Comment: Globalisation - re-inventing the debate

November 2002

by Jon Entine

Good Riddance to “Sustainability” We need to reinvent the debate over globalisation, says Jon Entine

The World Summit on Sustainable Development is already a fading memory, and good riddance. It was, as these things tend to be, a feel-good but useless exercise in posturing. Anti-globalists got to rail against the World Trade Organisation and the United States, which they berate as agents for plundering the developing world in the vain name of free trade. True to form, the US mostly reinforced its badge of dishonour as the point country for me-first capitalist ideology and go-it-alone arrogance.

So, we had the usual circus and stalemate; only the grim reality for much of the less-than free world hasn’t changed. And make no mistake about it: the economic situation is grim. The go-go years that masked mounting inequities are long gone. In a shocking June report, the UN Conference on Trade and Development noted that the world’s 49 least-developed nations gained nothing from the 1990s boom. In Africa alone, some 300 million people survive, if that is the word, on less than a dollar a day. A majority of the developing world is poorer than it was in the 1970s.

So what if anything can be done in a coordinated multinational effort – the raison d’être of the WSSD – to change this trend? Little, sadly, unless we reshape the debate and maybe even purge the word “sustainability” from our political vocabulary.

That won’t be easy, as the word has devolved into a catchall that allows competing factions to posture without really discussing how to bring prosperity to the developing world. As a result, and as with most two-sided debates, we’re left with a false and even destructive frame for complex issues.

For and against

On the one hand, the US, many trade ministers in Europe and Asia, and most multinational corporations herald liberal economics, free trade, and the WTO as the world’s most viable option for innovation and growth. Globalisation is portrayed as the only viable engine to drive growth but also to clean up the messes made by modern and modernising economies. They have a compelling argument. International trade and investment played an important role in the great economic success stories of the last four decades in Japan, East Asia, and now China. In contrast, in regions where the average share of exports to Gross Domestic Product has fallen over the last two decades – Africa, Russia, and the Middle East, with a population of 2 billion people – per capita GDP fell an average of 1 percent per year in the 1990s. The circumstantial evidence that international trade provides economic benefits is overwhelming.

The critics consist of anti-corporate “friends of the earth” who maintain that globalisation increases the gap between the haves and have-nots. They rightly note that in this post-industrial age, America, Europe and Japan do not engage in free trade as much as free investment, which creates far less opportunities for growth in the developing world. After all, what many corporations want is not cheap labour but avid consumers. Maintaining that free trade is the moral high ground can be disingenuous.

But the rest of the anti-globalists’ argument falls short.

They assert that protecting the environment, first and foremost, and secondly fighting poverty – they’re not clear on how – must become the world’s guiding operating principle or environmental and social disintegration are inevitable. This is the case for so-called sustainability. The very invocation of the do-good word is of course a tactic to take a pragmatically amorphous and sometimes anti-growth agenda – one that often reflects the cultural norms of economically secure Westerners more than the destitute peoples of developing countries – and cloak it in moral superiority.

They also miss the hidden immeasurable benefits of globalisation. Trade often carries with it a wealth of skills and institutions: technology, training, management, accounting, outside monitoring of businesses, and even exposure to expertise in such areas as bank regulation, antitrust policies, and environmental protection. As Timothy Taylor wrote in the Public Interest in Spring 2002, “the most valuable Japanese export to the United States over the last few decades may not have been cars or computers. Instead, it may have been the competitive push that Japanese firms gave US automakers and high-tech firms to make better products in more efficient ways.” The exchange of ideas and inspirations are particularly important to smaller and poorer economies that would be hurt the most by anti-globalists’ protectionist policies.

More shades of grey than black and white

The conundrum over globalisation revolves around a supposed Hobbesian choice: hold your nose and encourage unfettered growth (hey, that’s the way Britain did it, ugly as it was, during the industrial revolution) or choose the slow-growth path that would limit environmental damage (in the short term) but would doom the developing world to second class status forever.

The problem for the sustainability case is that while it may occasionally put corporate apologists on the public relations defensive, it has little impact on reforming the economies of the people they purport to want to help.

To bring real change, self-proclaimed progressives need to reform radically their paradigm. Only then might they have a chance to alter the balance of power toward the people and away from capital for capital’s sake. Unfortunately, they’ve managed to turn “sustainability” into an environmental protection racket with key “environmentalists” as world capos. So, at Jo’burg, we had the spectacle of green lobbyists led by Friends of the Earth director Charles Secrett giddy that they had successfully deleted text from the meaningless summary statement that would have required all international environmental agreements to be “consistent” with the rules of the World Trade Organisation. Yet these same earth firsters are directly responsible for generating so much hysteria and disinformation over genetically modified crops that they have spooked Zambia into the politically correct but indefensible position of declining donations of GM grain that would help feed its desperately starving population. In other words, add environmental fundamentalism to anti-globalisation and you come up with moral bankruptcy – with lives, African lives in this case, being lost.

Even the renowned Jane Goodall, a primate expert who still works and resides in Tanzania, was appalled at the furor of the anti-globalists who are having the unintended effect of legitimising corporate apologists. “I understand their concerns, I sympathise with their causes,” she said of the protestors. “But what we really need to do is… not give fuel to the people who warn about over-zealous environmentalism.”

Her message is clear: don’t frame this debate as a choice between evil globalisation and beneficent sustainability. That’s a proxy for preserving the status quo in the name of environmental correctness. As Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations and certainly no free-market fanatic, said in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, "The main losers in today’s very unequal world are not those who are too exposed to globalisation, but those who have been left out."

Practical actions

So what can be done? Most important, we have to transform the debate by junking the Hobbesian paradigm. That means the shrill rhetoric by anti-corporate headliners, like Friends of the Earth, has to cease. It does absolutely no good when, for example, after the final agreement in Jo’burg endorsed “cleaner fossil fuel technologies” but did not specifically rule out nuclear power, Kate Hampton of FOE railed that, “We are bitterly angry that the OPEC countries, Japan and the United States have combined this way to help wreck the world’s environment.”

One giant first step would be to junk the self-serving rhetoric embodied by the term “sustainability”. The greens have to realise they hold the short straw in the power lottery–they can only influence the debate, and harness corporate excess, by standing for reason rather than hysteria. That may be a tall order.

Jon Entine is scholar-in-residence at Miami University (Ohio) and adjunct fellow with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Jon is also an award-winning freelance journalist.

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