Today's date:
Summer 2002

Vendors of the Earth

It took just two years for the very governments that had presented themselves as stewards of the Earth in Rio to reconvene as vendors of the Earth in Marrakesh. With the establishment of the World Trade Organization in January 1995, they cheerfully accepted obligations whose unintended effects amount to a quicker sell-out of the natural heritage worldwide. While Rio was concerned with the protection and prudent use of natural riches, Marrakesh was concerned with the unconditional access of corporations to natural assets. While Rio promoted the effective authority of states to implement rules in favor of the public good, Marrakesh weakened the regulatory power of states in favor of free corporate mobility. As a result, international politics in the past 10 years has been dominated by relentless attempts to create a borderless world market where capital and goods (but not people!) could freely move about, driven only by the law of demand and supply. Far from giving priority to sustainability or democracy in running world affairs, elites in both the North and South came to consider the freedom of markets the supreme value in politics. While Rio was good on rhetoric, Marrakesh was fast on implementation. This reversal of priorities has put a brake on any serious progress after Rio, sometimes even reversing the process into a decline.

As neo-liberalism rises as the dominant form of globalization, three impacts can be distinguished. First, it is the professed goal of globalization to expand economic growth in scale and scope. However, with the outflow of investment capital from OECD countries, an historically outdated model of development is spreading to the newly industrializing countries and well beyond. That fateful style of economics which rests to a large degree upon the transformation of nature into commodities, is now expanding to the far corners of the Earth. Growth in national income has historically always been accompanied by growth in resource consumption. However, the latter growth curve only delinks from the former in a post-industrial economy after having reached a high level of unsustainability. Moreover, deregulation occurs within a system where prices do not tell the ecological truth. Therefore any expansion of the market, even with a per-unit efficiency increase, hastens environmental degradation in the end.

Second, the pressure of open markets has forced quite a few Southern and Eastern countries to accelerate the exploitation of their natural treasures. With structural adjustment more or less becoming a permanent affair, fiscal restraint, cuts in social expenditure and export promotion are measures to guarantee a stable playing field for investors and traders. In an effort to stabilize currencies and make payments on foreign debts, speeding up the extraction of mineral and biological resources for export is an easy short-term solution. By throwing larger quantities of oil, gas, timber, metals and other resources onto the world market, countries hope to keep their export earnings from deteriorating. In desperate times, governments have to sell off even the "family silverware." For example, Russia rushed to sell off the treasures of Siberia, Senegal offered fishing rights to Spain and Japan, Mexico facilitated forest exploitation after the peso crisis, as did Brazil and Indonesia. When a country's standing on the world market is at stake, sustainability is shelved.

Third, under the pressure of the world market, governments often sacrifice the protection of public goods for the commercial interests of private actors. Compelled to provide hospitable conditions for mobile capital, they are unenthusiastic about any new regulation and rather inclined to retreat from rules that exist. As the cost of displacing production units from one country to another drops considerably, transnational corporations are in the position to choose at will the political and institutional conditions they consider most favorable across the globe. Economic power is thus converted into political power, since corporations are now able to play the prospect of jobs and taxes out against the adherence to urban, environmental and social rules. Governments have faced the same dilemma in social as well as in environmental matters: When protection most matters they become less capable of providing it.

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