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Go for it, baby
Being around women who breast feed has an unexpected effect
HOW you smell really can change the way people around you behave-and it has. nothing to do with bad BO. Breastfee'ding women and newborns give off odours that boost the sexual desire of other women.
The finding adds to the growing body of evidence suggesting that our natural smell influences other people on an unconscious level, and strengthens the argument that human pheromones exist and still exert a subtle influence over us.
In the study, smells associated with breastfeeding increase~feelings of sexual intimacy in childless women volunteers. Why this shoul4te so is a mystery, but the researchers suggest it may be a way that women signal to each other that the environment is a good one in which to reproduce.
Julie Mennella of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia and a team at the University of Chicago asked 26 nursing mothers to wear absorbent pads in their bras and under their armpits. The odours collected on the pads probably came from both the mother and the feeding baby.
Another 45 women, who had never given birth, then spent the next three months undertakng a "sniff challenge". For a month, all the women sniffed control pads with a phosphate buffer on them four times a day. For the final two months, some women were randomly chosen to sniff pads with the breastfeeding compounds, while others continued with the control scent. Each day the volunteers measured their temperature, took a urine sample and recorded sexual activity.
Last year, Mennella's group showed that exposure to breastfeeding odours disrupted the menstrual cycles of volunteers: longer cycles got longer and shorter ones got shorter.
The new study reveals a more subtle effect. While the women smelling the breastfeeding compounds did not report increased sexual activity-this behaviour was most obviously influenced by the absence or presence of a partner-they did report significantly heightened and more enduring sexual desire and fantasies. "The data are pretty striking,n says Mennella, who presents her evidence this week to a meeting of the Association for Chemoreception Sciences in Sarasota, Florida.
She concludes that the chemicals encourage other women to reproduce, and that they may have evolved as a signal that the environment is suitable for raising young. In many cultures, newly-wed young women are encouraged to spend time around new mothers to increase their own chances of having children, she says. "I wonder if these cultures have tapped into something." She is eager to find out if the breastteeding smell has any impact on fertility.
Richard Brown, a psychologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, notes that these are only preliminary findings. But he points out that breastfeeding women have higher than normal progesterone levels. "Maybe the high progesterone acts like an androgen," he speculates. "Maybe it's the weirdest of possible things and they're producing male-like odours." Alison Motiuk
A tiny risk of cancer is small price to pay for gene therapy
MICE struck down by leukaemia have become the first animals to die from cancer as a direct result of faulty gene therapy.~
Gene therapy pioneers have always worried that the viruses they use to shuttle therapeutic genes into patients might accidentally dump their cargo in the wrong spot on chromosomes. If this happened, the inserted DNA could in very rare cases trigger the expression of cancer-causing "oncogenes", or disrupt sentinel genes that guard against cancer.
It seems that t~ese fears were justified. While investigating potential problems of gene therapy, such as failure of the transplanted c~ells to develop properly, a team of scientists in Germany gave 10 mice bone marrow cells that had been altered by gene therapy. Tq their surprise, all the mice developed leukaemia to varying degrees.
It tur4ned out that the retrovirus "vector" used to load a gene into the bone marrow cells had inadvertently dumped its cargo smack-bang into a known oncogene. "It's the first time such a vector has produced disease," says Christopher Baum of the Hannover Medical School, head of the team that made the discovery.
The disrupted gene, called Evil, makes a: genetic "switch" vital for development of various organs, including kidneys. But it's not meant to be switched on in bone marrow cells, many of which mature into blood cells. Activating this gene is known to aggravate leukaemia in mice and people.
Baum stresses, however, that the risks are small. "Hundreds of thousands of animals have been treated without such effects," he says. "It's bad luck we hit the wrong place." The chance of this happening had previously been estimated at about 1 in 10 million, he says.
Norman Nevin, chairman of the British government's Gene Therapy Advisory Committee (GTAC), agrees. "I personally feel that overall, there shouldn't be concern because the risk is small," he says. "But it highlights the importance of having a system of follow-up for patients who've had gene therapy." Britain became the first country to set up such a system a year ago. Managed by GTAC's secretariat, it routinely monitors all patients and even their children up to the age of 16.
In Britain, around 400 patients have received gene therapy, though only a handful were treated with retroviruses. They include two "bubble babies" who would otherwise be condemned to life in a germ-free environment because their immune systems didn't work. One, Rhys Evans, has already effectively been cured through gene therapy at Great Ormond Street Hospital (New Scientist, 6 April, p 7), and another is improving, according to team head Adrian Thrasher.
Thrasher himself sees no need to panic. "I agree there's a finite risk of generating leukaemia using this technology, though the risks are very small," he says. "But systematic risk assessment is essential, as it is for any new therapy." Andy Coghlan More at: Science Ivol 296, p 49T|
OUR earliest mammalian ancestor was a dormouse-like creature that liked to rummage around in small shrubs. The tiny animal, discovered stunningly preserved in a Chinese lake bed, could fit in the palm of your hand. Unusually, it reveals not only when placental mammals split from marsupials, but also how they lived.
Eomaia, which means "ancient mother," comes from the Yixian formation, the source of the famous feathered dinosaurs. For most early mammals all we have to go on are a few tiny teeth. But the nearly complete skeleton of Eomaia includes tiny hand and toe bones, plus a clearly recognisable coat of longer hair overlaying shorter fur.
About 16 centimetres long and 10 centimetres from nose to rump, Eomaia resembled a large dormouse. Its long fingers and claws could wrap around small twigs and grasp bark. Skeletal features show it was closer to modern placental mammals than to marsupials, so the two groups must have split before Eomaia came into existence about 125 million years ago. Before this discovery the oldest fossils of placental mammals were 110-million-year-old teeth, and the oldest skull and skeleton only around 75 million years old.
"It's such a beautiful fossil, everybody who has seen it was absolutely stunned," says Zhe-Xi Luo of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. He says debris from volcanic eruptions preserved the remains in "a Mesozoic Pompeii".
Having an entire skeleton gives palaeontologists insight into the animal's lifestyle, says Anne Weil of Duke University in North Carolina. The shape of the claws, its limb proportions and long fingers and toes show Eomaia had a highly specialised climbing ability, and was active both on the ground and in the lower reaches of bushes, says Luo, a member of the Chinese-American team that described the creature. Although Eomaia is not a direct ancestor of all placental mammals, it "could be our great-great uncle or aunt 125 million years removed", says Luo.
No soft tissue has been preserved, but the fossil bones suggest that unlike most modern mammals, Eomaia probably did not bear well-developed young nourished by a placenta inside the mother's body: its narrow pelvis indicates the young ~-ere born quite small. Eomaia also has an epipubic bone, a structure that supports young in the pouches of modern marsupials but is missing in placental mammals. Jeff Hecht More at: Noture lvol 416, p 816|
Poor countries hope for wealth, but not everyone is happy
THE world's poor countries have struck a deal that will let them make money from drugs and other products synthesised from indigenous plants. But leading environmentalists have condemned the agreement. One calls it a plan "to privatise the genetic commons".
Ten years ago, 160 nations signed the Biodiversity Convention. It said tropical countries with rich biological resources should be able to charge companies for "bio-prospecting" for either drugs or genetic information that could lead to new products. But it didn't specify how.
Last week, signatories to the convention meeting in The Hague finally agreed on the Bonn Guidelines on Access and Benefit Sharing. These specify how each country should frame licences to allow companies to access these natural resources. British environment minister Michael Meacher hailed the deal as a breakthrough allowing countries to share in the profits of new gene-based products.
However, the guidelines are voluntary, disappointing African nations and others who wanted legally binding rules. Patrick Mulvany of the Intermediate Technology Development Group, based in Britain, said: "It is a first step, but the convention should be providing a legally binding formula to control this trade. Because they are voluntary, these rules will be very weak if they conflict with those of the World Trade Organization."
But others oppose the arrangements on principle. Jeremy Rifkin, who campaigns against genetically modified crops, called the guidelines "illegitimate". Rifkin, who heads an organisation called the Foundation on Economic Trends based in Washington DC, says they "will allow countries to sell monopoly rights to the world's genetic commons. Nobody has a right to enter into exclusive deals over the products of millions of years of evolution."
Since the Biodiversity Convention in 1992, countries such as the Philippines and Brazil have been criticised for virtually banning scientists from prospecting for genes on their territorY Others such as Costa Rica, however, have signed deals allowing pharmaceuticals companies to search their forests for plants that might provide cancer treatments.
Rifkin's foundation has allied with prominent campaigners from the developing world, such as India's environmental activist and author Vandana Shiva, to oppose such deals. In February they launched a campaign for a treaty "to share the genetic commons" (New Scienfist, 9 February, p 15). He does not oppose countries being able to sell rights to commercially exploit native plants. "But we do oppose exclusive arrangements to hand out monopolies in bioprospecting."
Tropical countries were overexcited at the prospect of a genetic El Dorado, he says. "We now know that most genes are widely shared among different species. They are not exactly scarce. So developing countries are only ever going to be able to sell them for pennies," he told New Scientist. "But these guidelines will legitimise corporate rights to charge very high prices at the other end of the line. Far from outlawing the biopirates, this is biopiracy by other means." Fred Pearce
This idea is disturbing and confusing, even to the experts, but they can't shake it off. It seems to be an inevitable result of mixing some of the dominant strands of modern physics-gravity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. And it also seems to be vitally important-even though scientists cannot agree what it means. Many physicists think it could be a clue to their longed-for theory of everything. Others think it means that there must be something wrong with quantum mechanics. Some go even further, claiming that it implies space and time are nothing but rivers of information.
And it's that slippery concept, information, that led to the holographic principle. Physicists offen talk of the world in terms of information. If you want to describe a piece of matter fully, they say, you must specify the motions of the microscopic pieces that make up nature, be they atoms, photons or more esoteric entities. That's a lot of information. But just how much?
That depends on how many fundamental parts of an object there are-the number of bits depends on the number of pieces. And to describe the smallest pieces you have to zoom in way past the atomic scale to examine the fine structure of space-time. Einstein showed that matter can twist and bend the fabric of space-time, and that this warping shows itself as gravity. Then quantum mechanics came along and demanded that anything capable of moving about-including space-time- must come in little pieces that wiggle of their own accord. "One key feature of quantum gravity is that space-time should be thought of as made of some constituents," says Finn Larsen of the University of Michigan.
Just what the pieces are, nobody yet knows. Physicists have searched for a quantum description of gravity for decades without finding the answer. But they do have a few pointers-they know that whatever makes up space-time should come in bitesize chunks measuring just 10~35 metres, the so-called Planck length. So if you broke space-time up into little boxes, each a Plancksized cube, you'd expect there to be roughly one bit of information per box.
But this picture is shredded by black holes. Instead of having one bit of information for every little volume, they seem to have one bit per patch of surface area.
Pack enough matter or energy into a small enough volume of space and it will collapse into a ball of intense gravitational attraction-a black hole. You might expect a black hole to be featureless, as if all the information in whatever formed it-stars, elephants, encyclopedias, civilisations-had been destroyed. But most physicists believe that black holes do hold information. Because if they didn't, their very existence would undermine one of science's most cherished laws, the second law of thermodynamics.
This law says that the amount of disorder in the world can never decrease. A display of stacked-up boxes in a supermarket is always in danger of falling down, but once fallen it is never in danger of righting itself. It takes fewer bits of data to specify the positions of those boxes if they're stacked up in a pyramid than if they're littering the floor. Information grows along with disorder.
'IN THREE DIMENSIONS, IT'S EASY T8 DECIDE WHEN TWO BICYCLES ARE SIDE BY SIDE. YOU CAN SEE IT CLEARLY. BUT TAKE A HOLOGRAM OF THEM, AND THAT INFORMATION BECOMES SO MUCH STATIC'
If black holes obey the second law, they can't just wipe out information. Where do they store it all? Well, black holes have something else that can never decrease- their surface area. Jacob Bekenstein, then at Princeton University, and Stephen Hawking of the University of Cambridge worked out that the surface area and the disorder in a black hole must be proportional. In information terms, there is roughly one bit per Planck area of the hole-that is, for each square that measures 10-35 metres on a side.
But that's vastly less than one piece for every Planck volume. So when a volume of space is crumpled into a black hole, a huge chunk of information is seemingly wiped out of existence. Indeed, that's what Hawking maintains. But it means undermining quantum mechanics-a theory in which information is always preserved-and abandoning the link between disorder and information. Most theorists weren't sure what to make of this tension, but some would simply not hear of such a flouting of the laws.
In 1993, there came a radical explanation. Working independently, both Leonard Susskind at Stanford University, and Gerard 't Hooft at Utrecht University saw that information might be preserved if it "lives" in just two dimensions of space, as opposed to the obvious, common-sense choice of three.
The idea certainly seems consistent with what we know of black holes. But if true, Susskind and 't Hooft realised, it has to apply to everything, or else you hit a horrible contradiction. Say you could pack more information into some region than a black hole of the same surface area would hold. Then you could keep throwing in more material, increasing the amount of information and the mass. Eventually there is so much mass in there that a black hole forms. If you believe that information can't be reduced, you have a contradiction-the new black hole holds less information than the material that went into it. "You get punished by gravitational collapse," says Raphael Bousso of the Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California Santa Barbara.
The practical upshot is that the information limit for a black hole applies to everything. You really cannot get more than a surface-worth of information into any volume. But how can that be?
Maybe, Susskind and 't Hooft proposed, nature is storing the data about its most basic building blocks like a hologram. In a conventional hologram, a laser beam bouncing off an object is mixed with another laser beam and the resulting interference pattern is recorded on a flat surface. Shine new light onto the recording, and a lifelike threedimensional image leaps out. If nature works like this, then information somehow lives on the boundary of any region of spacetime. The material stuff within that boundary, the objects that we perceive and touch, is just the unpacked, higher-dimensional manifestation of that hologram. That is the holographic principle.
It means nature is remarkably concise. In a single cubic centimetre, there are 1099 Planck boxes to stick bits of information into. The surface of that cube has space for a mere 1066 bits. "That's an outrageous reduction in complexity," says Bousso.
With larger volumes, the reduction is even greater. That's because if an object gets bigger, its volume increases as the cube of its linear measurements-length, height, whatever-while its surface area increases only as the square of those measurements. It's why an elephant loses proportionally less body heat, generated throughout its body volume, from its skin surface than a mouse does.
So if you take a cube of space, work out how much information it can hold and then put eight of these cubes together, the new volume of space can hold only four times as much information as the original cube (see Graphic). As you look at everbigger regions of space, the density of information goes down and down. So at the level of quantum gravity, there is no consistent way to count the amount of information inside the three-dimensional objects that we see and touch.
This blows away a concept that physicists have found quite useful for the last 150 years, says Don Marolf of Syracuse University in New York. Locality is the idea that points in space are separated and distinct from each other and that forces have to travel between them. "The holographic principle just flies in the face of that," Marolf notes.
And the holographic description of nature is distressingly awkward, says Stephen Shenker, also at Stanford. Say you're looking out of a window and you see a pair of kids riding their bikes. In three dimensions, it's easy to decide when the two bicycles are side by side-you can see it clearly. But take a hologram of them and the information about their position and how it changes over time becomes so much static. "The hologram is just a bunch of noisy, random marks," says Susskind. Presumably that is why we perceive a three-dimensional space witth clearly separated objects in it: unless you iook on the fine scales of quantum gravitY that picture is a lot easier to handle.
Even so, physicists hope to make sense of the holographic principle, because the potential pay-off is huge. To many, the idea means that we shouldn't be looking for a fundamental theory in the here and now of ordinary space, but in a stranger place. Perhaps the truest, most economical theory is one that does not operate in terms of conventional space-time, but somehow lives on space-time's edge.
In that case, to describe nature properly, we need to find a theory that lives in a twodimensional space but can reproduce events in three spatial dimensions: Physicists were persuaded of this possibility only in 1998, when Juan Maldacena, then at Harvard, found a real theory that was holographic.
He was working on a leading candidate for a theory of quantum gravity, called string theory. This supposes that particles such as the electron, quark and photon are not point-like, but deep down are one-dimensional objects-strings.
Maldacena was trying to work out how a black hole could be made of strings-a good test of whether string theory really does work for gravity. He was working in a bizarrely curved space-time in five dimensions, because although it may sound unlikelY the mathematics is easier that way than for our own four-dimensional space-time. Even so, he had got stuck in a mathematical rocky patch, just as other string theorists had.
But Maldacena found a holographic way out. He conjectured that a string theory in one outlandish kind of five-dimensional space-time could be described by chains of quark-like particles swimming in the fourdimensional boundary of that space-time. There would be a precise but tortuously complex correspondence between the two theories. Susskind and Ed Witten, of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, showed that this would obey the holographic principle.
The quarky hologram has one big virtue for theorists: instead of string theory, which is very hard to calculate with, you have a relatively simple quantum theory that describes the hologram. So if you want to work out what happens for certain situations in the five-dimensional space, you just translate it to four dimensions, do the calculations, and translate it back again.
"That's when everybody started going, 'Oh my God, this is what we should be doing'," Bousso recalls. Maldacena's result was exciting, but had one big flaw: he'd found a holographic theory for a hypothetical space-time radially different from our own.
So the string theorists are now looking for a way to deal with the space-time we actually live in. Progress is slow. Perhaps the only big step in the right direction is an answer to the question, "What boundary are we talking about?" Our Universe is big, quite possibly infinite, and if you ask a cosmologist if it has a boundary, they will almost certainly say no. Where then does this hologram live?
Bousso, building on work by Susskind and Willy Fischler of the University of Texas at Austin, has concluded that it must be the boundary of the biggest region of space-time anyone in our Universe could ever observe. The actual size of that region depends on the speed of light and where you are in the Universe-for us, it's about 15 billion light years. But what this tells us about the exact nature of the pieces of space-time still isn't clear.
And despite all the hoopla, holography leaves some physicists flat. "I am not even sure I really understand it," says Carlo Rovelli of the Centre for Theoretical Physics in Marseille and Pittsburgh University. "Every time I discuss it with a different person I get a different version of the principle, and even from the same person I get different stories at different times." Marolf, though also unconvinced, has a harder time dismissing it. "It's terribly self-consistent," he remarks. "Often when an idea is wrong it sort of conflicts with itself and you can demonstrate this very quickly." Perhaps, he says, the burden of proof now rests on those who would oppose the holographic principle.
Strangely, after helping to set this chain of events in motion, 't Hooft seems to be in that camp. "Rather than a iprinciple', I now consider holography as being a problem," he says. He thinks holographic explanations could be avoided, and the concept of locality rescued, if quantum gravity is derived from a deeper principle that does not obey the usual rules of quantum mechanics. Instead of dealing in probabilities, as quantum theory does, this deeper mechanism would follow a predictable course while giving the appearance of randomness that we see in quantum events. Such a theory would also account for the "missing" information that holography was invoked to explain.
Susskind is also doing his best to salvage locality, but doesn't want to give up holography completely. He and Shenker are trying to find a theory that contains holography in its tool kit alongside other, more convenient ways of describing nature. In this approach, space-time would have a full volume's worth of constituents, but nothing save an area's worth would have any effect on the physics within the volume.
Maybe the holographic principle is pointing the way to a different conceptual shift, according to Fotini Markopoulou and Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario. In their approach to quantum gravity, called loop quantum gravity, spacetime is built out of a mathematical network, each basic piece of which has an information and an area associated with it. Smolin and Markopoulou have suggested that a hologram act as a limit on the information that can pass across a surface in space-time, rather than as a limit on the total amount of possible information. In this view, we will have to stop thinking about "things" as fundamental features of reality. Instead of things, reality would be made of processes, such as information flow.
For Smolin, the holographic principle must be on the right track because of the way it has changed theorising about quantum gravity. "Everybody who has tried to think about this has come up with something that's shocking from the point of view of 10 years ago," he says. "That means this is really important."
J R Minkel is a freelance writer based in New York City
THE CHIPS ARE DOWN
WHAT LlES AHEAD FOR A WORLD RIVEN BY MONEY?
IT'S A clumsy word that might better have been left in the dry pages of a World Bank report. Even worse, it can mean totally different things. But we're stuck with "globalisation". It does not begin to do justice to the richness and complexity of the changes that are happening as the wolld grows more interdependent and more connected, but around this one word has developed the first great debate of the 21st century. It is a debate that keeps world leaders locked up in their luxury conference suites with the windows closed, afraid that the breeze will bring them the roars of protesters and the smell of the tear gas. And if Bill Clinton is right, the effects of globalisation were brought home to New York, too, when the towers of the World Trade Center became the target for terrorist hatred.
Globalisation is the result of unprecedented scientific and technological advances. Microchips, jet planes, satellites and optical fibres are among the key inventions that have made a fast-moving, interlinked world possible. Over the past decade the costs of computing, telecommunications and transport have plummeted. Combining these technological changes with the opening of markets to the free passage of goods and finance has led to a huge boom in world trade, rapid economic growth with all its fearsome consequences for the environment, high-speed global financial markets and the dominance of a Western culture based on consumerism and individualism.
Now the world faces a big question. Is the type of globalisation which links the power of science and technology to a free market ideology going to make the whole world wealthier and more peaceful? Or, as the protesters fear, will it bring riches mainly to the few, new clashes between haves and have-nots, development that places an unsustainable strain on the environment, and rage at the aggressive promotion of Western values? If they are right, is reform or radical change necessary to harness science and technology to a kindlier form of globalisition.
If you believe the free-market fundamentalists then the protesters fears are wholly misguided. By the standard economic measures, the world is incomparably wealthier than ever before. Let global trade and investment expand, and more and more people will share in the fruits of a booming world economy. Economic interdependence will in turn usher in global peace.
For market economists it's that simple: get out of the way of big business and the free movements of trade and capital, and every nation will be able to do what it does best. If labour is cheaper in one nation, companies will invest there to take advantage of it. Living standards there will grow, and development will spread, all driven by the invisible hand of the market.
The problem with this view is that so far the free market has delivered on only part of its promise.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
The world certainly is growing richer on average, and there is much to boast about. People on the whole are living longer, are better educated and are richer than they were 30 years ago. Since 1970, for example, the global infant mortality rate has dropped from 10 per cent to 5 per cent.
But new inequalities and instabilities are growing at the same time. "Free trade", in the style which the World Trade Organization (WTO) has been designed to support, is benefiting some far more than others. Many nations are simply being left out as bystanders to the growth of global wealth.
A United Nations Human Development Report summed up the situation neatly in a much quoted paragraph: "The greatest benefits of globalisation have been garnered by a fortunate few. A rising tide of wealth is supposed to lift all boats, but some are more seaworthy than others. The yachts and ocean liners are rising in response to new opportunities, but many rafts and rowboats are taking on water-and some are sinking."
For the rich countries in their ocean liners there seem to be few worries. They simply go on getting richer. Meanwhile, the income gap between the rich and the poor grows greater. The graph at the bottom of this page shows the world income distribution in 1988 and 1993, recently calculated by Branko Milanovic of the World Bank. The lucky few in the developed nations are outriders on the far right of the curve; the majority are found in the huge hump to the left. Over the years the curve appears to have sharpened, leading Milanovic to conclude that world inequality has increased.
The flow of investment that should lift all boats was also anything but global. In 1997, for example, 10 countries took three-quarters of the world's foreign investment. China, took a quarter. The poorest countries received little.
Some countries' economies are clearly growing, but others are shrinking. In the period 1990 to 1999, 10 countries saw their economies contract by more than 5 per cent a year. Only 6 grew by more than 5 per cent a year. East Asia gained much, South Asia a little, America and the Middle East scarcely changed and sub-Saharan Africa sank. As the head of the United Nations Development Programme Report warned: "If present trends continue, economic disparities between industrial and developing nations will move from inequitable to inhuman."
There are deepening disparities within nations, too. In the US, ironically the country that most vigorously supports market liberalisation, there has been a huge growth in inequality. Over the past two decades, following 60 years of moving towards a more equal society, the trend has been thrown into reverse. Close to 40 per cent of the national wealth is now owned by the top 1 per cent of households, very close to where it was in the 1920s, after having fallen to a far more equitable 20 per cent in the 1970s. This extraordinary growth in inequality has been matched only by the explosion in the prison population. In Britain, progress towards a more equal society also halted in the 1970s, and the incarceration rate in Britain is far higher than in any other European Union country, having increased by nearly a third between 1992 and 1995.
None of these figures will surprise the more radical opponents of the current style of globalisation, who see the root cause of growing inequality as the alliance between politicians and big business. New technology and, to a lesser extent, the movement of the least skilled jobs elsewhere, mean that there is little left for the unskilled in the developed nations. "In this new competitive world of free market capitalism it is the unskilled that fare worst. They have become the Epsilons of our new Brave New World-effectively commodities, easily replaceable by an ever growing overseas supply; and in our post-manufacturing era, in ever less demand," writes Noreena Hertz in The Silent Takeover, her best-selling attack on globalisation.
The freeing of global trade and finance has had other unexpected consequences. Consider the unbelievable volume of global financial flows every day, the computerised trading systems that can trigger instantaneous reactions to market change, and the stupendous sums of money that can be made (and lost) in financial trades, and it's no surprise that upheavals in the financial markets can throw whole regions of the world into chaos. In 1998, when the Asian miracle economies finally crashed, the value of East Asian stock markets fell by $2 trillion. As their economies ground to a halt so did their demand for raw materials, triggering he collapse of the rouble in oil-exporting Russia. Years of growth were wiped out overnight and millions of people were thrown out of work. Political unrest and poverty followed.
Who or what was responsible for all these ruined lives? Western financiers blamed corrupt politicians and the poor practices of Asian banks. Asian politicians blamed greedy speculators. Everyone blamed a world financial system that lacks the regulations to keep up with the frantic mobility of global capital. But the world is no better prepared for the next meltdown than it was for the last.
WHO'S IN CHARGE?
The crisis of 1998 showed how powerless the governmer.`ts of small nations are to withstand financial assault. Yet bigger nations may do little better. In 1992, Britain lost its fight to keep the pound in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism when financial markets moved against it. In the process, financial speculator George Soros made himself a billion dollars.
Opponents of globalisation see the overwhelming power of the financial markets as one threat to the ability of governments to run their nations according to the wishes of the electorate. Another is the sheer size of big corporations. As critics love to point out, 51 of the 100 biggest economies in the world are now transnational corporations and only 49 are nation states. General Motors' annual sales amount to more than the GNP of Thailand or Norway, Ford's add up to more than the GNP of Poland. Walmart stores have a turnover that outstrips the GNPs of Saudi Arabia, Greece, Portugal, Venezuela and the Philippines. Although sales and GNP are far from identical measures, and nations and corporations are too different to compare simply, the figures illustrate the giant economic clout of big companies.
The fear that nations are giving up their powers to big business is reinforced by the ease with which they can move around the world. Governments have to compete with one another to offer businesses the most attractive homes-preferably free of tax and regulations on labour and the environment. In the eyes of the global economy's critics, the shift of power from government to business explains the worldwide decline in the turnout at elections, and the growth in protest movements.
GOADING THE POOR
"The punishment of Tantalus is the fate that torments the poor. Condemned to hunger and thirst, they are condemned as well to contemplate the delights dangled before them by advertising. As they crane their necks and reach out, these marvels are snatched awaY And if they manage to catch one and hold on tight, they end up in jail."-Eduardo Galeano, Upside Down
The world has never seen anything like it. Even when the British Empire ruled half the globe, it could never reach into the recesses of its subjects'minds as Hollywood and Madison Avenue now can. The same films, the same music, the same television programmes, the same brands, and the same seductive style of living reach every last corner of the world. Even the same Western-centred television news is everywhere-or almost everywhere (see "The world according to al-Jazeera"). With the exception of India, no nation has a film or television industry that can outcompete the wonders of Hollywood. Entertainment is now one of America's single biggest exports. Its offerings speak in a way we understand instinctively. As Galeano puts it, "The consuming masses take orders in a language that is universal; advertising has achieved what Esperanto could not."
Is that universal language carrying a set of universal values we should all literally buy into? Many in the West might believe so. As Susan George has pointed out (see p 42), the Western consumer lifestyle might almost constitute a religion, except for one cruel irony: entry into a church is free, but entry into a shopping mall is for those who can pay. More important for those seeking links between the events of 11 September and the ripping down of the world's barriers is the way that consumerism may clash with between the events of 11 Sentember and traditional values. How do Britney Spears or the Spice Girls look in a traditional Muslim society? The combination of being left behind by development and modernity, and having the values of the winners rubbed in your face may be a particularly dangerous combination, stoking rage among the dispossessed and a simple desire to return to the fundamentals of your own culture.
Take Iran. The Shah, put into power by the CIA in the 1950s against the wishes of the people, tried to force rapid Westernisation. The response came in Ayatollah Khomeini, the ousting of the Shah in 1979, and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. One of the new regime's first actions was to devise new school textbooks to counter "Westoxication"-the irrational fascination of ordinary people with everything Western at the expense of the indigenous cultural heritage-and "Eastoxication", the fascination of intellectuals with Marxism. "Neither East nor West, Islam is best" was the slogan of the 1980s.
America's overwhelming military and economic dominance, the disappearance of alternative political ideologies with the death of communism and the inability of nations to shape their own destiny may create serious identity problems. Religious fundamentalism provides one solution to the crisis of identity and can fuel a deep resentment to the all-powerful America and the lifestyle it flaunts.
For the great majority of the developing world, and particularly for the Arab world, modern insult is added to past injury. Their development has always been perverted by outside interference, in the name either of colonialism or of anti-communism. NonWestern civilisations should be able to modernise while staying ttue to their traditions, to develop but remain themselves. Yet to date, the only one to have succeeded is Japan, a nation that was never colonised, retained a strong and separate culture for over 2000 years, and prioritised economic development immediately it was forced to open to the world. National identity, economic inequality, a sense of injustice and terrorism are surely intertwined.
There are plenty of ideas about how to make globalisation work better. Some might want to do away with it altogether and return to centrally-planned economies and tariff walls, but they would be ~n a very small minority since the collapse of Communism. Most of those fighting for change would want to harness the p~wer of market forces to deliver a more equal world, and to make sure that no one is left out of modernity. Their ideas can be divided into three broad groups by where they would effect change: from the top down by reforming the current system, by changing the nature of money itself so it works toward a different set of values, and from the bottom up (and across) by building new forms of democracy and global citizenship.
Ideas for reforming the global system in the 21st century come from a wide range of people: ex-Presidents, financiers, Nobel prizewinners, scientists and economists. Many of these reforms may seem like common sense, but even the most modest adjustment will have to be fought for. Any change to the vast international financial system will be harmful to the interests of someone, somewhere who has the clout to fight back.
Many of the reformers would agree on important key issues. Trade rules enforced by the WTO are biased in favour of the rich industrialised countries and do less to open up markets for the agricultural products and textiles that poorer countries can produce more effectively. And while it and other bodies are effective at protecting trade, they are not complemented by bodies that deal as effectively with other global issues, from health and the environment to labour. While farmers in the rich countries are paid subsidies supporting practices that damage the environment, aid to the poorest countries has fallen dramatically now that there is no longer a need to prop up anti-communist governments.
Reformers call for action on all these points. "It seems fundamental to me that that we cannot have a global trading system without a global economic policy, a global healthcare policy, a global education policy, a global environmental policy and a global security policy," says former President Bill Clinton, although one may ask why he did not say so louder when he was in office. Other reformers, like billionaire financier George Soros, call for transfer of wealth from rich to poor countries (see p 38), Nobel prizewinning economist James Tobin for taxes on financial speculation to reduce the volatility of markets, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto believes that widespread property rights will allow the poor to harness the power of the markets (see p 46), and almost everyone has come to believe that "good governance" in Third World nations is essential if they are to develop.
The most sweeping views on how to change the world go back to the root of all our problems: money. Money seems such a natural thing that it is easy to forget that it is purely a human creation, and that the particular form of monetary system we have shapes all our actions. There are really only three ways to change someone's behaviour: education and moral persuasion, rules and regulations, and financial interest. Financial interest will always be the most effective.
After the Second World War, John Maynard Keynes proposed a radical overhaul of money. He suggested that international trade be settled in a new "currency", and that holders of that currency would incur negative interest. That means the money earned by a successful exporting nation would always be diminishing in value, so it would naturally try to spend it as quickly as possible, and so boost the exports of other nations. Under this system, wealth and development is automatically shared between nations. Perhaps surprisingly, given Keynes's tremendous standing, the plan was not supported. Instead, the poor nations borrow the rich nations' money and pay them interest while trying to develop. It is a formula for the rich to grow richer.
Keynes's idea has never entirely died, and today there are other monetary visionaries too. Bernard Lietaer was a senior executive of the Belgian central bank and was involved in the design of the ECU, forerunner to the euro. He claims in his new book, The Future of Money (Century, 2001), that if we could only understand the roots of money we would engender sustainable abundance for all "within one generation" (see "It makes the world go round"). Such radical ideas frighten most of the world's politicians and bankers. For them only the most modest pace of reform seems worth contemplating.
But maybe the future doesn't lie with big ideas, no matter how progressive their goals. Certainly, thousands of activists would agree that one simple phrase captures the best approach. The phrase is "Not TINA
but TATA" and comes from Susan George (see p 42). TINA was the acronym for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's fav ourite expression: "There Is No Alternative". No alternative, that is, to the free-market, privatised, "there is no such thing as soc iety" view of life with which she and US President Ronald Reagan transformed the 1980s. "TATA" stands for "There Are Thou sands of Alternatives". And thousands of alternatives, each suited to local needs, is what many of those who oppbse corporate globalisation believe in. Where to look for signs of "thousands of alternatives"? They are everywhere. They are there among the poorest of the poor- creating, sharing and demystifying technology for those who may not even be able to read-as we'll explore in next week's magazine. They are there among the communities in the industrialised world.
Two key indicators chart the changes. First is the staggering worldwide growth in non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The second is the even more explosive rise in Internet use. The rise of the NGO is a reflection of the extraordinary way that citizens everywhere in the world are tacklin issues themselves, and finding ways to put pressure on governments and businesses, rather than just expecting change through exercising their vote. Some, like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, have grown into worldwide organisations with big budgets and public campaigns that can quickly force responses from business and government. Others work at the community level. All can exert additional influence by influencing how citizens spend their money. Experience shows, for example, that the quickest way to stop sports shoe manufacturers using cheap child labour is by refusing to buy their shoes, not by lobbying the WTO.
The growth of the Internet is helping power these grass roots organisations. The Web allows information to lte shared, without central control, on a scale that could not remotely be envisaged if it had to be printed or broadcast. The technology on the Net is allowing a more complex and decentralised system to emerge, with more interactions between more players, a much greater flow of information and a far wider divergence of views.
Will new forms of democracy emerge from mass participation of people in local organisations, able to share their ideas and plan their campaigns globally? The answer is already a qualified yes, as few major meetings of international institutions-whether they deal with climate change or global trade-now take place without NGOs also in attendance. Where this will lead is harder to say. The strength of the Internet is that it allows anyone to talk to anyone; its weakness is that it splinters and divides, allowing everyone to have a unique view. It's not yet clear whether a host of local initiatives and the power of information technology will help create a new world order, or make us every more squabbling and divided.
ECONOMICS IS NOT ENOUGH ,
This survey of globalisation has looked at some of the economic changes taking place in the world and their social impacts, and asked what kinds of reform might make globalisation work better for all. When the world is still reeling from the aftershocks of 11 September, it is right to ask how different events might be interrelated.
But this focus is still far too narrow to include many of globalisation's effects. There is the huge growth in international crime, for example, with drug syndicates able to run billion-~ollar international businesses that undermine democracy in poor nations and destroy lives everywhere. There's the rapid spread of diseases like AIDS and drug-resistant tuberculosis. And there's everything that goes beyond what economics and its narrow range of measures can record.
The huge change in the position of women will surely have profound effects. Where wealth is growing, gender inequalities are shrinking fast and more women are gaining positions of power. Women are at the forefront of many NGOs, particularly in the developing world, as we will see in next week's issue. In traditional cultures these are changes that are wrenching and can provoke a violent backlash. For the Taliban regime of Afghanistan, rejecting westernisation also meant robbing women of their rights.
Then there is the impact of rapid economic growth on the global environment. As the failure of the international talks on climate change demonstrate, we are still far from being able to take effective action to protect the global commons. Already we are putting too much pressure on ecosystems. As James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank puts it: "We do not have much time. In 25 years 2 billion more people will join our planet. The challenge will be greater, the pressure on resources will be more acute, the chances of success may be slimmer."
However skilfully the global economy is directed and reformed, whether through existing structures or new ones, one thing will not change: politics and economics cannot solve the world's problems with today's technology. Even if the rich countries do act (and they haven't yet) on recent pledges to enormously boost foreign aid and provide the $40 to 60 billion a year needed for the UN's "millennium development goals", providing food, clean water and primary education for all, real prosperity for everyone is not feasible with our current.range of technologies and our current understanding of what people need.
We are going to need new sources of energy, new ways to farm, new forms of transport and new ways to live for everyone to enjoy prosperity. And that prosperity will take a new form that we can't yet fully imagine. Science and technology launched the global, interconnected world. Now its task is to provide the solutions that will truly make it work for all.
Any statement on the issue of globalisation is bound to provoke an opposing view. If you have other opinions and sources of information please let us know. When this article appears on newscientist.com in late May it will be linked to a full set of reference material and we intend to add links to as many other relevant websites as is practical. Suggestions are welcome.