Satya has ceased publication. This website is maintained for informational purposes only.

To learn more about the upcoming Special Edition of Satya and Call for Submissions, click here.

back issues


November 1999
Editorial: The Biggest Question—Globalization, World Trade and You



It’s called the Big Question, and it will be asked when world leaders, bureaucrats, technocrats, corporate CEOs and a broad coalition of activists gather later this month at the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meeting in Seattle. What is the Big Question? According to Adbusters, a Canada-based group of self-described “culture jammers,” it is simply: “Is economic ‘progress’ killing the planet?” This, along with a slew of other questions, will be asked by a host of activists.

Now, before your eyes glaze over (as most do) at the mention of “the WTO,” “tariffs,” and “globalization,” please grab hold of a cup of caffeine (or juice or herbal tea) and stay awake. You are in for a surprise. It turns out, as this Satya shows, that these and a number of other realities of the global economic system are far from dull. In fact, they are fascinating—and often alarming—since the processes of globalization, and the WTO’s nameless, faceless bureaucrats, are increasingly shaping the world we live in. No less than the future of the planet and the existence of ours and other species may be at stake—really. That’s why in this issue of Satya, we are tackling the Big Question, seeking to raise awareness of how globalization and the WTO work—and why you should care and what you can do.

The Pro Crowd’s View of the World
It is unlikely that the global trade grand pooh-bahs are polishing their answers to the Big Question. Their goal in Seattle is to jump-start a new round of global trade talks, and there are few mechanisms in place to make them accountable to the concerns or desires of ordinary people. For these pro-free traders, globalization (the rapid integration of national economies and finance systems, and the freeing of markets that has taken off since the end of the Cold War) is a boon. Globalization is, the boosters say, bringing economic growth and the benefits of a capitalist system to parts of the world that were stagnating for decades. Along with free trade, its essential companion, it has made many people wealthy—somevery wealthy—and has created large numbers of new jobs, industries and consumers (of both goods and services, like education and health care).

To many, globalization has also ensured prosperity and a way out of endemic poverty. The proponents of globalization point to a growing middle class, now 350 million people strong, in impoverished India. It has provided new job opportunities in technology, with Silicon Alleys popping up in Asia and Latin America. In other industries, global trade has created millions of new workers with new wealth that allows them to invest in homes, their children’s education, travel, or consumer goods, fueling economic growth. And, the proponents assert, greater economic ties between and among countries mean fewer inter-state conflicts, fewer full-scale wars, and fewer interruptions to the prevailing order.

Questioning the Essentials
For the activists who will be asking the Big Question and a lot of other questions at the WTO meeting in Seattle, globalization is a highly unsettling and unfair process. Instead of ensuring the future of the world’s countries and people, globalization could in fact bury them, and most of us, too. How so? Skeptics of globalization charge that it is an inherently unfair process—a new form of colonialism. They say that its very nature gives disproportionate power to corporations and bankers in the industrialized countries of the North (the U.S., Japan, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand) at the expense of nearly everyone, except a small elite in the Southern (developing) countries.

As evidence, they point to the fact that inequality between the incomes of the rich and poor is growing all over the world, as well as in the U.S., reaching the highest levels of disparity ever recorded. According to the 1999 United Nations’ Human Development Report, the 20 percent of the world’s people who live in the North control 86 percent of the world gross domestic product (GDP) and 82 percent of world export markets. The bottom 20 percent, who live in the poorest countries of the South, have about one percent of each. While the rich thrive, logging onto ‘,’ their purchasing power fueled and legitimized by nearly a decade of strong economic growth and increased global trade (the WTO’s bailiwick), at least one billion of the now six billion of us get by on incomes of $1 a day or less.

Destruction: the Wages of ‘Progress’
These skeptics also point to increases throughout the 1990s in the rates of destruction of tropical forests, ocean ecosystems, and species, as these “resources” are given a superficial monetary value and turned into commodities (waste dumps, teak furniture or turtle soup). What are not valued, or priced in a market system, are the additional costs involved in destroying resources, costs like the loss of biodiversity, soil erosion and floods, degraded air and water quality, extinction of species and human illness. And on top of these, the critics of globalization continue, are sweatshops, popping up throughout Asia and in U.S. cities, staffed with poorly paid workers who often work in hazardous conditions similar to bondage.

They also point to what some term a “race to the bottom.” Under globalization, the skeptics argue, industries can set up shop wherever they find the cheapest workers and the most lax environmental safeguards. And, given the number of poor, desperate people and countries burdened by debt, corporations find such places fairly easily (41 of the world’s poorest countries owe more than $200 billion to governments, banks, and the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund).

Globalization is indeed a contentious process, particularly since it depends on the unlikely merger of the concepts of “more” and “less.” For the process of globalization to succeed, there must be, and increasingly are, fewer restrictions on: investment, capital flow, markets, ownership, and trade. In addition, governments must lessen or end their regulatory power over the activities of markets, meaning fewer rules and checkpoints.

But globalization also spawns more. More integration of markets for goods and services. More privatization of government services and industries. More flow of capital around the world in shorter and shorter time spans (in 1998, $1.5 trillion of foreign exchange was traded on world markets every day). More technology. More trade between countries and regions, and more consumers and consumption. In short, more money and, for some, more opportunities to make money.

The Face and Facelessness of the WTO
And what of the WTO in this process of globalization? It is a peculiar and still little-known institution (although Seattle may change all that) that plays two critical roles: that of cheerleader for the global economy, and eminence grise, working behind the scenes to assure that the global trading system as currently configured is extended and protected. What rankles WTO critics is that, in their view, it is highly undemocratic and almost wholly unaccountable. WTO meetings are closed to the public, reports are not issued on its proceedings, and decisions made by a secret panel of trade “experts” are binding on member countries. Critics, among them the Economist magazine (a strong supporter of globalization) also contend that the WTO is stacked against poorer countries. While richer countries retain tariffs (taxes on imports designed to protect domestic products) on many goods that poor countries produce, like textiles, they demand that their Southern counterparts open their markets further and abandon attempts to protect fragile domestic industries through tariffs or other means.

What also has not escaped critics’ notice is that even in this age of spin, the WTO is not waging a PR campaign to make its powers and processes more open or better known to the public. While it remains something of a mystery, its impact can be profound and unsettling. As Terri Lujan, Benjamin White, and Pamela Rice report in this issue, WTO rulings on trade disputes have so far all gone against the environment and animals. A central tenet of the WTO’s founding is that the process by which a product is made has no relevance to trade in it. So, if corporations produce soccer balls with child labor, or fish for shrimp with nets that endanger sea turtles, other countries’ laws blocking import of these products, based on objections to how they are produced, can be and have been ruled illegal by the WTO. And as Tracy Rysavy demonstrates, if a new international agreement on investment (the MAI) is passed, the power of national and local governments to protect human health or the environment may be even more drastically reduced.

The Biggest Question
Hence, the need for the Big Question—the one Adbusters has posed or one of your own. Globalization’s scope and impact is huge, so huge we may not be aware of how rapidly it is taking place or how much it is changing our lives or the lives of all other flora and fauna—indeed, perhaps, the very nature of life, if biotechnology has its day. Far too often, politicians, policy-makers and observers seek to define globalization and the liberalization of world trade, and answer their skeptics, with bromides. While President Clinton, speaking at the United Nations, exhorted world leaders to reject a future in which “one part of humanity lives on the cutting edge of a new economy while the other lives on the knife edge of survival,” his major solution was hardly Big Thinking. What must we do? Believe, he said, that “open markets advance the blessings and breakthroughs we want to spread.”

What is clear, on the “knife edge” of the new millennium, is that facile answers like these simply won’t suffice—neither in Seattle nor in its aftermath. What is also clear is that it is now up to us to ask questions, Big and Small. To do so, we are going to need more of what many, and perhaps you, will take to Seattle (and we have included a list of major events and contact information for those who decide to go): a truly global array of analyses, engagements, passions, and ideas. So, read up, join in, log on, link up and speak out. Because it’s one world, ready or not.

Mia MacDonald


All contents are copyrighted. Click here to learn about reprinting text or images that appear on this site.