Donella Meadows' The Global Citizen, November 25, 1999

Why Greens Don't Love the WTO

Last month The Economist ran a frustrated editorial wondering why environmental groups would picket the upcoming World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle. The headline read "Why Greens Should Love Trade."

Actually greens see no particular reason either to love or hate trade. They don't share the religious beliefs of economists, who love trade as indiscriminately as they love growth. Greens are inclined to ask questions. What is being traded? For whose benefit? At whose expense? What are the full costs to workers, local communities, nature? When those questions are answered, some trade looks lovable, and some we would be better off without.

What enviros, along with human rights advocates, labor organizations, and many other citizen groups, emphatically do not love is the World Trade Organization. That's because they've had four years now to watch it work. Here are some examples of what they've seen.

The WTO is not the only free-trade body that works to weaken environmental and human rights laws. Under NAFTA (the trade agreement linking the U.S., Canada and Mexico) the Ethyl Corporation forced Canada to withdraw its ban on Ethyl's new gasoline additive MMT, which is suspected to cause brain damage. The Metalclad Corporation is suing a Mexican state for shutting down one of its hazardous plants. A Vancouver corporation is suing the state of California for banning yet another gasoline additive (MTBE), which has polluted the state's groundwater.

The rationale for decisions like these is that no nation should have the power through trade sanctions to reach into any other nation and dictate its laws. The U.S. shouldn't force other nations to protect turtles. Europeans shouldn't forbid U.S. feedlots from using hormones. What the free-traders are astonishingly slow at perceiving is that the WTO DOES allow violations of sovereignty and self-determination, but ONLY IN ONE DIRECTION -- toward weakening social and environmental protections. Other nations can pressure the U.S. not to protect turtles. The U.S. can punish Europeans for not wanting meat laced with hormones. A U.S. company can strike down a Canadian health law. Corporations can lean on a U.S. state's commitment to human rights.

The Economist, in trying to fathom why greens don't love free trade, expressed perfectly, if inadvertently, the problem at the foundation of free trade fanaticism. "Protecting the environment," it grudgingly admitted, "is as legitimate a goal as free trade."

No. Not even close. Breath and life and health are infinitely more legitimate goals than corporate expansion. Human freedom and dignity can't be valued on the same scale as stock portfolios. Making deals, shipping stuff, globalizing the economy is a sometimes useful, often destructive preoccupation of a small, self-important minority of the human race. The environment is our life support system. There is just no comparison.

Thinking there is, thinking that trade is an end, not a means, not even thinking about what the ends might be, that is the fatal lunacy of the WTO. Sane people will be standing outside the Seattle meeting, protesting.