Flows of energy and materials in the world economy have never been as large as they are today (Krausmann et al. 2009). This increased social metabolism is causing more and more conflicts related to resource extraction and waste disposal, giving rise to movements for environmental justice around the world.
The words environmental justice were first used in the United States in the early 1980s for local complaints against environmental racism, i.e. the disproportionate pollution burdens in areas primarily inhabited by disadvantaged ethnic group. The term is now applied to spontaneous movements and EJOs (environmental justice organizations) anywhere in the world (and to the networks or coalitions they form across borders), resisting extractive industries and complaining against pollution and climate change. Environmental justice is about intra-generational distribution, not forgetting intergenerational distribution, and includes non-distributional dimensions of justice such as recognition and also prevention of participatory exclusions.
Degrowth is a growing social movement with political traction in France, Italy and Spain, one that has gathered support in other parts of Europe and North America. Advocates argue that a collective democratic decision to consume and produce less in the global North is the most appropriate solution for the multiple crises facing the world today. The debt crisis cannot be solved by economic growth because this worsens the ecological crisis. Renouncing economic growth in the North would help humanity to stay within the ecological limits of the planet as regards climate change, and would also contribute to a lower rate of biodiversity loss. The main allies for this new economy are the environmental justice movements of North and South.
In practice, degrowth is compatible with grassroots projects such as food cooperatives, urban gardening, local currencies, co-housing projects, waste reduction and reuse initiatives, or the ‘transition towns’ idea originating in the UK. It allows for cooperation with local, regional and even national authorities, albeit not heavily relying on governmental measures. Proponents of degrowth in the North have a world vision that allies them naturally with those in the South who champion the concept of buen vivir (or Sumak Kawsay in the language of its origin), where the well-being of humans and the rest of the natural world are considered as interrelated and pursued at the same time.
Similarly, in the South where there are many struggles against large scale mining, land-grabbing, and fossil fuel extraction, there is insistence on the Rights of Nature, exemplified for example in the Constitution of Ecuador of 2008, art. 71. Indigenous peoples are often at the vanguard of such struggles. They fight for keeping their sources of livelihood, and argue in terms of indigenous territorial rights and human rights. They also complain against waste dumping from the North, and against climate changed caused by excessive carbon dioxide emissions. New proposals have emerged from the South such as the Yasuni ITT initiative in Ecuador, of ‘leaving oil in the soil’ (Bond, 2008) and resource extraction caps (Resource Cap Coalition). There are also claims from the South of an Ecological Debt, and reluctance to become partners in what is seen as Ecologically Unequal Exchange.
Degrowth activists working towards radically reducing consumption in the global North should align their struggle with that of movements fighting against extractive projects in the South. For instance, in South Africa there are complaints against subsidized electricity for exporting mining companies. In Indonesia, there are complaints against oil palm plantations for agrofuel exports. Reducing consumption in the North would diminish demand for natural resources taken from valuable natural areas.
Indigenous victories to preserve homelands intact also mean less pollution from mining, fossil fuel extraction and large infrastructure projects and less of a push in the direction of disastrous climate change. There are many networks of environmental justice from the South sometimes with participation from the North. Thus La Via Campesina, (though not referring directly to the concept of EROI – energy returned on energy invested) claims with reason that support for traditional peasant agriculture ‘cools down the Earth’, and it opposes trade in agricultural products that ruins low-input local productions.
EJOs are potential allies of environmental groups in rich countries which criticize the obsession for GDP growth. These small degrowth (“décroissance”) movements in the global North (including steady state macroeconomics, prosperity without growth, post-Wachstum) should align themselves with the strong environmental justice movements originating with poor people and indigenous peoples from the South.
Bond, P. (2008). Social movements and corporate social responsibility in South Africa. Development and Change, 39(6), 1037-1052.
Krausmann, F., Gingrich, S., Eisenmenger, N., Erb, K. H., Haberl, H., & Fischer-Kowalski, M. (2009). Growth in global materials use, GDP and population during the 20th century. Ecological Economics, 68(10), 2696-2705.
Martínez-Alier, Joan (2012): Environmental Justice and Economic Degrowth: An Alliance between Two Movements, Capitalism Nature Socialism, 23:, 51-73
Resource Cap Coalition: www.ceeweb.org/rcc
This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Joan Martinez Alier.
EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos.