Egalitarian environmentalism will take root above all among the world's dispossessed. Interview with Joan Martínez Alier

Egalitarian environmentalism will take root above all among the world's dispossessed. Interview with Joan Martínez Alier

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By Monica Di Donato

Joan Martinez Alier is a professor in the Department of Economics and Economic History of the Autonomous University of Barcelona, ​​former president of the International Society for Ecological Economics and author of numerous books and articles of a transdisciplinary nature of recognized international prestige .

Question: The most advanced discourses of the social left blame capitalism for the situation in which we find ourselves, an unfair situation from the socio-economic and ecological point of view, and point to socialism as the alternative to achieve a different situation. However, the socialist experiments carried out so far have not been characterized precisely by their union between environmental and social aspects. What do you think the left is doing wrong in this regard?

To what extent is an ecosocialism possible in our society?

Answer: Ecosocialism seems fine to me, and also eco-feminism, but it will be socialism without any reference to the Leninist parties of the past. Rather, I'm interested in something that is based on the great movement for environmental and social justice in the world. The market system does not guarantee that the economy fits into ecosystems, since markets do not value future needs or external damages to commercial transactions, as Otto Neurath against Von Mises and Hayek pointed out in the famous debate on economic calculation. in a socialist economy in the Vienna of 1920. The conflict between economy and environment cannot be solved either with claims such as “sustainable development”, “eco-efficiency” or “ecological modernization”. Now, if the market damages nature, what happened in planned economies? Not only did they exploit the workers for the benefit of a bureaucratic layer of society, but they also advocated economic growth at all costs, and also lacked the possibility, due to the lack of freedom, to have environmental groups to protest. You have to invent something new, but that will not be done by a party, but by a sum of social movements.

Q: What are the fundamental moments that have influenced the development of this position, from the perspective that you have exposed to us, throughout your rich intellectual and human experience?

A: Since my studies in economics at the University of Barcelona and my subsequent specialization in agrarian economics at Oxford, I have been developing a certain political sensitivity in relation to the autonomy of communities, a type of "populist" sensitivity in the Russian style, for put it another way. Although in the early 1970s my positions on the question of communities were still those of a Marxist open to the influences of social anthropology and also sensitive to the influences of the social scientist Karl Polanyi, I no longer agreed with the position that defended, for example, Hobsbawm in his book Primitive Rebels (1959) according to which the farmers were the "primitive" rebels and the true vanguard could only be the industrial proletariat and the party of the proletariat.

Let's say that in fact I was not an anarchist, but I was very influenced by the history of Catalonia, and also by the anti-Franco and libertarian intellectuals of the Iberian Wheel, exiled in France. All these contaminations were decisive in developing this anti-Leninist sensitivity. I also have to underline the importance that my Andean experience had, in this sense, where I worked not only on the issue of ecological anthropology, but also witnessed the "anti-modern" resistance of indigenous communities, as in Ecuador, the huasipungueros, or in Peru, the huacchilleros, who lived on haciendas: they were not serfs in the feudal way, but peasants who resisted capitalist "modernization".

Q: In this way, one of your main research and work themes has become the so-called popular environmentalism, the ecology of the poor, especially in the southern countries of the world. All this has always been linked to the desire to investigate the relationship between the economy and the environment not only in monetary terms but above all in physical terms, analyzing uncertainties, problems of incommensurability of values, the problem of valuation languages, etc. . becoming one of the pioneers in the field of ecological economics. Could you explain these two different planes of investigation and how they are related?

A: I have been, for the last twenty years, one of the main actors in the delayed births of ecological economics and political ecology, as well as in explaining how the inevitable confrontation between economics and the environment (studied by the first of the two disciplines) opened the space for the environmentalism of the poor (studied by the second), potentially the strongest current of environmentalism. In this sense, I have always had the idea that the ecological economy had to serve mainly to support the social movements in the south of the world that are fighting against environmental degradation, which makes me convinced that egalitarian environmentalism , and not the social-Darwinian, 1 will take root above all among the dispossessed of the world. For example, Vía Campesina activists who incorporate ecological economy issues, such as energy efficiency, loss of biodiversity, chemical pollution, etc., although sometimes without knowing all the theoretical assumptions of this discipline. And also the strong role of women, who are often at the forefront of popular environmental struggles. It is above all the appearance of that formidable group of popular ecologists, as well as the strength and potential that I recognize in them that keeps me politically active, with a series of trips in Latin America, India, etc.

Q: So you can talk about environmental awareness within these popular movements or is it simply a basic struggle for survival?

A: To understand the matter, Ramachandra Guha's book on the Chipko movement is very important. He demonstrates how a peasant movement, very similar to other movements in this Himalayan region, but also in other parts of India, fights against the nationalization of forests, already initiated by the British colonial administration, under the pretext of carrying out a management rational. Obviously, this meant that indigenous peoples lost access to forests, hence the protests. There were also struggles against a plantation project, because the community preferred native oak to plantations of fast-growing trees like pine, for example. As you can see, these struggles were actually a form of struggle for biodiversity, although they corresponded with the survival interests of those who lived there. But, as a result, the Chipko movement, which began in the 1970s, is just a typical example of such movements. Something very similar happens with the Chico Mendes movement in Brazil: a trade unionist who had learned to read with the help of a survivor of the communist guerrilla refugee in the Amazon, on the border with Bolivia. Mendes begins as a defender of the seringueiros, the rubber gatherers of the Amazon rainforest, and later realizes the importance of claiming himself as an environmentalist, ecologist, perhaps as a form of protection. Definitely, popular environmentalism is an environmentalism that does not know that it is environmentalist until the 1970s or 1980s, that is, when it was difficult not to realize it.

Q: But in many of the most popular sectors of the southern countries of the world it is undeniable that there is a strong attraction and aspiration to copy the consumption patterns and lifestyles of the north, of the enriched part of the world from a point of view. monetary view. Many of its leaders do not hide a very modernizing perspective, speaking of ecology as a luxury of the rich world. It must also be recognized that pre-industrial or pre-capitalist societies have not always protected their ecosystems and their services. Bearing this in mind, what do you think may be the true strength of popular environmentalism?

A: Popular environmental theory does not say that all the world's poor are environmentalists because, of course, that is false. What he remarks, simply, is that in many environmental conflicts, the poor align themselves with the preservation of natural resources, not because of ecological ideology, but because of their own survival needs, to preserve livelihoods, to sometimes expressed in a culturally specific language, such as the idea of ​​the sanctity of the forces of nature of some indigenous groups. At the moment, in Latin America, Peru, Argentina, in particular, but not only, there are dozens of conflicts around mining, for example, right now in Orissa (in India) over bauxite mining, huge conflicts between groups indigenous people such as the Dongria Kondh who defend the sacred mountain of Niyamgiri and foreign aluminum companies. In this January 2009 I have been there for a few days. And there will be more and more conflicts, because the metabolism of our society, the amount of energy and materials used in the carousel of production and consumption, keeps increasing more and more. There is no dematerialized economic growth and the idea of ​​"angelic economic growth", as Herman Daly wryly put it, is a utopia. What is possible is that the material intensity of the economy will drop a bit in rich countries, but it will continue to grow in absolute terms. In Europe, for example, we no longer produce aluminum and steel, but we import it, like oil, gas, etc. The apparently "cleaner" economies operate on the basis of "cheap" imports, and are so clean because they shift out the environmental cost related to production.

Q: We make a little parenthesis just in relation to the last idea that you just developed. More and more it is heard that a real change is needed in the system, a change that many intellectuals like you, like Serge Latouche in France, call degrowth. What, then, are the points that any degrowth program should include?

A: We already have economic slowdown here, in the 2007-2008 crisis of the rich world. This year, carbon dioxide emissions will drop in Spain, the United States, etc. The financial crisis (due to the excess of mortgages and the construction of houses) was combined with an economic crisis.

All this helped by the price of oil (by the oligopoly of OPEC, which is maintained by the shortage of oil in the long run). The energy cost of getting energy is increasing. This economic decline should be socially sustainable, new institutions are needed, redistribute production, redefine work to include volunteer work, also unpaid domestic work, etc.

Understand that we are at a very high level of income, and that if we go down a bit nothing happens. Institute basic income. Avoid racism with immigrants. We are seeing what I call "the Second Death of Friedrich von Hayek." These days Keynes returns, even the banks ask the State to nationalize them because they are afraid that customers will ask for their money. So a change in the financial system is needed. So this necessary decrease must be measured not so much in terms of GDP, but with physical indicators (less use of materials, less production of greenhouse gases, etc.) and applying the precautionary principle to technologies.

While in rich countries this must happen, in poorer countries energy use has to be increased because it is still very low. Q: About this new game of balances between North and South, you have also talked on many occasions about the problem of “ecological debt”. What considerations would you make in this regard?

A: There is a great injustice in the world, the North has an ecological debt to the South, there is a carbon debt, in addition to all the colonial and post-colonial debts that Europeans have incurred in the Third World.

The amount of these debts should be evaluated, which could be resolved by eliminating all or part of the external debt of the countries of the South, for example, and developing institutional mechanisms to guarantee the reinvestment of the money saved in anti-poverty programs. and the promotion of alternative energies in the South.

Q: Returning to your research in the heart of ecological economics and the relationship with chrematism economics, the dominant orthodoxy within the academic world. With regard to these disciplines, why and where did this dichotomy arise, and who are the authors who have known how to express it with greater lucidity and scientific rigor?

A: The difference between economics and chrematistics was explained by Aristotle in his book Politics. Let's say that the first is the study of the supply of the oikos or the polis, while the second is the study of the formation of prices in the markets. Ecological Economics criticizes the crematistic "imperialism" in two cases: the extractions of energy resources and exhaustible or slowly renewable materials, and the insertions into the environment. And in this sense, ecological criticism is going to touch on an issue to which economic science has no convincing answer: the incommensurability of the elements that make up the economy. Ecological Economics begins, then, by gladly solving much of the instruments of orthodox economics, and then tries to explain the use of energy and materials in human ecosystems. This point of view has been around for at least 120 years (with Frederick Soddy, Patrick Geddes), but few of the authors of the second half of the 20th century like Paul Ehrlich, Herman Daly, Barry Commoner, Howard, and Eugene Odum, David Pimentel, René Passet, Kenneth Building or Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen have known their predecessors, whose works I studied in my 1987 book, Ecological Economics. In this book I explained that Podolinsky in 1880, as Vernadsky acknowledges in 1925 in his book Geochemistry, studied the agrarian economy as a system open to energy flows. And that makes it an important precursor of Ecological Economics.

Q: One of the undisputed fathers of ecological economics in the 20th century was the aforementioned Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen. How did you approach him and what work would you highlight by the Romanian economist?

A: Georgescu-Roegen is very important. In 1971 he published his great text, The Law of Entropy and the Economic Process, and one of my great friends, José Manuel Naredo, a young economist who was working at the OECD in Paris at the time, pointed it out to me. I already knew a little about him, because he was also an expert in agrarian economics, and in 1960 he had published an article on the peasant economy in Eastern Europe, where the analysis of the economy in terms of the metabolic flow of energy is not yet explicit. His 1971 book, which, like all his work, is quite difficult to read, represents a fundamental text of Ecological Economics. He knew how to investigate in a daring but brilliant way on the issues of the bioeconomy, as he calls it, knowing how to build, thanks to his transdisciplinary approach, fundamental bridges between economics, thermodynamics and ecology when explaining how the economic process occurs within a system open to the entry of matter and energy and the exit of waste.

Q: Concerns about bridging the natural sciences and economics surely represent a fundamental issue for ecological economists, and in Georgescu all this was related to the application of the second law of thermodynamics to the theory of production . Could you comment a bit more about this law and its importance within Ecological Economics?

A: Neoclassical economic theory describes the economy as a closed system in which goods are exchanged through a price system regulated by the mechanism of supply and demand. This is of some use to the extent that you have developed a series of relatively interesting ideas, but ultimately it is a wrong ontological view, even though it may be methodologically profitable.

In reality, the economy is an open system that cannot function without the inputs of energy and materials, starting with the energy of the sun through photosynthesis, or coal and oil, which are accumulated, stored thanks to photosynthesis. .

But this system also produces waste. By volume, the most important waste is carbon dioxide, but also cadmium, radioactive waste, which is practically impossible to recycle. There are graphics to illustrate the open nature of a system such as the economic one, such as those published by René Passet, in his book Principles of Bioeconomy (translation into Spanish of his work L’économique et le vivant of 1979).

I think Passet was the first to graphically show the economy as a subsystem of a larger system. So in this system, not everything is recyclable. This is what neoclassical economics calls "externalities" and which it seeks to "internalize" through the price system, as if it were only a matter of detail. In general, economists talk about energy and materials without worrying about the laws that govern the "management" of those resources.

Specifically, the Romanian economist said that the two laws were the physical limitation to the expansion of the economic system, and that the new science of thermodynamics represented the physics of economic value.

Q: To conclude this interview. What can be deduced from what you have mentioned above is that the issue of matter and energy flows, as well as the importance of physical laws in economic processes, are fundamental questions in the reflection that has been taking place for some decades now. academic level. Do you think that in some authors there is a clear intention to elaborate a purely energetic theory of economic value?

A: No, I think there are no such authors. I believe that a theory of energy value is wrong. The importance of the second principle of thermodynamics for economics is that energy cannot be recycled.

We burn oil, and it's over, the energy is "dissipated", it is no longer useful to move the car. And oil has a limited stock, we are reaching the peak of the Hubbert curve. And also when burning it, oil produces carbon dioxide and therefore increases the greenhouse effect. Those aspects are hidden in conventional economics. The prices are wrong.

But I don't think we can or should count everything in energy units with the intention of serving as a guide for social decisions.


1- Social Darwinism is the belief that the concept of natural selection between different species through the struggle for existence, and the consequent triumph of the most adapted, is also applicable to different human groups (J. Martínez Alier and K. Schlüpmann , The ecology and the economy, FCE, Mexico, 1992, p. 25).


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