Skip to Main content

Socio-ecological transitions and ecological justice

By Joan Martinez-Alier.

Twenty years after Rio, the victories of Sustainable Development and, now, the Green Economy, are more noticeable in the field of rhetoric than in reality. The indicators as regards climate change and the loss of biodiversity have steadily worsened at world level since 1992. However, some things have improved. There is a new and wide agreement that ecological functions are important in themselves and also for the human economy. Thus, international awareness of the role of environmental products and services has been pushed by the MA (2005) and TEEB (2010). Awareness of climate change was increased by the agreements in Rio de Janeiro of 1992 and Kyoto in 1997, and by the work by the IPCC. Moreover, the dependence of the economy not only on current products and services from “funds” but also on exhaustible stocks of fossil fuels is more widely recognised. The debate on Hubbert’s peak oil and the decreasing EROI of new sources of energy reaches occasionally even the financial press. Any day now, also FAO will recognize that the EROI of modern agriculture and food system has declined compared to traditional agriculture, and that Via Campesina is right when claiming that “peasant agriculture cools down the Earth”.

The methodology for doing accounts of Material Flows in the economy has been established. Such research is done to give empirical proof to claims of relative or even absolute dematerialization of the economy, including consideration of trade flows. This research is also useful to see the links between increased social metabolism and the growing number of environmental conflicts. At world level, the material intensity of the economy does not seem to decline. UNEP has published such material flow accounts.

There is an international failure (because of distributional obstacles) to agree on objectives for reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. There is also a failure to agree on objectives for decreasing the HANPP (as an indicator of pressure on biodiversity). On the contrary there is a wave of land grabbing, and more environmentally and socially damaging uses of the land for tree plantations and other monocultures for animal feed and for agrofuels.

In the European Union it is rhetorically agreed that political objetives should move “beyond GDP” forty years after Sicco Mansholt, as president of the Commission, agreed to “below zero growth”in 1972 (after reading the Meadows report). The idea of “prosperity without growth” appeals to public opinion. Physical objectives such as the EU 20-20-20 energy policy are accepted by policy makers. But the main political discussion is on financial debts and unemployment, as in the United States.

A socio-ecological transition must be guided by agreed physical objectives. The economy has three levels: the financial level, the real or so-called productive level, and the real-real level. First, the financial level can grow exponentially for a while as it did before 2008; second, the so-called real, productive economy of car production, building houses, medical services, is now stalled as a whole in OECD countries although some sectors (informatics, renewable energies) are growing; third, the “real-real” economy, namely the entry of energy and materials and exit of waste including carbon dioxide in excessive amounts.

Among economists in Europe and the United States the only worry is on the first two levels. There are two main schools at present. Keynesians argue that the real, productive economy should grow in order to absorb unemployment and to be able to pay for the immense mountain of financial debt. Inside this school, there is a variety of Green Keynesians who preach that investments should be environmental investments preferably. The second school (let us call it the “Debtocracy”) argue for fiscal austerity. First you pay the debt, then you can grow (perhaps financed again by debts, as before 2008). It may be that the real economy is asfixiated in the meantime, as in Greece, but debtors should make sacrifices to safeguard the principles of the credit system for the future.

The “real-real” question is the following one. If the economy of OECD countries would grow again (now it is in a de facto steady-state or slowly declining since 2008), what will happen to the supplies and price of oil, to world biodiversity, to carbon dioxide emissions? Even an economy without growth, if based on stocks of fossil fuels, needs to go to the frontiers of extraction because energy is not recycled. We take today 86 million barrels of oil, we burn them, tomorrow another 86 mb (or 85 or 87, it does not matter). Materials are recycled in practice only in part. A non-growing industrial economy does not guarantee sustainability.

To achieve a less unsustainable economy we should not rely (only) on promises of technological improvements and economic incentives. It is an enjoyable sight to see the economy of India grow. However, we know that India’s material flows by person/year are now at 5 tons, and that a lot of strife is caused in extraction of such materials. Many people lose their livelihoods because of displacement or pollution. We know that the European average is 15 tons. Moreover the EU imports four times the tonnage that it exports. And we wonder about the future.

The Green Economy risks being discredited because of rhetorical triumphalism. The Green Economy is certainly not the “real-real” ecological economics of Kenneth Boulding, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen (who sponsored Décroissance in 1979) or Herman Daly. We should not be pessimistic but not rely too much if at all on the reasons and policies provided by the Green Economy (technological optimism and economic incentives).

There are three good signs. One good sign is that “peak population” is approaching towards 2045 or 2050, probably at less than 9 billion. The UN medium projection is too favourable to population growth by assuming that fertility will increase soon in countries or regions where it is below 2. Local issues of depopulation will become a large field of study and policy making. For instance, in the midst of a wave of evictions because of failed mortgage payments in some countries, there is a large surplus of housing.

A second good sign is that activist movements for Degrowth (décroissance), or the steady-state, or Prosperity without Growth, are becoming better known and more respectable and influential in rich countries. They focus both on the physical, real-real economy (accounts of energy and material flows, account of virtual water, risks of rebound effects due to increased eco-efficiencies) and on the social aspects of the economy (dematerialized relational goods and services). They would be glad to recommend now and then a debt moratorium and even a default.

A third and very important good sign, that should appear much more in the UN deliberations, is the growth of an international movement for Environmental Justice, composed of the myriad local movements and many international networks that have grown out of resource extraction conflicts at the “commodity frontiers” and also of waste disposal conflicts (including here the Climate Justice networks). UNEP should set up a unit to do the statistics of the thousands of environmental conflicts worldwide (as ILO counts labour strikes) ( The movement for Environmental Justice is a strong force for sustainability.

We should be realistic. We should not despair and place hope only on the lessons of catastrophes such as Fukushima, or those that will perhaps come soon from climate change. J.P. Depuy’s “catastrophisme éclairé” shows little faith on human capacity for anticipation. I prefer to place my hopes not on the teachings of catastrophes and not (only) on technology and economic incentives but rather on the collective decisions to stop population growth, to stop economic growth in rich countries moving to “prosperity without growth”, and on the strength of the environmental justice movements around the world and particularly on the environmentalism of the poor and the indigenous.

Comments are closed.