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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 magazine

(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 American environment."

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 themselves liberals?

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: April 27, 1998

The Currie Riddle
The Priest At The Party
Greens Flip Over Turtles
Dividing Line
The Notebook: He Said, She Said
Spiriting Prayer Into School


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