Forget the Lexus – Buy an Olive Tree

Book Review of Thomas Friedman’s
The Lexus and the Olive Tree

The Lexus and the Olive Tree was perhaps the first book to look at the phenomenon of Globalization from a cultural, economic, and political perspective. Friedman argues that you can no longer examine cultures, economics and politics separately: they are all inter-related, and examining one without the others will give you an incomplete (and confusing) picture.

The book covers a wide range of examples of what globalization is, how it compares to the Cold War system of the previous generation, and what it means to Americans and to the rest of the world. As a net-gen born in 1981, I found the contrasts to the Cold War system particularly enlightening, not for their explanation of Globalization, but for their explanation of why my parents’ generation thought the world would behave differently. :)

The Lexus
Friedman uses “The Lexus” to represent everything a Lexus represents to Americans — status, affluence, freedom of choice, access to material benefits. For the first time in history, these things are available to almost anyone in the world, if they and their government do what is necessary to plug into the globalization system. And, he points out, people are amazingly willing to forego luxury, buckle down, work hard, and sacrifice in order to get access to the Lexus. A government can ask their populace to do almost anything if it means they’ll have a chance of getting to Disney World in the next few decades.

The Olive Tree
But there’s another side to globalization: the lack of Olive Trees. Friedman uses the Olive Tree to represent everything an olive grove represents to residents of the Middle East: cultural ties, tradition, historical roots, a feeling of knowing where you come from, and where you belong. Globalization requires cutting down some Olive Trees, and (since the US has the best government for globalization, and globalization is therefore often confused with Americanization) many countries are losing their Olive Trees faster than they know or can control. The book explores the dynamic between people’s desire for Olive Trees and their desire for a Lexus.

The book is an excellent introduction to how the world works, and outlines some cautions for those considering entering into it. I recommend it highly for anyone who would like to get ahead any time in the next decade. But I’d like to discuss something that I think Friedman overlooks:

What Globalization Means To You

Ethnocide actually didn’t start with globalization… or rather, it started with the first globalization movement, back when Europeans set out to conquer the world for God, gold and glory; if you wanted to name a symbolic historic event, you could peg the beginning at 1492, when Columbus went out and got himself amazingly lost. The 1500s were when the world first saw a global-scale cultural export process, when Europeans went to the other continents and said to its residents (directly or indirectly) “We have guns, germs and steel; and you will live our way or you won’t live at all.”

Even now, when ethnocide is not a condoned practice, and we allegedly allow others to live the way they wish, the world is still ruled by a European viewpoint. The Hopi Indians of Arizona were lucky enough to get their reservation on their traditional tribal homelands, and within the bounds of the reservation they may run their tribe under their own laws. But still they struggle. They can’t grow corn as they used to – Peabody Coal is taking the water from their aquifer to slurry coal from its mine. They can’t hold their spiritual dances as they used to – too many of the participants work all week, and ceremonies can only be held on the weekend. They could cut themselves off entirely, but they want access to medical care for their children and supplementary food sources in case of drought. But… to tie into the European system at all means taking all of it: a 40-hour-a-week job, struggling to pay the bills, and living a life of quiet desperation.

This is the choice that many people have faced over the past 500 years, and are still facing today: give up your Olive Tree, become a white man, and your people won’t starve to death; keep your Olive Tree, hold to your traditions, and you have to face the infant mortality rate that you faced before modern medicine. And time after time, people have sacrificed their Olive Trees in order to protect themselves and their children. It’s the correct choice, but the results are tragic.

What To Do Instead
Globalization does require some Americanization. You must have a democracy (anything else is too slow to change). You must have a free-market economy (anything else is too likely to harbor inefficiencies). But you don’t have to import American materialism, American obesity, or American quiet desperation. Globalization allows — within its specified constraints — anyone from almost any culture to earn a decent living wage while living life the way they want to.

And that’s the real power of globalization: it can’t make your Olive Tree provide you a living, but it can make you rich enough that you can afford to keep an Olive Tree anyway. Buy a Lexus if that’s what you really want…. but what if you put some of your new-found wealth towards maintaining what matters to you?