Free trade is being promoted like a new religion. Like other religions,
free trade has a basic appeal: if artificial barriers to international
trade are reduced, everyone can buy more things at cheaper prices. In
theory all of humanity could benefit.
However, it must be obvious that increased trade will harm the
environment if it promotes increased consumption of goods made from
non-renewable resources or manufactured by polluting technologies.
Therefore, free trade is only beneficial if it provides ways to reduce
There are three basic ways to restrict pollution. They go by the names
"command-and-control," "full cost pricing" and zero discharge.
Command-and-control is what we have been trying for the past 20 years.
It uses both a carrot and a stick: subsidies, and regulations. For
example, if the goal is clean water, the federal government offers low-
cost loans (a form of subsidy) to communities so they can build sewage
treatment plants. Then a regulation restricts the amounts of nasty
chemicals that can be discharged from the sewage treatment plant. An
enforcement bureaucracy checks to see that the regulations are obeyed.
At least in theory that's how it works.
Another way to control pollution would be "full cost pricing." If the
price of a toothpick reflected the full cost of making and disposing of
the toothpick (including all the pollution involved), then the lowest-
cost toothpick would be the lowest-pollution toothpick and the market
would become a mechanism for reducing pollution. Advocates of this
technique say the way to make prices reflect the full costs of an item
is to (a) remove all subsidies, and (b) impose pollution taxes. If
toothpick manufacturers had to pay a tax on every pound of pollution
they emitted, they would have to include the tax in the prices of their
toothpicks. If a competitor could discover a way to cut pollution, he
or she could pay less tax and could drop the price of toothpicks
accordingly. Naturally the public would buy the cheaper toothpicks,
thus rewarding reduced pollution.
A third way to control pollution is zero discharge. Zero discharge
forbids the intentional release of any synthetic chemicals (chemicals
that do not occur in nature), and it forbids the release of naturally-
occurring chemicals in concentrations greater than the concentrations
that occur in nature. There are two ways to achieve zero discharge of a
chemical: ban the chemical entirely so no one can legally use it; or,
require that manufacturers use "closed loop" technologies that prevent
all intentional releases to the environment. Naturally, with "closed
loop" technologies there will be unintended releases (spills,
accidents, and so forth), so discharges will be greater than zero under
this plan. The only way to achieve a true zero discharge is to ban a
substance entirely, the way the U.S. banned DDT and PCBs in the 1970s.
It is worth noting that these different approaches are not mutually
exclusive. You could establish true zero discharge limits for
particularly dangerous substances, such as chlorine, and force a phase-
out; establish a pollution tax on coal and petroleum to make their
prices more closely reflect their costs; and establish a tight
numerical limit on sulfur released from coal and oil combustion to keep
from making people sick.
We do know, however, that command-and-control by itself does not work.
We know because the U.S. has tried it for the past 20 years. As a
result, we have thousand of pages of regulations on the books. We have
an enormous and enormously expensive pollution-control bureaucracy in
every state and at the federal level. And we have a dangerously
polluted planet, and a situation that is steadily worsening.
Today nearly everyone agrees that command-and-control is too expensive
and isn't achieving the goal of a sustainable environment. Even the
U.S.'s major polluters seem to recognize that command-and-control won't
reduce pollution sufficiently to prevent destruction of the planet as a
place suitable for human habitation. For example, Robert D. Kennedy,
the chairman of Union Carbide, recently said, "It's painfully obvious
that we have neither gone far enough nor fast enough."
The Business Council for Sustainable Development--a consortium of the
world's largest polluters, including the heads of Dow Chemical, Du
Pont, Shell Oil, Alcoa, Chevron, Nissan Motor, Mitsubishi Corporation,
and about 50 others--has recently come out strongly favoring full cost
pricing. The Council says, "...we must ask ourselves why the past
record of industrialization is largely one of unsustainable resource
use and high levels of pollution. The answer is that markets have
simply not efficiently reflected the costs of environmental
degradation." And the Council says, "The cornerstone of sustainable
development is a system of open, competitive markets in which prices
are made to reflect the costs of environmental as well as other
How do we adjust prices so they begin to reflect the full costs of
producing items for commerce? The Business Council says, "The first
priority must be to abolish subsidies so that prices at least reflect
the full economic costs of energy." If a toothpick is manufactured
from wood that has been transported a thousand miles, the cost of that
transport needs to be reflected in the price of the toothpick. This
means the true cost of fuel (petroleum) needs to be factored into the
price of the toothpick. So long as the price of oil is kept
artificially low by hidden subsidies to the petroleum industry, the
price of toothpicks is kept artificially low and the true costs of
producing toothpicks will not be reflected in the price paid by the
purchaser of toothpicks.
David Morris--one of the most thoughtful and interesting critics of
free trade--recently wrote,
A FEW YEARS AGO I WAS EATING AT A ST. PAUL RESTAURANT. AFTER LUNCH I
PICKED UP A TOOTHPICK WRAPPED IN PLASTIC. ON THE PLASTIC WAS PRINTED
THE WORD, 'JAPAN.' NOW JAPAN HAS LITTLE WOOD AND NO OIL. NEVERTHELESS
IT HAS BECOME EFFICIENT ENOUGH IN OUR GLOBAL ECONOMY TO BRING LITTLE
PIECES OF WOOD AND BARRELS OF OIL TO JAPAN, WRAP THE ONE IN THE OTHER
AND SEND THEM TO MINNESOTA. THIS TOOTHPICK MAY HAVE TRAVELED 50,000
MILES. BUT NEVER FEAR, WE ARE RETALIATING IN KIND. A HIBBING, MINNESOTA
FACTORY NOW PRODUCES A BILLION DISPOSABLE CHOPSTICKS A YEAR FOR SALE IN
IN MY MIND'S EYE I SEE TWO SHIPS PASSING ONE ANOTHER IN THE NORTHERN
PACIFIC. ONE CARRIES LITTLE PIECES OF MINNESOTA WOOD BOUND FOR JAPAN;
THE OTHER CARRIES LITTLE PIECES OF JAPANESE WOOD BOUND FOR MINNESOTA.
SUCH IS THE LOGIC OF FREE TRADE
Such absurd trade goes on because the full cost of transportation
(chiefly the cost of burning oil, including the cost of warming up the
whole planet--see RHWN #300 and #301) is being subsidized so the
purchasers of Japanese toothpicks in Minnesota are not paying the true
costs of those toothpicks. Mr. Morris gives half a dozen other examples
of costs that are not reflected in price and thus prevent market
mechanisms from helping humans achieve sustainable communities.
So the thoughtful critics of free trade and the thoughtful advocates of
free trade agree on one important point: free trade will harm the
environment if the full costs of commodities are not reflected in the
prices of commodities. "...Free trade advocates acknowledge that the
environmental benefits of free trade will be realized only if
'environmental costs' are internalized in the price of products through
process standards, pollution taxes, or pollution permit schemes," says
a recent report on free trade by the Environmental Grantmakers
Serious advocates of free trade can be distinguished from mere
religious zealots by their strong desire to end government subsidies--
particularly in the energy sector of the economy--and by their
insistence on full cost pricing and zero discharge as techniques for
pollution control BEFORE free trade agreements can be signed.
By this criterion, present-day proponents of NAFTA (the North American
Free Trade Agreement which President Bush has proposed, to link Canada,
the U.S., and Mexico into a free trade partnership), and GATT (the
General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade--see RHWN #303 and 304) must be
classified as religious hucksters promoting defunct and discredited
mythologies left over from the Reagan years, aiming merely to make the
world safe for corporate polluters, not for people.
 Allen V. Kneese and Charles L. Schultze, POLLUTION, PRICES AND
PUBLIC POLICY (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1975).
 Theodore Taylor and Charles Humpstone, RESTORATION OF THE EARTH
(New York: Harper and Row, 1973).
 Robert D. Kennedy, "Sustainable Development--The Hinge of History."
A speech delivered to the Industry Forum on Environment and Development
in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 28, [1992.] 8 pgs. Available from us for
$2.00 (the cost of copying and mailing).
 Stephen Schmidheiny and the Business Council for Sustainable
Development, CHANGING COURSE; A GLOBAL BUSINESS PERSPECTIVE ON
DEVELOPMENT AND THE ENVIRONMENT (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992),
pgs. 14-15. See especially chapter 2, "Pricing the Environment:
Markets, Costs, and Instruments." However, note the important caveat
they offer on pg. 80: "The question that remains--and to which we have
no convincing answer nor indeed know of one--is how can a developing
nation charge a price for exports that reflects their environmental
costs, and compete against other nations willing to absorb such costs
for short-term profits."
 Schmidheiny, cited above, pg. 39.
 David Morris THE TRADE PAPERS (Washington, DC: Institute for Local
Self Reliance, no date). $4.50 from the Institute for Local Self
Reliance, 2425 18th St., N.W., Washington, DC [20009;] phone (202) 232-
4108. Highly recommended. Philosophically attacks the concept of free
trade, with considerable success.
 Thomas A. Wathen, A GUIDE TO TRADE AND THE ENVIRONMENT (New York:
Environmental Grantmakers Association and the Consultative Group on
Biological Diversity, July, 1992), pg. 18. Available from:
Environmental Grantmakers Association,  Avenue of the Americas,
Suite 3450, New York, NY 10104; phone (212) 373-4260.
Descriptor terms: free trade; zero discharge; sustainable development;