Unfair trade

Ricardo A. Navarro argues that, through trade, the North has built
up an ecological debt with the South

Trade is, in essence, the collection of vessels through which a country’s blood flows. Countries – and companies – must buy and sell if they are to function well. For many centuries, people and regions have exchanged products such as salt, spices, fabrics, medicines and precious metals with their neighbours. Trade has long stemmed from the needs – or wishes – of people to acquire goods and services they cannot produce or create themselves and for which they are prepared to give something in return.

As people became more efficient at exploiting natural resources – and their scientific and technological knowledge increased – they created an excess of goods and services. These had to be marketed without delay. The inventions of currency and, much later, of electronic communications, both caused trade to grow exponentially. If genuine needs for products did not produce sufficiently high demand, new needs had to be created, and fast.

Now the promotion of free trade has almost become a religion, for both people and countries. Anyone or anything that gets in the way of trade, or appears to do so, must be demonized and overcome, even if the result is the destruction of a water source or the disappearance of a culture. International politics is largely defined on the basis of countries’ capacity to buy or sell: this explains some of the international decisions concerning countries which are important traders in oil or vehicles.

Limits of nature
Trade jeopardises the environment because it has become self-governing. Trade no longer responds to the needs of people or countries, but rather to the very need for trade. We no longer trade to live, we live to trade. This means that trade is governed by its own logic, which, among other things, requires generating more wealth through exploiting more natural resources. This has resulted in rivalry over the consumption of resources, with no respect or consideration for nature’s limits.

Much trade involves generating waste or plundering resources. The final result of trade in oil, for example, is increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Environmental problems arise when the logic that governs trade – constantly requiring resources in ever growing quantities and generating similarly exponentially increasing amounts of waste – clashes with the logic that governs nature – which limits resource use and waste generation. In many cases this natural limit is exceeded, as with emissions of carbon dioxide, largely responsible for the change that is taking place in the Earth’s climate.

It is not just that frenetic trade is causing environmental deterioration. There is also a question of justice. The impact of the deterioration is shared neither equally nor fairly. For example, oil consumption reflects economic power. Those who have more, consume more; and those who have more belong to the northern hemisphere and to the middle and upper classes of the southern hemisphere.

However, the pollution generated by the consumption of oil does not just affect those who consume the fuel. Instead it is distributed almost equally in the atmosphere on which we all depend. The same is true of the many pollutants that end up in the sea. So those who have not benefited from consuming resources feel the impact of the wastes that result. Over time, this has caused a debt between those who consume more and those who consume less. It could be said that the North is indebted, in ecological terms, to the South.
Those who have not benefited from consuming resources feel the impact of the wastes that result

This debt does not just involve the misappropriation of ‘space’ in the atmosphere that belongs to us all by disproportionate pollution by the minority of the world’s people. It also encompasses the harmful effects that result from these emissions. We know, for example, that global warming has caused an increase in the number and severity of floods, droughts and other consequences of extreme weather. We also know the effects these have had, including the loss of human life, and where they have occurred. So, we could say in general terms that some people in the world, who mainly live in the North, use cars and consume petrol, and others, mainly in the South, suffer floods and death as a result. This was the case with the hurricanes and floods that affected Central America, Venezuela, Bangladesh and Mozambique.

Shared living standards
The terms North and South, it must be said, are not just geographical ones; they cover economic, social and political factors as well. Thus the North includes not just developed, mainly northern countries, but also the middle and upper classes of developing countries, who share the same standards of living. Equally, the South includes people who have difficulty meeting their basic needs despite living in northern countries.

Nor is trade free or fair. Economically powerful countries can modify the rules as they choose, and widen the economic and social gaps both between and within nations. In doing so, they contribute to the plundering of nature, since both extreme wealth and extreme poverty put the ecological balance at risk.

If trade is to be acceptable, it must be environmentally rational and socially fair. This means not only that we must stay within the limits of nature, but that the North must also avoid continuing to run up an ecological debt with the South. We at Friends of the Earth International and our associations express the need to find ecological justice and rationality through the concept of Environmental Space. This means that all of us on Earth have the same right – or should do – to the same ‘space’ from which we can use resources and to which we can send wastes.

There is, in other words, no reason why a person in the United States of America or Japan should consume much more energy or water, or generate more waste, than a person in Bangladesh or Haiti. After all, we are all made the same way

Dr. Ricardo A. Navarro is Chairman of Friends of the Earth International.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Time to act | A climate of change | Melding heart and head | Looking through green glasses | Multi-local business | World Environment Day 2000 |
At a glance | Competition | The greening of Goliath | Unfair trade | No sleeping after Seattle | Disproportionate effects | Liberal rations | New millennium, new regulation | Secretary-General’s Report | Pachamama: Our Earth, Our Future


Complementary articles in other issues:
Tewolde Berhan G. Egziabher: Safety denied (Looking Forward) 1999
Rubens Ricupero: The new green marketplace (Climate & Action) 1998
A. Atiq Rahman: The South is acting (Climate Change) 1997
Vandana Shiva: Values beyond price (Culture) 1996