Joan Martínez Alier, Professor of Economics and Economic History at the UAB

Eugènia Riera
International Catalan Institute for Peace
Joan Martínez Alier

Joan Martínez Alier

Highly renowned academic and ecologist, for several years Joan Martínez Alier has been defending a new economic model that would enable us to live in a more just society while being more respectful with the environment. Pioneer in the field of ecological economics and politics, he is currently coordinating the European network EJOLT dedicated to analysis of environmental conflicts. In this interview, we discuss the project and he also offers us alternatives to the existing model for growth, which he considers obsolete and dissociated.

When was EJOLT set up, and what is the network's goal?

The EJOLT network is a European research project coordinated by us here at the Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona, Institute of Environmental Science and Technology. We study environmental conflict and environmental injustice around the world, and we do so via a network of 22 organizations.

One of the challenges facing EJOLT is that of compiling a large database of ecological conflicts to include themed maps. Are there any estimates for the number of environmental conflicts currently in existence?

That's a good question. There are no hard statistics, but we do know of the thousands upon thousands of conflicts involving mining, biomass extraction (eucalyptus plantations, agro-fuels, and deforestation), oil and gas extraction, waste disposal, etc. For example, climate change is a result of over-producing greenhouse gases. And, who is responsible for this? Who foots the bill for this without actually being responsible, in the historical context? In order to analyse each conflict, we prepare inventories and maps by theme and country and, before 2015 we'd also hope to have completed an atlas covering around 2,000 conflicts.

One of the central themes referenced by EJOLT is the concept of 'ecological debt'. Can this debt be quantified?

If we go back and take a look at climate change, the ecological debt (which many organisations and even some governments in the southern hemisphere demand) is the amount of money wealthy countries save by not reducing emissions by the amount required in order to prevent the greenhouse effect. Several studies quantify the debt have already been published, but not everything can be assigned a monetary value, given that we should also take into account the damage being inflicted from the North. We should also calculate the environmental liabilities of multinational companies which go unpaid. For example, Chevron's liability in Ecuador, as a result of oil exploration and extraction, or Shell's liabilities in the Niger Delta resulting from toxic gas emissions. In order to perform this analysis, we base our calculations on court rulings in specific cases. However, justice is not done very often; in fact it's safe to say that justice has hardly ever been done.

Faced with this scenario, what solution are we left with?

In the two cases I've mentioned, which are really serious abuses, the actors involved pursued the legal channels. In Ecuador, a court has already ruled in favour of the victims, in the region of 30,000 people, and handed down a sentence, which was subsequently ratified after an appeal. Nevertheless, Chevron refuses to pay. Both Nigeria and Holland have held trials against Shell, and there have been several sentences ruling against the company, but they also refuse to make compensation payment in the Niger. In today's world, there is no environmental justice and in lieu of this situation, many people believe that the time has come to set up an International criminal tribunal to try socio-environmental crimes.

These environmental abuses were denounced by local communities in a show of what you refer to as 'poor peoples' ecological practises'. Do you think there is greater awareness among countries in the Southern hemisphere in terms of land conservation?

Ecologists are active in the north and south. There is often a more vital necessity in Southern hemisphere countries. If you are poor, then you need access to clean water and land to cultivate, as you don't have the economic resources to purchase food or water. If your food and water supplies are contaminated, then you protest. This is poor peoples' ecological practices and very often it is women who occupy the front lines in this fight. In addition to this vital necessity, there is also a cultural question which means that people defend their lands, and also the question of rights, the right to land, the right to subsistence and above all, the rights of Nature.

Can you give us any clear-cut examples?

Recently there was another case in the Niyamgiri Hills in the Odisha State in India, where the local community chose to save themselves from bauxite extraction when they managed to impose their own vision for the area. Local communities have turned their backs on the mining industry because the mountain is a sacred place, the seat of their god. This is just an example of how culture can defend the land.

The current economic crisis has a positive impact on the territory? Would it be true to say that the crisis acts in favour of ecological movements? (a drop off in consumerism, lower CO2 emissions...)

In certain aspects, it is true, yes. For example, cement production has fallen significantly as well as stone extraction from quarries and as you say, a reduction in CO2 emissions. However, at the same time, new threats have appeared which affect the land. For example, gold mining in Greece is generating protests against the possible environmental damage caused, or without going any further, we currently have a disastrous new coastal law in Spain and they tried to get Eurovegas for Catalonia to generate income...

You mentioned the need for a 'Green Keynesianism. What exactly do you mean by this?

It seems that the struggle for economic policy is the exclusive right of either neoliberals or Keynesians. The neoliberals maintain that we have to pay the debt – debtocracy has won!-, creditors call the shots, we have to reduce wages and introduce cut-backs in social spending. The Keynesians also want to pay the debt but they want to go even further in an effort to overcome the crisis and return to a period of economic growth. However, they're not so cruel and propose greater social spending.  Ecological economists are in favour of exercising financial prudence –in the past and now-, we prefer not to increase the debt and we don't propose further economic growth for wealthy states. What we believe is required is to consider taking another route, work towards a state of 'prosperity without growth', as Tim Jackson says.

This is where the theory of degrowth comes in... what would the advantages be of such a theory?

We get into debt in order to grow and now we have to grow in order to pay the debt! What is required is a slow degrowth in terms of energy and materials, a shift towards an economy without growth. The standard of living in wealthy countries is already sufficiently high, in fact, there is no correlation between an increase in GDP and an increase in life satisfaction and happiness. Putting the brakes on economic growth in wealthy countries does not just make ecological sense; it is also a necessary step towards a social re-evaluation of common assets. This degrowth means not paying a significant part of the debt and moreover, implementing social policy. The most important of these being, a basic income for every adult, but also to encourage agroecology, energy renewal, education… as well as introducing measures such as donating refurbished housing to those without, or to grant housing under favourable low rent conditions-, work sharing by way of reducing the working day, living better without fanaticizing about economic growth based on fossil fuels... We have seen massive private and public investment over the years, which has been useless! It's really shameful.