Greens Flip Over Turtles
In defending wildlife, enviros have made free trade the enemy. But will they ever be the same?
By Peter Beinart
(TIME, April 27) -- At first glance, the confrontation at the Doubletree Hotel in
San Jose, Calif., last February seemed familiar enough. Inside,
two pro-business think tanks, the Brookings Institution and the
World Affairs Council of Northern California, treated the
Silicon Valley elite to chicken with mango sauce and a speech by
a distinguished guest. Outside, environmental activists from the
Sierra Club, Rainforest Action Network and the Green Party
chanted their disapproval.
But the protesters' slogans didn't hit any of the stock
environmental notes: the vanishing forests, the disappearing
ozone, the timidity of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Instead the activists aimed their hey hey, ho hos at an obscure
global financial agreement of the kind that usually elicits
yawns, not demonstrations. The accord is the Multilateral
Agreement on Investment, which would prevent countries from
favoring domestic companies over foreign ones and allow
businesses to sue governments that they felt violated their
rights as investors. And the man the environmentalists were
railing against was one of the pact's chief proponents, Renato
Ruggiero, head of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the body
that oversees the global trading system.
As Ruggiero spoke, negotiators from the world's developed
countries were working feverishly to complete the MAI by a
deadline set for this month. But they will almost certainly miss
that deadline, in no small part because of the kind of activism
on display in San Jose. The charge that the MAI would eviscerate
national environmental protections has turned a technical
economic agreement into a cause celebre. And that says a lot
about the way the debate over free trade has transformed the
American environmental movement.
A decade ago, most environmentalists were happily oblivious to
the mind-numbing negotiations between international bureaucrats
seeking to open the world's markets. Not a single staff member
at any of America's major environmental organizations worked
primarily on trade. For groups like the Sierra Club, the
National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife, the
environmental battle was fought, as it had been for years,
primarily in Congress.
And then, in 1991, trade came crashing in. Mexico brought an
action against the U.S. under the General Agreement on Tariffs
and Trade (the WTO's predecessor). It claimed that American
environmental law prohibiting the import of tuna from countries
that killed too many dolphins violated international trade
rules. And Mexico won. All those hours environmentalists had
spent trudging through the corridors of Capitol Hill on behalf
of dolphins had been undermined, overnight, by a far-off tribunal.
Those obscure, distant bureaucrats had developed a set of
principles that struck at the heart of the environmental
movement. According to the GATT (and later the WTO), free trade
meant that a country's laws might favor one kind of product over
another but should generally not discriminate between two
identical products just because they were made differently. The
tuna exported by Mexico wasn't any different from the tuna
caught by other countries: the fact that more dolphins died in
the process was simply a different way of making the same
product. For environmentalists, the threat was clear.
In the years since the dolphin decision, the major environmental
organizations have girded themselves for a showdown with free
traders. Today most groups employ staff who work on nothing
else. Last fall environmentalists banded together in opposition
to President Clinton's request for renewal of fast-track trading
authority. The Sierra Club took out radio ads, and the head of
the National Wildlife Federation testified against it before
Congress three times. They won.
So when, earlier this month, in an echo of the dolphin decision,
the WTO ruled against a U.S. law blocking shrimp imports from
countries whose boats endanger rare green sea turtles, the
environmentalists were again ready for battle. They denounced
the decision at a joint press conference, are preparing a letter
to President Clinton, and have begun lobbying Congress. The
Sierra Club will conduct a summer-long outreach program based on
the slogan "Don't trade away the environment."
But the movement's new focus on trade has also bedeviled it.
Suddenly some on the environmental left are arguing against one
of leftism's cherished convictions--that the U.S. has an
obligation to accept large numbers of the people who want to
settle here. That's because the same nationalist sentiment that
distrusts the free movement of goods--the unrestricted flow,
say, of shrimp caught in turtle-killing nets--also tends to
distrust the free movement of labor: in other words, immigration.
Last year Alan Kuper, a retired engineering professor and
longtime Sierra Club member from Cleveland, began a drive to
force the organization to endorse tighter limits on immigration.
Kuper argues that immigration fuels population growth, which
degrades the American environment. In a binding referendum this
week, the club's 550,000 members will decide whether they agree.
Sierra Club member Leon Kolankiewicz sees the emergence of a
"schism between globalists and those who want to focus on the
For environmentalists willing to forsake leftist loyalties and
embrace nationalism, strange and powerful alliances abound. For
there is no doubt that hostility to free trade is growing on the
right as well, visible in the opposition of some conservatives
to fast track and the MAI. A nationalist, antiglobalization
alliance might offer environmentalists something they have
rarely tasted in past decades: power. But could they still call