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1.8: Globalization and Inequality

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  • When we start to explore the spatial distribution of economic development, we find that there are stark differences between and within world regions. Some countries have a very high standard of living and high average incomes, while others have few resources and high levels of poverty. Politically, some countries have stable, open governments, while others have long-standing authoritarian regimes. Thus, world regional geography is, in many ways, a study of global inequality. But the geographic study of inequality is more than just asking where inequalities are present, it is also digging deeper and asking why those inequalities exist.

    How can we measure inequality? Generally, inequality refers to uneven distributions of wealth, which can actually be challenging to measure. By some accounts, the wealthiest one percent of people in the world have as much wealth as the bottom 99 percent. Wealth inequality is just one facet of global studies of inequality, however. There are also differences in income: around half of the world survives on less than $2 per day, and around one-fifth have less than $1 per day (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). There are also global differences in literacy, life expectancy, and healthcare. There are differences in the rights and economic opportunities for women compared to men. There are differences in the way resources are distributed and conserved.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Share of the Population Living in Extreme Poverty (World Bank Estimates, 2017) (© Our World in Data, CC BY-SA)

    Furthermore, these differences don’t exist in a bubble. The world is increasingly interconnected, a process known as globalization. This increased global integration is economic but also cultural. An economic downturn in one country can affect its trading partners half a world away. A Hollywood movie might be translated in dozens of different languages and distributed worldwide. Today, it is quite easy for a businesswoman in the United States to video chat with her factory manager in a less developed country. For many, the relative size of the world is shrinking as a result of advances in transportation and communications technology.

    For others, though, particularly those in the poorest, most debt-ridden countries, the world is not flat. As global poverty rates have decreased over the past few decades, the number of people living in poverty within Sub-Saharan Africa has increased. In addition, while global economic integration has increased, most monetary transactions still occur within rather than between countries. The core countries can take advantage of globalization, choosing from a variety of trading partners and suppliers of raw materials, but the same cannot always be said of those in the periphery. Globalization has often led to cultural homogenization, as “Western” culture has increasingly become the global culture. American fast food chains can now be found in a majority of the world’s countries. British and American pop music plays on radio stations around the world. The Internet in particular has facilitated the rapid diffusion of cultural ideas and values. But how does globalization affect local cultures? Some worry that as global culture has become more homogenized, local differences are slowly erasing. Traditional music, clothing, and food preferences might be replaced by foreign cultural features, which can lead to conflict. There is thus a tension between globalization, and the benefits of global connectivity, and local culture.

    It is the uniqueness of the world’s regions, the particular combination of physical landscapes and human activities, that has captivated geographers from the earliest explorers to today’s researchers. And while it might simply be interesting to read about distant cultures and appreciate their uniqueness, geographers continue to dig deeper and ask why these differences exist. Geography matters. Even as we have become more culturally homogeneous and economically interconnected, there remain global differences in the geography of countries and these differences can have profound effects. Geographic study helps us understand the relationship between the world’s communities, explain global differences and inequalities, and better address future challenges.


    the increasing interconnectedness and integration of the countries of the world resulting from advances in communication and transportation technology

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