The Environmentalism of the Poor

The Environmentalism of the Poor

A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation

Joan Martinez-Alier

The Environmentalism of the Poor has the explicit intention of helping to establish two emerging fields of study – political ecology and ecological economics – whilst also investigating the relations between them.

Chapter 10: The Ecological Debt

Joan Martinez-Alier

Subjects: economics and finance, valuation, environment, ecological economics, valuation


Internationally, the ecological debt arises from two separate ecological distribution conflicts. First, as we shall see immediately, the exports of raw materials and other products from relatively poor countries are sold at prices which do not include compensation for local or global externalities. Second, rich countries make a disproportionate use of environmental space or services without payment, and even without recognition of other people’s entitlements to such services (particularly, the disproportionate free use of carbon dioxide sinks and reservoirs). The ecological debt brings together many of the conflicts related to the environmentalism of the poor, and it also puts on the table the question of the languages in which such conflicts are to be expressed. The ecological debt is an economic concept. The first discussions on the ecological debt took place around 1990, largely because of the inputs from a Latin American NGO (the Instituto de Ecologia Politica from Chile). One of the alternative international ‘treaties’, at Rio de Janeiro’s Earth Summit of 1992 was a Debt Treaty, which introduced the notion of an ecological debt in contraposition to the external debt. Fidel Castro was persuaded by Latin American activists to use this concept in his own speech at the official conference.1 Virgilio Barco, the president of Colombia at the time, had already used the expression in a speech in the USA at an MIT commencement ceremony on 4 June 1990. One decade later, Friends of the Earth made of the ecological debt one of its...

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