It's trade that holds a solution to poverty
January 4, 2000
by Dennis T. Avery
December 23, 1999
At first glance, the environmental activists who protested the World Trade Organization's ministerial meeting in Seattle this month seemed more naive than violent.
One group from Northern California was blocking an empty downtown street with wooden cutouts of evergreen trees. They said the WTO would force America to cut its old-growth forests. It wouldn't.
An earnest young fellow from Toronto held a hand-lettered sign saying "WTO Won't Give Us Clean Air." He believed that the WTO would prevent North America from enforcing its clean-air regulations. It wouldn't.
The labor movement had thousands of well-organized and well- behaved marchers. Their banners cried out the WTO had exported millions of American jobs. Yet U.S. unemployment is at a modern low and the purchasing power of American wages is at an all-time high.
A group of students from Lewis and Clark College in Oregon were more interested observers than angry activists. I told them about the new genetically enhanced "golden rice" that could save 2 billion women and children a year from severe malnutrition.
One girl said it was the first time she'd heard a justification for biotechnology in food production and wondered why the story hadn't been featured in the newspapers.
A demonstrator was asking me if I understood the four major life forces converging on my karma - but then a police car blipped its siren up the street. He quickly kissed my hand, told me he loved me and ran off to join a group trying to blockade the police car.
But despite the pockets of benign, if misinformed, protesters and the restraint of the Seattle police, the underlying anger of the environmental movement eventually surfaced. Apologists say the environmentalists weren't the ones who committed the property violence. However, the eco-activists did come to Seattle to create disturbance and to get arrested.
One hostile young man was grabbing the arms of passers-by, demanding that he get a seat at the WTO conference. I asked why he should have it.
"Because I'm human," he yelled in my face.
I pointed out to him that his ambassador, U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, was sitting inside with the representatives of billions of voters in other countries, people who shouldn't be ignored simply because the WTO is meeting in the United States. He raged that elections were no solution to the impending environmental disaster.
On the second morning of the WTO meeting, I saw a police car slowly approach a nearly empty intersection with its lights flashing.
Suddenly, about 20 activists threw themselves to the pavement in front of it, interlocking their arms, trying to provoke arrests. The squad car quietly backed away.
Circles of activists sat in the streets, hands interlocked inside heavy cardboard tubes so police couldn't pull them apart.
There were plenty of black ski masks. Some activists even brought personal gas masks. Law students handed out yellow "arrest cards" that activists could hand to arresting officers, directing the police to call a legal aid office.
When the Seattle police refused to be provoked, the eco- protesters turned against the city and its merchants. A McDonald's restaurant was attacked and sprayed with the slogan "Meat Is Murder." Dumpsters were overturned and kiosks toppled.
Whole blocks of downtown shops had their plate glass windows smashed. Half a world away, eco-protesters railing against "capitalism and the WTO" took over the Euston train station in London. The highlight of the festival was the burning of a police van.
Activists demand that environmental and labor clauses be included in the next WTO agreement. Yet the poor countries of the world are adamantly opposed. They rightly expect that the clauses will be used to keep out trade from any countries too poor to afford high wages and flush toilets.
What kind of a world do these advocates of mob rule want? They propose to improve workers' wages around the world by blocking trade. But that would prevent good jobs from being created in the developing world.
Most of the Seattle activists were protesting capitalism. But private industry has recently powered the biggest surge in working people's incomes ever seen. Anti-capitalism in the wake of communism's self-destruction is perverse.
The activists want to fight hunger by cutting food production and banning such high-yield farm inputs as pesticides, fertilizers and biotechnology.
They prescribe vegetarian diets that won't properly nourish our children and won't voluntarily be embraced by adults. That is both unrealistic and anti-human. The activists never say how we will get food for our pets. That's a perversion of animal rights. They essentially demand we protect the world's wildlife by plowing the world's remaining wild lands to grow low-yield organic crops. That's a cruel contradiction.
The eco-activists have long lobbied for a world with fewer people - who would live in natural squalor. Is that what the 6 billion residents of the planet really want?
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.