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WASHINGTON -- If deterioration of the global environment over the past several decades is any guide, the coming century does not hold out much promise for reversing these trends, many environmentalists are warning as the millennium comes to a close.
Rising Earth temperatures, record losses in biodiversity and species
extinction, increasing demands and dwindling supplies of fresh water, only
seem to be getting worse.
"If I look at the global environmental trends that we have been tracking
since we first launched the Worldwatch Institute 25 years ago, and if I
simply extrapolate these trends a few years into the next century, the
outlook is alarming to say the least," says Lester Brown, president of the
On the up-side, the past several decades has seen citizens and
environmental groups, or non-governmental organizations (NGOs), worldwide
pulling together in unprecedented numbers to pressure governments to pass
laws to protect the ozone layer, ban toxic chemicals in the environment,
reduce air and water pollution, and protect endangered species and habitats.
Seeking a balance between economic development and environmental
protection, NGOs have played a major role in shaping international
environmental treaties, including the UN Convention on Biological
Diversity, the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, the Basel Convention which
bans exporting hazardous wastes from industrialized nations to developing
Yet as the millennium pulls to a close, the political and financial
structure of the world economy which has become increasingly dominated by
powerful multinational corporations is directly at odds with efforts to
promote a healthy Earth, says Joshua Karliner, executive director of the
Transnational Resource and Action Centre, the San Francisco-based corporate
One clear example of this, says Karliner, has been the success of powerful
multinational oil and gas industries in swaying the US Senate against
ratifying the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, an international treaty
seeking to reduce emissions of heat-trapping "greenhouse" gases.
Scientists believe that such emissions, caused by the burning of fossil
fuels, will warm the Earth and result in drastic climate change, including
increasing intensity and frequency of floods, droughts, and storms.
If current record-breaking warming trends continue, average global
temperatures could rise between one and 3.5 degrees centigrade by the year
2050, according to expert studies.
"The challenge in the 21st century is to replace the corporate-dominated
paradigm that worships the bottom-line with a framework that puts the
environment, human rights, and labor rights first," says Karliner.
In the past several decades, NGOs have applied a diverse array of
strategies to counter corporate power including promoting laws to protect
the environment, developing lawsuits against governments and corporations,
and passing company shareholder resolutions.
Citizens in Ecuador, who see their own country's court systems as
inadequate, for example, have been attempting to hold US oil giant Texaco
accountable for its past operations, by suing the company in US courts.
Similar suits have been filed in the US court system against UNOCAL and
Chevron for their activities abroad.
While praising these efforts, Peter Montague, director of the
Maryland-based Environmental Research Foundation, says the environmental
movement must pay closer attention to how the push for trade liberalization
is eroding the power of nation-states.
"NGOs will become irrelevant if national government lose their capacity to
govern because power has been transferred to international trade bodies,"
After the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), for
example, a US firm complained that it had been illegally prevented from
opening a waste disposal plant because of environmental zoning laws in the
Mexican state of San Luis Potosi.
Through NAFTA, Metalclad corporation sought some $90 million in damages
since it said state authorities were -- against trade rules -- prohibiting
it from making a profit since they declared the site an ecological zone and
refused to allow the firm to reopen the facility.
Similarly, many domestic environmental regulations -- which NGOs have
worked very hard to pass into law -- have been challenged through the World
Trade Organization (WTO) and hence weakened or abolished, warn
The United States, for instance, gutted provisions of the Marine Mammal
Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, and its Endangered Species Act after
these environmental policies were challenged before the WTO,according to a
recent report released by Public Citizen, a Washington-based NGO founded by
consumer advocate Ralph Nader.
"This undemocratic trend must be reversed and power must be returned to
governments," says Montague, who like thousands of other environmentalists
will travel to Seattle, Washington to protest these trends at the WTO's
ministerial negotiations, Nov. 30-Dec. 3.
Citizens groups and environmental organizations have been trying to guide
global trade by pressuring governments to attach environmental provisions
to trade agreements and pressure international financial institutions like
the World Bank, to adopt minimal environmental and social standards for
"In terms of reforms at the World Bank, I would say, depending on how you
look at it, the glass is half empty or half full," says Bruce Rich, senior
attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund.
While many destructive projects will not be funded by the Bank since
environmentalists like Rich pressured the institution to adopt minimal
guidelines, the Bank is still a large centralized institution which favors
large loans -- which often go toward large controversial energy projects,
Some investment projects funded by global financial institutions "are what
is fueling climate change and losses in biodiversity," says Rich.
Using lessons from studying these institutions, environmental groups,
including Indonesia-based Bioforum and Friends of the Earth Japan, have
begun a new campaign to reform public export-credit lending agencies which
operate without social and environmental standards.
Designed to help a nation's firms compete for business abroad, these
agencies provide publicly backed loans, guarantees and insurance to
corporations seeking to do business in developing countries.
"These agencies are often financing projects -- many riddled with
corruption -- that other taxpayer-supported agencies like the World Bank
reject as environmentally and economically unsustainable," says Rich.
Another challenge in the coming decades is genetic modification and
environmentalists say they will keep a close watch on companies such as
Novartis and Monsanto, which are heavily pushing their new technological
innovations in biological engineering.
"We are in the midst of a radical, historic transition -- from the
Industrial Age to the Biotechnical Age," says Jeremy Rifkin, president of
the Washington-based Foundation on Economic Trends in his book, "The
Environmental groups, including Greenpeace and the Union of Concerned
Scientists worry that the mass release of thousands of genetically
engineered crops into the environment will cause "super-weeds" through
unintentional cross-breeding and hence irreversible damage to the Earth.
Mass extinction of plant, animal and insect species will also be a trend
environmentalists hope to reverse.
John Tuxill, a researcher at the Worldwatch Institute, says that as
critical habitat is logged or developed, extinction rates have accelerated
this century to at least 1,000 species per year.
"These numbers indicate we now live in a time of mass extinction -- a
global evolutionary upheaval in the diversity and composition of life," he
"What we need now is a rapid shift in consciousness, a dawning awareness in
people everywhere that we have to shift quickly to a sustainable economy if
we want to avoid damaging our natural support systems beyond repair," says
the Institute's founder Lester Brown.
Danny Kennedy, director of Project Underground, the California-based
international mining watchdog, says for such a shift to happen,
environmental organizations need to focus on organizing people at the
community level and working closely with other social movements, such as
the human rights and civil rights movements.
"The power of civil disobedience and mass movements has been harnessed and
then forgotten at different points in the century," he says.
But the huge upcoming challenge, adds Karliner, will be to ensure that
discontent with corporate-led globalization is not captured by nationalist
xenophobic responses such as the rise of right-wing militia groups in the
United States, India's BJP party or France's Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Instead, environmental and related movements, need to work hard to harness
the discontent with corporate power to promote democratic responses that
values human rights and multi-racial and multi-ethnic responses to solving
"We need to take the lessons learned from some of the horrors of the 20th
century and apply them to building an alternative to globalization in 21st
century," says Karliner. Otherwise, he says, we may repeat some of the past
centuries more profound mistakes.
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