Trade vs. Environment

February 28, 1992

Having prospered and polluted since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, should the northern half of the globe pay Brazil hard cash not to cut down its rain forests? Crazy as this idea might sound at first glance, it is no crazier than the notion of NATO nations financing the destruction of nuclear weapons and storage sites on the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Both proposals have the common purpose of trying to safeguard the environment of this lovely, defiled planet. Both would be a lot cheaper in the long run than the present situation.

The nuclear problem may be attacked quickly because it is more menacing than the deterioration of the atmosphere as rain forests are depleted in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Yet which is the greater evil? The vast rain forests constantly replenish the Earth's oxygen supply by absorbing carbon dioxide spewed in enormous profusion from automobiles and factories and dwellings in industrialized nations. Alas, these forests are disappearing as loggers, farmers and pioneers hack away with huge machines instead of machetes.

Now comes the organization in charge of world commerce, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), with its startling proposal that Brazil and other rain-forest countries be paid for their "carbon absorption services" if they will preserve their thousands of square miles of green cover.

Cynics can easily dismiss this overture as an attempt by GATT to arm itself against attacks by environmentalists in advance of the United Nations "earth summit" in June. The key question is whether the goal of encouraging and liberalizing world trade runs counter to the worldwide quest for a cleaner and better-managed environment, as seen in the current United Nations push for a treaty to combat global warming.

Despite harsh rhetoric on the trade-environment issue, parties to the debate have only begun to examine its ramifications and contradictions.

Example: A good argument can be made that freer trade in farm products -- one of GATT's key aims -- would be an ecological boon. It would allow nations naturally endowed with rich farm land to export their agricultural products to nations whose strivings for food self-sufficiency or food exporting status are rapidly ravaging their geography.

Yet the concept of expanding world trade is being targeted by environmental groups. Many are sincere. Many are well-informed. Many can make the case that the industrialized northern hemisphere, with its staggering $50 billion trade surplus over the southern hemisphere, is the same region that pollutes the most. But in the search for solutions, we should beware of protectionists masquerading in environmentalist clothing.

This should not be a contest between trade and environment. It should be a common effort to clean up the planet through the rational preservation, use and division of resources that are as finite as the planet itself.

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