Time to take our place in the global village


EXPENSIVE AS IT is, I will now buy its whole-bean coffee because Starbucks pledges $2 in South Asian disaster relief for every pound of Sumatra, Decaf Sumatra and Aged Sumatra purchased in its company-operated stores this month.

I am in the market for new jeans so I will consider Levi Strauss, which uses Indonesian workers to stitch denim, if the company gives up a chunk of change for the millions left homeless there by the natural terrorism of earthquake and tsunami.

Someone gave me a fleece pullover from Columbia Sportswear for Christmas. This company has a plant in Sri Lanka. I hope Columbia gives it up big for the tsunami victims, and I hope they tell us about it. They would not be exploiting disaster by doing so, merely paying their dues and keeping their customers informed.

It's all part of the new world order - along with record U.S. trade deficits, of course - in the age of global consumer-citizenship. Companies that for years have been shipping American jobs overseas, to places like Southeast Asia, have a big responsibility in this effort. So do consumers. In addition to writing checks to relief agencies, Americans should support companies that support humanitarian assistance in Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia.

This isn't just the socially conscious consumerism of the moment.

I'm talking about something bigger than that, born in the aftermath of one of the most incredibly horrific things we'll see in our lifetimes.

I have been giving friends a true-or-false quiz in the last few days. True or false: An earthquake under Tangshan, China, in 1976 destroyed 180,000 buildings, killed at least 240,000 people (estimates, based on the density of population, ranged as high as 680,000) and injured another 700,000. It's true, but no one remembered this. Nor did I. That may be due to the fact that no one had cell phones or digital cameras in 1976, but, most important, the disaster occurred in a communist nation that never officially disclosed the extent of the destruction and death resulting from it.

The world has gone through seismic social and economic changes since then. Global communications have brought the world's delights and its miseries closer to all of us. There is, virtually, no escape from it. Even China would be unable to suppress such news today, and may no longer desire to do so.

None but a troglodyte harbors any doubt that we live in a global village now, and that the concept of citizenship is being reshaped like the shorelines of Sumatra. We are the world, my friends, and have been for some time.

Americans who oppose government assistance to Third World nations - who see it as wasteful, unnecessary and unappreciated - do not have a grasp of American economic reach in the world, nor do they connect it in a real way with their own lives, even with abundant evidence at the base consumer level. It hangs on the clothing racks at Wal-Mart, and in the quarterly reports of companies that benefit from the low cost of manufacturing in places like Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Why do you think U.S. companies, from Coca-Cola to Nike, are donating millions to tsunami relief? They are being humane, yes, but they also have investments to preserve, great resources at stake, and an increasingly informed and socially conscious customer base. If anyone should be putting up the dough to help these nations rebuild, it's the corporations that have profited from the sweat of laborers there - as well as the consumers who have purchased their goods.

Historians always warn against overstating the impact of a particular event. But this is a new age, when instant communications and full-color images bring the world into a tighter loop, accelerating change.

What the tsunami - with its long wake of breathtakingly horrible images of human suffering - has delivered to the United States is an opportunity to expand again the size of the frame through which we see the world. Of late, our view has been framed by terrorism, a narrow view in the vast scheme of things. And this myopia has cost us in relationships with other nations, in a tarnished image, even in how American brand-name products fare in some foreign markets.

The tsunami disaster has awakened again the giant of American generosity and good will, and our leaders in Washington and Wall Street had better become hip to this fast. They may have already.

There is a reason why Americans are dipping into their pockets to help with Southeast Asia relief in, some agencies say, an unprecedented way.

We are a military superpower. We know that. We are the wealthiest nation in history. We know that.

But we want more than a war on terrorism and a culture of consumerism to mark the age in which we live and, ultimately, brand our legacy. There should be more to it than that: a new generation of Americans drafted into service as doctors, teachers, relief workers; a government that conducts humanitarian operations with the same zeal with which it conducts military operations; consumers who, while accepting the realties of a global economy, support corporations that do the right thing for people and the planet.

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