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
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
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
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.