Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Could There Be an Environmental Silver Lining in Trade War Disputes?

Its incredible what this bizarro upside-down world of US and global politics will do to someone. Lately I’ve been pondering President Trump’s decisions to impose trade tariffs on Chinese and Mexican imports to the US. Not that I take any decision he makes too seriously, given his habit of flip flopping on decisions and making bellicose announcements as negotiation tactics. However, all the press around it has made it hard to avoid (yes, this belies my continued overconsumption of US media from down here in Cape Town).

The point I’ve been considering, though, is whether one can make (or go along with) the “right” decision for the “wrong” reasons. I’ve been pondering this as Trump has reversed course on many policies and institutions that are suspect from the perspective of certain elements within the environmental movement—from over-reliance on foreign imports to deference to the WTO. This mirrors the Brexit question in the sense that exit from the EU could potentially provide the UK with more sovereignty over national decisions, including those concerning the environment (although admittedly UK environmental policy has probably benefited from EU nudging).

The strain of environmentalism that potentially (perhaps only theoretically) aligns with some of these isolationist policies is bioregionalism and the self-reliance movements, which argue for increased control of and reliance over local resources, goods, and services. In this way, the re-assertion of local (or national) control over political and economic decisions, and state support—directly or indirectly—of local economies seems to align bioregionalism and isolationist thinking against neoliberalist globalization. Could it be that enviros might get behind some of these economic “isolationist” policies, or at least leverage their outcomes?

It can be a little concerning to consider how fine a line there might be between hyper-nationalism and bioregionalism. I recently came across reference to “Swadeshi”, an Indian anti-colonial movement advocated for by Gandhi that argued for domestic production of goods rather than reliance on British imports. Molly Scott Cato discusses the deeper meaning of the term, which literally means “of one’s own country” in Sanskrit. Cato quotes Gandhi as describing a far broader interpretation: “It does not mean merely the use of what is produced in one’s own country. That meaning is certainly there in swadeshi. But there is another meaning implied in it which is far greater and much more important. Swadeshi means ‘reliance on our own strength’”. (Cato, 133). [Note: I don’t pretend to be an expert on Swadeshi or its nationalist or political implications—I speak largely from a place of ignorance but curiosity regarding the term’s etymology.]

That seems like a nice interpretation, but how can we be sure people don’t make use of the literal meaning in a xenophobic manner? Cato anticipates the potentially isolationist, nationalist, or even xenophobic implications of a bioregional or swadeshi approach by distinguishing between globalization, which essentially focuses on exploitation and competition, and internationalism, which is more cooperative and collaborative while preserving self-reliance. Again, its an important (and good!) distinction, but not one clearly derived from the literal meaning of the words used to label these concepts.

Back to Trump’s tariffs. Using them to extract trade concessions that allow the US to export products such as industrial mono-cropped soybeans and corn-fed beef is probably not the most environmentally friendly policy (snark). The measures that seek to help US farmers weather the storm aren’t any better, which, as I understand them, essentially incentivize farmers to plant whatever tariff-affected crop the government has agreed to purchase at market rate only to get the subsidy! This is insanity, and the farmers know it. As one US farmer on the radio recently put it, he doesn’t want a subsidy, he wants a market for his crops.

So why can’t we use the tariff war as an opportunity to create local markets that incentivize farmers to plant crops that are consumed in the US, rather than crops that we can’t export to China and instead have the US government buy to destroy? Is there potential for partnership on this polarizing issue?

I’m concerned that many Democrats and liberals who might otherwise take advantage of this are blinded by its Trumpian glaze. Certainly in the media, the focus is on the harm to farmers and the potential economic chaos that tariffs will create, rather than the opportunities. Of course, there is good reason for this, given that any economic downturn could hurt large swaths of the US. Beyond that, I’m also concerned that supporting the tariffs is supporting Trump’s economic policies more broadly, which are decidedly not (or are they anti?) environmentally or socially enlightened. Even still, it seems too defensive and simplistic to focus on the harm to the economy without considering, and even working towards, dismantling some of the global capitalist system that, at least in its current form, is so environmentally destructive.

Thus, back to my initial quandary: could I support tariffs if I thought they could be used to promote self-reliance, or swadeshi principles, as those concepts are understood by bioregionalists? Should I be looking at the tariff war in this light, rather than in reaction to Trump’s self-serving motives? Presidential nominee and former vice-president Joe Biden recently included the prospect of using tariffs as part of his climate change strategy. Perhaps Trump has opened a door previously jammed shut. Perhaps this is the silver lining to the havoc he is wreaking on the “establishment”. Or perhaps to go along is just doing a deal with the devil.