DEVELOPMENT VS ENVIRONMENT
One of the biggest challenges facing governments as the new century unfolds is how to balance environmental protection with the demands of powerful multinational corporations.
By Danielle Knight
Washington: If deterioration of the global environment over the past several decades is any guide, the coming century does not hold out much promise for reversing these trends, many environmentalists are warning as the millennium comes to a close.
Rising Earth temperatures, record losses in biodiversity and species extinction, increasing demands and dwindling supplies of fresh water, only seem to be getting worse.
'If I look at the global environmental trends that we have been tracking since we first launched the Worldwatch Institute 25 years ago, and if I simply extrapolate these trends a few years into the next century, the outlook is alarming to say the least,' says Lester Brown, president of the Washington-based think-tank.
On the up-side, the past several decades has seen citizens and environmental groups, or non-governmental organisations (NGOs), worldwide pulling together in unprecedented numbers to pressure governments to pass laws to protect the ozone layer, ban toxic chemicals in the environment, reduce air and water pollution, and protect endangered species and habitats.
Seeking a balance between economic development and environmental protection, NGOs have played a major role in shaping international environmental treaties, including the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, and the Basel Convention, which bans exporting hazardous wastes from industrialised nations to developing countries. Yet as the millennium pulls to a close, the political and financial structure of the world economy, which has become increasingly dominated by powerful multinational corporations, is directly at odds with efforts to promote a healthy Earth, says Joshua Karliner, executive director of the Transnational Resource and Action Centre, the San Francisco-based corporate watchdog.
One clear example of this, says Karliner, has been the success of powerful multinational oil and gas industries in swaying the US Senate against ratifying the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, an international treaty seeking to reduce emissions of heat-trapping 'greenhouse' gases.
Scientists believe that such emissions, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, will warm the Earth and result in drastic climate change, including increasing the intensity and frequency of floods, droughts, and storms.
If current record-breaking warming trends continue, average global temperatures could rise between 1 and 3.5 degrees centigrade by the year 2050, according to expert studies.
'The challenge in the 21st century is to replace the corporate-dominated paradigm that worships the bottom-line with a framework that puts the environment, human rights, and labour rights first,' says Karliner.
In the past several decades, NGOs have applied a diverse array of strategies to counter corporate power including promoting laws to protect the environment, developing lawsuits against governments and corporations, and passing company shareholder resolutions.
Citizens in Ecuador, who see their own country's court systems as inadequate, for example, have been attempting to hold US oil giant Texaco accountable for its past operations, by suing the company in US courts. Similar suits have been filed in the US court system against UNOCAL and Chevron for their activities abroad.
While praising these efforts, Peter Montague, director of the Maryland-based Environmental Research Foundation, says the environmental movement must pay closer attention to how the push for trade liberalisation is eroding the power of nation-states.
'NGOs will become irrelevant if national governments lose their capacity to govern because power has been transferred to international trade bodies,' he says.
After the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for example, a US firm complained that it had been illegally prevented from opening a waste disposal plant because of environmental zoning laws in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi.
Through NAFTA, Metalclad corporation sought some $90 million in damages since it said state authorities were - against trade rules - prohibiting it from making a profit since they declared the site an ecological zone and refused to allow the firm to reopen the facility.
Similarly, many domestic environmental regulations - which NGOs have worked very hard to pass into law - have been challenged through the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and hence weakened or abolished, warn environmentalists.
The United States, for instance, gutted provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, and its Endangered Species Act after these environmental policies were challenged before the WTO, according to a recent report released by Public Citizen, a Washington-based NGO founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
'This undemocratic trend must be reversed and power must be returned to governments,' says Montague.
Citizen groups and environmental organisations have been trying to guide global trade by pressuring governments to attach environmental provisions to trade agreements and pressure international financial institutions like the World Bank, to adopt minimal environmental and social standards for funding projects.
'In terms of reforms at the World Bank, I would say, depending on how you look at it, the glass is half empty or half full,' says Bruce Rich, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund.
While many destructive projects will not be funded by the Bank since environmentalists like Rich pressured the institution to adopt minimal guidelines, the Bank is still a large centralised institution which favours large loans - which often go toward large controversial energy projects, he says. Some investment projects funded by global financial institutions 'are what is fuelling climate change and losses in biodiversity', says Rich.
Using lessons from studying these institutions, environmental groups, including Indonesia-based Bioforum and Friends of the Earth Japan, have begun a new campaign to reform public export-credit lending agencies which operate without social and environmental standards.
Designed to help a nation's firms compete for business abroad, these agencies provide publicly backed loans, guarantees and insurance to corporations seeking to do business in developing countries. 'These agencies are often financing projects - many riddled with corruption - that other taxpayer-supported agencies like the World Bank reject as environmentally and economically unsustainable,' says Rich.
Another challenge in the coming decades is genetic modification and environmentalists say they will keep a close watch on companies such as Novartis and Monsanto, which are heavily pushing their new technological innovations in biological engineering.
'We are in the midst of a radical, historic transition - from the Industrial Age to the Biotechnical Age,' says Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Washington-based Foundation on Economic Trends in his book, The Biotech Century.
Environmental groups, including Greenpeace and the Union of Concerned Scientists, worry that the mass release of thousands of genetically engineered crops into the environment will cause 'super-weeds' through unintentional cross-breeding and hence irreversible damage to the Earth. Mass extinction of plant, animal and insect species will also be a trend environmentalists hope to reverse.
John Tuxill, a researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, says that as critical habitat is logged or developed, extinction rates have accelerated this century to at least 1,000 species per year. 'These numbers indicate we now live in a time of mass extinction - a global evolutionary upheaval in the diversity and composition of life,' he says.
'What we need now is a rapid shift in consciousness, a dawning awareness in people everywhere that we have to shift quickly to a sustainable economy if we want to avoid damaging our natural support systems beyond repair,' says the Institute's founder Lester Brown.
Danny Kennedy, director of Project Underground, the California-based international mining watchdog, says for such a shift to happen, environmental organisations need to focus on organising people at the community level and working closely with other social movements, such as the human rights and civil rights movements.
'The power of civil disobedience and mass movements has been harnessed and then forgotten at different points in the century,' he says. But the huge upcoming challenge, adds Karliner, will be to ensure that discontent with corporate-led globalisation is not captured by nationalist xenophobic responses such as the rise of right-wing militia groups in the United States, India's BJP party or France's Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Instead, environmental and related movements need to work hard to harness the discontent with corporate power to promote democratic responses that value human rights and multi-racial and multi-ethnic responses to solving the problems.
'We need to take the lessons learned from some of the horrors of the 20th century and apply them to building an alternative to globalisation in the 21st century,' says Karliner. Otherwise, he says, we may repeat some of the past centuries' more profound mistakes. - Third World Network Features/IPS
About the writer: Danielle Knight is a correspondent for Inter Press Service, with whose permission the above article has been reprinted.