The book answers the question, is there a global environmental justice movement in the making? The world economy is not circular, it is entropic: this metabolic gap explains the continuous march by business corporations to the frontiers of commodity extraction and waste disposal. Socio-ecological conflicts then arise at those frontiers. They are not anecdotal but systemic. The growth and changes in the social metabolism and the conflicts are two sides of the same coin. This book describes and analyses 500 such conflicts selected from the EJAtlas, a contemporary history archive for environmental conflicts worldwide with 3800 documented cases. The thirty geographical and thematic chapters on commodities, social actors and their forms of mobilisation, show the analytical potentiality of comparative, statistical political ecology. The book develops a theory of the environmentalism of the poor, the indigenous, the downtrodden and the “subaltern” who are often in favour of nature conservation because they live from it directly.

There is a global tide of environmentalism of the poor and the Indigenous born at the frontiers of commodity extraction and waste disposal where conflicts arise on access to land, water, clean air, the extraction of fossil fuels, other minerals and biomass, the burdens of pollution and the sharing of uncertain environmental risks. I attribute this wave of conflicts mainly to the fact that the world economy is not circular, it is entropic (Georgescu-Roegen 1971).

This book shows that there are counter-movements for environmental justice. This conclusion is based on a large inventory of such conflicts gathered over the last ten years in the Atlas of Environmental Justice (Temper et al. 2015, 2018, 2020; Scheidel et al. 2020, 2023; Martinez-Alier 2021a). It is a database made available for research, teaching, networking, and advocacy, housed at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Since 2012, academics and activists collaborate to write the entries, a large sample from a much larger unknown number of conflicts. The present book takes a sample of about 500 conflicts from within the 3,800 registered by December 2022. The EJAtlas registers the iconography of such conflicts displayed in striking banners and theatricality (Sanz and Rodriguez-Labajos 2021). It provides descriptions and coded variables for research on comparative, statistical political ecology. One of its main purposes is lifting the curtain of invisibility over movements for environmental justice, contributing to what Sousa Santos called a “sociology of absences”.

The growth and changes in social metabolism and the socio-ecological conflicts are two sides of the same coin (Tetreault 2022; Yasin 2022). “Social metabolism” refers to the flows of energy and materials in human society. The EJAtlas analyzes the interactions between social mobilizations and ecological endowments as expressed in the flows of energy and materials entering and exiting the economy. To illuminate the reality of the physical economy, we start by explaining the entropy of the industrial economy, introducing also the Keeling curve, and continuing with the frontiers of commodity extraction and waste disposal. We start therefore on the first side of the coin. We then turn the coin around and continue with the analysis of environmental justice conflicts and the environmentalism of the poor and the Indigenous, a pluriverse of environmental injustices and “degrowth in practice”.

THE SOCIAL METABOLISM

The world economy is not sustainable. There is an enormous “entropy hole” in the world economy, a great circularity rift or metabolic gap, that explains the continuous march to the p. 2frontiers of commodity extraction and waste disposal. This has become common knowledge. As President Gustavo Petro of Colombia said on 2 September 2022,

the theories of degrowth arise from one of the best economists in the world: Georgescu-Roegen, who articulated the economic process to the laws of thermodynamics in physics. The economy is an accelerator of entropy, that is, of energy degradation. This does not mean that we stop eating or dressing up, but that the economy must slow down its most predatory branches, the ones with the largest entropic acceleration, and accommodate the times of growth to the balance of life on the planet. It must be an economy for life.

Although there is much talk about a new “circular economy paradigm” as an alternative to linear and unsustainable production and consumption systems, the industrial economy's “entropy hole” cannot be repaired or bridged easily. New virgin supplies would be required even in the absence of economic growth because of the dissipation of energy and materials. The ecological regime of the capitalist industrial system must be understood through thermodynamics. The economic process (based on fossil fuels) follows the entropy law. The concept of ‘circular economy’ would imply that material resources could be increasingly sourced from within the economy, reducing environmental impact by increasing the reuse and recycling of materials. The aim would be to minimize waste and move towards a closed loop economy. However, this socio-technical ‘imaginary’ has no relation to reality as revealed by biophysical, metabolic analysis. As economic growth (production and sale of more goods and services) takes place, the social metabolism of the economy grows and changes. There is much waste (mine tailings, excessive amounts of carbon dioxide), and there is an enormous requirement for new materials and energy that can only come from the commodity extraction frontiers.

Mainstream economics as one of the main arguments in politics (often disguised as an apolitical technocracy) is losing its appeal, both in its neoliberal and its Keynesian social-democratic varieties. The ecological critique is gnawing at it. In the 1970s, the first ecological economists challenged the conventional view of economic growth (Daly 1977) while, in 1972, the Limits to Growth authored by Dennis and Donella Meadows concluded that continued trends in resource utilization and waste production would lead to socio-economic collapse. Nowadays, one main empirical field of study is the metabolic profile of different countries and regions, of different social classes and of humankind as a whole, in terms of flows of energy and materials. So, when an explanation is required for today's pre-eminent “socio-ecological question”, whether the cause is sought in capitalism, colonialism, overpopulation, patriarchy, the private property system, agriculture, industrialization or neoliberalism, my own answer is that all these causes are concomitant with but less important than the growth and changes in the Social Metabolism.

The Keeling Curve

By 2022, President Macron's speech of 24 August seemed to signal a turning point:

We are living the end of what could have seemed an era of abundance … the end of the abundance of products of technologies […] of land and materials including water […] of endless cash flow, for which we must now face the consequences in terms of state finances. […] It is also the end, for those that had it, of a type of insouciance. War began again in Europe six months ago to the day. […] At the same time, the climate crisis and all its effects are there, tangibly, and new risks are appearing all the time, like cyber-attacks. We are living through a huge shift. This overview that I’m giving, p. 3the end of abundance, the end of insouciance, the end of assumptions – it's ultimately a tipping point that we are going through that can lead our citizens to feel a lot of anxiety.

Where does Macron's phrase “end of abundance” come from? It could come from the “Degrowth” and “Post-Growth” literature since the early 1970s. But it comes rather from Pierre Charbonnier's book (2020) Abondance et Liberté. His main hypothesis is that, from the seventeenth century to the present day, the political philosophy and political economy of Grotius, Locke, the physiocrats, the liberals (Adam Smith), Marx and the socialists, Karl Polanyi, the Keynesians and the neoliberals did not put the study of social metabolism at the centre of political and economic analysis. Some attributed abundance to the ownership and improvements of land, others to the division of labour and the free market, others to the development of the productive forces, to social intervention and protection or to public investments in times of crisis. The reality of abundance characteristic of the Western economic system since colonial times and the industrial revolution was going to bring freedom for all.

Indeed, abundance brought with it freedom (for some), and those who were not yet free would be free in a hypothetical future. Political philosophers and economists relegated physical realities to the background, rather than putting them at the forefront of political reflection. So much so that climate change caused by coal combustion did not lead to any political reaction until the 1990s. During the twentieth century, coal combustion increased sevenfold, and oil and gas combustion increased much more.

It is not surprising that Georgescu-Roegen (1975, fn. 25) would write that “The continuous accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has a greenhouse effect which should aggravate the heating of the globe” although he himself did not pay enough attention to climate change due mostly to burning of fossil fuels. He already suspected that “thermal pollution could prove to be a more crucial obstacle to growth than the finiteness of accessible resources”. As early ecological economists of the 1980s, we knew that the continuous accumulation of carbon dioxide proceeded with impressive regularity since it was first measured in the Keeling curve in the late 1950s. Despite the warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since the 1980s, there have been continuous delays in adopting effective top-down policy actions. The Kyoto agreement of 1997 was ineffective, the Copenhagen COP in 2009 was a failure, and in Paris in 2015, governments merely made voluntary promises of reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and denied the relevance of the notion of “liability”. We have not yet reached peak emissions and much less will be a limit soon reached to the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere. If we are optimistic, some degrowth of the human population, degrowth of the economy, some changes in technologies and the strength of LFFU movements (Leave Fossil Fuels Underground, Chapter 16) might then stop further growth of the Keeling curve before the end of the twenty-first century. International agreements based on the assumption that decreased emissions are compatible with economic growth have failed repeatedly since 1992. Figure 1.1 shows the Keeling curve, a daily record of global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration maintained by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego at its observatory in Mauna Loa, Hawaii pointing to 450 ppm before 2050 and possibly 500 ppm by 2100. I am aware that Green Industrial Policy (Allan et al. 2021) driven by states and also removing subsidies to fossil fuels and taxing carbon emissions can help in the energy transition. However, the extraction of new minerals and the space needed for windmills or for the capture of direct solar energy gives rise to new socio-ecological conflicts.p. 4

The Keeling curve, growing despite (irrelevant) meetings and policies against climate change (Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego).
Figure 1.1

The Keeling curve, growing despite (irrelevant) meetings and policies against climate change

Source:  Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego

In parallel with economic and population growth worldwide, the twenty-first century is seeing an increase in the burning of coal, oil and gas (Figure 1.2). This has been the march in the West since the late eighteenth century, followed later elsewhere. In 1896, Svante Arrhenius published his famous article “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground” followed by estimations of the amount of carbon dioxide p. 5that would accumulate in the atmosphere by the burning of coal. True, there have been other human-made alterations to climate before. Possibly, after the conquest of America the demographic collapse allowed more growth of vegetation, more carbon dioxide capture, less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the Little Ice Age. It was indeed “little” compared to effects of the march of the Keeling curve towards 500 ppm.

A graph that shows the worldwide increase of the burning of coal, oil and gas in the 21st century.
Figure 1.2

Commercial, exosomatic energy consumption

Source:  Our World in Data based on Vaclav Smil (2017) and BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

I remember being shown Arrhenius’ statue at the University of Stockholm by ecologist Anne-Mari Jansson in 1986, at the time when I also met Bert Bolin when we were trying to start the International Society for Ecological Economics. I also remember many years later at the COP in Copenhagen, in 2009, spending a long afternoon in the plenary session with Fander Falconí, the foreign affairs minister of Ecuador, listening to one delegate after another getting up for five minutes to argue in favour of either a limit of only 1ºC increase in temperature (this was the poor countries) or a limit of 2ºC (this was the rich countries). The exact ppm in the Keeling curve was not mentioned. They were saying automatically “one degree, two degrees”.

Arrhenius and others estimated the rise in temperature that increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would cause. All this was included in textbooks since 1910 although it took a long time for the science of climate change to influence international politics. This only happened after the IPCC was founded and had a successful meeting in Villach, Austria, in 1985, and after the United Nations Rio de Janeiro conference of 1992, where a treaty was signed on climate change. Since then, procrastination has been the main response, reaching in some cases denial of the science of climate change in a classic example of the “manufacturing of uncertainty” practised already by industry and governments regarding dangers to human health from tobacco smoking, asbestos or glyphosate use (Chapter 28).

Today the yearly extraction of coal reaches 8,000 million tons, to which must be added larger and larger amounts of oil and gas which also, of course, produce carbon dioxide when they are burnt. More economic growth will mean further excessive emissions of carbon dioxide. The economy of India is still moving in a transition towards coal (Roy and Schaffartzik 2021, Chapters 8 and 9). Climate injustices are central points of this book, and one transversal chapter is about growing LFFU movements (leave fossil fuels underground).

The Frontiers of Commodity Extraction and Waste Disposal

Throughout this book we shall be guided by a three-tier relation between: (a) the increasing and changing metabolism of human societies, (b) the ecological distribution conflicts among human groups and (c) the plural valuation languages deployed by such groups when they reaffirm their rights to use the environmental services and products in dispute.

The industrial economy is not circular, it is entropic (Giampietro 2019). Life is anti-entropic or negentropic to use Schrödinger's term (1944). Current photosynthesis from the sun sustains life and promotes biodiversity. This still goes on, of course. But in the industrial economy (Figure 1.2) the deposits of fossil fuels (photosynthesis from the distant past) are burnt and their energy is dissipated. From a chemical point of view, the fossil fuels become waste in the form of carbon dioxide and the earth systems cannot provide strong enough “sinks” (terrestrial photosynthesis and the absorption in the oceans) to take up and “neutralize”, so to speak, the increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Hence the increase in the Keeling curve in parallel to the increase in the world industrial economy. Some of the oil and gas is not burnt as fuel. It goes to the production of petrochemicals for the plastics industry which has notorious difficulties to recycle the materials produced (Mah 2022).p. 6

Socio-ecological conflicts then arise at the frontiers of commodity extraction or waste disposal. Commodity frontiers (Moore 2000) are places converted into suppliers of materials and energy (at whatever environmental and social costs) for the creation of economic values. Such conflicts are not anecdotal, they are systemic. They also arise when attempts at closing a little this “entropic gap” or “circularity rift” (a giant chasm or abyss) are undertaken by mining the metals and harvesting the wood for the electricity transition or occupying common land for windmills or photovoltaic farms, or land-grabbing plantations for ethanol or biodiesel. The fact that the industrial economy is not circular at all implies the requirement to find, on the one hand, additional carbon dioxide sinks (through REDD ‒ Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation ‒ schemes that displace peasants and tribal peoples and simplify and even kill biodiversity by tree plantations) and, on the other hand, the invasion of the “commodity extraction frontiers” to get hold of energy and materials. These places (reaching to Amazonia or the Arctic, Chapter 7) are very often inhabited by humans and certainly by other species, and therefore the folly of climate change is compounded by violence and injustice against such human groups and also against other species.

The “fresh” material input into the world economy (not counting water) is about 92 Gt per year and the recycled material is about 8 Gt. Let us assume that the world economy grows slowly and merely doubles the material input requirement in 70 years. Of the material input of 200 Gt, let us assume that 100 Gt are recycled. An enormous improvement in the recycling rate from 8 per cent to 50 per cent, however still a small increase (from 92 Gt to 100 Gt) in the “fresh” material input required. The so-called Circularity Gap Report (based on calculations in Haas et al. 2015, 2020) asserts that 92 Gt of virgin resources were extracted in 2017 and only 8.6% of all materials used were recycled. The gap or rift will increase with further economic growth. Less than 10 per cent of materials (including the energy carriers) are recycled, where do the other 90 per cent come from? My answer is: from the new commodity extraction frontiers and also to some extent from customary sources. Thus, aluminium may come to some extent from recycling, it may come from bauxite from old mines which are used more intensively, or it may very likely come from new bauxite mines.

There is a new collective initiative for the historical study of commodity frontiers and a new journal. This concept (Moore 2000) is becoming ever more relevant. Two processes of growth and changes in socio-metabolism are associated with the commodity extraction frontiers: commodity-widening and commodity-deepening (Banoub et al. 2020). The first implies the spatial extension of nature appropriation, via territorial claims to control and use natural resources and associated acts of dispossession. The second implies the intensification of exploitation at existing sites by socio-technical innovation and investments in the same places as for instance the mining of metal ores or coal by open cast techniques discarding previous subterranean mining, or also energy-intensive fishing or plantation agriculture. At the fossil fuel extraction frontier, the concept of “commodity-deepening” is similar to that of “extreme energies”. For instance, a study of impacts of fracking in Lancashire, UK (Chapter 28) states that the depletion of conventional reserves “is leading to increasing pressure to exploit more ‘unconventional’ sources… the term ‘extreme energy’ (describes) a range of new higher-risk ‘unconventional’ fuel extraction processes, such as oil/tar sands production, mountaintop removal and deep-water drilling, that are increasingly being used as more accessible supplies dwindle” (Short and Szolucha 2019).

Most conflicts in the EJAtlas can be classified as taking place in either commodity-widening or commodity-deepening frontiers. The industrial economy marches all the time to the p. 7extraction frontiers in search of materials and also travels to the waste disposal frontiers. The waste is deposited anywhere (solid or liquid waste, or GHG ‒ Greenhouse gases), or sometimes a small part of it is economically valued by recyclers, or in REDD schemes for “capturing” carbon dioxide (Chapter 21), or in locally noxious cement kilns that burn urban waste or tyres (Schindler and Demaria 2020).

Thus, the energy transition must be approached from different angles. It must be based, as in mainstream thought, on a change in the fiscal system against fossil fuels (which is politically difficult to implement) with compensations for “energy poverty”; also, a technological change towards renewable energies. This will cause new socio-ecological conflicts because of mining and biomass needs (lithium and cobalt but also balsa trees, for instance) and should not include nuclear power (Chapter 10) and large-scale hydropower (Del Bene et al. 2018; Temper et al. 2020; Brand et al. 2021). Third, there must be economic degrowth of the rich economies. Fourth, the Blockadia and LFFU movements (Chapter 16) must be supported. Fifth, the movement against population growth which I call “eco-feminist neo-Malthusianism” must also be supported until zero population growth is achieved by 2060 or before by women's freedom, men's responsibility (including more voluntary vasectomies) and by persuasion rather than by coercion (Chapter 29).

ECOLOGICAL DISTRIBUTION CONFLICTS (EDC) AND VALUATION CONTESTS

These concepts bring together ecological economics and political ecology. Ecological economics studies the metabolism of the industrial economy, i.e. the increasing and changing amounts of energy and materials entering the economy and exiting as waste. The procurement of energy and materials causes conflicts at the commodity extraction and waste disposal frontiers. They are conflicts countering the appropriation claims over land, water and clean air. The study of such conflicts is done by political ecology. These conflicts are also “valuation contests”, i.e. the protagonists of the conflicts display different valuation languages. Some would insist on the economic valuation of negative “externalities” while others appeal to ecological values, to livelihood needs or to the sacredness of items of nature like special animals or trees, rivers or mountains. These values are not commensurate (Martinez-Alier 1995b; Martinez-Alier and O’Connor 1996). Unresolved ecological conflicts can involve discrepancies within the same value, such as divergences with respect to monetary values of damages, but also across plural values such as loss of biodiversity, the sacredness of the territory and nature, human rights or money compensation.

EDC is a term for environmental injustices that originates from the field of ecological economics. It has been used since 1995 to describe social conflicts born from the unfair access to natural resources and the unjust burdens of pollution. We can also use “socio-ecological conflicts” (Yasin 2017, 2022). Yasin posits that such conflicts characterize the present situation similarly to how labour conflicts characterized the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the West, in the form of the so-called “social question”. However, labour conflicts are growing in the new industrialized countries. Moreover, some labour conflicts (for instance of industrial health and pollution) overlap with ecological conflicts (Navas et al. 2022; Chapter 20). The “socio-ecological question” has been added to the “social question”, the “agrarian question”, the “urban question”, the “anti-colonial question” and the “women's liberation question”.p. 8

Sometimes, the term eco-territorial conflicts is preferred (in Latin America) as distinct forms of place-based social movements, organized as territorial defence of life against the threat of resource extraction on their land. However, other conflicts are on industrial pollution and health. In cases of silicosis or asbestosis, the “territory” is the human body. Economists will tend to subsume all such environmental conflicts in the language of externalities. Here we use EDC because ecological and cultural values are also in dispute in such conflicts. Environmental gains and losses are distributed in a way that causes such conflicts. Poor people who lose access to land, water and clean air because of a mining project might get waged jobs and even some money compensation but somehow, they are poorer than before. Poverty is multidimensional. Moreover, the mine will last only for 20 or 30 years. And it leaves behind acid drainage and the risk of failures of tailings dams. Therefore, the poor complain. Some of their values are being sacrificed. EDCs give birth to movements of resistance, to the point that we can speak of a global movement for Environmental Justice. The EDCs, if they obtain successful outcomes (stopping coal-fired power plants, nuclear power plants, hydropower dams, palm oil or eucalyptus plantations), contribute to move the economy in a less unsustainable direction.

While the term “economic distribution conflicts” in political economy describes conflicts between capitalists and labour (profits versus salaries) or between landlords and peasants (over land rents), or conflicts on prices between sellers and buyers of commodities other than land or labour, the term EDC in political ecology stresses the idea that the unequal or unfair distribution of environmental goods and evils is not always coterminous with economic distribution.

For instance, a factory may be polluting the river which belongs to nobody or belongs to a community that manages the river. This is not a damage valued in the market. The same happens with climate change, causing perhaps already sea level rise in some Pacific islands or in Kuna islands in Panama or in the Sundarbans. Equally, a copper or bauxite smelting factory or a coal-fired power plant will pollute the air, perhaps causing respiratory illnesses. Such conflicts take place at local scales but also at national and international scales. Extractivism and waste disposal increase poverty which is multidimensional. If you get some extra money but lose access to land, water and clean air because the extractive industries grab your place and pollute your family, you are poorer in some dimensions than before. Your autonomy, freedom and capabilities have been further curtailed. These poor people experience in their own real worlds, at the frontiers of commodity extraction and waste disposal, the clash between economic growth and the environment.

More than market failures (a terminology that in mainstream economics implies that such externalities could be valued in money terms and internalized into the price system) these are “cost-shifting successes” (Kapp 1950) which oftentimes lead to complaints from those bearing them. In these complaints, incommensurable values are deployed. For instance, if a “sacred grove” or small forest belonging to a tribal community in India is destroyed by open-cast coal mining, financial compensation may be a way out for the company responsible but other valuation languages (biodiversity, the “rights of nature”, human rights, the livelihood of local populations, Indigenous territorial rights, sacredness) will then be sacrificed. Sand mining in river beds is sometimes opposed by appealing to environmental values or local livelihoods or legal regulations, and sometimes by appealing also to the sacredness of rivers. Values cannot be measured in the same units.

Without denying that economic compensation is appropriate sometimes, particularly in court cases after damage has been done already, the fact is that economic valuation and p. 9compensation means in practice the exclusion of social values which cannot be expressed in money terms, or which the protagonists of the conflicts prefer to express in other terms. For instance, impairment to health from pesticides such as DBCP or chlordecone in banana plantations can certainly be expressed in terms of genetic damage, or years of labour lost and of taking care of illness and disability in adults and old people. Such damage can be translated into money terms. However, some people might much prefer to count the damage also directly, without money translation, in units of human health and life. Not least because we know that “the poor sell cheap”. In any case, who has the right or rather the naked power to impose one particular valuation language when several incommensurable values are in dispute?

In the view of “development as freedom” by Amartya Sen, his canvas is much wider than income per capita, and it is summarized in the idea of “capabilities”. Development should mean acquiring the material circumstances and the mental and social abilities to choose as much as possible your own path in life. However, economic development means in India (as elsewhere) large environmental and cultural losses and lack of access to land, water and air (Martinez-Alier et al. 2016), as shown in so many examples in the EJAtlas. Environmental damage is not captured in the HDI (“Human Development Index”).

PHYSICAL BLINDNESS ALLOWS ECONOMIC COMMENSURATION

Human material dependency is hardly questioned by anyone. However, there are different understandings of humans’ relations to the environment. In the mid-nineteenth century, Moleshott and Liebig introduced the concept of “metabolism” (Stoffwechsel in German) that Marx applied to the economy in some passages of his work (Martinez-Alier 1987). “Metabolism” was not used only as a metaphor (as one could talk of the circulation of money and commodities in a market as similar to the circulation of blood, with the banking system as the heart). It was a physical description. As Alfred Schmidt (1962) explained, Marx used “metabolism” in a physical sense taken from Moleschott and Liebig. However, he was not an ecological economist in today's sense, he did not say that the industrial economy was entropic, and he (and his followers) did not count the flows of energy and materials in the economy (Chapter 30).

How to explain the growth of the economy, the functioning of the generalized market system and the logic of capitalism without taking into account the flows of energy and materials, the enhanced greenhouse effect and the loss of biodiversity? It cannot be done. However, not only economists, also historians and geographers long lived in their own disciplinary cages or silos. The geographers absurdly divided themselves into “physical” and “social” leaving aside the insights of Patrick Geddes and Jean Brunhes who were concerned with the energetics of the economy and with the notion of Raubwirtschaft that we now call “ecologically unequal exchange” (Chapter 26). Social geographers, even the Marxist geographers, have not usually placed at the centre of their analyzes the growth and changes in the social metabolism that cause thousands of ecological distribution conflicts. Meanwhile, mainstream historians placed their discipline in the “humanities”, and until recently they did not discuss the destruction of biodiversity, the enhanced greenhouse effect and the entropic character of the industrial economy (Sieferle 1982 [2001]; Crosby 1986; McNeill 2001; Hornborg et al. 2007).

There are impressive statistical series reconstructing the economic growth of the world in terms of GDP (Madison 1983) but the accounts of energy and materials inputs into the p. 10economy (MEFA), the accounts of carbon dioxide emissions and other socio-physical facts, such as the Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production (HANPP), had to wait until the 1980s or 1990s. Such accounting was done by research institutes or university departments (such as the group in Vienna led by Marina Fischer-Kowalski) until finally Eurostat and UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) took such statistics on board. The statistics by Haas et al. (2015, 2020), showing that less than 10 per cent of the inputs of materials in the world economy comes from recycling, have been nurtured by this Vienna group and by the industrial ecology of Robert Ayres and others since 1969 which improved the old Warenkunde or science of commodities. The EJAtlas is an archive of conflicts on commodities (Chapters 26 and 27).

Economists and politicians have known in practice that the economy works with materials and energy, and in fact, wars have been fought for such reasons. Thus, the Arabian Peninsula was politically shared among different states and independent sultanates according to their deposits of oil and gas. Throughout the 1930s, Kuwaiti people opposed the British-imposed separation of Kuwait from Iraq. This political movement was suppressed by the British by force. However, while acknowledging such geological realities, most economists and politicians have tended to be optimistic regarding new sources of energy. If not fossil fuels, then something else. Thus, in the 1950s, the slogan arose that “nuclear energy would be too cheap to meter”, and in March 1989, a collective belief in the discovery of “cold fusion” occupied for some weeks the cover pages of normally sober publications such as The Economist.

Mainstream economists and even economic historians have been as bad as geographers and mainstream historians in leaving aside the environmental prerequisites and impacts of the growth of the economy. The neoclassical economists (market fundamentalists) introduced one hundred years ago (with Pigou) the notion of “externalities”. They said that the so-called externalities should be “internalized” in the price system. But “externalities” are systematic social cost shifting (as K.W. Kapp put it, 1950 [1963/1978]) and in general they are not amenable to economic valuation. If measured in money terms, they would perhaps be bigger than the “internalities” of the market. But in reality, there are many incommensurable languages of valuation as we discover empirically in the cases recorded in this book and in the EJAtlas.

Commensuration is a political process imposed by force. The issue is not the difficulty in finding interpreters for diplomatic exchanges and negotiations between holders of different valuation languages. The subaltern people usually have to learn the languages of the oppressors; they make efforts to understand and they speak several idioms. This includes the language of markets and money (even fictitious markets). There are political opportunities for dialogues across valuation languages. However, the outcomes will depend on power relations. To diplomatic niceties and the subtleties of translations, the powerful people (and the extractive industries) prefer the language of money and, if not, the language of the gun or incarceration. They are practical business people.

Physical blindness allows economic commensuration. Instead, here we use the concept of Ecological Distribution Conflicts. The EJAtlas may be seen as a large sample of EDCs which I also call “environmental conflicts” for simplicity. On their side, common people (politically and economically weak although culturally strong) sometimes answer these questions in practice by refusing economic compensation and asserting environmental justice, sacredness of nature or Indigenous rights. Or they only accept economic compensation after being defeated and when the polluting projects are already put in place.p. 11

ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE CONFLICTS AND ENVIRONMENTALISM OF THE POOR

This is a book of ecological economics, political ecology, environmental sociology, industrial ecology and contemporary socio-environmental history in support of the global and local movements for environmental justice. The methodology consists in organizing and analysing many hundreds of “ecological distribution conflicts” in the EJAtlas (Figures 1.3 and 1.4).

The world map presents all the 3,600 entries in the EJAtlas, classified in ten categories (biodiversity conservation, biomass, nuclear, tourism etc.)
Figure 1.3

Environmental conflicts cases in the EJAtlas

Source:  A. Grimaldos
The world map presents the 500 EJAtlas entries used in the book, classified in ten categories (biodiversity conservation, biomass, nuclear, tourism etc.)
Figure 1.4

Environmental conflicts cases in this book

Source:  A. Grimaldos

The world economy is increasing and changing its input of energy and materials, and also its output of different sorts of waste. The environmental load of the economy is growing all the time even when the economy is based on the service sector, Hence the many EDC that arise. They are not only conflicts of interest but also conflicts of values. In socio-ecological conflicts over resource extraction and waste disposal, poor people are often in favour of nature conservation because they live from it very directly.

Everywhere, the changes in society and economy because of capitalism have happened together with the deregulation of the systems of use of land and water. This reaches today the large changes in the carbon cycle but also the trespassing of other “planetary boundaries” because the industrial capitalist system is unable to really produce sustainably the basic elements to pay the workers and on top to achieve profits and capital accumulation. The system merely extracts and dissipates such elements, creating an enormous metabolic gap or circularity rift, an “entropy hole”. The need for obtaining new commodities of a previously uncommodified nature is often attributed to the logic of capital accumulation to find new cheap raw materials and energy to be exploited. This is true but the underlying cause for the persistent search for new materials and energy is that those obtained now will no longer be available beyond a short period. This is why there are so many EDCs at the points of extraction, transport and waste disposal.

Making old or emergent EDCs more visible contributes to placing political ecology and socio-environmental justice at the centre of politics, displacing mainstream economics. I am writing at the time when the European Commission is discussing whether investment in nuclear energy and gas can be declared officially to be “green”, and when announcements are made of the coming of a “circular economy” that will allow further economic growth. These are failed attempts to de-politicize crucial environmental issues. The rumour that environmental issues were “post-politic” and could be managed technocratically has been proven false.

The Chipko movement in the Himalayas in the 1970s (Guha 1989), and the movement of the seringueiros, linked to Chico Mendes in Acre, Brazil, in the 1980s, represented two emblematic cases of “environmentalism of the poor” in defence of forests when this notion was developed in the 1980s. Other contemporary examples of this type of environmentalism were the Ogoni, the Ijaw and other Indigenous groups protesting the damage from oil extraction by Shell in the Niger Delta; resistance against eucalyptus in Brazil, Thailand and elsewhere on the grounds that “plantations are not forests”; the movements of displaced people due to dam construction as in the Narmada river in India (mostly Adivasi) and the atingidos por barragens in Brazil; and new peasant movements such as Via Campesina against agro-industries and biopiracy. For “ecosystem people” (as Gadgil and Guha called them), economic development might imply more money but also less freedom of access to land, water and clean air. A rural household can be considered “poor” using different indicators (e.g., income per p. 12 p. 13 p. 14capita, access to healthcare or in terms of access to water and land for livelihood). Poverty is multidimensional, as Amartya Sen emphasized. The environmentalism of the poor and the Indigenous is a reaction towards the increase in poverty as they lose land, water and clean air. They react against the diminished chances to improve their standard of living. They lose freedom. The EJAtlas was born in 2012 from the activism and the knowledge of this type of environmentalism in South America, in India and elsewhere in Asia and in Africa (and in particular in the Niger Delta, where the cry “leave the oil in the soil” against oil spills and gas flaring was raised by Environmental Rights Action ‒ ERA ‒ and Nnimmo Bassey since the 1990s). We asked then, is the environment a “luxury good” and are the poor really “too poor to be green”? (Martinez-Alier 1995a). On the contrary, there was an environmentalism of the downtrodden that remained hidden from most academics.

Ultimately, the sum of all these conflicts in a world environmental justice counter-movement represents today a powerful force for greater sustainability (Scheidel et al. 2018; Scheidel et al. 2020). The EJAtlas is an outcome of the environmentalism of the poor and the Indigenous and of the global environmental justice movements. Until thirty or forty years ago, the social actors in such conflicts rarely saw themselves as environmentalists. Their main concern is still now with livelihood. This is the majority of humankind, those who occupy relatively little environmental space, who have managed sustainable agroforestal and agricultural systems, who make prudent use of carbon sinks and reservoirs, whose livelihoods are threatened by mines, oil wells, dams, deforestation, and tree plantations to feed the increasing throughput of energy and materials of the economy within or outside their own countries.

THE SOCIAL ACTORS OF ENVIRONMENTAL CONFLICTS

This book explores and organizes the findings of the EJAtlas to reach a sound theory of “ecological distribution conflicts” and to explain and support the movements for environmental justice. Sometimes I have been asked: “you say that there is a world movement of environmental justice ‒ can you do a social class analysis of this movement?”. Although the question might sound like old-fashioned Marxism to some readers, I think it is a valid one which I answer in this book. The environmental conflicts that we gather in the EJAtlas show a variety of social actors (Figure 1.5) and they exhibit different forms of mobilization or “repertoires of contention” (Figure 1.6). Women often take the lead in such movements (Tran et al. 2020, 2021, 2022) (Chapter 4).

The graph shows the 21 categories of social actors mobilizing in the conflicts in the EJAtlas, for example neighbours, peasants or local scientists.
Figure 1.5

Categories (not mutually exclusive) of social actors mobilizing in conflicts registered in the EJAtlas

The graph shows the 29 categories of mobilizing forms in the conflicts and their frequency, from official petitions to threat to use arms.
Figure 1.6

Frequency of mobilizations forms recorded in the EJAtlas (in percentage)

They all form the incipient world movement for environmental justice which, as Zehra Yasin has explained (2022), must be seen as an “antisystemic movement” (Arrighi et al. 1989) as this term was used after 1968 but before the environmentalism of the dispossessed and downtrodden became so visible as it is today. In about 40 per cent of cases in the EJAtlas, Indigenous and traditional peoples are the main protagonists, often at the commodity extraction frontiers (Chapter 25). But there are many other participants such as local Environmental Justice Organizations (EJOs) and the “neighbours and citizens”. In general, this variety of participants is not a surprise. The EJOs of the South defend local identities and territories (Escobar 2008); however, their growth is explained not only by the strength of identity politics but also by the conflicts erupting. The local EJOs, the local neighbours, peasants or small farmers, fisherfolk and pastoralists, workers and trade unions, the Indigenous peoples and their networks are, then, a main force working to make the world economy less unsustainable. p. 15This is an “environmentalism of the common people”. But the international EJOs, scientists and professionals, local government officials or members of political parties, or religious groups, also sometimes take part in the conflicts registered in the EJAtlas. They are not so poor or Indigenous.

Looking at the participants in demonstrations in Europe organized by the young militants of Fridays for Future, mostly girls, complaining against policy inaction against climate change (see also Chapter 16, on Disha Ravi in Bangalore, India), Della Porta and Portos (2021) found out that many participants in these demonstrations were not “the rich kids of Europe”. Their statistical results showed the “heterogeneity of the social composition of the protests” in terms of income or social class ‒ although being in urban Europe, there was a lack of farmers and peasants, fisher people, pastoralists or Indigenous peoples who instead appear in Figure 1.5 and do not take part in European Fridays for Future demonstrations.

Throughout this book there are many occasions to discuss in particular instances of conflict the multiple identities of the environmentalists and the heterogeneity of their social composition. I shall use the word “intersectionality”. This is a concept coming from Black feminist theory in the United States (Crenshaw 1989) (Di Chiro 2021) (Chapter 30).p. 16

Before 1990, environmentalism was often interpreted as a “full stomach” phenomenon (Guha and Martinez-Alier 1997), a luxury only the rich could afford. Postulating the emergence of postmaterialist values, Ronald Inglehart (1995) argued that the rise of environmentalism in the 1960s in the Global North was a result of a shift from materialist to “postmaterialist” values, a change from prioritizing sustenance and safety towards self-expression and quality of life. This shift was attributed to unprecedented levels of economic and physical security in the 1960s in Europe and the USA. Indeed, one main contribution of political scientist Ronald Inglehart (1934‒2021) was his theory of ‘value change’. He kept the world “material” for economic issues (salaries, employment) and funnily called environmental issues “non-material” or “post-material”. He claimed that, as advanced industrial societies increasingly meet the material needs of their citizens, the values, attitudes, and political opinions of these citizens would be shaped by “non-material” questions ‒ such as the toxic effects of DDT and other pesticides, the chemicals acting as endocrine disruptors, the nuclear radiation (from accidents such as Three Mile Island, Chornobyl and Fukushima), the change in composition of the atmosphere because of “greenhouse gases” leading to climate change, the rapid loss of biodiversity. This caused great confusion among generations of political and social scientists who believed that the environmental movement was “post-material”, a movement of people seeing themselves as dematerialized angels.

The “environmentalism of the poor” does not envision environmental preservation as a luxury good, contrary to what Inglehart did. It is also contrary to Ulrich Beck's view of environmental risks as being impartial to social class (1992). Even somebody like the anti-colonial thinker Edward Said once apparently described environmentalism as the indulgence p. 17of spoiled tree-huggers who lack a proper cause. 1 The theory of the environmentalism of the poor was proposed by Ramachandra Guha and myself around 1990 (Guha 1989; Martinez-Alier and Hershberg 1992) and later in the book Varieties of Environmentalism in 1997, when it was still an academic novelty.

Although Inglehart's “post-materialist” interpretation continues to dominate in political science, there were other views from the United States on the origins of environmentalism, of which Schnaiberg's “treadmill of production” was influential (Schnaiberg 1980; Schnaiberg and Gould 1994). In a nutshell, Schnaiberg argued against the “eco-modernists”, blaming capitalist production and the search for profit from continually exploiting new natural resources and generating new environmental problems.

The poor and the Indigenous often struggle for environmental justice. What matters is not whether they express “environmental concerns” in opinion surveys but what they do when confronting extractive industries or waste dumping. Such environmentalism of livelihood is often based on the defence of legally established old community property rights. Sometimes, new community rights are invoked. The intermediary NGOs have given an explicit environmental meaning to such livelihood struggles in the last decades, connecting them into wider networks and proposing new policies of local or worldwide relevance. For instance, the chapters on India mention the new Forest Right Act several times, while an article on 38 mining conflicts in Argentina based on the EJAtlas (Walter and Wagner 2021) shows how legislation banning open cast mining was controversially enacted in some provinces because of such conflicts, jumping scales in practice: from NIMBYs (Not In My BackYard) to NIABYs (Not in Anyone's BackYard).

Throughout all such variations, a fundamental fact is that the processes of exploration and exploitation to feed the industrial capitalist economy take place mainly at the commodity frontiers. The instances of resistance are not “militant particularisms” based only on local identities; on the contrary, they are the nodes of the global movement for environmental justice, the existence of which is not yet always recognized. It has been environmental and human rights civil society groups (Global Witness, Front Line Defenders) that started publishing the statistics and the names of victims, not social scientists and not UN rapporteurs and much less UNEP.

WORLD ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE – A MOVEMENT BORN IN 1991 IN THE USA

The words “environmental justice” were used in the US since the early 1980s to claim redress in situations of “environmental racism” (Bullard 1990, 1993). The movement sprang from roots in the Civil Rights movement of Martin Luther King and others. It was observed that the geographical allocation of industrial waste and dangerous installations did not happen randomly but was concentrated in areas inhabited mostly by the Black population. Some years later, in 1991, a multinational meeting of “people of color” in Washington DC promulgated the excellent 17 Principles of Environmental Justice which inspire the EJAtlas and the present book. 2 Black ideas matter, indeed. Some of these Principles are:

  • Environmental Justice affirms the sacredness of Mother Earth, ecological unity and the interdependence of all species, and the right to be free from ecological destruction.p. 18

  • Environmental Justice demands that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all peoples, free from any form of discrimination or bias.

  • Environmental Justice mandates the right to ethical, balanced and responsible uses of land and renewable resources in the interest of a sustainable planet for humans and other living things.

  • Environmental Justice calls for universal protection from nuclear testing, extraction, production and disposal of toxic/hazardous wastes and poisons and nuclear testing that threaten the fundamental right to clean air, land, water, and food.

  • Environmental Justice affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples.

  • Environmental Justice demands the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and the containment at the point of production.

  • Environmental Justice affirms the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment. It also affirms the right of those who work at home to be free from environmental hazards.

  • Environmental Justice must recognize a special legal and natural relationship of Native Peoples to the US government through treaties, agreements, compacts, and covenants affirming sovereignty and self-determination.

  • Environmental Justice affirms the need for urban and rural ecological policies to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature, honouring the cultural integrity of all our communities, and providing fair access for all to the full range of resources.

  • Environmental Justice opposes the destructive operations of multinational corporations.

  • Environmental Justice opposes military occupation, repression and exploitation of lands, peoples and cultures, and other life forms.

  • Environmental Justice requires that we, as individuals, make personal and consumer choices to consume as little of Mother Earth's resources and to produce as little waste as possible; and make the conscious decision to challenge and reprioritize our lifestyles to ensure the health of the natural world for present and future generations.

It is then obvious that the environmental justice movement in the US took from the very beginning a position that recognized the ontology of Mother Earth, and the variety of social groups concerned (urban, rural, Afro-American, Indigenous). It also recognized how livelihoods and social values were threatened by environmental degradation. It blamed multinational corporations. It was an environmentalism of the BIPOC. In our own reconfiguration of a world environmental justice movement we share the grassroots methodology of the US EJ movement of the 1980s, and we co-produce knowledge with the relevant social actors and their networks across the world. In practice, the EJ movement in the USA disputed Inglehart's postmaterialist theory.

Many years later we see that the US EJ movement has to some extent been co-opted by “policy-makers” in the USA while the Principles are more relevant than ever for the world at large where movements for environmental justice are growing and networking, while developing rich repertoires of action, iconographies and vocabularies of environmental justice in many languages. The US movement continues to be relevant as conflicts such as that on the Flint water quality crisis showed recently in Michigan with a successful implementation of popular epidemiology and explicit claims to environmental justice (Chapter 24). Poor people p. 19have defended the environment in rural areas, and also in cities in the USA and elsewhere. Many of the top extractivist corporations (Chapter 27) have been from the USA, but the US environmental justice movement has rarely tackled them. The US movement focuses on “minorities” inside the country whereas environmental justice is a worldwide movement of majorities. Francia Márquez, Goldman Prize winner and elected vice-president of Colombia in 2022, wants to represent the poor, women, ethnic peoples, peasants, LGTBQI+ community, youth and working class that bets on a better country. She calls those people “the nobodies” and she is one of them.

Recently, Pellow emphasized from the United States an internationalist “critical environmental justice” perspective with which I agree. He lists four characteristics or pillars. Namely, intersectionality, multi-scalarity (or “glocality”), state violence, and indispensability. The latter means that the wellbeing of all people, species, and ecosystems is indispensable to building socially and environmentally just and resilient futures for us all (Pellow 2016, 224). With these or other names, these characteristics of Pellow's “critical environmental justice” will appear throughout this book.

A PLURIVERSE OF ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE AND “DEGROWTH IN PRACTICE”

Economic growth is still at the centre of politics around the world. However, calls for Degrowth (Schmelzer 2022) are on the rise. What are the connections between Degrowth and the world movements for environmental justice?

The social and political march towards freedom, social justice and fraternity/sorority cannot rely any more on the prospects of the economic growth promised by industrial capitalism, whether neoliberal or Keynesian social-democratic (Charbonnier 2020). It is time for political ecology to occupy the centre state in politics. Political ecology can still draw some force from the socialism of the First International of 1871 (that briefly united Marxism, Anarchism and Narodnik positions) but there is more strength today in the eco-feminist movements and in the environmentalism of the poor and the Indigenous of the Global South. And also, in the Degrowth or Post-Growth movement in the Global North which offers a strategy against collapse through a voluntary downscaling of its material production, consumption and waste, a socially equitable and globally just simplicity which defines human well-being in terms of a non-acquisitive life meaning.

This relatively small Degrowth movement (of which I am a member, Martinez-Alier et al. 2010; Demaria et al. 2013) is rather solipsistic despite its inspiration in global thinkers such as Georgescu-Roegen and Serge Latouche, despite also its theoretical interest in the “pluriverse” realities in Asia, Africa, Latin America researched and theorized by Ashish Kothari, Arturo Escobar and others (Kothari et al. 2019). It emphasizes social movements ranging from community gardens and worker-owned co-ops to farmers’ markets, alternative food networks, Transition Towns, urban gardening, community energy. It sympathizes with the discourses of Buen vivir and post-extractivism in Latin America, the pluriverse of Ubuntu or the ecological Swaraj but it tends to ignore the actual geography of the myriad struggles for environmental justice and their hundreds of victims and successes around the world. It is rather obsessed by roof food gardening, urban squatting, vegan or vegetarian diets, night-trains and similar courageous examples of trying to live a life without economic growth as agents of our own p. 20destiny. Degrowth in the North implies also recreating the commons. Small-scale changes are already under way with numerous experiments like permaculture or dispersed electricity communes. But this movement in the North with its proposed public policies, summer schools and festivals, is very distant from the realities of the Global South.

However, in Giorgos Kallis’ words (2018), this small Degrowth movement finds

natural allies in movements against extraction and for environmental justice in the Global South (movements that confront in practice, rather than in theory, the growth of the insatiable metabolism that supports the imperial mode of living) as well as among indigenous groups who profess values of sharing, sufficiency and common ownership, in their own language and with their own significations.

The present book brings the concerns of world-systems theory, ecologically unequal trade and ecological imperialism squarely into the Degrowth discourse. Advanced industrialized countries have consumed the Earth's resources and pollution sink-capacity. Consequently, the Degrowth discourse, so far largely focused on the reduction of material use through domestic changes within the economies of the Global North, needs to systematically adopt a world vision, a vision from the Global South as shown in the EJAtlas.

In other words, the movements that stop or try to stop the extractive industries and waste dumping, are obvious allies of the post-growth or Degrowth movement in Europe, the USA and Australia. There is a collective alternative vision emerging from the billions of people involved in such socio-ecological conflicts worldwide, and these many people are in reality promoters and practitioners of less unsustainable economies (Gerber et al. 2021; Mailhot and Perkins 2022). Strategies from Oilwatch since 1997 on LFFU, Food Sovereignty as proclaimed by the Via Campesina, Popular Consultations against extractive projects (Urkidi and Walter 2011), the implementation of Indigenous territorial rights (the ILO convention 169, or the FRA in India) go in the same direction but more robustly than the Global North's niceties of proximity agro-ecology or car-sharing. Research by ecological economists on Degrowth is a flourishing field. Sometimes it is said that this research should be written from the “margins” – that is from the point of view of those “marginalized” in the growth economy. But they are not “marginal”: they are central in terms of the provision of materials and energy to the world economy. They are the protagonists of this book. What matters is not what environmentalists from the South say about “degrowth” or “post-growth” (Rodríguez-Labajos et al. 2019) but what they do in practice.

In summary, Degrowth is

not just a critique of excess throughput in the global North; it is a critique of the mechanisms of colonial appropriation, enclosure and cheapening that underpin capitalist growth itself. If growthism seeks to organize the economy around the interests of capital (exchange-value) through accumulation (of profits), enclosure, and commodification, degrowth calls for the economy to be organized instead around provisioning for human needs (use-value) through de-accumulation, de-enclosure and de-commodification. Degrowth also rejects the cheapening of labour and resources, and the racist ideologies that are deployed toward that end. In all of these ways, degrowth is about decolonization. (Hickel 2021) 3

The present book is therefore a very empirical book about “degrowth in practice” and its links to the world movements for environmental justice (Martinez-Alier 2012). Degrowth is both a current of thought and a (Northern) movement with its intellectual origins in the fields of p. 21ecological economics, political ecology, economic anthropology, and also in environmental and social activism (Martinez-Alier et al. 2010; D’Alisa et al. 2014). The world movements for environmental justice stop mines, they stop pipelines, they stop plantations. They stop polluting industries including nuclear power plants and waste deposits. They keep fossil fuels underground. They protest against copper, nickel or lithium mining and also against water and land grabbing by hydropower and industrial windmills.

There is some resistance in the Global North as in the Ende Gelände movement in Germany, and by zadistes or les soulèvements de la terre in France, and in post-Soviet countries (Velicu 2019). But there is more resistance at the main commodity extraction frontiers in the Global South. I plead for a confluence of the zadistes with the zapatistas. In 1910, it was Zapata who carried the banner of Land and Freedom, tierra y libertad, that came to Mexico from the Russian narodnik movement via Spanish anarchism and Ricardo Flores Magón. I sympathize with the slogan “Land and Freedom”, used for instance by Ken Loach for a film on the struggles in Catalonia at the time of the Spanish Civil War (a couple of years before I was born), and by the KLFA (Kenya Land and Freedom Army) in the 1950s in the anti-colonial Mau-Mau rebellion. Now, we can add Water and Air, and have Land, Water, Air and Freedom as a slogan and also a short description of the aims of the world movements for environmental justice.

ECONOMIC GROWTH AS ONE MISTAKEN UNITED-NATIONS “SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOAL”

Degrowth is the opposite of the term “sustainable development” introduced by the UN in 1987 as one of the first in a litany of greenwashing terms to confront the environmental challenges. The United Nations not only left aside the environmentalism of the poor but also dismissed the critiques against economic growth that had been put forward since the 1960s and 1970s. Sustainable Development was the response by Keynesian social-democracy against the environmental critiques against economic growth. The Brundtland report of 1987 preached “sustainable development”, and it was explicitly in favour of further economic growth. The UN has not changed its views. Since 2015, the UN have promoted with fanfare the so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a collection of desirable objectives to end poverty and safeguard the environment particularly with respect to climate change. One can agree with many of the SDGs. However, SDG no. 8 contradicts many of the other worthy goals. It calls for “economic growth”. Did they not realize that SDG no. 8 calls for economic growth on a finite planet? (Hickel 2019; Menton et al. 2020).

One favourable trend towards environmental sustainability is that the human population is likely to reach its peak by 2060 at 9.5 billion. It was 1.5 billion in 1900. Other social and economic trends are still negative for environmental sustainability. In the UN SDG no. 8, “Decent Work and Economic Growth”, the word “growth” was not euphemistically left aside (as in “sustainable development”). In the UN's words, the objective is to “sustain per capita economic growth in accordance with national circumstances and, in particular, at least 7 per cent gross domestic product growth per annum in the least developed countries”. This is supposed to be possible, without environmental collapse, by “improving progressively, through 2030, global resource efficiency in consumption and production and endeavouring to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation”. Not a word about the carnage going on at the commodity extraction frontiers.p. 22

SDG no.8 is contradictory particularly with goal no.13 on Climate Action. A better SDG would have been to stop economic growth in the rich countries, and simultaneously support social and environmental justice by facing the ecological debt from North to South, and also support the many environmental movements.

THE EJATLAS AS AN ARCHIVE FOR CONTEMPORARY SOCIO-ECOLOGICAL MOVEMENTS

Sousa Santos’ metaphor is that when we try to speak on behalf of the subaltern, we are at most “ventriloquists”, privileged researcher-activists echoing the voices of marginalized and racialized communities. I prefer to see myself as a social historian with a loudspeaker trying to argue in favour of the world movements for environmental justice. This book relies on the data sheets collected in the EJAtlas, and it is a contribution to the field of comparative political ecology written in the style of contemporary social history. It combines a comparative, statistical approach to socio-ecological conflicts with a cosmopolitan orientation in contemporary socio-environmental history.

The conflicts are classified in the EJAtlas into ten major categories and very numerous subcategories. The main categories are Nuclear Energy; Mineral Ores and Building Materials; Waste Management; Biomass and Land Conflicts; Fossil Fuels and Climate Justice; Water Management; Infrastructure and Built Environment; Tourism Recreation; Biodiversity Conservation Conflicts; Industrial and Utilities Conflicts. The frequency of participant groups (Figure 1.5) changes slightly depending on the type of conflicts or the type of participants we consider. We might select for instance International EJOs and see the type of conflicts and the geographies where they are disproportionately present in the EJAtlas. We have also found out that depending on the impacts selected such frequencies change to some extent. Thus, by selecting conflicts with visible health impacts, Navas el al. (2022) revealed a “working class”, trade-unionist environmentalism somewhat “hidden” in the very voluminous EJAtlas. Similarly, we may hypothesize that selecting impacts such as “loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation/loss of sense of place” or “loss of traditional culture” would elicit a change in the frequency of mobilizing groups in ways that are being checked at present (Hanaček 2023, forthcoming). Another hypothesis is that choosing only the urban conflicts would elicit a frequency ranking of such social actors different from the EJAtlas as a whole.

If the EJAtlas is a large sample of an unknown, very large number of EDCs, this book is a sample of the sample with only 500 cases from all over the world, grouped by country, region or theme. As rearguard amanuenses we arrive after the battles, celebrating triumphs or counting the dead and wounded, making sense of the socio-ecological conflicts collected and classified in the EJAtlas. Social historians go to archives and libraries looking for information on what they want to study. For instance, peasant rebellions or jacqueries in France, China or India, “in Allahabad and Ghazipur districts during the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857‒8” (Guha 1989), the revolution in Mexico in 1910 with Zapata deploying the slogan “Land and Freedom”, the recent history of the feminist movement in one country or another (Delap 2020) or the history of anti-colonial movements before or after 1945. The EJAtlas is such a “social history” archive for environmental conflicts worldwide. We are not going into dusty paper archives because we have built up our own archive on the web.p. 23

Looking at the EJAtlas as social historians brings also some peace of mind because we have been uploading environmental conflict cases since 2012 at a rhythm of one per day, and we are very conscious that there must be five or six new remarkable conflicts around the world starting every day. We are always late, and incomplete. Never mind, social historians wrote memorable books on other social movements using fragmentary dusty archives. So, as a social historian I venture into this archive which I know well although I am scarcely aware of its many corners.

The EJAtlas is a product of collaborative research on ecological conflicts within a global perspective. The expansion of global industrial capitalism (including China) spreads around diverse geographies of injustice along commodity chains. Yet, at the same time, through the environmental justice movements, local political ecologies are becoming increasingly transnational and interconnected. The EJAtlas, as a tool for academic research, activism and advocacy, goes beyond the political ecology based on a single or a few case studies. It allows wider systematic evidence-based comparative research into the politics, power relations and socio-metabolic processes surrounding environmental justice struggles locally and globally.

I also explain throughout the book the forms of mobilization or “repertoires of contention” that we find in the EJAtlas (Figure 1.6) in the conflicts under study. The movements for environmental justice simultaneously use “soft” methods such as letter writing, petitions to the authorities, challenging the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment), litigation in local courts etc. and more radical methods such as street marches, blockades and land occupations, strikes etc. We could research by large countries or subcontinents which kind of methods predominate, in which kinds of conflicts and with which participants.

Many of the pages of this book are taken from the datasheets in the EJAtlas written by myself or by other members of the team. Taking our cue from EJOs we do comparative, statistical political ecology (Temper et al. 2015, 2018, 2020; Scheidel et al. 2020; Özkaynak et al. 2021; Hanacek et al. 2022; Navas et al. 2022). The EJAtlas followed in the steps of activist maps compiled by OCMAL (Observatorio de Conflictos Mineros de América Latina) and Fiocruz (Mapa de Saúde e Justiça Ambiental no Brasil) (Porto 2013). It was inspired by them, as also by Ricardo Carrere (World Rainforest Movement), ASUD in Italy, Acción Ecológica and Oilwatch in Ecuador, ERA in Nigeria with Nnimmo Bassey and Godwin Ojo. The landmark Fukushima nuclear energy accident of March 2011 coincided with the start of EJOLT 2011‒15, a project bringing together academic and activist organizations. Then came the ERC grant EnvJustice, 2016‒21. Its start coincided to the day with Berta Cáceres’ assassination in Honduras in a hydropower conflict. We have put the EJAtlas together over ten years with Leah Temper (who started it), Daniela Del Bene (who coordinated it), Arnim Scheidel, Begum Özkaynak, Beatriz Rodriguez Labajos, Irmak Ertör, Grettel Navas, J.F. Gerber, Matsui Kenichi, Paul Mohai, Julia Snorek, Louisa Mathies, Ksenija Hanaček, Dalena Tran, Sara Latorre, Mario A. Pérez Rincón, Raquel Neyra, Emiliano Teran, Sara Mingorria, Max Stoisser, Federico Demaria, Juan Liu, Swapan Kumar Patra, Beatriz Saes, Eleonor Fanari, Arpita Bisht, Brototi Roy, Camila Rolando Mazzuca, Lena Weber, Jen Goby, Bowen Gu, Marcel Llavero, Teresa Sanz, Mariana Walter, Lucrecia Wagner, Talia Waldron, Yannick Deniau, Federico Guzman, Sofia Avila, Jovanka Spiric, Linda Dubec, Alice Owen, Daria Rivin and other interns and students at ICTA-UAB, and local activists and academics around the world. Some of their names appear in the endnotes of this book. We have relied on the creator of the platform, Yakup Cetinkaya ‒ without whom the EJAtlas would not exist. The EJAtlas has been financed by four research projects so far: EJOLT (2011‒15), Acknowl-EJ p. 24(2016‒19), EnvJustice (2016‒21) and a Balzan prize (2021‒23), and we shall continue updating and adding cases beyond 2023. The EJAtlas is in open access but it is certainly not an anonymous database. We have a protocol for quoting from the EJAtlas which I follow here. The references to the entries to the EJAtlas in this book have the names of the individual or collective main authors of the datasheets, and I also give other sources.

Since the early 1990s, the concept of the “environmentalism of the poor” underscored the diverse place-specific rural and urban instances of ecological distribution conflicts. These EDCs became multiple evidences of an incipient “global environmental justice” (Newell and Sikor 2014). In 2016, we expressed this as follows:

There is a global movement for environmental justice, although almost all conflicts in the EJAtlas are local and they target specific local grievances. The movement is global because such local events belong to classes of conflicts that appear regularly elsewhere in the world (e.g. on open-cast copper mining, on oil palm plantations), or because they raise the conflict issue to a global level through movements’ connections and networks and, by doing so, they actually create and operate at a global scale… We claim that there is a global environmental justice movement that shares some common goals, frames and forms of mobilization, although obviously there is no single united organization in charge, no politbureau or central committee. This is also the case, for instance, in the global feminist movement. (Martinez-Alier et al. 2016, 747)

This “global environmental justice movement” has been named and recognized as a new historically specific social movement. At the methodological level, how to prove its existence? In the EJAtlas (as in this book) we list and analyze example after example of ad-hoc mobilizations understood in terms of the recurrent metabolic sources of conflicts and the grievances, some common vocabularies, claims, goals and outcomes of the protests. We focus on events rather than organizations. But how to prove that these are not merely “militant particularisms”? What is their historical significance, their ability to change the social metabolism? Thus (as Zehra Yasin 2022 writes),

the understanding of globality hinges on two main dynamics: One is the spatially globalizing impacts of the social connections and networks of the movements at the organizational level. The other one is the recurrence or comparability of the concrete social sources and nature of environmental conflicts and, therefore, common goals and claims emerging in each local “case”. At the empirical level, these are crucial to the formation of a global wave of environmental movement. Yet, at the conceptual-methodological level, they do not specify how the diverse place-specific movements are globally united/related.

It is now time for me to start digging out conflict cases from the archive in order to write this book as other members of the team have already done for their doctoral theses and/or academic articles. This is one of the first books based on the EJAtlas but not the last one. There is already a book on environmental conflicts in Peru by Raquel Neyra. Another book on Mexico (by Aida Luz López et al.) is in advanced preparation in the steps of Darcy Tetreault (2022) who writes:

socio-environmental conflicts typically pit affected popular groups from rural communities (women, smallholder farmers, indigenous people, and workers) who struggle to defend their territories, water, traditional livelihoods, culture, and collective well-being; against governmental agencies and private companies that promote extractive activities in the name of development. The former frequently find allies in civil society, including non-governmental organizations, university groups, collectives, p. 25religious groups, artists, and activists. Of course, the state is not monolithic and some state agencies may support – or at least rule in favor of – environmentally affected people organized in resistance to environmentally destructive projects.

Moreover, some of the movements are not rural but urban and periurban (Ruiz Rincón et al. 2019).

The present book is organized into country/regional chapters and thematic chapters dealing with different topics. In my view, the main merit of this book resides not so much in those geographical chapters but in the “transversal” thematic chapters which show the power of comparative political ecology in bringing together similar socio-ecological conflicts in different continents and countries trying to escape from “methodological nationalism”.

Chapter 23 deals explicitly with “transboundary conflicts” between Spain and Portugal. After I wrote it, I realized that the book and the EJAtlas are full of transboundary conflicts and common movements across borders, and that this is a powerful method to establish the existence of a world movement for environmental justice. Thus, as we shall see, conflicts on dams or mining in Arunachal Pradesh in India connect with conflicts in Tibet (Buddhist monks), which then connect with conflicts in Yunnan, Qinghai, Inner and Outer Mongolia, and even Siberia. A copper conflict in Arizona is linked with copper conflicts in Sonora, Mexico. The company Grupo Mexico in Sonora connects with copper in Southern Peru, and then with other copper mines at the border with Chile in the Andes copper belt. Even between Kerala (India) and Pakistan, through fisherfolk movements, there is common action. And so around the world, with similar environmental conflicts across political borders, involving similar commodities, participants or companies. There is no need to look for a central committee of the environmental justice movement as we travel across political borders from territory to territory, along transnational watersheds or through similar plantation areas. Not only the injustices are transboundary, but also sometimes the resistances. A rosary of ad-hoc ephemeral EJOs has been built across borders around the world.

This book draws from Social Movement Theory (Diani 2022) but it focuses not on the form and organization of the environmental justice movements, as political scientists like to do, but on their historical significance. They resist the damages caused by the increased social metabolism. Their grievances, claims, actions and proposals for environmental justice point to a different economy.

Notes

1

Quoted in a lecture by Rob Nixon at Utrecht University, 16 April 2013.

2

First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit (1991). 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, Washington DC.

3

Also in D. Boston's (2021) excellent analysis: Grappling with growth. Synergies and tensions between degrowth and people's movements, Transnational Institute.

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