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New scientific insights on ecologically unequal trade

By Nick Meynen.

A new light is shining on the old problem of a global economic system that creates regional environmental imbalances. Ecological economists identified and analysed the asymmetric flows of resources obscured by the apparent reciprocity of market prices. A team from the global Environmental Justice Organizations, Liabilities, and Trade (EJOLT) project just launched not one or two but nine new peer reviewed articles that together form a Special Section in the Journal of Political Ecology (see below). Here’s why it’s worth expanding your current reading to embrace this new scientific literature and what’s really going on with humanity’s journey on planet Earth.

EJOLT, now followed up by the spin-off ENVJUSTICE, was a large project funded by the European Commission that ran from 2011 to 2015, coordinated by the Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals (ICTA) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Twenty-three academic or activist groups from Europe, Africa, Latin America and Asia worked together to advance knowledge on a problem of great interest to society: what are the underlying causes of increasing ecological distribution conflicts at different scales? Most crucially: how can such conflicts be turned into forces for environmental sustainability? This team mapped 1890 environmental conflicts (and counting) in this Atlas but these nine peer reviewed articles give much needed context and depth.

The eclectic academic-activist team looked at the use of the concepts of Ecological Debts (or Environmental Liabilities) and Ecologically Unequal Exchange (EUE) in sustainability sciences, environmental activism and policy-making. EUE is an underlying source of most environmental distribution conflicts in our time. In ecological economics, the environmental justice movement, and political ecology in general, there is a growing consensus that the mainstream neoliberal economic discourse and mainstream policymakers are unable to understand and conceptualize EUE. Conventional economic analyses of trade tend only to discern the flows of money. By considering biophysical metrics such as material and energy flows, and embodied water and land, ecological economists can identify asymmetric flows of resources obscured by the apparent reciprocity of market prices. The authors note that it is questionable to argue that biophysical resources are ‘underpaid’, as this implies that they might have a correct price, which would make the exchange equal or fair. Such ways of thinking cannot be reconciled with the Entropy Law (the Second Law of Thermodynamics).

US, EU and Japan: the world’s parasites.

Recent research has shown that three core regions of the modern world-system are all net importers of both raw material equivalents and embodied energy (Lenzen et al.2012, 2013) as well as embodied space (Yu et al.2013): The US, the EU and Japan.  In street-language: the US, EU and Japan are the parasites of this world who survive on sucking out their life essentials from other ecosystems. This is not some anti-imperialist left-wing ideology but a biophysical fact calculated by scientists. And that’s just one reason why you can use these peer reviewed publications to improve your debating fire-power.

Once you replace the monetary with biophysical metrics, the growing inequalities become clear. They are between affluent core regions of the world-system, on the one hand, and impoverished extractive economies in the periphery, on the other. Yes, some underpopulated countries relying on primary exports have managed to become prosperous (e.g. Australia, Canada). But these are exceptions. EUE has for centuries contributed to global polarization and the impoverishment of large segments of the world’s population and landscapes. Periodic bonanzas as in South America and parts of Africa between 2000 and 2008, or perhaps 2012, soon turned into economic crises. The uneven accumulation of capital in the form of technological infrastructure is visible even on satellite images of global night-time illumination. Yet the mechanisms underlying this growing economic polarization in world society remain largely outside the field of vision of neoclassical economics. So whenever you want to debate a neoclassical or neoliberal economist or anyone who just doesn’t take the biophysical limits of the Earth into account – here’s a rich and varied arsenal of weapons of mass education – aka my Recommended Reading List:

1.     Andrew Jorgenson – The sociology of ecologically unequal exchange, foreign investment dependence and environmental load displacement: summary of the literature and implications for sustainability

2.     Andreas Mayer and Willi Haas – Accumulating resource flows to quantify the ecological Debt

3.     Rikard Warlenius – Linking ecological debt and ecologically unequal exchange: stocks, flows, and unequal sink appropriation

4.     Jordi Jaria i Manzano, Antonio Cardesa-Salzmann, Antoni Pigrau and Susana Borràs-Measuring environmental injustice: how ecological debt defines a radical change in the international legal system.

5.     Christian Dorninger and Nina Eisenmenger – South America’s biophysical involvement in international trade: the physical trade balances of Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil in the light of ecologically unequal exchange.

6.     Leah Temper –Who gets the HANPP (Human Appropriation of Net Primary Production)? Biomass distribution and the ‘sugar economy’ in the Tana Delta, Kenya.

7.     Jutta Kill –The role of voluntary certification in maintaining the ecologically unequal exchange of wood pulp: the case of the Forest Stewardship Council’s certification of industrial tree plantations in Brazil

8.     Martin Oulu – Core tenets of the theory of ecologically unequal exchange.

9.     Joan Martinez-Alier, Federico Demaria, Leah Temper and Mariana Walter –Trends of social metabolism and environmental conflicts: a comparison between India and Latin America

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