Hope for a New Trade Agenda

Republished from the Earth Island Journal (Summer 2017) issue.

Feelings of fear and hope filled the room where dozens of Sacramento-area activists had gathered in February to hear what Trump’s election might mean for the future of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and how a resurgent fair trade movement might help push for a better deal.

photo of workers harvesting onions

“We are not statistics!” declared Catherine Houston of the United Steelworkers, to a round of applause. “We are people and it is important to note that the legacy of NAFTA has hurt everyone. People are now working two to three jobs just to survive. That’s not the American Dream.”

In Mexico, NAFTA opened the floodgates to subsidized staples from the US, pushing small farmers off their lands. A powerful alliance of labor, agricultural, environmental, and social justice organizations are coming together to push for trade justice in any renegotiated trade agreement.

Houston’s remarks are disturbingly accurate: According the US Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, the number of certified jobs lost under NAFTA has risen to 910,000 as of December 2016. And that number is only a fraction of total jobs lost, since it represents only those in direct manufacturing industries who filed for TAA aid.

In Mexico, NAFTA’s impact has been even more devastating than in the US. The 1994 agreement opened the floodgates to subsidized corn from the US, pushing millions of small farmers off their historic lands. With their livelihoods destroyed, many fled to the cities looking for work, or risked their lives to cross the northern border, prompting one of the largest immigration surges in modern memory. Those who remained faced an increasingly depressed job market. In fact, the overall minimum wage in Mexico is now only $3.90/day, while an additional 20 million people have fallen below the poverty line, according to a new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

And the impacts extend beyond labor. Environmental groups on both sides of the border are quick to point out that free trade agreements prioritize corporate profits over protection of air, water, and the climate.

Throughout his election campaign Trump’s rhetoric against NAFTA – calling it a “disaster” and the “worst deal ever” – no doubt helped elevate him to the highest office in the land. In his first days in office, he made good on one of his central trade promises by formally withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a controversial 12-nation, corporate-led pact that would have covered over 40 percent of the global economy. Critics were quick to point out, however, that Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP was both ceremonial and easy. Thanks to years of grassroots organizing against it by labor, environmental, health, and social justice advocates, the TPP never secured enough votes to pass, and was never submitted to Congress by the Obama administration.

Still, many thought Trump’s election signaled a new direction on trade policy, and remained hopeful that the era of corporate-driven “free trade” was coming to an end. By early spring, however, his newly minted cabinet resembled a Wall Street and Big Oil roundtable of corporate insiders, with many administration officials on record as avid supporters of the TPP – certainly not a team equipped to “drain the swamp” of special interest influence in Washington.

In a leaked copy of Trump’s NAFTA plans in late March, it became clear his corporate advisors were winning the day on trade. Not only was the administration prepared to keep most of the deal intact, but several new priorities also bore a stark resemblance to the TPP agenda that Trump claimed to oppose during the campaign. Instead of sweeping changes to stop the offshoring of manufacturing jobs or to eliminate NAFTA’s corporate court system that’s weakening labor and environmental laws, the plan would expand protections for digital trade and commerce, strengthen intellectual property rights for corporations, and preserve NAFTA’s ban on “Buy American” programs.

In response, labor leaders around the country criticized the proposal. “This draft leaves standing the worst and most oppressive parts of NAFTA,” said Richard Trumka, president of the American Federation of Labor. “It leaves in place the right of foreign investors to sue the US in private tribunals in order to skirt health, safety, and environmental laws,” he said. Robert Longer, political coordinator for the Communications Workers of America, District 9, didn’t mince words: “This plan represents the ultimate betrayal of working people by the Trump Administration. In modeling NAFTA renegotiations after the failed TPP, President Trump has made clear that corporate rights take priority over the lives of the American people.”

Environmental organizations also expressed alarm about Trump’s plans to keep intact NAFTA’s corporate court system, which provides an official forum for corporations to challenge labor and climate protections, and forces taxpayers to foot the bill for perceived lost profits. “Trump plans to retain NAFTA’s Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions, allowing global corporations to sue countries in front of business-friendly tribunals,” said Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth. “These tribunals allow corporations to punish governments wishing to enforce sensible environmental and public interest regulations by imposing massive monetary damages.”

The swift and damning reaction to Trump’s leaked plans quickly prompted administration officials to backpedal from the draft. “That is not a statement of administration policy at this point,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters in late March. “That is not an accurate assessment of where we are at this time.” With this clear indication that the Trump Administration is sensitive to public pressure, advocates have redoubled their efforts, launching public campaigns to hold the president and Congress accountable to a trade justice agenda that puts working people and the planet before corporate profits.

But can the trade justice movement make good on its goal of redirecting America’s corporate-driven trade policies?

If recent years of determined cross-sector organizing are any indication, there just may be reason for hope.

Although President Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP is what made international headlines, the real story is that an unparalleled global uprising of people from all walks of life challenged some of the most powerful economic and political institutions of our time – and won. If it wasn’t for the constant drumbeat of opposition from activists, civil society organizations, and concerned citizens over the years, the TPP would be in legal force today, granting over 9,000 transnational corporations new rights to write the rules of the global economy in their own interests.

What’s more, a powerful intersectional alliance was built, made up of thousands of organizations representing labor unions, family farmers, digital freedom advocates, environmentalists, nurses, LGBTQ advocates, and the migrant justice and Black Lives Matter movements. Having successfully derailed the TPP, it now stands poised to challenge Trump on his corporate trade agenda.

In consultation with Canadian and Mexican grassroots activists, a broad-based network of US organizers, under the banner of the Citizens Trade Campaign, has released a set of key priorities they wish to see enacted under any renegotiated NAFTA. Organized labor is particularly interested in protecting buy local programs and expanding the “rules of origin” requirements for domestically manufactured goods. And environmental organizations want to see NAFTA updated to better reflect and protect clean energy and climate protection goals.

The California Trade Justice Coalition, in partnership with the Citizens Trade Campaign, is organizing a series of informational NAFTA Town Halls where activists from labor, health, social justice, and environmental networks are coming together to share insights and plan for action. The Coalition is also meeting with congressional representatives and community leaders around the state to ensure that a broad base of support is ready to hold negotiators accountable for trade policies that truly benefit working people and the planet.

Learn more about this Earth Island Institute project at: www.catradejustice.org



Denial of Nature’s Limits is the Problem

The_World_in_His_hands_by_SaviourMachineLast week, The New York Times published a fantastical piece on human exceptionalism entitled “Overpopulation Is Not The Problem,” in which author Erle C. Ellis claimed that human societies have no limits to their growth. That’s right — limits are merely an illusion. Expansion über alles! That’s our species’ birthright, and rightful destiny.

“There really is no such thing as a human carrying capacity,” writes Ellis, castigating those of us concerned with ecological limits as believers that humans are little different than “bacteria in a petri dish.” Perhaps even more outlandishly, Ellis goes on to state that “[t]he idea that humans must live within the natural environmental limits of our planet denies the realities of our entire history, and most likely the future.” Who’s history exactly?

As an associate professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Ellis should know better. Unless he steered clear of the stacks of thoughtful volumes available to him on the rise and fall of past civilizations, he would surely have encountered chronicle after chronicle of societies that faced progressively daunting ecological challenges, and which plummeted in population as a result.

Anthropologist Jared Diamond’s recent treatise, Collapse, offers a sobering survey of past human overshoot: from the fall of the Anasazi of southwestern North America due to deforestation and warfare over depleting resources, to the collapse of the Maya due to overcultivation and prolonged drought, to the recent genocide in Rwanda, due in part to increasing numbers of people contending for land in a formerly sustainable subsistence economy. In each of these cases, people (quite unlike bacteria) deployed complex social and technological innovations under increasingly stressful circumstances. And yet, their societies collapsed.

The lesson we should draw from this is not that that we are immune from nature’s limits. Quite the contrary: we fail to moderate our environmental impact at our own peril.

In fairness to Ellis, he rightly points out that humans are “niche creators,” beings who have an impressive history of transforming ecosystems to sustain ourselves and often to facilitate our very survival. This recognition, however, does not magically exempt us from ecological processes, pressures, and limits. It simply means we must utilize our “niche creation” skills in ways that allow our planet’s life-support systems to persevere.

Unfortunately, many of our world’s vital ecosystems are already on the brink of collapse. Despite incredible leaps in resource-use efficiency, ecological understanding, and technological know-how, our planet’s forests and sensitive habitats are being devastated far faster than they’re regenerating, arable lands are turning into deserts and soils are being mined of their critical nutrients, our oceans are being overfished and polluted with more toxins than can safely be absorbed, our freshwater aquifers and waterways are being depleted at rates several times faster than they’re being replenished, and our atmosphere is being flooded with so much carbon that our global climate is warming to extreme degrees. Moreover, the fossil fuels we rely on for transportation, agriculture, housing, manufacturing, and so much more are becoming harder and harder to find and extract, posing severe challenges to the very foundation of industrial civilization.

All of these realities will pose severe constraints on economic activity, which in turn, will limit human numbers. Just because we’ve overcome ecological constraints in the past, expanding from smaller niches to ever-larger ones, doesn’t mean we can therefore transcend our entire planet’s very real ecological boundaries.

Yes, we humans are “niche creators,” as Ellis so colorfully calls us. But rather than cling to the tired and dangerous myth of human exceptionalism from nature, it’s time to embrace our proper role as stewards and balancers of Earth’s incredible bounty. Through the knowledge we’ve gained from ecology, permaculture, and anthropology, we have within our power the capacity to remake our societies to respect nature’s cycles, life-giving processes, and yes, even its limits — while simultaneously allowing us all to live life to its fullest. Constant expansion of our numbers isn’t necessary for that vision. Humility and belief in ourselves is.