The 2023 Holberg Lecture, by Joan Martinez-Alier: 'Land, Water, Air and Freedom'


2023 Laureate Joan Martinez-Alier 's Holberg Lecture, 'Land, Water, Air and Freedom', is published here in full.

Land, Water, Air and Freedom – the Making of World Movements for Environmental Justice 

I bring together Ecological Economics, Political Ecology and Environmental Justice relying on the Atlas of Environmental Justice with almost 4,000 entries, a collective effort. As the industrial economy grows, there is growth and changes in the Social Metabolism, i.e., the flows of energy and materials entering the economy as inputs and exiting as waste. The industrial economy is not circular - it is entropic. We are in the Anthropocene but also in the “Entropocene”. Hence, the conflictive search for new materials and energy at the commodity extraction frontiers. The large “circularity gap” also explains the waste disposal conflicts, among them polluted water and excessive production of carbon dioxide. In their turn, such conflicts explain the growth of world movements for environmental justice. When these grassroots movements are successful, they contribute to socio-environmental sustainability. The EJAtlas ( maps geographies of resistance at the frontiers of commodity extraction and waste disposal in a world countermovement for environmental justice.

A difficulty for the acceptance of ecological economics and other environmental social sciences is the division that persists in school and university education between the natural and social sciences. Even geographers cultivate the absurd division between human and physical geography.  Human history cannot be written without knowledge of social metabolism and other concepts from ecology, such as biological invasions. 

Some authors such as Frederick Soddy, Nobel Prize in chemistry [of 1921], criticized economists in the 1920s and 1930s for talking about the economy but not about energy availability. Soddy explained that the economy is not circular, but entropic: you cannot burn coal or oil twice. These materials are not ‘produced’ but extracted from deposits formed by photosynthesis millions of years ago. Soddy still didn't talk about the intensification of the greenhouse effect but what he said was enough for the hegemonic economists to boycott him, a fate like that of other precursors of ecological economics mainly in Central Europe (Martinez-Alier and Schlüpmann 1987; Franco and Missemer, 2022).  Even today, economists and other social scientists do not study indicators such as the EROI (the energy return of energy investment), or the HANPP (the human appropriation of net primary production of biomass) which are needed to understand history by following Otto Neurath’s philosophy of an orchestration of the sciences. 

Economics students should spend the first semester studying solar energy, the carbon and water cycles, the evolution of life and photosynthesis, the discovery of agriculture, the growth of population. Instead, they begin with the study of markets and commodity prices. They do not learn about ‘the entropy law and the economic process,’ the title of the book that Georgescu-Roegen published in 1971. 

The amount of fossil fuels entering the economy still grows and at the same time old and new materials are mined in increasing quantities. Hence, many environmental conflicts arise at the points of extraction with a variety of social protagonists. Their repertoires of action, slogans and iconographies have much in common. Together they show that there is a world movement for environmental justice in the making primarily in the Global South but also in the North. Young people are concerned about future generations, and these young people in Europe believe in Degrowth. In the Global South (and in the Arctic), there are local movements of poor and Indigenous peoples opposing metal mining, fossil fuels, hydroelectric dams, sand and gravel mining, deforestation, nuclear waste. They implement ‘Degrowth in practice’.  

Why the title 'Land, Water, Air and Freedom' for this lecture?

The old Narodnik slogan in Russian and other Slavic languages, Zemlya i Volya, ‘Land and Freedom’ (Tierra y Libertad) may inspire struggles of peasants, landless workers and Indigenous peoples defending themselves against land and water grabbing. We now enlarge the slogan to Tierra, Agua, Aire y Libertad thinking of so many conflicts on air pollution, and on windmills (Avila, 2018, Temper et al 2020). In the EJAtlas we find the Fosen Vind project for Storheia and Roan windfarms which is known to you. It was ruled as invalid by the Supreme Court of Norway

Here we have a clash of ‘valuation languages”: wind electricity and money against Sami's right to cultural practices and landscape values. Many environmental conflicts are rural but there are also urban and semi-urban conflicts with neighbors and citizens as protagonists in an environmentalism of the people, as for instance in the complaints of the Mothers of Ituzaingó, near Cordoba, Argentina, against glyphosate spraying, with support from scientists. 

Such movements are active mainly in the Global South but there is some resistance also in Europe by the Ende Gelände movement against coal mining in Germany and by the zadistes in France against infrastructures. Lützerath bleibt and the Soulèvements de la Terre have been in the news in 2023. I plead for a confluence of the zadistes with the zapatistas. In 1910, Zapata carried the banner of Land and Freedom, Tierra y Libertad that came to Mexico from Spanish anarchism and Ricardo Flores Magón. Zapata's opposition to the water-guzzling sugar mill industry in Morelos sparked off the Mexican revolution in defense of the indigenous land and water commons. He could have said Tierra, Agua y Libertad. The Kenya Land and Freedom Army, KLFA, fought in the 1950s in the anti-colonial Mau-Mau rebellion. The agrarian question and the colonial question came together. 

Paraphrasing Amartya Sen, development should mean enlarged capabilities of individuals and communities to freely achieve fulfilling existences. It should not mean losing the freedom to use land, water, and clean air. ‘Land and Freedom” meant access to land (‘the land to the tiller”) with a secure place to live and to grow food thereby escaping from domination by landlords.  Access to water overcoming social class or caste monopoly is also a requirement for human freedom and a necessity for plants and animals. Incoming solar energy reaching the planet goes in large part to evaporate the water, and then rainwater cools down the Earth. Meanwhile air contamination or its appropriation by the wind energy industry are other injustices that also fit into the slogan ‘Land, Water, Air and Freedom”. The title of this lecture is then a short description of the aims of the movements for environmental justice.


First, the familiar trend of the Keeling curve (at Mauna Loa Observatory) going toward 450 ppm by 2050 and possibly 500 ppm by 2100. This trend has been impervious to the COPs such as Kyoto in 1997 or Paris 2015. 

Monthly Carbon Dioxide Concentration

Second, a graph from Oxfam representing the percentage of CO2 emissions by decile of world population. ‘We are not all on the same boat’.

Percentage of CO2 Emissons by World Population

Third, the trend towards a slight degrowth of world population. (The Lancet, 15 July 2020).  ‘With widespread, sustained declines in fertility, the world population will likely peak in 2064 at around 9.7 billion, and then decline to about 8.8 billion by 2100’.  

Fourth, one would like to show a trend representing the technology. Limiting the discussion to exosomatic use of energy, the main technology consists in the increasing burning fossil fuels that with a much smaller contribution from deforestation, explains the Keeling curve. The diverse forms of energy for the economy have not substituted one for another but rather they been added on top of the previous one.  Fifth, the trends of use of materials are shown.

Global direct primary energy consumption.
Global extraction of materials, 1970 – 2017.

Global extraction of materials, 1970 – 2017. Four material groups (in tons): biomass, non-metallic minerals, fossil fuels, metal ores. (Source: European Environment Agency 2019).

Conclusion: there is increasing pressure on nature as a source of energy and materials, and as a sink for waste including carbon dioxide.  We could bring here the indicators for establishing the Planetary BoundariesConclusion: there is increasing pressure on nature as a source of energy and materials, and as a sink for waste including carbon dioxide.  We could bring here the indicators for establishing the Planetary Boundaries.  (Steffen et al, 2015.)

Varieties of Environmentalism

In previous work with Ramachandra Guha, I identified three ‘currents of environmentalism’: the ‘Cult of Wilderness’, the ‘Gospel of Eco-Efficiency’, and the ‘Environmentalism of the poor’ (Guha and Martinez-Alier 1997, Martinez Alier, 2002).  The Cult of Wilderness continues its strong and well-funded march, rarely attacking the extractive industries, it limits itself to a partial view of the environment as in its proposal to save for wildlife 30% of the terrestrial surface and the ocean. In the EJAtlas we have numerous “biodiversity conservation conflicts’ showing the clash between the environmentalism of the rich organizations (WWF, Nature Conservancy, IUCN) and the livelihood of local populations, often Indigenous. However, there are some alliances between conservationism and local interests and values. Thus, many EJAtlas cases have to do with animals mistreated by human cruelty like dolphins and sharks, or pigs or cows in CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) but sometimes there is convivial conservation as when fisherfolk defend the turtles in the beaches against the sand mining industry.

The Gospel of Eco-Efficiency is the second current of environmentalism playing down the environmental challenges and claiming the possibility of achieving “sustainable development’ and a “Green Deal with economic growth’. 

The third variety is the “environmental justice’ movements and the environmentalism of the poor and the Indigenous (indigenous peoples are protagonists in 40% of conflicts registered in the EJAtlas). These movements refute in practice political scientist Ronald Inglehart’s assertion that the social values necessary for environmental sensibility emerge with economic affluence.  It is true that some sectors of rich societies react against the “effluents of affluence’ such as increased greenhouse gases, nuclear energy waste, endocrine disruptors, and the like, including biodiversity loss. However, an environmentalism of the common people exists within urban classes complaining of damages to health and there is much resistance by rural poor local communities against the extractive industries, defending their material interests and spiritual values. This environmentalism of the subaltern, the downtrodden, the dispossessed has arisen in opposition to the land and water grabbing for plantation crops, hydropower, pollution by the chemical industries or by coal fired power plants suffered by the populations of the Global South. They are the vanguard of “degrowth in practice’. We see this even in the Arctic despite the low density of population. 

The large circularity gap precludes Sustainable Development Goal n. 8

‘Sustainable development’ and economic growth undermine the cultural values attached to the environment by the poor and the Indigenous, and their material interests. We need instead an ecological macroeconomics without growth. This is inspired by Georgescu-Roegen (1971). First Herman Daly proposed a ‘steady-state economy’, later Tim Jackson and Peter Victor wrote books about ‘managing without growth’ and ‘prosperity without growth’, and at present there is a flourishing school of ‘degrowth’ macroeconomics in Europe with authors such as Giorgos Kallis, Jason Hickel, Julia Steinberger, and other younger scholars. They draw on ecological macroeconomics and the critiques against Development (and therefore against Sustainable Development) (D’Alisa et al 2014 and Kothari et al 2019). 

The obsession with economic growth remains firm. In 1987, the Brundtland Commission proposed the term ‘sustainable development’ in a defense of Keynesian social democracy that after the 1950s had become a doctrine of economic growth and was now confronted by the ‘Limits to Growth’ report to the Club of Rome and challenged by authors such as Georgescu Roegen, H T Odum, Barry Commoner, all of them around 1971.  In its turn, ‘Sustainable Development’ was criticized from two angles. Some criticized the word ‘development’ and some criticized the word ‘sustainable’. The doctrine of Development implied a single desirable path of change for all countries. Arturo Escobar, Wolfgang Sachs, Gustavo Esteva and others have argued against this idea for 30 years, leading to the notion of a Post-Development Pluriverse (Kothari et al 2019). ‘Sustainable Development’ was also criticized by ecological economists pointing out that, if Development meant Economic Growth, this was not sustainable.  It might be argued that economic growth is not the same as economic development. True 'development' should not be measured by GDP growth per capita but (as argued by Amartya Sen) in terms of the real 'freedoms' that people enjoy by the free deployment of their capabilities. An alternative to GDP such as the Human Development Index is admittedly better than GDP. However, it is closely correlated to GDP, and it leaves environmental indicators aside.

Today, the UN Sustainable Development Goals insist again on economic growth. Agreed in 2015, the SDGs set a course of action until 2030.  Many of the SDGs are plausible and good but SDG 8 is problematic because it calls on all nations to go for economic growth. That is not sustainable. (Menton et al 2020, Frame et al 2021).  One obvious incompatibility is between SDG 8 and SDG 13. The latter aims to ‘combat climate change’. The link between burning fossil fuels and rising CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere is registered in the Keeling curve. The concept of sustainable or ‘decoupled’ economic growth rests on the belief that expansion of the economy is possible without an accompanying increase in environmental harm. There can be relative decoupling between material and energy flows and GDP growth but the absolute amounts of materials and fossil fuel energy in the world economy continue to grow.  Looking at reality, energy is not recycled, and materials are recycled to a very small extent.  Therefore, even a no-growing industrial economy would have to go to the frontiers of commodity extraction and waste disposal. 

Introductory microeconomics is or was often taught in terms of what Georgescu-Rogen called ‘the merry-go-round’ between consumers and producers (Georgescu-Roegen, 1975), a circular scheme in which producers put goods and services in the market at prices which consumers pay. Meanwhile, consumers (as providers of labour, land, or other inputs or ‘factors of production’) get money from producers in the form of salaries, rents, dividends, and they buy, as consumers, the products or services that have been produced. The ‘merry-go-round’ needs energy for running (energy which gets dissipated), and it produces material waste which is not recycled. For instance, fossil fuels are not really produced (contrary to textbook economics), they are merely extracted, and their energy is dissipated by burning which causes excessive amounts of carbon dioxide. This is left aside in introductory mainstream economics, or maybe it is introduced much later, in the analysis of the ‘intergenerational allocation of exhaustible resources’ and in the treatment of externalities which are ‘internalized into the price system’. 

The economy is embedded in physical realities. However, the recent novelty is that, from industrial ecology and not only from economics, a circular vision of the economy is also preached. The biogeologically produced energy and the materials entering the economy are here considered, and the waste is very much present, but it is assumed that technical change may close the circle. The waste becomes inputs. The energy (dissipated, or course, because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics) is not a problem because it will come from current sun energy (not fossil fuels, which are exhaustible stocks of photosynthesis from the past). The circular supply chain is supposed to rule physically in the economy. We know however that the actual degree of the circularity of the industrial economy is very low, and it is probably decreasing as formerly biomass-based economies complete their transition to an industrial economy based on fossil fuels in India and Africa (Roy and Schaffartzik, 2021). 

How large is the ‘circularity gap’ between the ‘fresh’ material input and the recycled material input into the economy. At the world level, not counting water, the first was recently about 92 Gt per year and the second about 8 Gt. (Haas et al 2015, 2020).  Per capita this means around 12 tons/person/year of materials (including energy carriers) of which one only ton is recycled. But of course, the distribution per capita and geographically is very unequal. Some countries or regions export many more tons than they import (which we call a deficit in the Physical Trade Balance), and their environment gets impoverished. Recent statistical work on ‘ecologically unequal trade’ in South America has revived the ‘open veins’ metaphor of Eduardo Galeano (Infante-Amate et al, 2022). The authors state: ‘Net physical exports grew from 6 to 610 million tons between 1900 and 2016. (There were) unfavorable trade relationship with the rest of world throughout the period’.

Ecological distribution conflicts and Valuation languages

The industrial economy is not circular, it is entropic. 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, 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? Here we link up ecological economics to political ecology that studies environmental conflicts and the values displayed in such conflicts that I call ‘ecological distribution conflicts’ (Martinez-Alier and O’Connor, 1996) to make clear that they are not coterminous to economic distribution conflicts. It is not a simple matter of ‘internalizing the externalities’ into the price system. Externalities are preferably seen not as market failures but as systematic cost-shifting to future generations, to the poor and to other species. A zero price for pollution or for resource extraction does not signal a market failure but a relation of power (Martínez-Alier and O’Connor, 1999; O’Connor and Spash, 1999). The ‘ecological distribution conflicts’ arise in the search for sources of energy and materials, and in waste disposal. Here I leave aside geopolitics between states, not because is unimportant (oil wars, gas boycotts), but because my focus is the grassroots local resistance to extractivism and/or waste disposal.

Environmental Conflict

Who are the protagonists of ‘ecological distribution conflicts’?  (Table 1). 

Table 1. Frequency of participant groups in the conflicts registered in the EJAtlas in January 2022 (3,600 entries).

Table 1. Frequency of participant groups in the conflicts registered in the EJAtlas in January 2022 (3,600 entries). Several groups can be active in the same conflict.

With the EJAtlas we can make a table with the frequency of the types of environmental protestors, the frequency of the commodities in question (as we know from industrial ecology), and the frequency of the corporations involved in the conflicts mapped in the EJAtlas. We could add tables with the frequencies of the impacts (potential or actual) that trigger the protests, the repertoires of action, and the outcomes of the conflicts (including for instance the deaths of environmental protestors).  

Looking at the protagonists, we see that local EJOs are the most frequent, followed by peasants and farmers, neighbours and citizens, Indigenous and other ethnically discriminated peoples, scientists and professionals, local government officials, members of religious groups, fisherfolks …  In their struggle to preserve their own livelihoods against mining companies, hydropower dams, biomass extraction and land grabbing, oil and gas exploitation, peasant and indigenous communities are the backbone of the global environmental justice movement, but they are not the only protagonists. Thus, the industrial working class and trade unions do not appear so often. However, in conflicts with perceived impacts on health, they come up to the top of the table (Navas et al, 2022). ‘Women’ are active in nearly all environmental conflicts but in the EJAtlas the category ‘Women’ means conspicuous, leading women (Tran et al, 2020, Tran and Hanacek, 2023). 

Table 2 gives a list of the commodities mentioned in the EJAtlas. 

Table 2. Frequency of commodities in the EJAtlas (3603 entries). Several commodities might appear in the same conflict.  Many other commodities (e.g. cobalt, graphite, nickel, fertilizers etc.) are grouped into a numerous category of Others.

Table 2. Frequency of commodities in the EJAtlas (3603 entries).

The top conflictive commodities are land and water but also Rare Earths and Waste (landfills and incinerators; or carbon offsets) are included. The study of environmental conflicts is therefore close to Industrial Ecology. Environmental history is sometimes seen as part of the ‘humanities’ but the study of commodities, Warenkunde (or Mercelogia, in Italian), has roots in international trade, as in the following definition that takes us back almost to Holberg’s time. 'Warenkunde' ist ein Fach, das ursprünglich Grundlagenwissen des Handels beschreibt. Es geht zurück auf den Göttinger Professor Johann Beckmann (1739–1811), der den Begriff „Waarenkunde" prägte und darunter die neuen und bisher unbekannten Waren (z. B. aus anderen Erdteilen) erklärte und bekannt machen wollte, die später als Kolonialwaren bezeichnet wurden’. Such Kolonialwaren are still today tea, coffee, precious woods, metals, and stones but mainly they are bulk commodities (as Wallerstein called them) as coal from Colombia and South Africa, gas from Yamal peninsula in Siberia and Cabo Delgado in Mozambique, soybeans, and iron ores from Brazil. 

The search for commodities causes conflicts of different kinds. We have in the EJAtlas some Scandinavian cases. For instance, a hydropower conflicts in Sweden where the opponents reportedly refused money compensation.  I particularly like the Lofoten islands conflict where, as so often, incommensurable interests and values were confronted. On the contrary, I dislike some cases of Norwegian investments abroad,  such as Norsk Hydro’s Alunorte refinery in Barcarena allegedly contaminating water with toxic waste, or Green Resources allegedly engaging in ‘carbon colonialism’ in Mozambique, Tanzania,  and Uganda.

Table 3 gives a list of the private or public business corporations that appear most often in the conflicts registered so far in the EJAtlas. They are protagonists of ecological distribution conflicts from the side opposite to those in Table 1, and they usually enjoy the support of states (or they are state companies themselves). We have contributed to ‘Business Ecological Economics and Political Ecology’ with some articles based on the EJAtlas, so far on the Vale company, on Impregilo-Salini and on TotalEnergies. We use keywords such as ‘corporate social irresponsibility’ and ‘lack of environmental liabilities’. 

As emphasized years ago (Guha and Martinez Alier, 1997) indigenous and traditional communities display ritual and cultural environmental values appreciating sacred mountains, rivers, lakes, forests, and even individual trees in their environments.  In conflicts of ecological distribution, different values are expressed: ecological values in terms of biodiversity or carbon cycling; values for human livelihood; archeological values; economic values such as shareholder profits; sacredness; indigenous territorial rights. These plural values cannot be assessed with the same units of measurement.  There is incommensurability of values (a notion that K.W. Kapp adopted from Otto Neurath’s initial contribution to the Socialist Calculation Debate of the 1920s). Ecological economists avoid economic reductionism and use multi-criteria evaluation instead. However, who has the power to exclude some criteria, to choose the participating groups, to choose the time horizons? Who has the power to simplify complexity and hide injustice and uncertainty? Political science studies power, often exercise by extractivist companies in alliance with governments. That is why political ecology that studies such conflicts is political ecology.

Table 3 . The 100 main corporations in the EJAtlas, by number of conficts in which they are involved.

Table 3. The 100 main corporations in the EJAtlas, by number of conficts in which they are involved.

There are thousands of ‘ecological distribution conflicts’ at the frontiers of commodity extractions and waste disposal. Many different valuation languages are displayed in such conflicts. Mainstream economists recognize the plurality of values born from ‘lexicographic preferences’ but feel more at home in cost-benefit analysis where the externalities are measured in money terms and rankings of alternative projects (or policies) can be clearly established. 

It might be that an Indigenous group starts the conflict over a project of a mine or a dam with a claim of sacredness of the territory or the water and a refusal of money compensation, and that once they lose a political or legal struggle, they accept monetary compensation. However, the economic valuation of externalities is only one of the valuation languages. It is not commensurate with a plurality of other values (livelihood, sacredness, indigenous territorial rights, ecological and landscape values, rights of nature …) sacrificed by the extractive industries. See e.g. these two cases of nickel mining in Sweden and copper mining in Norway.

Degrowth in practice

People deprived of land, water, and clean air by the extractive industries (or by waste disposal) perhaps are for a time better off by the increased wages or compensation money, while the projects last, but they lose welfare and freedoms. Either they stay and suffer, or they are displaced, sometimes by force. When they complain and boycott the mines or oil and gas drilling, blockade the pipelines, or simply demonstrate (sometimes illegally) showing their banners and shouting and singing their slogans, they are exercising ‘degrowth in practice’ as poor and indigenous activists often do although not knowing or disagreeing with the word ‘degrowth’.  Whatever environmentalists from the South say about ‘degrowth’ (Rodríguez-Labajos et al, 2019) what matters is what they do in practice.

There are some types of environmental conflicts that can be solved by changing technologies. For instance, in the north of Norway citizens protested in Kirkenes against heavy pollution from sulfur dioxide from a Russian nickel plant. The smelter was a short distance from Russia's border to Norway. I think this has been solved to some extent by filters, although the extraction and refining of metals such as nickel, copper, bauxite, and the resulting air pollution increases around the world.

On the Russian side, the firm Norilsk continues its expansion (because of world demand for nickel) with new instances of contamination. There are over 70 cases on conflicts on nickel in the EJAtlas, some of them linked to geopolitical issues such as the autonomy or independence of Nouvelle Caledonie, the environmental conflicts in Palawan and other regions of Philippines, the Indonesian commercial policy taxing exports of nickel minerals and attracting Chinese investments in smelting and refining of nickel instead of exporting the raw material. 

Environmental injustices are only sometimes solved by technological modernization. They are often aggravated by economic growth. The victims may manage to stop the extraction and/or the pollution. We could see such complaints, when successful, as ‘degrowth in practice’. Consequently, the Degrowth discourse, so far largely focused on public policies geared to the reduction of material use through domestic changes within the economies of the Global North, needs to systematically adopt a vision from the Global South as shown in the EJAtlas.  In Giorgos Kallis’ words (2018), the small European Degrowth movement finds ‘natural allies in movements against extraction and for environmental justice in the Global South (movements that confront in practice, rather than in theory, the growth of the insatiable metabolism that supports the imperial mode of living) as well as among indigenous groups who profess values of sharing, sufficiency and common ownership, in their own language and with their own significations’.  In this way, we bring the concerns of world-systems history, ecologically unequal trade, and ecological imperialism squarely into the Degrowth discourse.  In other words, the world environmental justice movements that stop or try to stop the extractive industries and waste dumping, are obvious allies of the Degrowth movement in Europe, the USA. There is a collective alternative vision emerging from the billions of people involved in such socio-ecological conflicts worldwide, and these people are promoters of less unsustainable economies (Gerber et al, 2021, Mailhot and Perkins, 2022). Strategies from Oilwatch since 1997 on LFFU, Food Sovereignty as proclaimed by the Via Campesina, Popular Consultations against extractive projects (Urkidi and Walter, 2011), the implementation of Indigenous territorial rights (the ILO convention 169, or the FRA in India) go in the same direction but more robustly than the North’s niceties of proximity agro-ecology or car-sharing. 

Sometimes it is said that Degrowth research should be written from the ‘margins’ – that is from the point of view of those ‘marginalized’ in the growth economy. But they are not ‘marginal’: they are central in terms of the provision of materials and energy to the world economy. 

In summary, Degrowth is ‘not just a critique of excess throughput in the global North; it is a critique of the mechanisms of colonial appropriation, enclosure and cheapening that underpin capitalist growth itself. If growthism seeks to organize the economy around the interests of capital (exchange-value) through accumulation (of profits), enclosure, and commodification, degrowth calls for the economy to be organized instead around provisioning for human needs (use-value) through de-accumulation, de-enclosure and de-commodification. Degrowth also rejects the cheapening of labour and resources, and the racist ideologies deployed toward that end. In all these ways, degrowth is about decolonization’. (Hickel, 2021). Advanced industrialized countries or regions irreparably consume the Earth’s resources and abuse its pollution sink-capacity. 

The socio-ecological question

After 1968 there was a vogue for the study of ‘New Social Movements’.  Environmental justice could be classified as one of those movements. However, according to Zehra T. Yasin, we can identify the global environmental justice movement as a world-historical anti-systemic movement. The term ‘anti-systemic’ (that I have myself not used before today) is not here police-jargon as might be used for instance against squatters in Malmoe, it refers to some social movements in the sense developed in the 1980s by Giovanni Arrighi, Terence Hopkins, and Immanuel Wallerstein (1989) to characterize movements arising against ‘the world-system of historical capitalism.’ They answered the following objection to the study of ‘new social movements’ after 1968: ‘why has capitalist class conflict disappeared from social movement theory?’  

Zehra T. Yasin is a historian of the geopolitics of Mosul oil after the end of the Ottoman empire in 1918 with painstaking research in the archives of British Petroleum. She knows about pastoralism and agriculture as use of current photosynthesis in these ancient territories of West Asia, but she analyses the much later fever about fossil fuels, pipelines and coloniality. She has also published a series of articles on what she calls the ‘socio-ecological question’. This language of ‘questions’ takes us back one hundred years ago to predominance in Europe of the ‘social question’ (proletarian poverty, working class organizations, local and general strikes, the banning of piece-work, the eight-hour day), a question that certainly continues since the number of badly paid industrial workers is larger than ever if we look as we should at China, India, Bangladesh …

The older and successful Feminist movement can be seen as a world-historical response to Gender discrimination.  As a movement it has created its vocabulary and slogans. It mobilizes against ‘Patriarchy’.  It celebrates the 8th of May. Its grievances are different for instance in Argentina and Iran (abortion rights; a religious dressing code) but there is a historical common cause. (Delap, 2021). 

There are also the increasingly successful anti-racist and anti-colonial movements that respond to other forms of domination and discrimination.  They had landmark triumphs after 1945 with the independence of India and colonized territories in Africa, S.E. Asia and elsewhere. Anti-racists movements continue to grow with recent slogans such as ‘black lives matter’.

Contemporary to the ‘social question’ and even before it there was also the ‘agrarian question’, on the persistence of the peasantry, the property of land and the use of labour in agriculture, with policies such as ‘land reform’ and movements and slogans such as ‘land to the tiller’ and ‘land and freedom’.  It is still relevant, in this era of land grabbing for plantation crops, wood or for other biomass for feeding animals or for biofuels, or for ‘carbon capture’.  

The ‘urban question’ (on the struggles for land property and land rents, and much more) was named as such by Manuel Castells around 1972. There were urban and housing movements, they coalesced into an ‘urban question’. 

Marxists assumed a historical trajectory towards proletarian revolution and marginalized other protagonists and forms of social protest although they admitted (as in Hobsbawm’s Primitive Rebels) that they could be harbingers of proletarian political parties.  Marx became very interested in the agrarian Russian commons towards the end of his life.  Some New Social Movement theorists emphasized the role of ‘postmaterialist values’ in much contemporary collective action, as opposed to conflicts over material resources such as land and water. Inglehart (1995) coincided (as a political scientist and sociologist) with mainstream resource economics (Krutilla 1967) who saw no problem in the production of material commodities and placed emphasis on what in the USA they called ‘amenities’. In Krutilla’s own work, he compared the provision of electricity (that would be abundant because of nuclear power) to the increasing scarcity of and appreciation for beautiful landscapes spoiled by hydropower. 

In Norway there was a famous valuation contest on the Alta River dam in the 1970s involving Arne Næss (1989). The dam was built but Norway was led to ratify Convention 169 of ILO protecting Indigenous peoples. Other Arctic countries have not yet ratified this international agreement.  This was not a conflict on the exploitation of slave or serf labour or on the conditions of wage work, a conflict on surplus labour producing surplus value (i.e., capitalist profits). Neither was it an agrarian conflict on land and water access (although it overlapped with such conflicts). The main protagonists were Indigenous peoples and their rights to a common, plus their sympathizers in cities. The Indigenous peoples had material interests in reindeer herding and had their own social values towards nature, while some of the urban sympathizers (including Arne Næss) developed at the time a notion of ‘deep ecology’ that indeed was not far from Inglehart’s ‘postmaterialist values’.   

Remember the topic of this lecture: is there a world environmental justice movement? To each Question its Movement, or rather the other way round. The movements define the questions.  

Table 4  - Questions and Movements (from Zehra Yasin)
Social question  ---  Trade Unions, the working class movement
Agrarian question ---- Peasant and landless labourers movements. ‘Land and Freedom’.
Gender question  ---  Feminism, against Patriarchy. 
Coloniality, racism question – Anti-colonial and anti-racism movements. ‘Black lives matter’ 
Socio-ecological question ---  Environmental Justice. Environmentalism of the People.

Thus, we introduce the concept of the ‘socio-ecological question’. Zehra Yasin grounds her theory in a neo-Marxist ‘value theory of nature’ establishing the ‘world-historical’ relationality among diverse place-based socio-environmental movements that respond to ‘the second contradiction of capitalism’ (as the term was first used by James O’Connor, 1988).

‘The second contradiction of capitalism’ was a brilliant concept that helps to make sense of the myriad movements for environmental justice around the world. The issue was not only that investment in the search of profits increased productive capacity while exploitation of labour, essential to profit making, nevertheless decreased the buying power of the masses. This was (to simplify) the first contradiction of capitalism. There was a second contradiction. The capitalist industrial economy undermined its own conditions of production (James O’Connor should have insisted, in my view, on the conditions of existence or the conditions of livelihood, and not the conditions of production). There was exhaustion of natural resources, there was introduction of dangerous technology like nuclear power, there were new forms of pollution, and capitalism had not the means to correct such damages. 

The answer to the query: ‘where is capitalist class conflict in social movement theory’, was that environmental social movements were arising. Its main actors were not the working class but an assortment of social groups, often led by women, often composed of ethnic minorities. In the USA after 1982 ‘environmental justice’ movements arose the Civil Rights movement. This reinforced James O’Connor’s thesis, and his journal Capitalism. Nature. Socialism published several articles on the struggles against ‘environmental racism.’

The environmental justice movement, the environmentalism of the poor and the indigenous, is therefore not another fashionable ‘new social movement’. It is a new movement with historical significance, it has arrived to stay and to win. It overlaps with other movements arising from other ‘questions’.  It is born from the ‘socio-ecological question’ which can be expressed as a manifestation of the ‘second contradiction’.

Here we need to expand on the ‘value theory of nature’ that Zehra Yasin introduces as a new Marxist concept to complement the value theory of labour (and capitalist profits). Capitalists own the means of production and can extract additional work from workers above their subsistence costs. Selling the commodities produced, capitalists convert this surplus labour into surplus value. 

I believe that one can illustrate Zehra T. Yasin’s ‘value theory of nature’ by going back to Podolinsky’s agricultural energetics of 1880. Podolinsky himself sent a French version of his model of agricultural energetics to Marx with a letter saying that the model expressed the  Merharbeit (the surplus labour) in energy units and it could become Mehrwert (surplus value). (Martinez-Alier 1986, 1987).  Podolinky’s figures (which I summarized in a Table) give the production (measured in kgs and in kcal /hectare) in forest and natural pastures (averages for France), produced simply by nature, without human intervention. I interpret that wood from a forest (or grass from a field) could be a commons or could be private property, but this was left aside in Podolinsky’s model. The naturally produced wood or the grass was not used by humans or was used domestically (for wood or by domestic animals) or it could become commercial wood or grass if the forest or pasture field was privatized. The wood had to be collected by human work, so that the energy input of labour should be introduced here. Similarly for taking the animals to the pastureland.  But this amount of work would be very small. It was left aside in the model.

Podolinsky’ argument was rather that, through human labour (also measured in kcal) the productivity of that hectare would be higher if devoted to sown pastures or to wheat cultivation. His figures calculated the EROI of agriculture one hundred years avant la lettre (Martinez-Alier 2011). Production of energy (kcal per hectare) increased by human (and animal) work.  There first was a value (in kcal) produced by nature by itself, and then an additional production (also in kcal) could be obtained if human labour intervened in the form of hours of work of workers and horses measured also in energy units. The first tranche justifies Zehra Yasin’s ‘value theory of nature’. As Podolinsky wrote to Marx, his energy analysis was in harmony with Marx’s economic analysis. As it is known, Engels disagreed with Podolinsky’s ‘translation’ of economic arguments into energy units, in letters to Marx of December 1882 where he grumbled that ‘economics should not be mixed up with physics’, while Vernadsky much later, in La Géochimie in 1924, made instead a great eulogy of Podolinsky’s work saying that already in 1880 he understood the energetics of life and applied this knowledge to the study of the human economy.  We are showing here that it is plausible to speak of a ‘value theory of nature’.  If the workers in the model were sharecroppers or landless workers, the relations of production and the type of the exploitation would be different than if they were members of a community or a family.  But the use of nature (photosynthesis, rainfall, fertility of the soil) would be there in any case producing hay, wheat, and straw. 


Along this lecture I have used the following concepts: Social Metabolism, the large Circularity Gap, the Frontiers of Commodity Extraction and Waste Disposal, and the Ecological Distribution Conflicts where diverse Valuation Languages are displayed in an Environmentalism of the Poor and the Indigenous implementing ‘Degrowth in Practice’.

The main points of this lecture are therefore: 

  • The relations between changes in social metabolism, commodity extraction frontiers and the world movement for environmental justice. 
  • How such movements for environmental justice represent ‘degrowth in practice’.
  • The relationship between the entropic nature of the industrial economy and the need for a ‘degrowth macroeconomics’ as a critique of the existing paradigm of so-called ‘sustainable development’.
  • The necessity to bring together world-system history and ecological economics with the studies of commodities (Warenkunde, industrial ecology) and ecologically unequal exchange.
  • The lack of acknowledgement of environmental liabilities by public or private business and by States. ‘Externalities’ as systematic cost-shifting giving rise to grievances and claims.
  • The emphasis on ‘the social question’, ‘the agrarian question’, ‘the urban question’, ‘the gender question’, ‘the coloniality and racism question’, and, finally (as Zehra T. Yasin explains), ‘the socio-ecological question’. These are all contemporaneous and overlapping.
  • The analysis of the protagonists of such overlapping struggles as revealed in the EJAtlas. 
  • Finally (paraphrasing Amartya Sen), freedom as an essential aspect of ‘development’ (or ‘welfare’) and the slogan ‘Land, Water, Air and Freedom’ expresses this connection. Loss of access to land, clean air and water triggers the anti-systemic resistance of the environmental justice movements (to quote Zehra T. Yasin again).


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