Protesters in Seattle Warned Us What Was Coming, but We Didn't Listen

Copenhagen must face up to the decade lost in curbing volatile finances, corporate power and the pillage of resources

Ten years ago, protesters gathered in a port city; politicians arrived for intense backroom negotiations; the city's hotels were booked out by representatives of thousands of NGOs from all over the world. In 1999 Seattle, like Copenhagen this week, was a big international meeting attempting to exert some governance over globalisation. There's a fitting symmetry that these two meetings bookend this decade. For while the Seattle protests were deliberately misrepresented and widely misunderstood at the time, their agenda has proved unanswerable. Copenhagen is belatedly grappling with just one aspect of Seattle's unfinished business.

For those for whom Seattle is a hazy memory, let's recap. The World Trade Organisation had become the bete noire of a heterogeneous global coalition bizarrely labelled as the anti-globalisation movement. The WTO meeting to hammer out an international trade agreement became the touchstone for riots, and a draconian police response of teargas and truncheons. Seattle made it on to the front page of every newspaper. Some Starbucks windows were smashed; the protesters were ridiculed for their taste in lattes, Naomi Klein's No Logo and their trendy crusades against brands such as Nike. For a decade Seattle has been dismissed as illogical, self-indulgent posture politics that, not surprisingly, went nowhere.

But it's crucial if we are to have any sensible understanding of the first decade of the century to grasp how the Seattle agenda was traduced and its promise of a global civil society was dismantled. Go back to 1999 and what was all the fuss about? In part, Seattle was a protest about a highly volatile financial system built on unsustainable levels of debt. Asia had just been through a bruising financial collapse, millions of people in countries such as Indonesia had dropped back below the poverty line in what Paul Krugman describes as "one of the worst economic slumps in world history". Economists such as Martin Khor were central to the critique that the "liberal world order" promoted by globalisation benefited only a small proportion of the global population.

Another key target in Seattle was corporate power; it manipulated globalisation for its own profit, ruthlessly corrupting all political systems. National governments had neither the appetite nor capacity to call them to account. Finally, Seattle was a protest against the economic system of global capitalism, which was destructive of the environment and was burning through finite resources at ever faster speed.

Any of that sound relevant in 2009? But the curious thing back in 1999 was how quickly and effectively this urgent agenda got buried. There was Genoa, Prague, the 2001 May Day riots in London, and then it petered out. Let's be honest, it was an odd protest movement - the "anti-globalisation" agenda attracted a hugely disparate following that had as much to argue about with itself as with anyone else. All that united them was a stubborn belief that the model of globalisation being aggressively promoted by the west had many disastrous outcomes. They differed dramatically about what to do about it, and that was their weakness.

But they did have a convincing critique of globalisation - its instability and its profligate use of environmental resources. When someone points out your house is about to fall down, you might listen even if they don't know how to do the repairs. If they pointed out that you were digging up the foundations, you might listen even harder.

Instead, what happened was that Seattle's riots prompted a rash of apologetics for globalisation. Throughout 2000 and 2001 there was a repeated refrain about the inevitability of globalisation. Tony Blair declared that "these forces of change driving the future don't stop at national boundaries. Don't respect tradition. They wait for no one and no nation. They are universal." Blair had made globalisation into an uncontrollable phenomenon, like a tsunami; we voters were being bullied by a political establishment.

It was dressed up with triumphalism. Globalisation was making more people richer than at any time in history, said Adair Turner in his book Just Capital, "with better food ... longer lives" and "the freedom of personal mobility to move to new places". India was the poster boy of globalisation with its growing middle class. Anthony Giddens and Will Hutton edited a collection, On the Edge, in which they acknowledged the threat of financial instability and urged better global regulation, but insisted that "the task, surely, in the absence of alternatives, is to keep the current system going and improve it ... it is a source of global enrichment".

But who was richer and who had better food? The protesters in Seattle insisted the triumphalism was misplaced; from the perspective of the vast majority of the world's population, the "liberal world order" was neither ordered nor recognisably liberal. They cited the poignant phrase "zones of sacrifice" for those whose environments and communities that were destroyed in this process of enrichment.

Then 9/11 happened and the debate stopped. In its place emerged a noisy charade of argument about a clash of civilisations in which many straw men have been knocked down. It was a revived mythology that benefited only the self-aggrandising political ambitions of Osama bin Laden and George Bush, but it launched two disastrous wars. And it distracted the world's attention from the real threat for the best part of a decade.

But now in 2009 we are back in Seattle's agenda: financial regulation, climate change and how to ensure politicians challenge the entrenched power of corporations, whether banks or oil companies. The intervening decade has piled up more evidence that the liberal world order is no such thing. Greece and Iceland now know what Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand knew in 1999. Savage public spending cuts used to be the medicine the International Monetary Fund doled out to sickly developing countries, now we have to self-medicate.

And we've lost a decade in curbing the rapacious corporate drive to exploit natural resources, driven by the west's insatiable appetite for economic growth. Last week, there was a report of the acidification of the world's oceans, now accelerating at a terrifying speed, threatening all marine life. A third of the world's soils, millions of years in the making, are depleting faster than we regenerate them. On every continent an environmental catastrophe is brewing that makes you want to weep: Australia is a cocktail of water scarcity, salination and soil erosion. The continent would have been better off if we had never discovered it, never taken our cloven-hoofed animals there to destroy its fragile soils.

It's been a decade of hubris that has led only to tragedy. The limits of western military force have been exposed; its financial power has been revealed as a form of gambling that brought the global economy to the edge. The fallout - in jobs and lives - has only just begun. Copenhagen reminds us that we have been living in a civilisation which has been destroying the life systems on which human wellbeing depends. Never has it been so hard to argue that there is such a thing as progress and that it is represented by liberal capitalism - 1999 promised the beginnings of a global civil protest, but the message of the protesters in Seattle was too radical and too true so it had to be ridiculed and marginalised.

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