January 7, 2008

Environmentalism and free trade: An unlikely duo

Again, the last several chapters of Mr. Harford’s book were pretty great, I thought. He goes at all questions from all major angles, and treats everything very fairly. Of course, environmentalists would not say the same after reading his Chapter nine about globalization.

I’m specifically referring to his reference that environmentalists “should be manning the barricades to demand global free trade immediately.” I’m sure every environmentalist reading something like that would be thinking “posh, free trade, capitalists, dirty, evil…” And I’m hardly exaggerating. But he does bring up a good point, and indirectly implies another point, at least to me, which I think are worth remembering.

First, he basically says that environmentalists have got it wrong, not because they are stupid, though. It’s generally because of bad information, a theme he seems to like. Several times, Mr. Harford mentions that many claims by political groups decrying globalization in its environmental role are usually overblown and I’m guessing the statistics to support such statements, if they exist, are manipulated, perhaps more than the average statistical manipulation.

Accordingly, he thinks that free trade should be one of the main platforms for environmentalists, and I happen to agree, but not just because of the reasons he lists, like the fact that globalization probably causes less pollution than isolation, not to mention more poverty. A more integrated world, which economic cooperation will help to foster, will, I think, be able to better handle the problems of pollution. It’s not hard to figure that my pollution may float across the world to China, and that is exactly what I have been told in some classes. If that’s so, then there’s a serious problem with every country in the world using autos, because the pollution caused is doubtlessly affecting more than just the driving citizens. In a world with economic sanctions and retaliation, it’s hard to imagine much getting done about this problem, and Presidents of the United States, at least recent ones, are notorious for lagging behind in world environmental standards.

Not to say they shouldn’t be skeptical. No doubt economic interference of any kind is certain to cost somebody something. But the point is that nations in a more integrated world, which free trade might help to foster, might be held more accountable to other nations and be better able to respond to such problems. At least they might talk about them, instead of simply refusing to sign any and every act which might hurt special interest support. Since this is what the environmentalists want (and I’m not saying I do, just that they do), then they really should be supporting free trade.

It’s probably too much to hope for. If you, like me, suspect that environmentalism in the political arena is sometimes about more than just the environment, then we can expect continued false statements, bogus claims, and exaggerations on the part of politicians to gain the environmental vote. Oh well.

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