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The World Trade Organization

Take a day to peruse everything that comes into your life by way of trade. Maybe keep a "Trade Day" journal listing where your car's parts originated; how your food was trucked, trained, or airplaned to your table; where your Muppet dolls, bicycle, or hiking boots were assembled. There will be many question marks?mysteries of content (Does this soy burger contain genetically engineered beans?); origins (Is my Toyota from Japan?); and methods (Did fishing for this tuna really cause no dolphin deaths?). Products arrive home like babies in diapers in the beaks of white storks.

Increasingly, the World Trade Organization has become the governor of world trade. It is a freestanding organization of 135 nations, beholden to no one but its members; parallel to the UN but granted power unprecedented in history. The WTO can set trade rules and order stiff penalties against member nations that break them. If the European Union, for instance, should refuse to import US hormone-laced beef, the WTO can rule that this is a "non-tariff barrier to trade." A WTO panel can decide there is no proof of health risk, and that the EU is using the ban as a ploy to protect domestic cattle production or to trade with preferred partners. The US and WTO then negotiate how much US trade in banned beef is worth in dollars, and allow the US to apply "sanctions" (really high tariffs)?to Italian hams, Belgian chocolates, or French truffles, for instance?equal in value to the lost exports. Although the sanctions supposedly punish offending nations, small producers who had nothing to do with the hormone/beef dispute can suffer.

Whole Earth , along with readers on various e-mail lists, received Paul Hawken's "N30." His long and passionate journal on the Seattle protests against WTO's Ministerial meeting is a testament to this new globalocal arena?an arena in which consumers need to think globally and think locally; act locally and act globally. In addition, Paul and Whole Earth assembled fourteen commentaries by WTO-critics and members of the corporate community on whether to fix WTO (and how?) or nix it. We are grateful to all contributors.

WTO arose from the aftermath of World War II and the zealous trade protectionism that preceded it. Sometimes a nation became protectionist and limited imports, and sometimes protectionists became wild-eyed nationalists and inched their nations into war. WTO's champions strongly believe that no two nations with McDonald's franchises will ever declare war on each other; that trade and multinational presences assure peace; that WTO rules will reduce consumer prices by stimulating global competition, resulting in increasing consumer demand that will spur productivity. WTO idealogues believe that "free trade" somehow creates an entrepreneurial class that will champion democracy, eliminate abuses of human rights, save the environment, and nurture equitable economic development. Moreover, WTO members dislike variety in trade agreements: e.g., agreements that favor former colonies (Europe and its Caribbean banana growers), or further non-trade goals (protection of sea turtles or Russia's sugar prices to Cuba). Their clarion call is one set of rules for all the globe. WTO trade is "rules based." It prides itself on one set of predictable global directives (26,000 pages worth!) and contrasts WTO with the disastrous WW II trade system in which nations bargained prices, market shares, quotas, and volumes, and hoped the results would be good for all concerned.

Nuevo Protectionists

All this infuriates the " nuevo protectionists"?the emerging coalition, not of old-style protectionist patriots, but of protectors of the health, environment, and food and labor security of ordinary citizens. The nuevos' power derives from a single, solid truth:

trade has become increasingly inseparable from industry/pollution/habitats/labor and foreign investment. WTO rules do not merely settle trade disputes; they ramify and force

cultural and environmental change. Seattle protestors asked: Can WTO-regulated trade (not "free" trade) improve the lot of more humans and the planet's health better than diverse, results-oriented, custom-designed trade agreements?

This is not a na´ve question. If global agreement on labor, health, and environment rules could trump trade rules, the diversity of trade agreements would better meet the needs of diverse societies at widely disparate levels of economic development. The nuevos seek to establish global rules that carry weight equal to or greater than WTO's powerful ability to punish by "negotiated sanctions." They might even imagine a world in which the largest emitter of greenhouse gases (us!) would not have the privilege of WTO dispute resolution on oil controversies until it signed the Kyoto Protocol?or face punitive tariffs when emissions exceed Kyoto goals. What seems ultimately unfair is that the WTO has powers to enforce, while agreements on land mines, human rights, and biodiversity are weak or unenforceable.

WTO rules have ridden roughshod over international treaties and conventions, promulgating homogenization and sometimes bullying national governments to loosen their safety nets. WTO's wealthier members have pulled rank, igniting the fury of Third World nations that lack the resources to fly to closed sessions and argue their case, or apply effective trade sanctions on the industrial world. The WTO dispute panels infuriated those fearful that WTO may be overriding hard-won steps towards sustainability. In Seattle, on November 30, all that frustration nonviolently took over the streets. Within three months?at the Davos World Economic Forum and the Montreal Protocols on trade in genetically modified seeds?the inklings of a power shift may have begun to appear.