Open access

This is an open access title available under the terms of a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 License. It is free to read, download and share on Elgaronline.com. This ground-breaking book makes visible the global counter-movement for environmental justice, combining ecological economics and political ecology. Using 500 in-depth empirical analyses from the Atlas of Environmental Justice, Martínez-Alier analyses the commonalities shared by environmental defenders and offenders respectively.

This is a book of global comparative political ecology. It focuses on ecological distribution conflicts across the world – at the frontiers of commodity extraction and waste disposal. The book sees these conflicts through two main lenses of ecological economics, namely valuation contests and the growth and changes in social metabolism (the flows of energy and materials in the economy).

My first book of ecological economics was published in 1987. It was not a textbook, but a valuable research book that can now be downloaded at no monetary cost. Entitled Ecological Economics: Energy, Environment, Society (Blackwell, Oxford), it was the first book ever with “ecological economics” in the title. It was inspired by Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, whose basic statement in The Entropy Law and the Economic Process (1971), was that the industrial economy is not circular but entropic (i.e. that material and energy degrade in each transformation, so new inputs are continuously needed). Life operates by current photosynthesis and is “anti-entropic” (at least for a while), but the industrial economy feeds on photosynthesis that occurred in the very distant past (fossil fuels) and is entropic. The “circularity gap” or “entropy hole” explains the growth of environmental conflicts at the frontiers of extraction and waste disposal. This is lesson number one in a course of ecological economics and political ecology. My 1987 book traced the history of such ideas from precursors (biologists, physicists, chemists), who had complained since the nineteenth century about the divorce between economics and the study of social metabolism. The noted economist David Pearce (1941‒2005) wrote in The Manchester School that I had written a remarkable book… Anyone wishing to understand ecologists cannot do better than begin with this book. […] they will also be delighted and entertained by the gallery of authors that Martinez-Alier parades before them. A tour de force if ever there was one. This was encouraging, although a few years later Pearce wrongly classed me among the partisans of an energy theory of value.

At that time I realized that ecological economics was not about accurate economic valuation of externalities and fair intergenerational allocation of exhaustible resources. Rather, ecological economics has three foundation stones. First, the ability to describe the economy in the language of social metabolism, not only of economics; these are non-equivalent descriptions. Second, the incommensurability of values, which implies that it is not appropriate to evaluate results or decide between alternatives using cost-benefit analysis in money terms, when people regularly manifest plural values. Third, the study of institutions that historically and today regulate the use of the environment, allowing the expression of plural values by different groups of people.

Scholars have long known that we live in a material world in which the economy is fundamentally a process of transformation of energy and materials into commodities and waste. My 1987 book discussed how most economists and social scientists had long refused however to consider the relations between the economy, society and energy. For instance, the chemist Wilhelm Ostwald in 1909 had written that one could interpret economic history in p. xterms of two regularities: the increase of energy use and of efficiency in energy use. This made sense but it infuriated Max Weber. Some 30 years later, Weber's fury was shared by Friedrich Hayek who criticized the “social engineering” promoted by Ostwald, Patrick Geddes, Lancelot Hogben, Frederick Soddy and Lewis Mumford. Hayek dismissed them all rudely because they viewed the economy in socio-metabolic terms. Hayek's main foci were Otto Neurath's Naturalrechnung and democratic planning (Martinez-Alier 1987). Inspired by Neurath, Karl W. Kapp published in 1950 The Social Costs of Business Enterprise with the following main thesis: “externalities are not occasional market failures but systematic cost-shifting successes”. Kapp brought together “ecological economics” and “political ecology” even before these terms were used.

FROM ECOLOGICAL ECONOMICS TO POLITICAL ECOLOGY

From studying social metabolism, I moved in the 1990s to study environmental conflicts. I published a second research book in 2002: The Environmentalism of the Poor. A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation. I wrote it in 1999‒2000 at the Agrarian Studies program of Yale University, led by Jim Scott. Around 1995, with Martin O’Connor and Frank Beckenbach we had introduced the notion of “ecological distribution conflict”.

The 2002 book described around 150 socio-ecological conflicts around the world, many of them taking place at the commodity extraction frontiers. The book highlighted that quite often the main social actors who defend the environment are poor and/or Indigenous groups. Through their grievances and claims, they display a variety of languages of valuation (ascribing value to nature in terms of economic accounting, sacredness, ecological values or livelihood, for example). They argue that “extractivism” impoverishes them in some respects, even when there is monetary compensation. Economic distribution is not coterminous with ecological distribution. Poverty is “multi-dimensional”.

The “environmentalism of the poor” was an idea I picked up in India and in Latin America before 1990, which led to the publication in 1997 of Varieties of Environmentalism with Ramachandra Guha (who had published a book on the Chipko movement in 1989). Together with most economists, historians, sociologists and political scientists at the time, Ronald Inglehart assumed that the poor were “too poor to be green” and too busy with survival. In stark contrast, the “environmentalism of the poor” did not consider environmental preservation as a luxury good. Strong environmental movements were obvious by the 1980s and 1990s in Asia, Africa and Latin America. After making these points with Guha, my book of 2002 traced explicitly the links between ecological economics and political ecology. I asked the question: in any conflict on the environment, who has the power to simplify complexity and impose a particular language of valuation?

Besides questioning the power of valuation languages, I was also concerned with sources: “in which archives will historians find the materials for reconstructing the grassroots history of the environmentalism of the poor?” This brought me to the Environmental Justice Atlas (EJAtlas) and to this third book. This trilogy was not planned in advance, although in retrospect, it is consistent. The third book has been made possible by longevity on my part, and by an ERC grant and a Balzan prize (2020) that allowed bringing together younger researcher-activists who thought of creating the EJAtlas (Temper et al. 2015, 2018; Scheidel et al. 2020). p. xiAfter many academic articles derived from the EJAtlas, it is time for this book that follows a similar framing of ecological economics across to political ecology.

Over these years, perception of climate change, biodiversity loss and damage from ecotoxics has increased. There is more knowledge of key scientific concepts and measurements such as the carbon cycle, the Keeling curve, the increased Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production (HANPP), the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles and eutrophication, the water cycle and the associated hydro-social cycle, and the material intensity of the economy. Confronted with planetary boundaries, however, there are large disagreements on what is to be done. Some believe in ecological modernization, changing technologies, internalizing externalities into the price system, or geoengineering. Others are inclined to collapsology, a state of mind that prevents rational and collective action.

I believe instead in social movements that show desirable possible futures, and among them, feminism and the environmentalism of the people. Social movements across the world are sometimes successful in stopping the growth in metabolism, under the banner of “environmental justice”.

ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE MOVEMENTS AS SOCIAL INNOVATIONS

The concept of an environmentalism of the poor (and of the Indigenous) was articulated around 1990. The EJAtlas has been collectively built up since 2012. A decade later, the main purpose of this book is to show (with empirical support from the EJAtlas) that a world movement for environmental justice is in the making. The poor and the Indigenous are at the frontlines of extraction and waste disposal. They are increasingly disrupted by neo-colonial incursions in search of fossil fuels, metals, biomass. They are also the main actors of a just socio-ecological transition, unless repression and fear hinder action. In many instances, mobilizations have led to successful outcomes. A mapping of 649 cases from the EJAtlas of resistance movements against both fossil fuels and low carbon-energy projects, shows that over a quarter of such projects have been cancelled, suspended or delayed – demonstrating the success of place-based movements (Temper et al. 2020). By resisting dispossession in the Arctic (a commodity frontier; Hanaček et al. 2022), Indigenous pastoralists and fisherfolk are drawing attention to how the extractive industries and transport infrastructures overstep biophysical limits even in such fragile environments. The examples multiply along frontiers of commodity extraction and waste disposal.

The EJAtlas is work in progress as an archive of environmental conflicts (described in Chapter 1), where all the entries are open access and provide summaries and further sources of information. This book analyzes about 500 conflict cases drawn from the EJAtlas, a “sample within a sample” of the over 3,800 conflicts documented by December 2022. In reality, there is a larger, unknown number of cases outside the EJAtlas. The 500 selected cases are grouped into chapters. Some chapters focus on geographies around the world and others on specific themes, such as nuclear energy, sand mining, biodiversity conservation, Indigenous revival, working-class environmentalism, women environmental defenders (WED), religious participants, Leaving Fossil Fuels Underground (LFFU) conflicts, ecologically unequal international trade, “post-normal” science and environmental conflicts, environmental liabilities p. xiiof transnational companies, and population and the environment. This is one of the first books based on the EJAtlas, other books are possible.

Violence (and fear) is widespread in the world. Killing people is just one way of keeping them quiet. The book is full of such cruelties. But, ultimately, it is optimistic by focusing on the protagonists of the social transition to sustainability. This book demonstrates that local movements often display intersectional struggles (along race, gender, social class, urban or agrarian contexts). These support coalition-building and allow the exposure of a plurality of values, while imagining and enacting alternative futures. Since the 1980s and 1990s, these movements have developed a rich iconography, and a set of concepts and campaign slogans and songs to describe and intervene in socio-ecological conflicts. The EJAtlas team started to collect these forms of expression in 2014 (Martinez-Alier et al. 2014), and I revisit them in the present book. The book looks eagerly at such symbolic aspects of reality while it is also soundly based on a materialistic analysis of the world economy. It draws on industrial ecology and Warenkunde, the old science of commodities. For readers who are not as keen as I am on social conflicts, social movement theory, social history and the defence of the downtrodden and the Indigenous, a focus on innovations could be a more appealing framing. Much talk about technical innovations hints at hopes for ecological modernization (Mol and Jänicke 2009). This technology-based approach requires endless economic growth, the feasibility of which this book questions as many other scholars do, including many economists. In my view, the movements for environmental justice can be seen as crucial social innovations in the post-growth era.

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