Skip to Main content

Book Review: Ecological Economics from the Ground Up

Helen Scharber, School of Critical Social Inquiry, Hampshire College, USA

As its title intimates, Ecological Economics from the Ground Up starts with case studies of environmental justice activist struggles, mostly from the Global South, and analyzes them using concepts from ecological economics and political ecology. These cases represent what co-editor Joan Martínez-Alier calls the “environmentalism of the poor,”1 characterized by “impoverished populations struggling against the state or against private companies that threaten their livelihood, health, culture, [and] automony” (146). The book was purportedly inspired by co-editor Hali Healy’s claim-cum-challenge that “ecological economics lacked significance for non-governmental organizations” (517). In an attempt to make the relationship more dialogic and dialectical, environmental civil society organizations (CSOs) were asked to write reports on recent environmental conflicts, which they revised with the help of academic partners, who provided suggestions on how to apply concepts and methods from ecological economics. The end result is a collection of geographically diverse case studies, each accompanied by boxes (over 80 in all) explaining relevant ecological economics concepts, ranging from the fundamental (externalities, cost-benefit analysis, weak and strong sustainability, precautionary principle) to the more exotic (post-normal science, ecological debt, socially sustainable economic degrowth, ecological rucksacks). Throughout the book, the “normative and action-oriented” (2) approach of ecological economics is compared to the supposedly value-free, net-benefit-maximizing approach of neoclassical environmental economics, and readers will not be left wondering which the editors prefer.

The volume’s seventeen case studies are organized into three main sections, on Social Metabolism, Participation and Institutions, and Valuation and Environmental Policy. The first section’s framing is rooted in Marx’s observation that the metabolism stoffwechsel between man and nature is mediated by the labor process. In this vein, the case studies in the Social Metabolism section illustrate how power inequities and social relations (of production, but not exclusively) have conditioned resource use decisions in India, Ecuador, Italy, Kenya, and South Africa. Chapter 2 on “The Mining Enclave of the Cordillera del Cóndor” in Ecuador exemplifies this attention to politics. After a detailed chronological narrative of the conflict, the authors include a table summarizing important actors along with their interests, positions on mining, and main arguments. Economist James K. Boyce’s “power weighted decision rule” comes to mind here; these cases confirm that decisions to open a mine, start a sugar plantation, or build a high-speed rail line rest not only on the benefits and costs of the projects, but also on the relative power of the potential winners and losers

Case studies in the Participation and Institutions section document how business and political institutions have undermined the livelihoods of marginalized groups in Cameroon, Italy, and Tibet, sometimes in the name of environmental protection, though two cases from India provide encouraging evidence of the effectiveness of participatory resource management. Chapter 10 on “The Waste Crisis in Campania, Italy” provides a stunning account of intranational environmental injustice in the Global North, where the government has been complicit in the legal and illegal dumping of hazardous waste in one of the country’s poorest regions. Chapter 11 on “The Sedentarization of Tibetan Nomads: Conservation or Coercion?” describes the Chinese government’s attempt to resettle a nomadic Tibetan population, helping to illustrate why institutional attempts toward “sustainability” or “greening” are sometimes viewed with suspicion. Chapter 7 on “Local Governance and Environment Investments in Hiware Bazar, India” provides a particularly hopeful antidote to the more dispiriting cases, describing the village’s success in conserving water and restoring agricultural productivity against considerable odds by creating strong, local institutions for public participation.

In the section on Valuation and Environmental Policy, several critical approaches to valuing non-market goods are introduced, via case studies on nature preserves in Croatia and Serbia, payments for environmental services (PES) schemes in India and Brazil, a calculation of health externalities from a Belgian factory, and a multi-criteria valuation in Costa Rica. Chapter 16 on “Environmental Justice and Ecological Debt in Belgium” describes an attempt to tote up externalized environmental and health costs imposed by a smelting factory on local residents over several decades, as well as the unsuccessful effort to make the company settle their “ecological debt.” Putting dollar values on non-market goods like health and ecosystem services is controversial amongst environmental activists, and the authors here are well aware of the critiques, even while advocating for their strategic use in some cases. Chapter 17 presents a “[m]ulti-dimensional valuation for environmental conflict analysis in Costa Rica,” which simultaneously illustrates the promise of using a variety of metrics to value non-market goods and the complex and sometimes cumbersome nature of doing so.

The weaknesses of the book are, in large part, related to the same characteristics that make it valuable and important. “Ground-truthing” ecological economic theory by applying it to real world cases is a laudable goal, and while the concepts were integrated organically in many cases, applications felt artificial or tacked on in others. (It is worth noting, as the editors do, that some of the most powerful concepts—like ecological debt and food sovereignty—originated in activist circles and have since been adopted by academics.) Similarly, the decision to frontline popular accounts helps readers maintain a healthy distance from the ivory tower, but writing quality also varied widely across chapters, and a more thoroughgoing editing process would have done much to increase the volume’s readability. Finally, it is a credit to the authors that the chapters were extremely well-researched and heavily referenced, with many supporting statistics. Yet, even more attention to the individuals involved in the cases would have served to reinforce the idea that the conflict leading to environmental degradation is not “people vs. nature” so much as “people vs. people.” Along these lines, more explicit attention to how race, gender, class, and their intersections condition the power relations would have shed even more light on the conflicts described.

According to the editors, Ecological Economics from the Ground Up is “mainly geared to environmental justice organizations,” but the content “will also be useful to university students and teachers researching the sustainability sciences…” (30). Students in my classes often take for granted existing environmental protections while feeling (understandably) skeptical of the potential for change in the face of large power imbalances. Case studies from this volume will help illustrate the kinds of struggles that have brought about environmental protections in the first place and the continued power of people to demand environments conducive to our well-being.

1Joan Martínez-Alier, The Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation (Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2003).

2James K. Boyce, The Political Economy of the Environment (Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar, 2002), chs. 4-6.

Ecological Economics from the Ground Up. Edited by Hali Healy, Joan Martínez-Alier, Leah Temper, Mariana Walter, and Julien-François Gerber; London and New York: Routledge, 2013, xxiv + 556 pp., $53.95 (paperback).

Source: Review of Radical Political Economics 2015, Vol. 47(4) 679–683

Comments are closed.