Larry Summers and the Toxic Memo 

I might be the only one who didn’t know about this, but the 1991 ‘Summers memo’ story is absolutely wild. Larry Summers, the World Bank’s Chief Economist from ’91 to ’93, signed off on an internal memo arguing that exporting pollution to countries with lower wages would reduce “foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality,” so that “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.” A 1998 New Yorker profile, published while Summers was Deputy Treasury Secretary, reported that a young economist at his World Bank office had written the memo, that Summers had given it a “cursory review” before signing, and that he disowned its “basic sentiment” as “obviously all wrong.”

Sen. Max Baucus questions Larry Summers about the infamous ‘toxic memo’ just over a year after its appearance in the press.

Even viewed as a provocation “to stimulate internal debate,” as Summers put it, the memo cut a little close to the bone given the World Bank’s track record with ‘structural adjustment programs,’ which required countries in economic crisis to accept free-market policies in return for financial aid. After the memo was leaked to the press in early 1992, its statement that “under-populated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted” especially angered readers: the feminist scholar Peggy Antrobus sent a written objection to the 1993 Senate Committee on Summers’ nomination as Treasury Undersecretary for International Affairs, stating that his appointment would “raise very serious doubts … about the new [Clinton] Administration’s sensitivity to issues of equity, human rights and environmental sustainability.” Post-1987 Brundtland Report, and especially post-1992 Rio Earth Summit, definitions of ‘sustainability’ took a decidedly economic turn, but despite the political vogue, Summers didn’t get the job. Yet.

Jay Richardson | 17 December 2022