Toxic Waste As Strategy, Part 2

The trade in toxic waste is more than a lucrative industry; it is also a central strategy of the New World Order, an intentional way of enclosing lands and resources—the very air we breathe—previously held in common and setting up trade in “pollution rights.” It is a means for proletarianizing peasants and villagers, driving them into new forms of exploitation of both labor and nature. As opposition to toxic dumping and hazardous waste incineration ignites into massive political movements, there is a growing understanding that “neither government regulations nor the capitalist market is capable of providing adequate protection for natural ecosystems or communities affected by environmental pollution.”

In December 1991, Lawrence Summers was the chief economist for the World Bank. In that capacity, he issued a surprisingly forthright memorandum to senior World Bank staff calling on them to plan their structural adjustment programs and renegotiated debt payment schedules in such a way as to encourage relatively non-polluted areas of the world to, among other things, accept a fairer “redistribution” of the industrial world’s wastes and pollution. This would go a long way towards, as he put it, rectifying the current toxic “imbalance.”

“I’ve always thought,” Summers wrote, “that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low [in pollutants] compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City.”

Summers, who edited the World Bank’s World Development Report for 1992, claimed to have worked out “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country.” He found that logic to be “impeccable, and we should face up to that.”

“So much pollution is generated by non tradable industries (transport, electrical generation) [which makes] the unit transport costs of solid waste…so high,” Summers lamented. These non-tradable industries unfortunately “prevent world welfare enhancing trade in air pollution and waste” as stipulated for domestic polluters in the 1991 Clean Air Act. Instead of outlawing dangerous pollutants and carcinogens, the Act granted “pollution credits”—ecological destruction quotas—to corporations and municipalities in the U.S. Those who “under pollute” may then sell their “excess” pollution credits—their “right” to ravage the environment—to companies that refused or were not able to cut back in toxic wastes and still maintain their profit rates—the “free market” at its most crass and savage.

Summers went on to mock complaints by the poor who reported that their health was being shattered by the dumping of toxins in their communities. Because of their poverty, he argued, the poor would never live long enough to contract the diseases exposure to dumped or burned wastes would ordinarily cause in people who lived longer lives—in other words, those living in the U.S., Europe, and parts of Asia. “The concern over an agent that causes a one in a million change in the odds of prostate cancer,” he wrote, “is obviously going to be much higher in a country where people survive to get prostate cancer than in a country where under five mortality is 200 per thousand.” So, Summers concluded, dumping toxic wastes in areas where people already have abbreviated lifespans is no skin off their nose.

In Summers’s worldview, “poor countries should exploit their ‘comparative advantage’ of low wages, or access to natural resources, or lower environmental standards,” explain Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman, who co-authored Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy. “While few countries have ‘developed’ with this approach, it has proved very effective for companies like Nike, which has taken advantage of low wages throughout Asia, or even GM, which produces cars and trucks in Mexico with the same technology as in Michigan but with lower wage workers. Makers of polluting technologies such as incinerators that are being phased out in industrialized countries have also benefited, because they are able to stay in business by selling to third world countries. U.S. manufacturers that wanted to escape environmental regulations (like furniture makers who use toxic glues, solvents, and paints) have capitalized by shifting from places like Los Angeles to Mexico.”

Former Greenpeace activist Jim Vallette (now with the International Trade Information Service) picks up the same thread: Under World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and now World Trade Organization policies, “world trade has burgeoned with imbalanced cargoes: banned pesticides, leaded gasoline, CFCs, asbestos, and other products restricted in the North are sold to the South; tropical timber, oil, coal, and other natural resources flow from South to North with little or no benefit to the host communities; and while regulations tighten around dirty coal and dangerous nuclear power plants in the North, they are proliferating in Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin America, where they are owned and operated by Northern corporations.

“This trade has been facilitated through tens of billions of dollars of financing by the World Bank, the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the U.S. Export Import Bank, government institutions in which Mr. Summers has wielded his economic logic. His 1991 memo can be considered a working thesis behind this decade’s dominant global economic policies.”

Back in 1992, people saw through Summers’s grand scheme to further poison them in the name of the “free market.” They raised a ruckus.

Greenpeace and numerous defenders of the planet demanded that the World Bank terminate Summers. Brazil’s Secretary of the Environment, Jose Lutzen- berger, wrote to Summers directly: “Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane…. Your thoughts [provide] a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and the arrogant ignorance of many conventional ‘economists’ concerning the nature of the world we live in…. If the World Bank keeps you as vice president it will lose all credibility. To me it would confirm what I often said…the best thing that could happen would be for the Bank to disappear.” Lutzenburger was fired shortly after writing his letter.

Following the memo’s publication in the London Economist in February 1992 and the consequent hue and cry against it from imperialized countries, the World Bank was driven into an apologetic frenzy. But instead of being shocked by the horror of the environmental devastation Summers prescribed, the big corporations and governments of industrialized countries looked upon Summers’s proposal and argumentation rather favorably. The expropriation of the environment and the privatization of public lands is, after all, as central to the accumulation of capital as is the exploitation of labor.

Not understanding this class dimension, many environmental activists thought that with the Clinton administration taking over in Washington in 1993, the environment would be saved, things would improve, peace would reign and Summers, then of the World Bank, would go away. Instead, Clinton and Gore were able to push through legislation in Congress—NAFTA, GATT, and World Trade Organization founding measures, welfare “reform,” new laws that completely erode the Constitution (under the guise of “anti-terrorism”), vast increases in military spending, the almost total decimation of the last remaining old-growth and redwoods forests in the United States, the defeat of Haiti’s progressive movements and continued U.S. military occupation of that country, huge promotion of genetically engineered foods and biotechnology industry, the ongoing bombardment and sanctions against Iraq and Yugoslavia, the attempted dismemberment of organic standards, the legalization of irradiation of food, and the managed collapse of a once-powerful movement for free universal health care—with a skill that even the former President George Bush is forced to admire. Even before taking office, President Clinton sought to appoint Summers to a national policy position: chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisors.

Environmental and other radical groups were outraged and fought against his appointment. For a time, they were successful. But Summers’s work on behalf of global capitalism would not go unrewarded. The day following Clinton’s inauguration as the 42nd President of the United States, he appointed Lawrence Summers to the post of Undersecretary for International Affairs at the U.S. Treasury, a position traditionally responsible for “the formulation of U.S. economic policy in the Third World, including U.S. policy related to the IMF, the World Bank and the regional development banks.” By 1995, the environment was in worse shape than ever, and there were record levels of profit taking on Wall Street.

Other World Bank officials had helped to shape government policy as well. Prior to his tenure as president of the World Bank from 1968 to 1981, Robert McNamara had, you will recall, been the Secretary of Defense of the United States and, in that capacity, the main architect of the “automated battlefield,” which the U.S. government applied in Vietnam, slaughtering more than two million Vietnamese people and poisoning their crops, farmlands, and water supply for generations to come. It was McNamara who approved the use of Agent Orange and other defoliants that poisoned the land throughout the region, and along with it the lives of American GIs. Moving to the World Bank, McNamara helped open Thailand to the sex trade industry and presided over World Bank policies oriented towards the privatization of publicly used lands—the commons—there, and consequent ecological catastrophes.

These strategies rely on the acceptance of “debt restructuring” by countries owing large amounts of money to western banks. (If they don’t accept that protocol, they get bombed and sanctioned until they do.) While individual banks of course want to recoup their loans, global finance capital as a whole—and as reflected in government policy—does not want its loans repaid in full. It fosters indebtedness as leverage, to accomplish a number of things critical to the continued expansion of capital: (1) hammer the working classes in debt ridden countries into line; (2) obliterate (“enclose”) longstanding communal ways of living; (3) establish capital’s new global managers—NGOs—to intercede in the new movements “on behalf of” indigenous people, workers and community movements, removing them from speaking in their own voice around their own demands and negotiating away their victories against the imposition of capitalist relations in exchange for immediate (and temporary) improvements in their material situations within those relations; (4) drive down gains made during decades of struggle; (5) present a pretext for “balancing the budget” at home, and thus provide a pretext for attacking gains made in workers’ living standards here; and, (6) develop small indigenous capitalist classes dependent upon global capital, and maintain them in power.

Treasury Secretary Summers has also been described as “the scheming architect of an end-run around Congress that resulted in the $42 billion Mexican bailout” of 1995, according to NY Times reporter David Sanger. Around the time he condoned the 1995 Mexican bailout, Summers was working under then Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

In June 1998, Treasury Secretary Summers was the main economist shaping U.S. financial aid to the government of Indonesia, as massive fires gutted Indonesia’s forests and while its military was preparing to again massacre civilians in East Timor. In a June 25, 1998 statement, Clinton’s Treasury Secretary said:“We welcome the announcement in Jakarta today that the International Monetary Fund and the Government of Indonesia have reached agreement on a revised economic program designed to stabilize the Indonesian economy. The United States has a strong economic and national security interest in seeing Indonesia succeed in these efforts, which will depend on its ability to sustain both economic and political reforms. We will be consulting with the international financial institutions and other countries around the world to ensure that international support for Indonesia is sufficient for it to meet the difficult challenges it currently faces. We look forward to the timely board approval and disbursement of these funds, as well as those from the World Bank.

“We also welcome the Asian Development Bank’s announcement that it has approved a substantial loan to improve financial sector governance in Indonesia. This loan will support efforts to strengthen Indonesia’s banking system and is critical to restoring financial stability and growth.”


Incinerating Chemical Weapons

Add to the nightmare the U.S. military, which is by all accounts the biggest polluter in the entire world. The military mindset is so insane that even when forced to do the right thing—say, decomissioning some of the world’s largest supply of chemical weapons—it invariably uses the most destructive means. In the following case, incineration is its method of choice. The military chose Kalama—Johnston Island, a National Wildlife Refuge —as the locale for incinerating old chemical warfare missiles and similar weapons.

Kalama—a U.S. territory 825 miles southwest of Hawaii and 1,400 miles east of the Marshall Islands—is a once-idyllic 56-acre island rich in marine and bird life, that was expanded to 690 acres by the U.S. military and is now contaminated with Agent Orange and plutonium. Known as JACADS, the Johnston Island facility, which started operations in June 1994, is the U.S.’s only full-scale chemical weapons incineration plant. It is designed to burn blister agent HD (“mustard gas”), and nerve agents GB and VX—the latter being much in the news of late as the U.S. claims traces had been found in the soil surrounding a pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan, which the U.S. then proceeded to bomb, as well as in Iraq, which had purchased precursors to the nerve agent from the U.S. in the late 1980s and to whose alleged presence the U.S. had the same irrational and murderous response.

The Army says JACADS is being used only: (1) to burn the stockpile of chemical weapons shipped to the atoll in 1971 from Okinawa (Congress prohibited moving the Okinawa weapons to the U.S. mainland), and, (2) to burn over 100,000 rounds of GB and VX projectiles among the 30-year-old stockpile of weapons shipped from Germany in 1990. Hawaii-based opponents of JACADS point to a history of dangerous problems caused by incineration, from 133 substandard welds in the pipework, to explosions in various parts of the furnace which have already released small amounts of GB nerve agent into the atmosphere (March 1994), to the generation of unexpected byproducts of decomposed blister agent. They point out that the “open ended” technology used by the Johnston Island incinerator (and all waste incinerators) emits airborne toxic and carcinogenic substances such as dioxins and furans. Such emissions, and any escaped nerve gas, settles on the top layer of the surrounding ocean and can be carried by winds to populated areas, including the U.S. mainland.

There are far safer, proven alternatives to incineration, just as there are to insecticide spraying—but, they are more expensive. Feasible alternatives include bioremediation with natural enzymes, chemical neutralization, and “supercritical oxidation” (using water). The U.S. government, however, refuses to be “obstructed” in its plans by the international outcry that has arisen over the incineration of chemical weapons and storage of its residue. The U.S. government is trying to make the case that such opposition constitutes a violation of the World Trade Organization’s regulations stipulating unhindered “free trade” in toxic wastes.

While the rest of the world tries to regulate the international trade in hazardous waste, the U.S. government—the leading waste producer in the world—has thus far refused to sign any of the main treaties limiting shipments abroad. As might be expected, such “effluents of affluence” are disastrous to the environment and to people’s health. At a critical international conference in Geneva Switzerland (March 21-25, 1994), the United States stood with only a handful of waste-exporting countries against the entire world and opposed a ban on shipments of hazardous wastes to non-industrialized countries.

The U.S. government had also taken the lead in blocking a proposal by then-UN environment chief Mostafa Tolba and many so-called “developing” countries that would have prohibitted all toxic waste exports from 24 industrial countries to the rest of the world. At the exact moment the U.S. government was stonewalling an agreement at an international conference in Uruguay to prohibit shipments of toxic waste a U.S. barge loaded with 8,000 tons of sludge from Hawaii was steaming towards a dumpsite in the Marshall Islands, in the once idyllic South Pacific.

Jim Vallette writes: “In 1994, by the way, virtually every other country in the world broke with Mr. Summers’s Harvard trained “economic logic” ruminations about dumping rich countries’ poisons on their poorer neighbors, and agreed to ban the export of hazardous wastes from OECD to non OECD countries under the Basel Convention. Five years later, the United States is one of the few countries that has yet to ratify the Basel Convention or the Basel Convention’s Ban Amendment on the export of hazardous wastes from OECD to non OECD countries.”

Disposal of hazardous liquid wastes could cost as much as $2,000 per ton. The total annual costs run into the tens of billions of dollars, rivaling the drug trade in potential profits for middlepeople. Much cheaper, then, to dump or burn them abroad at only a fraction of the economic cost. Indeed, industrialized countries are under constant pressure to find new regions in which to dump their waste. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Somalia, Haiti, and Guatemala became the latest locations selected by George Bush’s New World Order for the disposal of huge quantities of industrial and incinerated waste. In fact, hazardous waste disposal was one of the factors propelling military intervention in such places as Somalia and Haiti.

Months before the United States sent troops to Somalia to supposedly protect food supply lines from pilferage by “evil warlords,” Italy—a significant NATO ally that had sent hundreds of troops to Somalia—was completing arrangements to ship southern Europe’s wastes there, with nary a protest from the U.S.

Italian companies led a consortium that were in the midst of building two incinerators to be installed in Somalia, which were slated to handle at least two 550,000-ton shipments of toxic waste each year for an estimated profit of $4 million to $6 million.

In addition, Nur Elmy Osman, the “health minister” under Somalia’s president Ali Mahdi Mohamed, signed a 20-year commitment in late 1991—a year before the U.S. military occupation there—with a private company, Acher Partners, to allow the construction of an additional incinerator near Mogadishu and a landfill to hold as much as 11 million tons of the industrial and hospital “treated” waste, including “solid and liquid waste of the toxic type.” UN environmental chief Mostafa Tolba condemned the proposed dump, saying that it could aggravate the destruction of Somalia’s ecosystem and threaten further loss of life in the ravaged nation. Acher Partners’ phone was answered at the home of a young woman near Lausanne, Switzerland. She said she did not know what the company did.

A slew of similarly enterprising “free trade” merchants and shadowy companies dealing in industrial and hazardous waste sprang up virtually overnight. When Ann Leonard, of Greenpeace, called Terra International—a company involved in shipments of hazardous waste to Guatemala—she repeatedly reached a plastic surgeon’s office in Miami. Through her persistence, however, she found that Terra International, with billions of dollars at stake, was run by an individual—the plastic surgeon’s brother—who used a desk in a back room of the surgeon’s office. Yet profits made by the traffickers in toxic waste amount to tens of billions of dollars each year, rivalling profits from the international drug trade.

Many of the companies are run by right-wing expatriates of Central American and Caribbean countries. The companies own little capital of their own; they use political contacts in their native lands—juntas often installed in power by the CIA and maintained there through U.S. government financial and military support—to arrange toxic deals. Indeed, they see the burgeoning waste catastrophe in the U.S., Europe, and Japan as a “growth industry,” and the manufactured destitution in such places as Guatemala, Somalia, and Haiti—leading to U.S. military intervention—as a chance to make a fortune in profits while incurring few risks themselves.

Terra International, for example, based in Florida, serves as an intermediary for Energy Resources, NV, of Holland. Energy Resources, NV, won agreements to sell 1.2 million tons of liquid toxic waste each year to Guatemala, to be burned in an incinerator not yet built. That’s right, the recipient country would actually “buy” the waste, as a means of obtaining cheap energy. As incentive, Guatemala would be “allowed” to mix in its own locally-generated waste and burn it for free, compress the toxic debris into bricks and build houses from them.

In the early 1990s the government of El Salvador approved a hazardous waste facility to be built in the town of La Union, which would take in three times the volume of the Guatemalan unit. The Salvadoran regime began widening its harbors to accommodate the anticipated waste barges from the U.S., Europe and Japan. Meanwhile, despite attempts at international agreements (which the U.S., Canada, and Japan refused to sign), even Panama is sniffing excitedly in the direction of incineration as Uncle Sam’s hot toxic breath tickles the neck of its Canal Zone.

Instead of curtailing production of toxics and detoxifying the remaining wastes, mostly by-products of industrial manufacturing, many companies have taken the American Cyanamid route: Dump it overseas. To reduce the volume of waste, many governments support incineration and ash-disposal—mixing in the ash as “inert ingredients,” for instance—as the more “eco-friendly” option. But incineration brings additional environmental risks—it generates waste in the form of ash in which heavy metals are concentrated, to say nothing of the dioxin and other dangerous gasses released by burning. Yet countries competing for the millions of dollars in “disposable income” invite deposits of industrial waste, loosening what few controls there are. Poor countries are induced into accepting the wastes in exchange for International Monetary Fund loans, which mandate funds for incinerator construction projects that can also be used as power plants.

The massive exploitation of the environment in the “Third World” includes the commodification of and international trade in deadly wastes. It also includes capital’s imposition of debt-for-nature swaps, construction of huge incinerators and disposal sites, and many other seemingly senseless projects. But to capitalism’s New World Order, these are ways in which the international debt crisis expresses itself. The waste trade is not an avoidable excrescence of imperial domination and the globalization of capital but is essential to it, requiring us, if we are effectively to resist it, to develop new forms of struggle and new vision for reclaiming our lives.             Z

Mitchel Cohen organizes with the Brooklyn Greens/ Green Party of NY State, the Red Balloon Collective, and the Direct Action Network to Free Mumia Abu Jamal and Leonard Peltier.