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 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 U.S. 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 U.S. has chosen to impose 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.
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  • 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.
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  • When the EPA 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 standards.
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  • 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.
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  • 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 WTO didn’t even have to decide; the threat of a trade challenge caused Guatemala to drop its law.
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  • The 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 of the affected companies persuaded Europe and Japan to challenge this boycott in the WTO. The case is still pending; meanwhile the Clinton Administration uses it as an argument to dissuade other states from similar sanctions.

 

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.