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Degrowth and the Global Movement for Environmental Justice

By Antonio Cerrillo, translated by Nick Meynen.

Published at The Ecologist on 22 Aug.

With the 5th International Degrowth Conference taking place next week Spanish Ecologists Professor Joan Martinez Alier and Federico Demaria – both working at the Environmental Science and Technology Institute (ICTA) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) – explain why we need a ‘less is more’ alternative economic model and how the burgeoning Global Environmental Justice movement is a key concept in achieving the only goal that will halt Climate Change.

Now that humanity has used up those resources that are easily available, the frontlines of extraction move towards places where extraction is more difficult and more sensitive. It moves to places that were previously considered too sensitive to touch: from the Arctic to regions in the Amazon rainforest with the highest biodiversity on earth. This shifting frontier is affecting ever more people who depend on the renewable resources that are in danger due to extraction of non-renewable resources. All over the world communities are trying to resist the assault on their water, air, land and forests.

The Global Atlas of Environmental Justice (EJAtlas) created by an international team of scholars and activists has gathered so far 1,840 conflicts with ecological roots. This interview with Joan Martinez Alier and Federico Demaria, from the research team of the Environmental Science and Technology Institute (ICTA) of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) explains how a global movement for environmental justice has risen. They also make the connection with the global economy and the need for degrowth. Both of them will speak about the need to strengthen the alliance between environmental justice and degrowth at the upcoming 5th international degrowth conference in Budapest.

What is the Atlas of Environmental Justice?

Joan Martínez Alier (JMA): A global inventory of cases of socio-environmental conflicts, which we also call “ecological distribution conflicts”. These are disputes between those who take advantage of natural resources and those who suffer the consequences of that use, such as those who produce and suffer from pollution and decide to protest. Each EJAtlas conflict case has about 5 pages of information and we already have over 1800 cases. We need to add many more of China, Southeast Asia, some countries in Africa, Brazil, Mexico, some European countries and Russia. The co-directors are Leah Temper and myself since we began in 2012. Currently, the EJAtlas is coordinated by Daniela Del Bene, while other experts are also engaged to work on it for the next 5 years.

Federico Demaria (FD): The Atlas creates a map with environmental conflicts around the world related to the extraction, processing, transport and disposal of materials and energy that are fundamental to sustain the economy. The economy is material, and this causes conflicts due to the unequal distribution of benefits and impacts. There can hardly be a green or circular economy, unless production and consumption would be at much lower levels than today (meaning degrowth). Those who struggle for environmental justice promote a more sustainable economy. This is what we teach with the map and what anyone can see on the web at

Why an Atlas of Environmental Justice?

JMA: First, we want to make these conflicts visible. These are not NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) cases; they happen across the board, everywhere. There are many injustices and many environmental protests. You can present these facts to journalists. The EJAtlas has had very good reports based on it in Colombia, India and other countries, also in The Guardian. Second, we want to facilitate the task of studying these conflicts and ourselves make the analysis of these conflicts, in order to advance in the field of study called Political Ecology. It is also used for secondary and university education and for doctoral theses and articles and academic books. The EJAtlas, which is the result of academic-activist collaboration, is popular with environmental justice organizations in many parts of the world. We have received European funds and also from the International Social Sciences Council (in two different projects, one led by Joan Martinez Alier, and another one led by Leah Temper focusing on successful alternatives). Both projects together will double the number of cases in EJAtlas by 2021 and also update them if necessary. Third, the Atlas also serves to encourage participants in the great global movement for environmental justice. The idea of making a map of environmental conflicts was anticipated by OCMAL in Latin America (Observatory of mining conflicts) and there were other similar initiatives by other environmental groups, which have been our source of inspiration and information.

FD: The EJAtlas is a means of communication, to make the conflicts visible, but it is also a study tool to investigate the causes, responsibilities, actors and strategies. It promotes democratic and informed debate about the relationship between the economy and environment. The EJAtlas shows that thousands of similar conflicts are not simply derived from a culture of saying ‘no’, but are rather legitimate claims to justice. In the same way that the workers’ struggles achieved a reduction in working hours and improved working conditions, wages and the welfare state, organizations for environmental justice struggle in favor of the environment because people depend on it to live. They fight for water or clean air, in defense of their land and territory because their existence and their livelihood depend on it, and they also fight for the general interest and future generations.

What causes these environmental conflicts?

JMA: For some it is neoliberal capitalism, but we think that a social democratic Keynesian capitalism would not have a very different social metabolism and therefore also reach the current level extraction of oil, coal, gas, metals and oil palm. The ultimate cause of these environmental conflicts is the increased social metabolism, meaning flows of energy and materials. The industrial economy is not circular but entropic, like happens with the burning of fossil fuels the energy of which is dissipated. Only a very small part of the materials can be recycled. Therefore, we have to go back for more each day. Today, we get 90 million barrels of oil from the earth and tomorrow again. Thus, in the Amazon of Peru and Ecuador the pollution is killing humans and animals and destroying biodiversity. There are many protests.

FD: The Atlas organizes almost two thousands cases in different categories, such as mining, waste disposal, tourism, biodiversity, water use, or public or private built infrastructure. Biologists study the metabolism of organisms, but we study the metabolism of the economy. The economy depends on the flows of materials and energy. If it grows, it needs more oil, minerals or cement. But even when it does not grow, you always need new flows because the materials can be recycled only to a minor extent, while the energy cannot be recycled. This is thermodynamics, very basic undisputable physics. Companies want to maximize their profits and are forced to compete or die. So many times the environmental costs (like pollution) do not enter in their accounts, they are ‘externalized’. In other words, companies (sometimes with the complicity of states) shift these costs to other social actors (often weaker, such as immigrants or indigenous). These actors sometimes react to injustice, when the companies attempt to save costs at the expense of the health of people and the environment (which is the same). It’s like I was at a bar, I drink a beer and I go out without settling the bill and shouting, “that guy over there will pay for the beer”. Or it’s as if I walk my dogs down the street and do not pick up their droppings. These costs are displaced. But of course, there is a difference between dropping dog shit and dropping cyanide or mercury onto land or rivers, or spreading glyphosate on the fields (and on top of people) or spilling barrels and barrels of oil in the Amazon.

Do these protests compose a global environmental justice movement?

JMA: Indeed, this movement was born out of these protests. In the EJAtlas files you can find what we call the vocabulary of the Global Environmental Justice Movement. For example, in Brazil they complain against “green deserts” that tells us of a protest against eucalyptus monoculture for paper pulp, they explain that “plantations are not true forests”. In Argentina the banner “stop fumigating” expresses protests against planes spraying glyphosate for soybean cultivation in populated areas. Or if a newspaper in India announces a new victim of the “sand mafia”, we know that there is another deadly conflict around the extraction of sand and gravel from rivers or beaches. Each conflict and each country contribute their own words and slogans to the global environmental justice movement. It is the same as in former years when labor disputes contributed words to social history like “boycott”, “scab” or “lockout”. Or like the expression “the double shift” in the feminist movement. We are merely philologists of that global movement for environmental justice. This is what I’ve been interested in since my 2002 book titled “The Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation“.

FD: The hypothesis is that there is a global movement for environmental justice, and that it can be an important political actor to promote the sustainability of the economy. With the Paris conference on climate change in December 2015, we saw that states are not able to bring up the courage needed to face the environmental crisis. There is no acknowledgement for “liability” for climate change in the Paris agreement between states. So, which actors could play a key role? We believe it is the global movement for environmental justice, which consists of an informal and horizontal network of all organizations involved in environmental conflicts and the networks they form across borders. Specific cases are different, but the EJAtlas shows that there is a potential to further articulate their struggles and demands, and develop proposals for joint solutions. From below and with courage. Resistance is important, but not enough. We need our own narratives, imaginaries and alternatives.

What are now the most serious environmental conflicts?

JMA: There are many conflicts in the EJAtlas featuring hydropower, mining companies, oil and gas. We have special maps on issues like fracking. We also have a map with all claims against a single company: Chevron. But there are not only conflicts around mining and biomass, also in the export of waste, such as the breaking of huge ships on beaches in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, where steel is recycled at the cost of huge local pollution, including asbestos and heavy metals. All these cases are in the EJAtlas. And the main residue is perhaps carbon dioxide that produces excess climate changes. In the EJAtlas we have protests from the Kuna from Panama, who perceive the light sea level rise already. We also have cases of good alternatives, such as the proposals and actions to leave coal, oil or gas in the ground to avoid local damage but also to avoid global CO2 emissions. There is for example a case in Fuleni (KwaZulu Natal, South Africa) against coal mining, a case that we have put on the Atlas just a few weeks ago, or also the Sompeta case (Andhra Pradesh in India) against coal mining.

FD: The most serious conflicts occur where people die. People die by pollution or they are killed because they are a key character of the struggle, such as Berta Caceres in Honduras. According to Global Witness, Honduras is “the world’s deadliest country” for environmentalists in proportion to population, because in the last 5 years more than 100 defenders of nature have been killed and the vast majority of these crimes remain unpunished. Conflicts are also severe when they leave permanent damage to the environment and compromise the livelihoods of local people who are forced to migrate to cities and to other countries in search of opportunities. These are also called environmental refugees.

What solutions are proposed?

JMA: The environmentalism of the poor and the indigenous, the environmentalism of the people, is growing in the world, despite a sequel of assassinations, such as Berta Cáceres in Honduras and many others. In the EJAtlas, murder of socio-environmental activists appears in 12% of all cases. But environmental protests sometimes succeed (in the EJAtlas there are almost 20% of cases with success for environmental justice). These successes contribute to a transition to an economy and a society that is less unsustainable.

FD: The solutions are first to understand the causes and responsibilities, the complexity of the conflict. The simple strategies of silence and oppression don’t help us. Too often we find denial from companies and public authorities, as has happened for a long time with climate change. The resistance against environmental justice comes from those who benefit from the status quo. In each conflict, the organizations for environmental justice propose alternatives. They ask that the project be done differently, or that, if it is intrinsically unsustainable, be not carried out at all. Sometimes they ask for repairing the damage, such as removal of pollutants. In some cases, they just want respect for existing laws, while in other cases or at other times in the same case they question the legal framework and propose legislative changes. For every conflict, there are different ‘solutions’ and one always has to ask: ‘for whom’? There are always winners and losers, this is the essence of political ecology. We wish there were only win-win options, but that is not always possible, not to say almost never. Each conflict resolution goes to the benefit of some and harms others, and this depends on the power relations. Conflicts arise when those affected by a project (for example, a mine or a road), who are often the weakest, raise their voice. It is a question of democracy.

What is the relationship between environmental justice and  degrowth movement?

JMA: The new research project called “EnvJustice” in ICTA (with funding from the European Research Council) will precisely study the links between environmental justice struggles around the globe and the small European degrowth or postgrowth movement (or “prosperity without growth”, as Tim Jackson says), which is promoted by a group of researchers at ICTA UAB called Research & Degrowth. Federico Demaria is in charge of studying this relationship. Many of the movements in the South want to stop the extraction of raw materials. They are against looting and robbery or, put in a more polite way, they are against “ecologically unequal trade”, and also against biopiracy. They also demand that the ecological debt from climate change is paid for at least acknowledged. There are common purposes between the two movements, Degrowth and Environmental Justice.

FD: Our research shows that environmental conflicts are related to the social metabolism, to the increasing flows of materials and energy in the economy. We must recognize that a development model based on increasing production and consumption necessarily has impacts on the environment and generates environmental injustices. Therefore, we must question a socio-economic model based on economic growth and truly bet on sustainability, which implies a decrease of flows of energy and materials. There are alternatives to development. Degrowth, one of these, is not the same as recession. The movement is based on the assumption that we can live well with less, and we need to do it differently. The question is how to manage the economy without growth so that it can meet the goals of ecological sustainability, social equity and well-being of people. The questions has become even more pressing now that undoubtedly mature economies are not growing as they used to do. This is the issue that we discuss in our book: Degrowth. A Vocabulary for a New Era (Routledge, 2015), and that will be at the center of the 5th international degrowth conference in Budapest (30th August – 3rd September, 2016). As ecological economists Tim Jackson and Peter Victor wrote recently in the The New York Times: “Imagining a world without growth is among the most vital and urgent tasks for society to engage in”.

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