Lincoln High School, I met Oxanna, who told me she'd just talked to her relatives in Ukraine. She said, "My family was crying on the phone. They told me, 'We have no food and go like cattle into the fields to eat grass.'" Lidija from Bosnia, another student at Lincoln High, said, "I work as a salad girl at the Old Country Buffet. Americans waste enough food there each day to feed my village in Croatia." Oxanna said again, "My family is eating grass." I thought of Sitting Bull, who said, "Americans can make everything, but they don't know how to distribute it."

"One big town" will happen whether we like it or not. But we can lead our country away from savage globalization and help make the world a gentler and more enlightened town. Corporations exist because laws allow them to exist as long as they play by certain rules. We can change the rules. Most of us put people before money, and children before corporate profits. But for many of us, there's a disconnect between our values, which are egalitarian and pro-environment, and our behavior, which is typical consumerism. Too many of us espouse simplicity while we shop till we drop in our SUVs. Inadvertently, we leave a giant footprint on the land and contribute to the misery of people in countries far away.

We can decide whether the future is just about money or whether we have a higher calling. Development should be about helping countries use their resources to sustain and nurture their people. Let us work for a world where all people are well treated and all companies respect local economies and environments. If not, we'll become part of a global village that is a shantytown for most of us, with just a very few rich people living in mansions on the hill.

Clinical psychologist Mary Pipher's most recent book is Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders (Riverhead Books, 1999). She lives in Lincoln, NE.

UU World XIV:6 (November/December 2000): 14-15.

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