Editorial: Grassroots International Environmental Activism1

Article excerpt

Our species has always altered its immediate environment. Unwise irrigation practices by ancient farmers converted the Fertile Crescent-the fabled Babylon-into the desert wastes now known as Iraq. From the Dust Bowl to Chernobyl, we have fouled a lot of nests. But only in recent years did we acquire the capacity to modify the entire planet. In the last half of the 20th century, Homo sapiens became a geophysical force. We are now changing the climate and having a planetary impact on extinction.

The United States National Academy of Sciences and the United Kingdom's Royal Society issued a joint paper in 1992 that stated "The future of our planet is in the balance. Sustainable development can be achieved, but only if irreversible degradation of the environment can be halted in time. The next 30 years may be crucial." 2 This, and scores of similar warnings, are not cries of wolf from overwrought extremists but carefully phrased warnings from some of the world's finest scientists. These scholars are trying to call public attention to the fact that the world has entered a dangerous new era. Global warming, a worldwide epidemic of extinction, the population explosion, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, desertification, the loss of rain forests, and other international threats pose unprecedented challenges to our embryonic global institutions. Avoiding irreversible planetary calamity is the primary moral obligation of our era. This profound mission is what makes the modern environmental movement more than "just one more special interest."

The modern U.S. environmental movement, and similar movements in other countries, grew out local concerns. American environmentalists worried about the impacts of toxic incinerators, polluted lakes and rivers, endless sprawl, and the clear cutting of nearby forests. They found ways to use politics, lobbying, litigation, boycotts, and other instruments to influence local and national decisions. Their impact has been astonishing. Just 30 years after the first Earth Day, virtually all Americans believe they have a right to a clean, healthy environment, and we have enacted powerful laws to achieve these ends. In the international arena, however, environmental values have generally been sacrificed on the altars of sovereignty and Mammon. Although the international community has banned ozonedepleting chemicals, restrained international trade in endangered species, and begun establishing restrictions on certain persistent toxic chemicals, these have been exceptions. On most global issues, environmental progress has been modest at best. More commonly, environmental problems have just grown worse and worse.

The debate swirling around international trade expansion provides a good illustration of the difficulties in creating and sustaining international environmental values. Although caricatured as pro-trade versus anti-trade, the trade dispute is really more nuanced. Virtually no one is "anti-trade." Most environmentalists appreciate coffee, bananas, and Toyota Priuses. The dispute at World Trade Organization (WTO) demonstrations in Seattle and elsewhere has been between those who wish to use trade to improve the environment and to enhance the well-being of working people versus those focused exclusively on the near-term bottom line for one industry, or even one company.

Environmental values are not represented in any meaningful way at the WTO or in other international decision-making forums although the failure to incorporate environmental values is dangerous and shortsighted. Environmental problems are the among most vital international security issues in the world today. In part because environmentalists are excluded from participating in international forums, environmental leaders are beginning to seek ways to replicate globally what has worked inside individual countries-building a broad base of support from the grassroots up. They aspire to forge a global majority around environmental values. …


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