Just inching along

January 23, 2000

This is an edited excerpt of a Boston Globe editorial, which was published on Jan. 11.

ONE of the first challenges globalization will impose on Americans is conversion to -- or at least fluency in -- the metric system.

With the turn of the 2000 calendar, Britain became one of the last countries to complete its official shift to metrics. This sensible policy was mandated by the trade requirements of the European Union.

The United States is now lumped with two other world powers -- Liberia and Burma -- as holdouts from the metric world. It is not for lack of trying. John Quincy Adams first recommended the system in 1826, and it was actually adopted by Congress as the official national measure in 1893. More than a century later, this is still a fiction.

For decades it seemed to matter little. Trips by the mile, using gasoline by the gallon, to buy meat by the pound made perfect sense. We were used to it. It was part of our culture.

Yet we have taken some steps successfully, such as packaging many soft drinks, wine and liquor -- but not beer. The failure to convert more speedily has a price, demonstrated most dramatically last September by the loss of the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter because someone forgot to convert to metrics.

Only a zealot would demand a disruptive instant conversion, but slippage is discouraging, as when Congress rescinded a requirement that road signs include distances in kilometers.

Much of the world is learning English, a rich language that is the practical tongue of globalization. We would best stir ourselves to learn globalization's proper measure.

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