Can Globalization and Environmental Sustainability Co-exist?

As more emphasis is put on the globalization of industry, the need for environmental sustainability–although as important as ever–is often not included in the conversation. This is problematic in that as trade and capital mobility restrictions are continually lifted between nations, the impact big business can have on the environment is tremendous. Under globalization, the world is becoming smaller. This process theoretically sets in motion the creation of a set of common principles between nations whereby cooperation takes precedence over competition.

In theory, the environmental protections set in place by the most industrialized nations should be adopted by the developing nations. As is sometimes the case though, the developing nations ignore the environmental impact of their policies so they can catch up. Thus, the question arises: can globalization and environmental sustainability coexist?

Movement towards Globalization

The modern industrialized nations have been marching towards a global system of economic interest and government for many decades. Much of the movement has not been overt; rather, it has been a slow process, from the onset of the United Nations to treaties like NAFTA. Because nations are accustomed to operating in their own self interest, the process requires them to change their habits, which is no easy task. By working towards economic unification and common interest, the process of globalization aims to create an umbrella under which all nations can prosper freely, following an identical set of rules.

Comparative Advantage

An old economic tenet, comparative advantage is the notion that nations can enjoy an advantage over others based upon the abundance of resources they have available to them. Theoretically, a nation that produces oil at a greater rate than another possesses a comparative advantage over that country in terms of oil. However, if the other country produces wheat in abundance, they too possess their own comparative advantage. Through trade the two nations can get what they both want. This is purely theoretical, though. In practice, powerful nations can come to control less powerful ones through conquest, either economic or military. In the age of globalization, labor has become the comparative advantage of less prosperous nations. This is one of the reasons why so many jobs that once belonged to Americans go to China and India, Vietnam and Mexico–their laborers will work for less.

Environmental Sustainability

On the other side of the coin, environmental sustainability is just as important as economic prosperity, but the two are tied together. Another reason so many industrial jobs have left the most developed nations is because of the environmental regulations their governments have imposed. In order to protect the environment, strict limitations are placed on pollution and waste. A consequence of these restrictions is that the companies that employ people send the jobs to countries where the environmental standards are much less stringent. Thus, although the environment is better served by the laws against environmental degradation, the economies of those nations suffer. And although jobs come to the less developed nations, boosting the economies there, the environment suffers because the restrictions against pollution are less strict.

All of this seems to indicate that globalization and environmental sustainability are mutually incompatible. Indeed, their beneficial coexistence rests on the ability of the nations of the world to freely exchange goods and services while at the same time placing limitations on how much damage each can do to the environment. At worst, the world could become a single economic entity with absolutely no regard for the ecosystems of the earth or one large environmentally protected zone where each economy is forced to curb its industrial output to meet international regulations. Unless a more balanced compromise is made between the two ideas, they will continue to be at odds with one another.