Joan Martinez-Alier has been Professor of Economic History and Institutions at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona since 1975. He was Director of the Doctoral Programme in Environmental Sciences at ICTA-UAB between 1997 and 2009, where he helped to create a strong international group on ecological economics and political ecology. He studied economics as an undergraduate at the Universitat de Barcelona and agricultural economics as a graduate student at the University of Oxford. He received his PhD from the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona. During his career, he has been Research Fellow at St Antony's College, Oxford, and has held visiting positions at Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Sao Paulo), Freie Universität Berlin, Stanford University, the University of California (Davis), FLACSO (Ecuador) and Yale University. He was a founding member, member of the board and president of the International Society for Ecological Economics. Professor Martinez-Alier is member of the editorial board of Ecological Economics, Environmental Values, Journal of Agrarian Change and Journal of Peasant Studies. He is the author of numerous renowned books and articles (see the selected list below) that have contributed to illuminating the relationship between economic systems, resources (materials and energy) and social issues. A foundational contributor to the development of ecological economics, he has also engaged with social movements at the local and international scale.
LP: How did you become interested in socio-environmental issues? What is the origin of the intellectual development that led you to be one of the main contributors to the emergence of the transdisciplinary field of ecological economics?
JMA: After my undergraduate studies (which I carried out in Barcelona and completed in 1961) I went first for one year to Oxford and then to Stanford, California, to study agricultural economics. In Stanford I learnt a lot about the economics of food consumption, counting calories and protein. I also took several courses on the side with the Marxist economist Paul Baran. One of my main objectives was to get out of Spain during the last long years of Franco's regime. In 1959 President Eisenhower came to Madrid and embraced Franco on the tarmac of the airport. The full page photograph of that embrace was reproduced in all journals and was disappointing to see. It meant in practice sixteen more years of Franco.
I became a student at St Antony's College in 1963, with a scholarship, and was then a research fellow at Oxford University from 1966 till 1973. This gave me an extraordinary opportunity to follow freely my own interests. First I wrote a book on Labourers and Landowners in Southern Spain (published in Spanish in Paris in 1968 and in English in London in 1971). This was about muted conflicts in the countryside, the memories of land reform before 1936, the widespread fear. The book was also about the economics of rural unemployment and the capitalist logic of sharecropping (interpreted as a piecework system). The rapid modernization of agriculture was leading to mass migration. These agrarian interests took me to Latin America where I have been working ever since, off and on, on agrarian issues and later engaging with ecological economics. First, I spent one year in Cuba in 1968 (with the anthropologist Verena Stolcke) studying the history of the sugar cane farmers before 1959 and the aspirations of the agrarian proletariat in 1959–60 looking at the documentation in the land reform archives. After the demise of large landholdings because of the Fidel Castro revolution of 1959, the peasants were demanding land or jobs — in Spanish, ‘Tierra o Trabajo’, as explained in my essay on the issue (Martinez-Alier, 1977) — essentially demanding the redistribution of land and the establishment of smallholder farms or their collectivization and the creation of salaried positions. This experience challenged the sharp division between proletarians and peasants.
Later, while I was still at St Antony's College in Oxford, I went to Peru where my subject of study was the relations of production in haciendas in the Sierra. Here I studied for the first time in my life an indigenous peasantry that resisted modernization: they did not want to be displaced from the haciendas, they wanted to stay put, and turn the haciendas (even those already modernized, like the very large sheep ranches I studied), into part of their communal lands. I then got a strong intimation that not all was well with a view of uniform economic development and social modernity. These research experiences were published in 1977 as Haciendas, Plantations, and Collective Farms: Agrarian Class Societies, Cuba and Peru; it was also at that time that I became closely involved with the Journal of Peasant Studies. I was already moving to a more Narodnik position.
In the early 1970s I started to work on energetics, something that I learnt from ecological anthropologists (e.g. Rappaport, 1967) including Brooke Thomas who was calculating the calories circulating between the different floors or levels in the Andean mountains. In this ‘vertical economy’ there was a necessary exchange of products, up and down: meat, wool, milk went down, potatoes also went down, maize and coca went up. John Murra's research in Peru at the time was on barter and redistribution in the absence of a generalized market system both before and after the Spanish conquest. He followed Karl Polanyi's ideas which came to me from the debates in economic anthropology but also because of the analysis of rural unemployment and the Speenhamland system in The Great Transformation (Polanyi, 1944), quite relevant to Southern Spain. Thus, I learnt economic and ecological anthropology in Peru in the early 1970s. I was teaching economic and ecological anthropology at the State University of Campinas in Sao Paulo in 1973 when the price of oil jumped up because of OPEC's restriction of output, and ‘stagflation’ worsened in industrial economies. But I was not yet an ecological economist.
The persistence of the peasantry, the agrarian question and its socio-environmental ramifications continued to be high in my research agenda. I came back to Barcelona in 1975; I started to teach economics, and to work on the untold history of agricultural energetics and of ecological economics in general. With J.M. Naredo I published an article on Podolinsky's agricultural energetics and on Engels’ rather negative reaction to it (Martinez-Alier and Naredo, 1982). I discussed this with Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (who had published The Entropy Law and the Economic Process in 1971). He spent a few days in Barcelona in 1980 and we kept in contact until I published Ecological Economics: Energy, Environment and Society in 1987 (the first edition was in Catalan in 1984). The main point was that from the economic point of view agricultural productivity had increased, while the energy efficiency of agriculture was going down, as David Pimentel and other researchers (including Naredo himself in Spain) had shown.
So, on the one hand, I wondered why the calculations of social metabolic flows of energy and materials had not entered into Marxist historiography, despite Marx's awareness of Liebig's agricultural chemistry and Podolinksy's efforts. Here there was again a Peruvian connection, with the guano exports from 1840 to 1880. For the research on Podolinsky's contribution I used some documents in the archives of the Institute of Social History, Amsterdam, a remarkable Dutch institution of which I am very fond. Podolinsky was a doctor trained in Zurich and Breslau (Wroclaw), a Ukrainian Narodnik who in 1880 analysed farming systems in terms of energy flows. The amount of energy harvested could be increased by the application of larger amounts of human labour and larger use of animal force directed by humans. These were the first calculations of the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI) in agriculture. The acronym was not used until 1986 by Charles Hall in the United States. The EROI is an analytical instrument facilitating the interpretation of the social metabolism in terms of energy flows.
Apart from Marxist economic history and its blindness to energy and material flows, at least until recently (perhaps until Rolf Peter Sieferle's The Subterranean Forest), another main theme in my life in the 1980s was my book Ecological Economics and the birth of the International Society for Ecological Economics after some meetings of ecologists (like Ann Mari Jansson and Robert Costanza who were students of H.T. Odum) and dissident economists like Herman Daly and Richard Norgaard (who were inspired by Kenneth Boulding and Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen).
LP: You played a crucial role in the development of ecological economics, being one of the founders and former president of the International Society for Ecological Economics. What do you think about the role of the Society and of its journal for the advancement of the field?
JMA: The founding of the ISEE owes a lot to the human energy of Bob Costanza, an ecologist. There were ecologists in the 1960s and 1970s who started to write on human ecology, not only on the ecology of plants and animals. The ISEE has been a success. In general, the ISEE has kept its distance from the enthusiasm for ‘sustainable development’ or today for UNEP's ‘green economy’. It has been more serious. It has been independent. We have had good debates for instance on the hypothesis of the environmental Kuznets curves. The conflict between economy and environment cannot be solved with appeals to ‘sustainable development’, ‘eco-efficiency’, ‘ecological modernization’ or a ‘green economy’. The Brundtland Report (WCED, 1987) was criticized at once by Herman Daly and Robert Goodland.
The journal, Ecological Economics, is the main product of the ISEE. It has an excellent editor, Rich Howarth. It brings together articles on institutional economics, also on economic valuation of environmental services, at the same time it publishes advances in the accounts of social metabolism. It is a bit eclectic, this is true. But it publishes many articles critical of conventional economics that would never be published in the mainstream economic journals. Moreover, it has helped the careers of young ecological economists, who are often still discriminated against in Departments of Economics while they do not always fit into engineering or natural sciences. The journal scores well both in economics and in the environmental sciences. Publishing in a journal with a reasonable Impact Factor sometimes helps young academics to get tenured posts. It is funny but true. Ecological economics would be helped if not only Elinor Ostrom but also Herman Daly and Robert Ayres (the founder of industrial ecology) were to get Nobel Prizes for their pioneering articles in the Journal of Political Economy and in the American Economic Review in 1968 and 1969 respectively, and their work since then.
Let me add something on demography. You will remember the debate between Barry Commoner and Paul Ehrlich in the 1970s, and how Ehrlich acknowledged the importance of resource use per capita in his formula I = PAT (Impact on the environment = Population x Affluence x Technology). Per capita income is important to explain resource use and waste production, but population is also important. Some of the ecologists close to the ISEE in the early years (Paul Ehrlich himself, not to mention Garrett Hardin) had strong positions against population growth. For me, ‘neo-Malhusian’ may denote a ‘lifeboat ethics’: keep the drowning teeming poor out of our nice boat. However, there was another neo-Malthusian, feminist movement around 1900 in Europe and America, that was rather successful. Before Margaret Sanger and the birth control movement, there was Emma Goldman and the radical neo-Malthusianism of 1900. They believed that human populations could regulate their own growth through contraception. Women's freedom was required for this and desirable for its own sake. ‘Conscious procreation’ was needed to prevent low wages and pressure on natural resources. I have written on this movement with Eduard Masjuan (2008), inspired by a good book by Francis Ronsin, La grève de ventres. Propaganda néo-malthusienne et baisse de la natalité en France, XIXe–XXe siècles (1980). Fortunately, we shall reach ‘peak population’ in 2045 or 2050. Depopulation studies will become popular.
LP: While some of these discussions have resonated in the journal Ecological Economics, other articles published there — such as the economic valuation of environmental services that you also mention — fall squarely in the field of mainstream environmental economics. What are the reasons for offering space to those articles and making of the journal yet another outlet for mainstream articles?
JMA: This is true. We could send back such articles to the authors as ‘out of scope’. On the other hand, what the editor of the journal does, and I agree with this, is to send such articles (perhaps one fourth of all articles published) to experts in the field, to see whether they are technically well done. What else would you do? To do otherwise would be like applying political censorship. The issue of when it is appropriate or not to apply monetary valuation to environmental services or to negative externalities is still a matter for debate. Even if we apply multi-criteria evaluation to a mining project or to a hydroelectric dam, one socially relevant criterion will be money costs and benefits. I wish mainstream economics journal would be so open, for instance to articles on the links between social metabolism indicators and economic growth.
- LP: One of the themes that is often present in your writings and presentations is the history of environmental and economic thought, exemplified by your work on Podolinsky's energetics or on the intellectual origins of de-growth. Personally, I think that history is one of the most understudied subjects in economics and that it is of special relevance when we look at environmental issues. How do you explain the little interest that mainstream economics — as well as environmental economics — shows for history of thought?
- JMA: Mainstream economists have codified a textbook view of the economy with slight variations. Students are not led to read the classics. I remember reading Patrick Geddes’ letters to Walras written in 1880, complaining against the fact that what we now call neoclassical economics forgot to study the flows of energy in the economy. This is just a bit of historical erudition when it should be a topic for discussion in the classroom.My book Ecological Economics of 1987 covers one part of proto-ecological economics from the 1880s to the 1940s. It considers authors who already criticized mainstream economics because it forgot the social metabolism. In this line, one main contribution is that I reassessed Otto Neurath's role in the Socialist Calculation Debate of the 1920s and 1930s against Von Mises and Hayek. This could be called ‘The Battle of Ecological Economics against Market Fundamentalism’, and it's still going on.I do not know whether you have seen the very open exchange of letters between Georgescu-Roegen and Milton Friedman in 1972, where Georgescu was explaining ‘peak oil’ to Milton Friedman, and the Chicago professor (about to become, with Hayek, one of the two popes of anti-Keynesian neoliberalism) was faithfully arguing that market prices would solve any problem.Von Mises declared in the early 1920s that without prices there was no rational economy. A socialist economy would lack markets for production goods. Commensurability in the form of money prices was needed for rational calculation of decisions on production and allocation of consumption and production goods. Socialism in the form of Neurath's model of Naturalrechnung, a money-less economy, meant then the abolition of rationality.Neurath's point was that it was impossible to base decisions on prices when the issue was, for instance, whether to save labour by using more coal now, and therefore have less coal in the future. A factory owner would just look at the present prices of coal and labour. But there were other considerations to be taken into account. We were not sure about the amount of coal deposits remaining, we were uncertain about future technologies, and there were no prices for future options of coal deliveries in twenty years. Important decisions had to be taken outside markets, by what we now call deliberative, democratic planning.The Socialist Calculation Debate has not been properly taught in universities. It is one of the sources, because of Otto Neurath, for ecological economics. Writing in the American Economic Review, K.W. Kapp (1955), who defended the incommensurability of values as a follower of Neurath, complained that the controversy initiated by Neurath, von Mises and Max Weber had become sidetracked in various attempts to calculate the prices of productive factors, as in Oskar Lange's elaboration of a theoretical model of ‘competitive socialism’.You will remember that Hayek's strong critique of ‘social engineering’ in The Counter-Revolution of Science was directed not only against historical thinkers such as Saint-Simon but also against the whole tradition of what is now called ecological economics and also quantitative environmental history (with authors like John McNeill, Marina Fischer-Kowalski, Helmut Haberl, Fridolin Krausmann). This is a tradition that attempts to understand the ways in which economic institutions and relations are embedded within the physical world and have real physical preconditions, and which (as John O’Neill explains) is consequently critical of economic choices founded upon purely monetary valuation. While Patrick Geddes, Wilhelm Ostwald, Lancelot Hogben, Frederick Soddy and Lewis Mumford were all rudely dismissed by Hayek because they viewed the economy in socio-metabolic terms, Neurath's Naturalrechnung and democratic planning were Hayek's main targets.Max Weber's comments against Neurath in Economy and Society were anticipated in his critique of Wilhelm Ostwald in 1909. Ostwald interpreted human history in terms of the use of energy, influencing many other authors including Henry Adams who noted that ‘the coal output of the world, speaking roughly, doubled every ten years between 1840 and 1900, in the form of utilized power, for the ton of coal yielded three or four times as much power in 1900 as in 1840’.1 One hundred years later, research by Robert Ayres shows the close relation between economic growth and the use of energy in the economy (measured as physical work output). Ostwald had proposed two simple laws, which are not untrue, and which might act or not in opposite directions (depending on the strength of what is called the Jevons’ or rebound effect). First, the growth of the economy implied the use of more energy, and the substitution of human energy by other forms of energy. Second, this came together with a trend towards higher efficiency in the transformation of energy inside particular technologies and processes.All this was very sensible. Nevertheless, Max Weber wrote an ironic, vitriolic review of Ostwald's book, where he insisted on the separation between the sciences and concluded that chemists should not write on the economy. This review was praised by Hayek in The Counter-Revolution of Science. Weber's basic point was that economic decisions by entrepreneurs on new technologies or new products were based on costs and prices. It could so happen that a production process was less efficient in energy terms and would nevertheless be adopted because it was cheaper. In Weber's view, energy accounting was irrelevant for the economy, and he did not question energy prices the way we do now when taking into account the enhanced greenhouse effect and the intergenerational allocation of exhaustible resources. These are some of the historical issues discussed in my book of 1987. They are relevant still. One main point is incommensurability of values.
LP: Environmentalism of the Poor, your book from 2002, has played a crucial role in dispelling myths related to the relationship between poverty and the environment. In particular, you have shown evidence from the North and the South of how reality contradicts Inglehart's hypothesis that environmental quality is a luxury good and of how environmental quality is often crucial for the livelihood of the poor. Furthermore, your findings challenge the adagio that poor countries cannot afford high levels of environmental protection and should focus first on economic growth. Nevertheless, considerations on the priority of material progress vis–à-vis environmental quality and questions over the affordability of basic environmental policies are still common sense. In your opinion, what is the reason for the persistence of these faulty generalizations over the poverty–environment nexus?
JMA: This book, The Environmentalism of the Poor owes much to my travels in India since 1988 and to my friendship with Ramachandra Guha (the author of The Unquiet Woods, 1989, a book on the history of the Chipko movement). I have other good economist friends in India, like Bina Agarwal and Ashok Desai. The book also owes much to travels in Latin America, and to consorting with activists.
At a theoretical level, it is a book about ecological distribution conflicts, in the tradition of K.W. Kapp. Externalities are not so much market failures as cost-shifting ‘successes’. Sometimes people complain. The prices in the economy depend on the outcomes of such distribution conflicts. This is influenced by Sraffa, of course, but Sraffa (or Marx) did not talk about environmental conflicts. Sraffa said (only implicitly, perhaps) that prices depended on the outcome of the class struggle. But environmental conflicts (whether resource extraction conflicts, or waste disposal conflicts like climate change because of excessive emissions of carbon dioxide) do not always correspond to fights between workers and capitalists. Sometimes they do, like pollution in a factory. But quite often the actors are different. They can be indigenous, poor rural women, defending themselves and their livelihoods and cultures against Canadian, European, Chinese or American companies at the ‘commodity frontiers’ of oil extraction, uranium or bauxite mining, hydroelectricity, eucalyptus or soybean plantations. Is this still a class struggle? It is certainly a social struggle by capitalists in order to appropriate rents and profits, in order to appropriate biomass, minerals and energy sources. The methods and concepts developed by Marxist social historians (like E.P. Thomson), or by Jim Scott, are very fruitful for analysing such conflicts. I see that networks are formed, organizations like Via Campesina appear. There is a global movement for environmental justice, born in the 1990s.
LP: Your view on environmental conflict highlights the limits of class to interpret environmental struggles; what is then an appropriate analytical category?
JMA: This question I do not know how to answer. I have been thinking about it for a long time. Who are the protagonists of what James O’Connor called ‘the second contradiction of capitalism’? Ecological distribution conflicts are often conflicts of ‘accumulation by dispossession’ (as David Harvey calls them) or ‘accumulation through contamination’ (profits increase because there is no liability for climate change, and because extractive industries do not pay for damages except in exceptional cases, as may perhaps happen with Chevron Texaco in Ecuador). This could be brought into a Marxist framework. But the social actors of the world environmental justice movement are very diverse, they do not fit into neat categories as rentier landowners and capitalist farmers (in Ricardo's model) or bourgeois capitalists and proletarians (in Marx's model). In environmental struggles, reproduction of human society and of nature's functions are more important or just as important as fights over the (purported) economic surplus.
LP: Your mention of Via Campesina makes me think about your contributions on the relationship between activism and academia. In particular, you have shown how this relationship can be mutually beneficial: with social movements using in their struggles concepts elaborated by academics and academics gaining a deeper understand of socio-environmental dynamics. How did you develop your interest in working with social movements?
JMA: One reason is the existence of so-called ‘activist knowledge’, a term introduced by Arturo Escobar. The ecological perception is on occasions expressed in the scientific language of material and energy flows, of pollution and toxicity, but ecological questions are complex, interdisciplinary, sometimes new, having been created by the new industries themselves; there are uncertainties and inevitable ignorance. In these discussions, as Funtowicz and Ravetz pointed out with their notions of ‘post-normal science’ and ‘extended peer review’, or Victor Toledo with his ‘dialogue of knowledges’, we see that activists participate on equal terms with experts from the public administrations, universities or companies. Activist knowledge is similar to what was discovered in agronomy — that peasants knew a lot about complex agro-ecological systems.
The Environmental Justice Movement in the United States in the 1980s drew on popular epidemiology in cases of illnesses caused by contamination in poor areas. They claimed that pollution was heavier in areas occupied by ethnic minorities. This raises the possibility not of confrontation between environmentalists and scientists, but just the opposite — the opportunity for collaboration between environmentalists who respect the achievements of science in well-defined terrains and scientists who, rather than doing science without the people or ‘science for the people’ do ‘science with the people’.
Moreover, my own political position has been a mixture of Katheder-Marxismus, moderate anarchism and sporadic Catalan nationalism and this has brought me in contact with a number of social movements and revolutionary groups. As soon as I left Franco's Spain, I got in touch with groups of Spaniards in exile in the Paris publishing house called Ruedo Iberico. Over time, I collaborated with several movements, especially in Latin America. In my view, the relationship between social movements and academia needs to be a two-way relationship where academics provide instruments of analysis to social movements, but are also ready to pick up and discuss the concepts that are put forward by social movements. A recent example of this two-way relationship is Via Campesina's use of energy analysis in small-scale agriculture (Martinez-Alier, 2011a). Via Campesina is an international small farmers’ movement. The transition to industrial agriculture decreased the EROI. Agriculture, because of the massive use of fossil fuels, has become a net user of energy rather than a producer. In the context of climate change, Via Campesina has been able to use this analysis and find that peasant agriculture ‘cools down the earth’.
There are also examples of this relationship that go in the opposite direction, from social movements to academia. For instance, Via Campesina invented the concept of ‘food sovereignty’, while ‘biopiracy’ and ‘land grabbing’ are phenomena identified and baptized by other activists. Acción Ecológica is an Ecuadorian NGO that is one of the best examples of the environmentalism of the poor — or as they call it, popular environmentalism (ecologismo popular). The activists of Acción Ecológica focus prominently on the social impacts of oil extraction and they position this issue strongly in the international context. I have collaborated with them since 1995. In 1997 they took up the concept of the Ecological Debt first used by activists in Chile in 1991 and used it for campaigning. The concept was later elaborated upon in a number of academic publications by Richard Norgaard and others, and was also picked up by Friends of the Earth International. In 1997, Acción Ecológica also proposed the idea of ‘leaving oil in the ground’ (as in the Yasuni ITT proposal) to preserve biodiversity, respect indigenous rights, and avoid carbon dioxide emissions.
LP: Going back to Via Campesina, how does your interaction on environmental issues relate to your interest in land reform?
JMA: They are intimately related. Political ecology has focused on land distribution from the beginning (with Blaikie and Brookfield in 1987). If peasants are pushed onto mountain slopes they are likely to cause soil erosion. When we see now the extent of land grabbing by corporate farming, the consequences are both social and environmental at the same time. For instance, agrofuels or tree plantations increase the Human Appropriation of Net Primary Productivity (HANPP — an indicator of pressure on biodiversity), and they also deprive poor people of access to land for food crops. Little by little, land reform movements such as the MST have moved to some extent towards agroecology.
LP: Now I would like to turn to two very pressing issues, the first is the financial crisis. We have witnessed this crisis that could have turned into an opportunity for undertaking a de-growth path; however the de-growth movement is far from hegemonic — possibly even within progressive environmentalist movements. What strategies and opportunities do you see now for promoting de-growth?
JMA: First, one must see the economy as composed of three levels, not only the financial economy (that got out of hand, and that now wants to impose ‘debtocracy’ everywhere), and not only the real, productive economy; but also the real-real economy of the flows of energy and materials and the unavoidable production of waste. This is an old discussion in ecological economics. We like to go back to Frederick Soddy in the 1920s, a Nobel Prize in Chemistry (who knew a lot about radioactivity) and a monetary reformer.
Debts have increased enormously. Debts can be settled by inflation (money loses value), or by impoverishing the debtors (as in Greece today) although this is counterproductive, or by economic growth. Economic growth is not well measured: it is a mixture of real growth by improving education and technologies, and destruction of the environment, displacement of poor populations, biodiversity loss, climate disruption. Ecological economists are against increases in the debt in the long run because we are sceptical about economic growth.
Even an economy without growth, if based on fossil fuels, would constantly need fresh supplies coming from the ‘commodity frontiers’, because energy cannot be recycled. Materials are recycled only to some extent. So, a steady state might not be enough (as Georgescu-Roegen already told Herman Daly in the 1970s); some de-growth might be needed in an economy like that of the United States. Herman Daly does of course agree to this. Both Georgescu-Roegen and Daly criticized economic models of growth where manufactured capital is supposed to substitute for natural resources with a large degree of elasticity. Daly wrote long ago that you cannot forever increase the amount of fish caught by increasing the horsepower of the fishing fleet. A very practical reflection.
Mainstream economists assume that there will be economic growth. This is dangerous because it gives a reason (as in the debates on climate change policy) for discounting the future, following Ramsay's model. In 1928, Ramsay was writing about the optimum rate of investment, and he discounted future ‘enjoyments’ because of decreasing marginal utility as the economy would grow because of current investments. But in the context of the intergenerational allocation of exhaustible resources or of pollution, discounting the future on the assumption of economic growth produces the ‘optimist's paradox’. Economists discount the future (as both Nordhaus and Stern do, although Stern uses a lower discount rate), because they assume there will be growth. This assumption leads to using more exhaustible resources now and to producing more greenhouse gases, thereby undermining the welfare of future generations.
I am planning to write something soon about Sicco Mansholt who had a debate in 1972 with André Gorz, Edgar Morin and others about the steady state and décroissance after reading the Meadows report in an advance copy (Meadows et al., 1972). Alexander King (of the Club of Rome) was shocked by the zero-growth conclusions of the Meadows report, but Sicco Mansholt, who was President of the European Commission, enjoyed them. We have to go back to these debates to show the nonsense of the Stiglitz–Sen commission (in 2010) discussing as a novelty the shortcomings of GDP for President Sarkozy, who had discovered la joie de vivre. All this was already debated in the 1970s; Stiglitz was with Solow in the opposite camp to Daly and Georgescu-Roegen. One book of essays by Georgescu-Roegen was translated into French in 1979 and published as Démain la décroissance. He agreed with this title. We cannot keep starting afresh all the time: it cannot be that a new bureaucrat or a new parliamentarian arrives in Brussels and starts a ‘Beyond GDP’ commission without referring back to Roefie Hueting, to René Passet, to Giorgio Nebbia, to J.M. Naredo, to Christian Leipert … all European ecological economists of the 1970s and 1980s who are still alive and who explained comprehensively why we should go ‘beyond GDP’. Or Marilyn Waring who in 1988 published a perfect eco-feminist critique of GDP, Counting for Nothing.
LP: The second pressing issue is the Texaco-Chevron case. In February 2011, an Ecuadorian court ordered Texaco-Chevron — eighteen years after the start of the lawsuit — to pay a huge fine (US$ 9.5 billion) for the socio-environmental disasters the company has created while extracting oil in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Can we see this case as advancement in terms of environmental justice? What are the likely consequences of this judgement in Ecuador and beyond?
JMA: I have followed this case since 1994. Environmental liabilities appear in the public scene when there are complaints, or when there are sudden accidents (BP in the Gulf of Mexico, 2010; TEPCO in Fukushima, 2011): the pedagogy of catastrophes or catastrophisme éclairé that Jean-Pierre Dupuy (2002) relies upon. There is now an interesting court case against Shell in The Netherlands for what they have done in the Niger Delta.
Texaco (Chevron) was present from 1965 to 1990 in the northern part of the Amazon of Ecuador. To save costs, the company threw ‘extraction water’ into ponds that frequently overflow, and which were not lined to prevent seepage. Judge Zambrano's decision quotes Chevron-Texaco's own sources as acknowledging that over 15,000 million gallons of water were involved. Gas was flared, but (unlike the Niger Delta) this has not been a matter of controversy in the Ecuador court case. Many indigenous groups living in the forest suffered very much, including the Cofanes and Secoyas. Two groups (Tetetes and Sansahuari) went extinct. Settlers were attracted by the roads opened by the oil company; they also suffered from pollution. The court case has been supported by both indigenous and settler populations.
What were the real costs of oil extracted in Ecuador by Texaco (now Chevron) between 1965 and 1990? What are the real costs of oil extracted by Shell in the Niger Delta since the 1970s? On 14 February 2011, Judge Nicolas Zambrano, in his decision in Sucumbíos, Ecuador, fined Chevron-Texaco the sum of US$ 9,500 million that would be doubled unless Chevron apologized within fifteen days to the victims of pollution. This decision is now on appeal before a three-member court in Sucumbios, and later it might go on appeal to a national tribunal in Quito. Judge Zambrano's decision is well argued, and reviews the case since it started in 1993. It is available in Spanish and English on the website of Business & Human Rights and runs to 188 pages. From the start of operations in 1970 up to 1990, Texaco took 1,500 million barrels of oil from Ecuador. This means the fine that Chevron-Texaco must now pay is of the order of US$ 6 per barrel. One must take into account the depreciation of the dollar and also the time that has passed since then. It is a reasonable amount and Chevron can afford it.
Judge Zambrano focused mainly on two issues: first, the dumping of extraction water into the environment (instead of reinjecting it, or keeping it in properly designed ponds); second, the damage to human health. The evidence was collected by in situ judicial inspections, listening to the local people in an exercise of ‘popular epidemiology’ in a territory where there were no reliable official health statistics at the time.
The technology for water reinjecting already existed at the time. Judge Zambrano mentions a Primer of Oil Production dating back to 1963 which was co-authored by Texaco engineers. This technology was not applied in the Ecuadorian Amazon to save costs, thereby increasing Texaco's profits and also increasing the likelihood of damages. Standards in Amazonia should have been more strict that in other ecosystems. The fine is to be paid into a Trust Fund set up by the Frente de Defensa de la Amazonia (not the national or provincial governments of Ecuador) on behalf of the plaintiffs in this ‘class action suit’—acción popular. The beneficiaries would be tens of thousands of people in Sucumbios and Orellana. There would be a 10 per cent additional payment for administration of the Trust Fund.
The main item is a carefully calculated amount (US$ 5,396 million) for rehabilitating the areas with extraction water ponds. There is an unavoidable mixture of items (compensation for irreparable damages together with sums for remediation); there are also different values involved (human health, damage to ‘fauna and flora’ counted at remediation costs, with no item for irreparably lost biodiversity and a small item for cultural damages). In a court case like this, money valuation is necessary.2
I would like to see environmental justice being done with regard to transnational companies in overseas territories, also with regard to rich states in the climate justice issue, and the destroyers of biodiversity everywhere. Instead, the ‘Lawrence Summers’ principle is applied as a matter of course to resource extraction or waste disposal: the poor are cheap, and future generations and other species have no power. For the analyst, of course, it is also interesting if justice is not done. It supports the idea that the economy regularly achieves cost-shifting successes. So-called ‘externalities’ should be the main topic of study for students of economics. What is not counted in money terms is possibly more important than what is counted in money terms.
As Martin O’Connor wrote some years ago, a zero price for an environmental good or service should signal non-scarcity of that good or service relative to the demands on it over the relevant time horizon, e.g. abundant air or water as an input or a sink for wastes. Recognizing that a good is scarce should then result in a positive price. But not if the demands of those persons — present or future — for whom scarcity means physical non-availability are not heard. And even less if the ‘demands’ in question come from other species that deserve protection under the Rights of Nature and not through market or pseudo-market valuations. Pollutants or toxic wastes may be discharged at zero price in ways that degrade the living habitat of others who are unable to stop the event. A zero price signals then a relation of power. At the end of the day, will Chevron-Texaco (or the citizens of rich countries producing excessive per capita amounts of carbon dioxide) pay a zero price for the pollution caused?
LP: The length of these trials and the limits of monetary compensation imply that environmental justice cannot be established by the courts. In your view, what are the main instruments for justice movements to achieve their objectives?
JMA: True, the environmental liabilities or ecological debts are not included in the accounts of companies. Therefore they might become visible only if there are complaints coming from those directly damaged or from environmental groups. Such complaints can take many forms, as for instance in Cajamarca in Peru in November 2011, where the whole region went on strike against the plans for gold mining by Newmont (in the Conga mine) that would destroy some high altitude lakes. Similarly, the ‘climate debt’ that rich countries owe to the rest of the world because of our disproportionate emissions of greenhouse gases will only appear in the political scene when environmental groups and heads of governments complain loudly enough about it in international forums. Could Bolivia go to an international court of justice and claim compensation for the ecological debt because its glaciers are slowly starting to melt? Not yet, I think, but this might happen soon. Just the fact of a trial beginning would have some effect.
I think the courts are one avenue for claiming environmental liabilities from companies; we have recent spectacular cases like Chevron-Texaco in Ecuador or Shell in The Netherlands for the damages it has created in fifty years of activity in the Niger Delta. In these cases money compensation is asked for. This does not exclude an additional fine above compensatory awards — what is called ‘punitive damages’. Moreover, there is talk of an International Court for Environmental Crimes. In Argentina there is some hope of bringing Xstrata's executive directors to court (under criminal charges) for what they have done in La Alumbrera mine. I am very much in favour of these movements. In general, environmental justice is extremely difficult to obtain. Many cases filed under the ‘Alien Tort Claims Act’ (ACTA) against US mining or fossil-fuel companies for what they have done abroad have failed. And when companies are state-owned, like PDVSA or Petrobras or Petroecuador, it is no less difficult to get compensation. There will soon be comparative studies on the socio-environmental behaviour of Chinese (and Indian) companies.
It is true, as you say, that there are many obstacles and delays in achieving ‘corporate accountability’. The asymmetry of power makes redress difficult but one should not wait until the rules of accountancy change and environmental liabilities are included in the balance sheets. We need to do something in the meantime, not only in case of accidents like BP in the Gulf of Mexico or TEPCO in Fukushima: there are liabilities that arise from everyday practice. Then, starting a court case is a step towards a solution. It complements non-violent direct action, shareholders’ activism, lobbying and publicity stunts.
LP: Finally, I would like to ask what you see as the future issues and challenges for your work and for ecological economics in general?
JMA: This ties in with my own research. Ecological economics must become mainstream. The economy is a sub-system that forms part of a broader physical system. There is no closed economic circle. Resources come in and waste goes out. Sometimes those affected by the waste or by the extraction of resources will be the future generations, who cannot raise their voices in protest; or they might be whales or tigers, who are not going to protest either. However, on occasions those whose present or future are being harmed are poor people, who are already demanding environmental justice. I think that ecological economics should work closely together with political ecology to study such conflicts.
At present I am coordinating a large European project called EJOLT (Environmental Justice Organizations, Liabilities and Trade), which will run from 2011 to 2015. There are twenty-three organizations involved. We plan to carry out the largest world inventory to date of resource extraction and waste disposal conflicts, to increase their visibility, and to explain the reasons behind their increasing number. I think that such conflicts can become a strong force for sustainability.
There are many issues which deserve further study. Historically, resistance campaigns existed before the word ‘environmentalism’ came into use — for example, against sulphur dioxide contamination caused by the Rio Tinto company that led to an army massacre on 4 February 1888 in Andalusia. There is an environmentalism of the poor, of which no-one took any notice until the Chipko movement in the Himalaya in 1973, or the death of Chico Mendes in Brazil in December 1988.
The wealthy economies have never been as dependent on imports as they are today. Historically, as Wallerstein explained, we can distinguish between two types of commodities: the ‘preciosities’ or luxury goods, with a high price per unit of weight (gold, silver, ivory, pepper, diamonds), and the raw materials or bulk commodities. Initially the means and costs of transport did not allow low value goods to be shipped to the metropolis, unless the vessel itself (of teak, for example) was the good being exported. This slowly changed. Until World War II, Europe was self-sufficient in coal; today, like the United States, it imports enormous quantities of oil, with the consequent emissions of carbon dioxide. The metabolisms of the rich societies cannot be sustained without cheap supplies of raw materials, while many countries or regions in the South are forced to follow the rule of San Garabato: compre caro y venda barato (buy dear and sell cheap).Thus, in India, there are whole areas that are sacrificed to mining operations in Orissa and Jharkhand, in the tribal territories. Such regions (or countries) of the South should impose ecological taxes on their exports. We need more research on ‘ecologically unequal exchange’.
Despite the Basle Convention, toxic wastes continue to be exported to the countries of the South (or poorer areas of countries of the North), such as the export of residues from the electronics sector. There is a ship-breaking industry in Alang, Gujarat, where a famished legion of workers labour without safety precautions. We see there a displacement of environmental costs from North to South. On average, a US citizen emits fifteen times more carbon dioxide than a citizen of India. Who has rights over the carbon sinks that are the oceans, new vegetation and soils? Who owns the atmosphere into which the excess carbon dioxide is deposited? This is the context of demands regarding the ecological debt that the North has incurred with the South — a debt created through ecologically unfair trade, climate change, bio-piracy and the exporting of toxic wastes. The ecological debt can be expressed in monetary terms, but it also has moral dimensions that are not included in any financial evaluation. Research on climate justice combining science and activism is needed.
Are ecological values only valid if they are translated into financial terms, or are they valid in themselves with their units of biomass and biodiversity? Is it valid to argue directly in terms of human health, subsistence and welfare, or do we have to translate them into money? What is the value of a landscape, not in monetary terms, but in itself? How much is human life worth, not in terms of money, but in itself? Hence the question that brings ecological economics and political ecology together: who has the social and political power to simplify complexity and impose a particular language of valuation?