Reconciling trade and the environment

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. It may even be effective in achieving larger aims.

I'd suggest another way of reconciling trade and environmental policies. The environmental movement surely has a point that trade policymakers have tended to ignore its important issues. Yet, a little introspection may be useful. First of all, most environmental organizations have been adamant in keeping economic considerations out of environmental policymaking. And, with the fewest exceptions, they have been extremely successful.

Most environmental statutes have been written so economic factors are barred from even being considered in the rulemaking process.

Yet, environmental groups seem oblivious to the basic inconsistency of their position: They simultaneously contend that environmental issues are too important to be ignored by economic policymakers - but that it is just and proper for environmental policymakers to ignore economic aspects and factors.

An obvious conclusion emerges from the simplest analysis of environmental and trade (and other economic) issues: it takes two to do this tango.

The environmental movement has achieved sufficient stature and public support that it can afford to graduate from mass street demonstrations by adopting more constructive positions.

The time has come for both sides to urge government policymakers at all levels to take account of environmental and economic considerations before they adopt important public policies.

It's hard to avoid ending on a cynical note.

A substantial effort is under way by the United States - supported by an impressive array of business and other private-sector leaders - to place environmental issues on the Seattle agenda.

If the planned demonstrations succeed in disrupting the Seattle proceedings, the odds of achieving that broadening of the WTO agenda will go way down.

*Murray Weidenbaum is chairman of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University, in St. Louis.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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