Protesters at the Seattle WTO meetings wanted to halt trade and technology to save jobs and the environment. Their agenda would do the exact opposite.
As I wandered the rainy streets of Seattle that Tuesday morning November 30, the demonstrations against the World Trade Organization (WTO) seemed, at first, more naive than violent. A group of approximately twenty-five young men and women defended an empty street with big plywood cutouts of evergreens and a sign that said, “We Stand for the Trees.” Carl, a bearded carpenter from northern California, said that he was there because the WTO would force America to cut its old-growth forests. (It wouldn’t.) A young man from Toronto carried a homemade sign that said, “The WTO Won’t Give Us Clean Air.” He told me that the WTO would forbid North America to enforce its clean air requirements. (It wouldn’t.)
A big circle of protesters danced around a huge, chaotic painting being created as we watched. They were singing, “Ring around a rosy,” the old medieval chant that commemorates the Black Plague, and they seemed to get particular pleasure out of the death chorus, “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.” The biggest cheers were going to a dozen people carrying a twenty-foot plastic whale. The WTO has nothing to do with whaling, but the display gave a festive “Macy’s Parade” tone to the event. Greenpeace was on hand, too, sponsoring its usual group of people dressed as condoms. This essentially religious ritual was as moving as ever (not very), but utterly wrongheaded: thanks to affluence and urbanization, the only people still having large families are the poor, peasant farmers that Greenpeace says it wants to protect and encourage.
Other signs in the streets: “China Out of Tibet,” “Who Killed Tupac?” and “Canada’s Water is Not for Sale.” There was also a “wanted” poster depicting Michael Moore, the new Director-General of the WTO, for “crimes against the environment.” (He has only been in office a few weeks.) A hostile young man wearing a black mask grabbed my arm on the street. He loudly demanded a seat at the WTO. I asked why he should have it. “Because I’m human!” he yelled. I pointed out that he was already represented at the WTO table: our ambassador was sitting with the representatives of more than two billion other voters around the world. The masked man railed that elections were no solution to the impending environmental disaster.
The labor movement provided thousands of well-organized and well-behaved marchers. Their banners claimed that the WTO had exported millions of American jobs. As they marched, however, American unemployment was at the lowest point in modern history, and the purchasing power of American wages was at an all-time high. If we had millions more jobs, we’d have to let in millions more immigrants to take them—which the labor movement strongly opposes. Also well-behaved was the busload of students from Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, who were more inquisitive than angry. I told them about the genetically enhanced new “golden rice” which will save two billion women and children from severe malnutrition. (The rice contains vitamin A and iron, which nature didn’t give it.) One student said that this was the first time she had heard any valid reason for using biotechnology in food production. She wondered why she hadn’t seen anything about golden rice in the newspapers or on TV. So did I.
Violence Bubbling to the Surface
Unfortunately, eco-violence had started on Monday night. Protesters stormed a McDonald’s, broke its windows, and spray-painted the storefront with the slogan “meat is murder.” The police acted with enormous restraint toward these first incidents. On Tuesday morning I saw a squad car slowly approach a nearly empty intersection in the cordoned-off downtown area, with its light bar flashing. Suddenly, approximately twenty activists threw themselves to the pavement before it and interlocked their arms. Hard-eyed veterans of the eco-protest movement stood on the sidewalk nearby, exhorting the activists to remain nonviolent, reminding everyone that the goal was to provoke the police into violence—and arrests. But the police car disappointed them by quietly backing away.
Circles of protesters sat in several empty intersections, wearing signs and rain gear. They interlocked their hands inside heavy cardboard tubes wrapped with duct tape so that the police could not separate them. The officers didn’t even try. They let the protesters sit, except at an interstate off-ramp where there was real danger of an accident. There, the police used pepper spray to disperse them. On Tuesday afternoon, however, the activists turned their anger against the city, starting an orgy of window smashing and street trashing. Protesters destroyed plate-glass windows throughout entire blocks of downtown. They overturned dumpsters and pushed sales kiosks off the sidewalks. They spray-painted slogans heralding the virtue of environmentalism. Law students wearing sweatshirts from the University of Washington Law School handed out yellow “arrest cards” and offered free legal aid to the demonstrators.
Apologists for the environmental cause now claim that “outsiders” created the violence. The eco-demonstration, however, pulled people from halfway around the world who already believed that they are the only solution for the planet. They arrived determined to make headlines by being arrested, but the police inititially refused to oblige them. The black-clad “anarchists” in ski masks were as much a part of the eco-demonstration as the blue plastic whale.
That night, half a world away in London, an estimated one-thousand eco-protesters against “capitalism and the WTO” took over the Euston rail station during the evening rush hour, bringing traffic to a standstill. Protesters torched an overturned police van in the station’s entrance and rained missiles on officers in riot gear.
Opposing Biotechnology and Corporations
The Seattle demonstrators expressed strong opposition to biotechnology in food production. A dozen protesters carried a big canvas cow on a wooden frame representing the genetically enhanced bovine growth hormone which produces more milk from less feed. A few activists carried signs calling for “NO GMO Foods” and protesting “Frankenfoods.” There were the usual Monarch butterflies on sticks. (Never mind that field studies have established that there is no danger to Monarch caterpillars more than a couple of yards outside a genetically modified corn field. The corn pollen is very heavy, so it doesn’t land far from the field; the pollen doesn’t stick to the smooth leaves of the milkweed; and the caterpillars prefer to eat around any pollen grains they do run across.) The activists want a flagship species, and they’ll continue to carry the butterflies until the focus groups say that the public no longer cares.
Anger against corporations was a much stronger theme. “Capitalism is Not Sustainable” was a popular slogan. Four young women danced up a steep Seattle street dressed in Superwoman costumes and chanting, “Beat Back the Corporate Attack.” The WTO was derided as a tool of corporations rather than a treaty between more than 130 national governments, almost all of them popularly elected. A leaflet handed out from the Council on International and Public Affairs told me that “Outside the U.S., WTO decrees will inflict great harm upon human life and biological systems. We in the United States have a responsibility to support efforts by activists from other lands to neutralize and abolish the WTO. . . . But after Seattle, we in the USA have a formidable challenge: to identify and undo over two hundred years of constitutional doctrines and laws designed to clothe corporate property with the power of government.”
Their message certainly reached its target audience: the press. After I returned home, the December 6 edition of the Washington Post carried a column by Jerome Levinson of the American University law school. He wrote, “The violence in Seattle should not obscure the real significance of the WTO talks: that the multinational corporations can longer bulldoze through Congress trade agreements that do not incorporate core rights for workers and environmental concerns.”
Inviting the Green Violence
The activists knew that the Clinton administration and the Gore election campaign would welcome their appearance in the streets of Seattle. On November 16, Clinton had made the invitation official by signing an executive order requiring the U.S. government to “protect the environment in future trade negotiations.” This order, of course, will not protect the environment. It will simply ensure that the world’s rich countries will now define all of their trade barriers as environmental. The European Union was already demanding labor and environmental clauses in the WTO. (Mostly, it was still trying to protect a failed farm policy that has helplessly watched twenty-five million European farmers leave their farms and practically obliterated the region’s traditional rural landscape despite enormous spending on farm price supports.)
Poor countries are adamantly opposed to the new environmental and labor clauses. They correctly believe that the rich countries will use such clauses to keep out exports from any countries using child labor and too poor to afford high wages and flush toilets. The hypocrisy about child labor is particularly obvious. America used child labor freely when it was clawing its way into the Industrial Age. Then as now, the children’s alternative was not school but dangerous work on farms. Once we got rich, we began to send our kids to school in expensive tennis shoes, and so will the Third World in the twenty-first century. Restricting trade with developing nations will only exacerbate their problems.
Turning Back the Clock
It’s important to consider the policy recommendations the activists in Seattle and London have given us. They propose to improve workers’ wages around the world by blocking trade. Unfortunately, the last time many nations blocked world trade, we got the Great Depression. (America started the trade war in 1929 with the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act.) The real effect of imposing the rich countries’ labor standards through the WTO would be to prevent the developing world from creating any good jobs. This might well end up replacing international trade competition with armed conflict.
Most of the protesters also demanded the end of “capitalism.” But opposition to economic freedom after the death of Communism is simply perverse. Private industry has just powered the biggest surge in workers’ incomes ever seen, with most of the new jobs being created in the countries with the freest markets, especially the U.S., Asia, and Latin America. Virtually no new jobs have been developed in socialist Western Europe.
The activists in Seattle proposed cutting food production and banning high-yield farm inputs such as pesticides, fertilizers, and biotechnology. They claimed that consumers want food produced with “poetry,” not machines and chemicals. Ironically, one of the scientists who spoke in favor of biotech at Seattle recounted that she had grown up on an Irish potato farm, weeding the fields on her hands and knees. Not surprisingly, she is in favor of herbicide-resistant crops that can be weeded chemically. She now runs the biotech food program at the University of California-Davis. The notion that consumers want to send women and children back into our fields on their hands and knees in the twenty-first century—and accept the scarcity and high prices it would bring—is doubtful at best. We’re feeding six billion people today on virtually the same amount of farmland needed to feed three billion in 1950. That means that fifteen million square miles of wildlife habitat have not had to be plowed down—wilderness equal to the entire land area of the U.S., Europe, and South America.
The protesters have, at least, made the choice very clear. The vital question is whether the world will continue to liberalize trade. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “We are about to leave the twentieth century behind. The first half saw the world almost destroyed by war, partly as result of its division into trade blocs. The second half saw an unprecedented expansion of world trade, which has also brought unprecedented economic growth. This week’s meetings of the WTO in Seattle, and a few other meetings over the next few years, could be pivotal in determining whether the twenty-first century will be like the first half of the twentieth, only worse—or like the second half, only better.”
The other big question in the wake of Seattle is the future of biotechnology in food production. The world will demand nearly three times as much farm output by 2050, to supply the meat, milk, fruit, cotton, and pet food for about 8.5 billion affluent people. We are already farming approximately half the global land area not under permanent ice cover, while broadly using high-yield seeds, chemical fertilizers, and irrigation. Without something new, low-yield farmers will have to plow down the other half of our species-rich tropical forests. Biotechnology is the only current technology with the potential to triple the world’s current crop yields. Science, in its November 26 issue, carried two articles essentially documenting that the eco-charges against biotechnology in food have been either false or trivial. Meanwhile, gene mapping is letting us use genes from wild relatives of our crop plants to obtain big increases in tomato and rice yields. Acid-soil crops, transformed by two Mexican researchers, will apparently double yields on much of the arable land in the densely populated tropics.
Antibiotech activists, however, are making a big emotional impact on First World consumers. They argue that the world has plenty of food, and consumers believe it because their own kids and pets are well-fed and their wildlands are protected from the plow. First World consumers have become amazingly unconcerned about the kids and animals in the Third World (perhaps because of the hype about overpopulation). Activists also try to scare consumers with suggestions that biotech foods are unsafe, even though genetic engineering is actually more effectively controlled than conventional crossbreeding.
Not surprisingly, it was rumored at Seattle that Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund had budgeted $300 million for their antibiotech campaign in 2000. Greenpeace won’t comment, but the huge eco-organizations certainly can put their hands on that much cash.
The Legacy of Seattle
Although the labor unions are likely to lose interest in the trade issue as affluent countries jobs continue to create high-tech jobs, the environmental movement is virtually certain to continue its ardent campaigns against both trade and technology. The eco-activists are locked in their deeply pessimistic worldview. First and foremost, the movement hates having a lot of people on the planet. The eco-activists are not deterred by the fact that the human population is now rapidly restabilizing instead of spiraling out of control as Paul Ehrlich predicted in his famous 1968 book, The Population Bomb. They do not want the world to have its current 6 billion people, let alone another 8.5 billion in 2035, regardless of whether we can feed them. Thus all the dancing condoms and the like: the movement is angry because the public now seems willing to let the current population surge run its course, instead of demanding immediate, direct action for population reduction.
They are equally angry that the world refuses to ban the farm chemicals the movement has hated and decried for forty years. The old cancer scare is now fading as the public realizes that our non-smoking cancer risks began to decline just about the time we began to spray pesticides widely. (This is not cause and effect, but a striking non-effect.)
The activists also dislike the world’s spreading affluence. As human society aggressively pursues the new technologies and international trade that have spread affluence throughout what used to be the Third World, per capita incomes in poor countries have been rising twice as fast as First World incomes. In China, more than one billion people have seen their purchasing power rise from perhaps $50 in 1978 to more than $3000 today. India is now on the same path, and by the year 2050 most of the world is likely to enjoy high-tech abundance—absent some dramatic surge in the public’s desire for managed scarcity.
Technology has also blunted many other eco-issues. The First World’s air quality continues to improve, and its industrial pollution has been radically reduced. Now the fuel cell promises to minimize the pollution associated with the automobile, without eliminating the auto and the personal freedom it provides. Even the “new” issue of urban sprawl is dissolving as people realize that the alternative is to invite crowding and taller buildings into the communities where they currently live. (See “Urban Legend,” by John C. Weicher, in this issue.)
Certainly, technological change involves risks, and the twentieth century was a time of great human impact on the environment. But new technologies are reversing that trend. The modern world—with its small families, high-rise cities, and high-yield farms that leave more room for nature—is good for the environment. Our modern post-industrial jobs pollute far less than the cruder jobs of the Industrial Age and today’s Third World. Until the public recognizes the environmental benefits of high-tech abundance, we, however, are likely to see our trade opportunities blocked and new technologies lie unused instead of saving lives and wildlife habitat. That will harm both people and the environment.
The problem is not the WTO or corporations. The problem is that some First World consumers want to live in modern opulence while giving lip service to the impoverished lifestyles the eco-movement demands. A large segment of the population feels guilty about the environment. That is why my most vivid mental image of Seattle will always be the young cyclist with a bandanna over the lower half of his face, a small, blue, cardboard whale on a stick, and little, hand-lettered sign that said, “Stop Profit.”