Holberg prize. Acceptance speech. June 8th 2023

Joan Martinez-Alier rep el prestigiós premi Holberg2023 per la seva investigació pionera en economia ecològica, ecologia política i justícia mediambiental; i publica el seu discurs d’acceptació.

Lectures 1112
Temps de lectura7 minuts

This generous award from the Holberg Committee and Board places Ecological Economics and Political Ecology, and the debates on Degrowth, in the academic spotlight and nearer to the center of politics. The Holberg Prize statement says that “the aim of my research is to show that economic growth and changes in the flows of energy and materials in the economy, and the growing number of environmental injustices, are two sides of the same coin.” Our main purpose is indeed to make visible the many environmental conflicts that exist around the world, born from the growth and changes in the social metabolism.

The actual clash between economy and environment was unfortunately hidden by a contrived consensus on “sustainable development” (since 1987) or by the “Sustainable Development Goals” in 2015. Even worse, international democratic limitations on the abuse of the environment are made impossible by increasing inequality and unleashed state power. Effective agreements to prevent environmental damages and achieve respect for human rights are less likely than ever in this new “age of empires” and possible regional nuclear wars.

The hope remains with civil society grassroots movements, in particular the world environmental justice movement.

It is a great honor to receive this award, granted to Jürgen Habermas, Bruno Latour, Onora O’Neill, Cass Sunstein, Manuel Castells, Paul Gilroy, Griselda Pollock, Martha Nussbaum, Sheila Jasanoff and others. This company fills me with satisfaction. Born in Barcelona in the fateful year of 1939, in my youth I helped the exile publishing house Ruedo Ibérico, in Paris. Before returning to Barcelona in 1975, I was a student and research fellow at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford (1963-73) and published agrarian monographs on Andalusia, Cuba, and the highlands of Peru. I have spent quite a few years in Latin American countries and in India. I started the journal Ecología Política and was a co-founder in 1990 of the International Society for Ecological Economics. Since 2012 I have been co-director of the Environmental Justice Atlas (ejatlas.org), with academics and activists from the ICTA-UAB and around the world.

Our research shows that the common people are often at the forefront of the defense of the environment against the extractive industries. They are killed for this, as Chico Mendes was killed in Acre, Brazil in 1988 fighting deforestation and meat production; Ken Saro-Wiwa and his companions in 1995 in Nigeria against oil extraction and the Shell company; Berta Cáceres in Honduras against hydropower, and Gloria Capitan in The Philippines in 2016, like Fikile Ntshangase in South Africa in 2020. The last two, in conflicts against the coal industry. These were all cases of what I call “degrowth in practice”, they tried to stop destructive investments. There are hundreds of such victims at the frontiers of commodity extraction. Drawing on economic and environmental history, and industrial ecology, we trace the increasing advance of commodity extraction and dispossession of local peoples, including in the Arctic region.

The economy is not circular, it is increasingly entropic. We live in the Anthropocene and in the Entropocene. Energy from the photosynthesis of the distant past, the fossil fuels, is burned and dissipated. Other materials are recycled only to a small extent. There is an enormous “circularity gap”. Even without economic growth the industrial economy would need new supplies of energy and materials extracted from the “commodity frontiers”, producing also more waste, such as excessive amounts of greenhouse gases. Therefore, new ecological distribution conflicts arise all the time. The tonnage of materials recycled for the whole world economy is less than ten per cent. About one-third of the materials that go into a typical industrial economy are fossil fuels. They get burned, the energy dissipates and that’s the end of the story. There is no recycling. Other materials in the form of sand and gravel for construction and infrastructure remain fixed for decades. Cement, in general, is not recycled. Taking care of old buildings and infrastructures requires new flows of energy and materials. We also use biomass that grows by current solar energy but much of it disappears as burnt wood or feed for animals or liquid agrofuels. It can grow again at the cost of fertilizers and soil degradation.  Finally, we have metals, such as copper or nickel or cobalt, bauxite or iron ore, palladium, lithium, rare earths, ilmenite. There is a possibility of recycling, but metals leave mine tailings behind. To bridge this large metabolic rift or circularity gap the global economy is constantly looking for new materials and energy sources at the frontiers of commodity extraction, often displacing and sometimes killing indigenous populations. The world economy is also looking for waste disposal places. Where to put the excessive production of CO2? Perhaps in tree plantations that displace local peoples?

The EJAtlas makes visible the environmentalism of the poor and the Indigenous engaged in such conflicts together with activists, scientists, and other social groups. We have collected data sheets for about 4,000 conflicts. In them diverse values are manifested: ecological values, livelihood values, economic values, sacredness, indigenous territorial rights. These plural values are not commensurate, they cannot be expressed in a single unit of account. Ecological economists avoid economic reductionism and use multi-criteria evaluation instead. However, who has the power to exclude certain criteria, to choose the participating stakeholders, to choose the time horizons? Simply put, who has the power to simplify complexity and hide injustice and uncertainty? Political science studies power. That is why political ecology studying such conflicts is political ecology. The environmentalism of the poor (and of the indigenous) is a concept opposed to the influential “post-materialist” interpretation of environmentalism (and other new social movements) by Ronald Inglehart. It does not envision environmental preservation as a luxury good, contrary to what Inglehart did. It is also contrary to Ulrich Beck’s view of environmental risks as being impartial to social class (as might have been the case for a nuclear accident such as Chernobyl but which is not true in general). The “environmentalism of the poor” is expressed by the poor and indigenous in struggles for their own material livelihoods. In most ecological distribution conflicts, the poor are often on the side of preservation of nature against business firms and the State. This behavior is consistent with their interests and their cultural values, including the defense of indigenous territorial rights and claims regarding the sacredness of elements of nature (a mountain, a forest, a river, a lake, or even a tree). It follows that those affected will be motivated to act if there is a sufficient degree of democracy, and they are not suffocated by fear or are not violently repressed.

We have received several awards for our collective work in ecological economics and comparative political ecology (European grant EJOLT 2011-15, ERC Adv. Grant, EnvJustice, 2016-21; a Balzan prize in 2020 and now the Holberg prize in 2023). We need further support to expand the EJAtlas. This year 2023 brings a harvest for me although the world around us is certainly not improving. I shall soon publish in England a thick volume with the title Land, water, air and freedom: the making of world movements for environmental justice. In March 2023 another book appeared edited by Roldan Muradian and Sergio Villamayor with the title The Barcelona School of Ecological Economics and Political Ecology. Throughout thirty-three chapters the authors contribute studies of social metabolism, ecological anthropology, ecological macroeconomics, political ecology, ecofeminism, agroecology, urban ecology, international trade, environmental history, most of them written at the ICTA- UAB. Moreover, in 2019 I published a self-indulgent book of memoirs in Catalan, Demà serà un altre dia. Una vida fent economia ecològica i ecologia política (‘Tomorrow it will be another day: a life dedicated to ecological economics and political ecology’). The title comes from “Amanhà va a ser outro día”, a song from Chico Buarque in the early 1970s, against the military.  After this trip to Bergen and Oslo I shall add some appealing anecdotes to a second edition mentioning that I had often seen Holberg’s statue at Kongens Nytorv in Copenhagen near the European Environment Agency but now I know who he was. I have read some Niels Klim chapters and would like to read some of Holberg’s satirical theatre. I have listened to Grieg’s joyful Holberg Suite repeatedly in the last months. I also learnt something about the literary use of Danish and Norwegian in Holberg’s time, and about the process of Norway’s independence in 1905. Thank you again for this prize and this opportunity to learn new things.

About Post Author

Joan Martinez-Alier

Joan Martinez-Alier és professor emèrit de l'Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals a la Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB). També ha estat investigador a la Universitat d'Oxford (Regne Unit) i professor visitant a la Universidade Estadual de Campinas (Brasil), a la Freie Universität Berlin (Alemanya), a la seu equatoriana de la Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) i a les universitats nord-americanes de Stanford, Califòrnia (Davis) i Yale.

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