Reconciling Trade and the Environment

By Weidenbaum, Murray | The Christian Science Monitor, November 29, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Reconciling Trade and the Environment


Weidenbaum, Murray, The Christian Science Monitor


The meeting in Seattle of the World Trade Organization this week has generated substantial pressure for paying attention to the environmental effects of trade.

As environmental organizations are fond of pointing out, the international movements of goods and services can have an adverse impact on the environment.

It is also true that international trade policy has largely ignored environmental considerations.

Given the interconnectedness of economic issues (trade, production, income flows) and social issues (ecology, safety, health), it would seem logical - and desirable - to bring them together in important decisionmaking processes, such as the WTO.

Why have those responsible for trade policy been so reluctant to include environmental aspects in their deliberations?

In my view, recriminations are justified on both sides of the debate.

I recall a period decades ago when economic interests were oblivious to their impacts on the environment. At a meeting in the mid-1960s with executives of steel companies east of the Mississippi River, those of us who lived west of the river complained that factories in Illinois were generating pollution that hurt people in Missouri. The response was a classic (for its time): Why should we pay to give the people in Missouri cleaner air?

It's not surprising that some of the early environmental leaders came from the St. Louis area. It took a lot of pressure, not all of it polite or conventional, to generate the support for the many environmental laws enacted in the years since the unpleasant incident.

However, the environmental movement has lost something important in the course of its legislative triumphs.

All too often, the typical effort is short on facts, analysis, and especially civility. Rather, it is long on emotion, exaggeration, and personal attacks. Sad to say, the latter approach tends to work.

Thus, it isn't surprising that activist organizations plan to bring thousands of people into the streets of Seattle to demonstrate against existing WTO policies. That activity is likely to gain lots of media attention.

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