Vanishing Borders: Protecting the Planet in the Age of Globalization
Hillary French, Vice President of Research, the World Watch Institute
October 10, 2000—Hilary French, a prolific author on environmental issues, presented the findings of her new World Watch Institute Press book (Vanishing Borders: Protecting the Planet in the Age of Globalization) to a broad audience of students, academics, policymakers, and representatives of international nongovernmental organizations as well as private industry. French's book attempts to answer two related questions: What is the impact of globalization on the environment? And which policy responses are needed to address this impact?
French called "globalization" a term not universally understood, and defined it as the increased flow of goods, ideas, and earth changes across international borders. She then identified four such "flows" that have an impact on the health of the planet: (1) rapid growth in trade; (2) capital flows; (3) ecological flows (such as invasive species, air, and water pollution); and (4) the flows of information (such as e-mail and the Internet). According to French, these flows present both broad challenges and significant opportunities for citizens and policy makers alike.
French cited three such challenges. First, the current economy is environmentally unsustainable, and globalization is further exacerbating its devastating impact. Second, hazardous industries are increasing in those countries with weak environmental standards and lax enforcement ability. Third, concerns about how environmental accords such as the Kyoto Protocol might retard economic competitiveness are hampering efforts to address climate change. But French cited current opportunities as well, including: (a) alternative power sources (such as wind power in India); (b) natural resource commodities growth (such as the rise in Mexico of organic agriculture); and (c) information flows (which have spurred an increase in citizen activism and environmental movements). French pointed out the irony of the 1999 Seattle protesters using the very technology that they condemned in widening their call for action against globalization.
Finally, policy challenges lie ahead. French argued that environmental reform is needed within most global economic institutions, from the World Trade Organization to the World Bank to private lenders and investors. International environmental treaties also must be more specific than current ones, which are vague and/or lax in their monitoring and enforcement standards. And the role international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) play in global governance must be recognized through procedural rights and increased partnership among the private sector, NGOs, and governments.
A lively discussion session followed, with many participants citing the role of other factors in this globalization and environment relationship, including population growth and migration, international crime rings, human health consequences, the attention (or inattention) of the media, and whether or not a global consensus exists on these issues. In response, French argued that government must play a crucial role in managing globalization, and that capacity-building is being hampered by societal and governmental institutions that lack the wherewithal and/or the political will to address some of the above concerns. French also eloquently outlined some of the principle concerns that environmentalists have with globalization and identified some key policy actions needed to address these concerns.