By Donella Meadows
–October 27, 1994–
There’s one huge, discussible reason why GATT (the world trade agreement that will come before Congress next month) should not be passed. There’s an even huger, undiscussible reason.
The discussible reason is that the new GATT will push down wages and environmental standards worldwide and destroy the ability of communities, states, and nations to make their own decisions. There’s no better illustration of that claim than the infamous tuna-dolphin case, which is still unfolding.
The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act puts a limit on the number of dolphins that our tuna fleet can accidentally catch and kill. U.S. boats learned to abide by that limit, at some cost. Mexican boats, not bound by our law, did no such thing. They exported their catch to the United States and undercut the price of tuna. To save both the domestic tuna industry and the dolphins, the U.S. embargoed imports of Mexican tuna.
Mexico complained to GATT. A dispute resolution panel met in 1991, in secret as all GATT panels do, and ruled that the embargo was an unfair restraint on trade. The ruling went farther. It said no nation can ban, tax, or otherwise interfere with imports of any product because of the way it is produced. No sanctions are allowable on unsustainably harvested timber, for example, or on coffee raised with pesticides banned in the U.S., or on coal mined by workers with no respirators to protect their lungs.
The GATT panel’s intent was to keep trade from becoming an instrument by which one nation can force its laws on another nation. If Chinese miners get black lung, if Costa Ricans want to spray DDT over their coffee fields, if Mexico would rather have cheap tuna than live dolphins, why should we care?
The answer to that question is apparent to anyone who has a wider view of the world than GATT panels seem to have. It’s not just that dolphins killed by Mexican fleets swim in our waters too, or that birds poisoned by DDT in Costa Rica spend their summers here. It’s not even that cheap foreign imports threaten our domestic industries, which we hold to higher standards. The people who shudder most deeply over the tuna-dolphin decision are those who see that domestic industries, faced with the GATT dictum, have no choice but to use every means available to BRING DOWN OUR STANDARDS.
Truly free trade, trade that cannot be constrained by local ethics about how to treat workers or use the environment, means that every nation is forced to the lowest prevailing standard. It means our workers compete against Haiti’s slave labor, our businesses compete against Russia’s ecological irresponsibility. Protections must be won not in the statehouse or the Congress, but in a Geneva tribunal to which press and citizens are not invited. Free trade becomes the highest value worldwide, higher than community autonomy or economic equity or environmental integrity.
The tuna-dolphin story did not end with the 1991 GATT panel. Because Mexico was lobbying hard at the time for NAFTA, the dispute was settled privately. Mexico agreed to protect dolphins. But several European countries also fell under our embargo, because they had been buying tuna from dolphin-killing countries, relabeling it, and sending to the United States. So the European Union pressed the dolphin case. Last May a second panel ruled that the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act is GATT-illegal.
Our government will protest that finding. We can block it, because under current GATT rules such decisions must be unanimous. With the new GATT about to come before Congress, there will be no redress. GATT panel rulings will be automatic.
That’s why the opponents of the new GATT call it “GATTzilla.” The Center for Policy Alternatives has a 10-page list of California laws that will be threatened by it. They include food quality standards, safe drinking water controls, organic food certification, protections against short-weighing, auto emission standards. GATT disputes have already challenged Austria’s import tax on tropical timber, Ontario’s ban on non-refillable beer bottles, U.S. fuel efficiency standards for cars.
Who could favor this incursion on community self-control? Traders, of course. Multinational companies that find one country’s minimum wage or another country’s pesticide or banking regulations a nuisance. The undiscussible reason why the new GATT should be defeated is that it was shaped and will be controlled by those who already have too much power — large corporations, bankers, and politicians enriched by them.
One does not have to be anti-business to know that commercial values include only a narrow subset of all human values and that the internal logic of competition will always force business to try to put costs off onto others, onto the environment, onto the future. Unopposed by any other logic or values, corporate power becomes all-consuming. Every nation that has given business too much power — including the U.S. in our “robber baron” era and Eastern Europe right now — has discovered that.
This concern is undiscussible, because all over the world large corporations own and control the avenues of discussion. Free speech is not a value treasured by large corporations, especially when it is speech critical of them.
The world needs a trade agreement that strikes down short-sighted protection for inefficient industries, while it guarantees protection for communities, for workers, for nature, for the powerless. The current GATT agreement isn’t it.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994