|St. Louis Post Dispatch
COMMENTARY : WTO's record explains protests in Seattle
By Donella H. Meadows
LAST month The Economist ran a frustrated editorial wondering why
environmental groups would picket the upcoming World Trade Organization
meeting in Seattle. The headline read "Why Greens Should Love Trade."
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
Here are examples of what they've seen.
* The European Union banned its own farmers from injecting meat animals
with hormones (which make animals bulk up faster, but are suspected of
causing cancer and hormone disruption) and forbade the import of
hormone-treated meats. The United States and Canada, whose feedlots are
riddled with hormones, challenged this ban in the WTO. The WTO ordered
the Europeans to drop the import ban or suffer retaliatory tariffs. The
United States has imposed those tariffs on cheeses, mustards, wines and
other profitable European exports -- that's why angry French farmers
are smashing their tractors into McDonald's restaurants.
* The U.S. Endangered Species Act requires shrimp trawlers to install
turtle exclusion devices in their nets, so they will not catch and
drown endangered sea turtles. To protect its shrimpers from cheaper
imports caught without turtle protectors, the U.S. forbids shrimp
imports from countries that do not have a similar law. India, Malaysia,
Pakistan and Thailand challenged that ban in the WTO, which ruled that
the U.S. measure violates free trade rules.
* When the Environmental Protection Agency decreed that gasoline sold
in the U.S. had to be formulated in a way that reduces air pollution,
Venezuela and Brazil sued and won under the WTO. The EPA weakened its
* Japan had stricter limits on pesticide residues in agricultural
products than did other countries. The U.S. challenged Japan in the WTO
and won, forcing Japanese consumers to ingest more pesticides than
their own government considers safe.
* Guatemala passed a law recommended by the World Health Organization
forbidding makers of baby formula to claim that expensive formula
(rather than free mother's milk) is necessary for fat, healthy babies.
Gerber Products convinced the U.S. to challenge that law in the WTO.
The mere threat of a trade challenge caused Guatemala to drop its law.
* Citizens of Massachusetts, upset by the brutal human rights abuses of
the military rulers of Burma, passed a law forbidding their state
government from doing business with any contractor that does business
with Burma. Some affected companies persuaded Europe and Japan to
challenge this boycott in the WTO. The case is pending, and the Clinton
administration uses it as an argument to dissuade other states from
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
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.
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
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,
Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor at Dartmouth College and
director of the Sustainability Institute in Hartland, Vt.