Yes, I'll sign this petition against globalisation, but...

The loss of job security and fears about food are chiefly the result of technological advance
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MORE PEOPLE are hungry than ever before; the gap between rich and poor is growing; job security is a thing of the past; the food we eat can no longer be trusted; both biological diversity and the Earth's climate are threatened with irreversible damage. These problems are often seen as unconnected issues whereas they have a single cause - increasing liberalisation of trade and investment, in short, globalisation.

This is the thesis that was debated by 800 people at a public meeting in London last week. The occasion was arranged by The Ecologist magazine (where Zac Goldsmith has joined his uncle, Teddy, as editor) and by the International Society for Ecology and Culture (where Helena Norberg-Hodge and Tracy Worcester are leading lights). The BBC's John Humphries was an excellent moderator and as we left we were given a declaration to sign.

Globalisation - by which is meant the removal of all barriers, preferences and protections that stand in the way of free trade in goods and services, whether within individual countries or between them - is a project, it is argued, undertaken selfishly by rich Western nations, led by the US. These governments are serving the needs of their own large multinational companies, some of which are larger and more powerful than nation states.

In this view, multinational companies are seen as bullying governments by threatening to up sticks and move their operations elsewhere. They obtain unfair subsidies. They routinely shift ownership of their assets around the world to avoid tax (see Mr Murdoch's News Corporation). They seize control of primary products such as oil and minerals, and of agricultural products such as coffee and cotton.

The instruments of globalisation are international institutions, the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These were created by British and American civil servants in the 1940s and are dominated by the US. To them we should add the European Union and the North American Free Trade Area comprising Canada, the US and Mexico.

While the shareholders, so to speak, in these institutions, are democratic governments, in practice, the thesis asserts, they are beyond democratic control. These international bodies make their rules, devise their regulations and enforce their will in a manner that pays little attention to national or local needs and wishes. For instance, we must stop buying bananas from former colonies in the Caribbean because the World Trade Organisation so decrees; the rules have been fixed so that, instead, American multinationals operating in Central America get the business.

In fact, unmentioned by the proposers of the declaration, there are two sorts of globalisation going on, the one technological and cultural, the other political. The first has been under way in Europe since the 15th century. It is the ceaseless development of new technologies, many of them affecting the way we travel and carry goods and the way we communicate with each other. These advances have had the effect both of diminishing distance and networking nations, first internally and then on a global scale. This process has persisted whether the prevailing economic orthodoxy has been free trade or, as the case between the 1930s and 1960s, protectionism - and it is unstoppable.

The second is the attempt, which is primarily Anglo-Saxon, to bring about a global free market. I say Anglo-Saxon because our Continental neighbours are not thorough going believers. Moreover, the first time that this project was tried out was in mid-Victorian Britain. For a brief period, lasting only from the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 to the arrival of Mr Gladstone's first administration in 1868, all limits on business and trade and on the fixing of wages had been cleared away. The governments of the day had systematically provided for the enclosure of common land, the reform of the poor law, the repeal of statutes that fixed wages and the extinction of tariffs. This was a political programme with a single aim - the establishment of totally unrestrained markets - as John Gray has pointed out in a recent book, False Dawn, the delusions of global capitalism. Likewise, the economic reforms introduced more than a century later by Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan required strong political leadership.

If we go back now to the ills listed at the beginning, we can see that it is wrong to suggest a single cause. The loss of job security and fears about food are chiefly the result of technological advance. The widening gap between rich and poor is a function of untrammelled market economics, or globalisation in its political sense. As for damage to biological diversity and the Earth's climate, the fact that Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union are the worst polluters in the world shows us that these deficiencies need a variety of explanations. I don't know whether the proportion of the world population that is hungry is higher than ever before, and if it is so, I would find it difficult to ascribe the deterioration to one factor alone.

Is economic policy today ruled by big business as the declaration handed out at the meeting states? To some extent: big business dominates American politics, buying the votes of senators and congress members with campaign donations and more subtle devices. New Labour pays a lot of attention to business interests and sometimes bows the knee. In France and Italy, business bribery of politicians is a recurring problem. Some multinationals are indeed more powerful than some poor countries.

So, having made a number of reservations, could I sign the declaration that calls upon the Government to take four actions? The first is to refuse to ratify any treaties which go further in liberalising. I have no problems with this. Even though a global free market is incredibly efficient, let us hold the rules where they are until we see how the international economic system behaves under a variety of pressures.

The other demands are to re-negotiate such treaties as Maastricht in a way that restores democratic control - yes to that; to shift the burden of taxation away from labour and to punish instead pollution and the wasteful use of energy - again, yes - and to redirect subsidies and other supports which provide an unfair advantage to giant, transnational corporations. I could put my name to all these requests.

By the way, being acquainted with some of the authors of the declaration, I know that their private sentiments are much fiercer than is implied by their mild declaration. In showing such self-restraint, they are politically wise.