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Globalization: A Threat to Planet Earth

Compiled by GayToday

Globalization presents growing threats to the planet and its inhabitants, according to a new report from the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington DC-based research organization. Forests are shrinking as the value of global trade in forest products climbs, from $29 billion in 1961 to $139 billion in 1998. And fisheries are collapsing as fish exports rise, growing nearly fivefold in value since 1970 to reach $52 billion in 1997. Human health is also endangered, with pesticide exports increasing nearly ninefold since 1961, to $11.4 billion in 1998.

“The surge in movements of goods, money, species, and pollution across international borders is placing unprecedented strains on the planet,” said Hilary French, author of Vanishing Borders: Protecting the Planet in the Age of Globalization. “Ironically, the best way to tackle these problems is by putting globalization to work for us, instead of against us.”

Channeling globalization to protect, rather than undermine, the earth's natural systems, is key to building an environmentally stable society in the 21st century. People are using new communications technologies to create powerful international coalitions, like last December's outpouring of citizen concern at the World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting in Seattle. And trade can help spread environmentally beneficial products and technologies, from shade-grown coffee to wind power.

World exports of goods increased 17-fold between 1950 and 1998, from $311 billion to $5.4 trillion; the volume of foreign direct investment has grown almost 15-fold just since 1970, reaching $644 billion in 1998; and the number of transnational corporations worldwide grew from 7,000 in 1970 to some 60,000 today.

These trends pose major environmental challenges. While economists tout record-breaking increases in global commerce in recent decades, more sobering statistics are being reported by the world's leading biologists: the loss of living species in recent decades represents the largest mass extinction since the dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago.

Globalization is a powerful driving force behind today's unprecedented biological implosion. An upsurge of trade and investment in natural resources sectors such as forestry, mining, and petroleum development is threatening the health of the world's forests, mountains, waters, and other sensitive ecosystems. And the rapid growth in the movement of human beings and their goods and services has provided convenient transportation for thousands of other species of plants and animals that are now taking root on foreign shores. On any given day, some 2 million people cross international borders, while 3,000 to 10,000 aquatic species are moving around the world in ship ballasts. Once "exotic species" establish a beachhead in a foreign ecosystem, they often proliferate, suppressing native species, and imposing high economic costs.

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International commerce is also a potent mechanism through which hazardous products and technologies move around the world. Over the last few decades, the developing world has become home to a growing share of the hazard-laden petrochemical industry. Approximately 41 percent of U.S. foreign direct investment in the Philippines in 1998 was in chemicals, as was 22 percent of such investment in Colombia.

High-tech industries such as computers and electronics have also gone global in recent years. Despite their early reputation as relatively clean, these industries can exact heavy environmental costs. Semiconductor manufacturing employs hundreds of chemicals, including arsenic, benzene, and chromium, all of which are known carcinogens. More than half of all computer manufacturing and assembly operations—processes intensive in their use of acids, solvents, and toxic gases—are now located in developing countries, according to the San Jose, California-based Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

Despite the environmental risks, the forces of globalization can also produce environmental gains, such as helping developing countries leapfrog to the cleaner technologies of tomorrow. China has become the world's largest manufacturer of energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs in recent years, in part through joint ventures with lighting firms based in Hong Kong, Japan, the Netherlands, and Taiwan. And India has become a major manufacturer of advanced wind turbines with the help of technology obtained through joint ventures and licensing agreements with Danish, Dutch, and German firms.

Several countries are working to harness the global economy to protect rather than decimate natural wealth. Costa Rica is now a major destination for eco-tourists, capitalizing on its moist cloud forests, sandy beaches, and dry deciduous forests. And many other countries have moved to tap into the booming international market for organic produce. Mexico now has some 10,000 organic farms on 15,000 hectares of land, most of them run by small farmers. While coffee is their mainstay, Mexico's organic farmers also cultivate apples, avocados, coconuts, cardamom, honey, and potatoes.

Redirecting the global economy away from environmentally harmful activities and into more sustainable ones will require a multi-pronged strategy, starting with requiring international economic institutions to pay more heed to the environmental impact of their programs.

Since the World Trade Organization was established in 1994, its dispute resolution panels have ruled that several national environmental laws constitute illegal trade barriers, including provisions of a U.S. law aimed at protecting endangered sea turtles and a European Union (EU) ban on the sale of hormone-raised beef. And trade tensions are rising between the European Union and the U.S. over European restrictions on planting genetically modified crops and a requirement that food containing them be labeled as such.

French calls for the WTO to incorporate a greater respect for the precautionary principle, which holds that lack of scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing action where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage. She also advocates protecting consumers' right to know about the health and environmental impact of products they purchase by safeguarding eco-labeling programs, allowing countries to use trade measures to protect the global commons, and deferring to international environmental treaties in cases where they conflict with trade rules. Better integration of environmental issues into the lending programs of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund would yield additional ecological dividends. On paper, the development-oriented World Bank is far more open than the IMF to environmental concerns.

But a recent internal review by the World Bank of more than 50 recent structural adjustment loans found that few of them paid much heed to environmental and social matters. Whereas a 1993 Bank report found that some 60 percent of such loans included environmental goals, the recent study concluded that this share had now plummeted to less than 20 percent.

A stronger international environmental infrastructure is also needed to act as an ecological counterweight to today's growing economic powerhouses. Environmental treaties now number more than 230, with three-fourths of them agreed to over the last thirty years. But the effectiveness of these agreements is often undermined by vague commitments and lax enforcement.

“Environmentalists should take a page from the World Trade Organization and push for international environmental commitments that are as specific and enforceable as trade accords have become,” says French. In Vanishing Borders, French calls for upgrading the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) into a World Environmental Organization that can coordinate and strengthen the current scattered collection of environmental treaty bodies.

New information and communications technologies can be harnessed to forge powerful cross-border political alliances—a trend that is already well underway. The number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working across international borders soared during the last century, climbing from just 176 in 1909 to more than 23,000 in 1998. Empowered by e-mail and the Internet, environmental activists have gradually organized themselves into a range of powerful international networks, such as the Climate Action Network, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, and the Women's Environment and Development Organization.

Some forward-looking corporations are helping to chart the path to an environmentally sustainable global economy, according to the report. In recent years, some 10,000 companies worldwide, many from the developing world, have become certified under the voluntary environmental management guidelines forged by the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization, a worldwide federation of national standards-setting bodies.

Private investors are also increasingly active on environmental issues. In 1999, concerned investors introduced 54 shareholder resolutions related to environmental issues. In one particularly successful case, Home Depot announced a commitment to purchasing certified timber just three months after 12 percent of its shareholders asked the company to stop selling wood from old-growth forests.

Vanishing Borders, French finds that innovative partnerships are being forged between activist groups, businesses and international institutions, including several independent eco-labeling initiatives that aim to bring consumer pressure to bear on behalf of environmental change. For example, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) was established in 1993 to set standards for sustainable forest production through a cooperative process involving timber traders and retailers as well as environmental organizations and forest dwellers. As of late 1999, FSC-accredited bodies had certified some 17 million hectares of forest in 30 countries, up from only 1 million hectares in late 1995.

Despite these encouraging developments, environmental destruction continues to outpace society's collective response. "Over the course of the twentieth century, the global economy stretched the planet to its limits," said French. "The time is now ripe to forge the international policies and institutions needed to ensure that the world economy of the 21st century meets peoples' aspirations for a better future without destroying the natural fabric that underpins life itself."

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