Book Review: The Environmentalism of the Poor

Published online 24 January 2008.

This is a book review of Joan Martinez-Alier’s 2002 classic “The Environmentalism of the Poor.”  This is a book about the history of environmentalism that tries to fit the struggles of native peoples into that history.

My last review was of a recently-published biography of Sup Marcos, the EZLN (Zapatista) figure; my next review will to a certain extent integrate the insights of Zapatismo into Martinez-Alier’s framework.  This, to a certain, extent, forms the knowledge background for my interest in people’s movements (centered on, but not exclusive to, peasant movements) as a counterweight to the environmental predations of the mainstream of capitalist industry.

(Crossposted at Docudharma)

Book Review: Martinez-Alier, Joan.  The Environmentalism of the Poor.  Cheltenham UK/ Northampton MA: Edward Elgar, 2002.

The author of this book begins by telling us:

This is a book about the growth of the environmental movement, an explosion of activism that recalls the beginning of the socialist movement and the First International, almost a century and a half ago. (1)

In this pathbreaking 2002 book, Joan Martinez-Alier, professor of economics at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, divides environmentalism into three main movements.  They are:

  1. The “cult of wilderness,” preservationism which “arises from the love of beautiful landscapes and from deeply held values, not from material interests.” (2)  In this thread Martinez-Alier includes the “deep ecology” movement and the organization “Friends of the Earth.”
  1. The “gospel of eco-efficiency,” connected both to the “sustainable development” and “ecological modernization” movements and to the notion of the “wise use” of resources.  Martinez-Alier tells us that “ecological modernization walks on two legs: one economic, eco-taxes and markets in emission permits; two, technological, support for materials- and energy-saving changes” (6).  This, then, is a reformist movement attaching itself to industrialism, and for it, ecology becomes a managerial science mopping up the ecological degradation after industrialization.” (6)  It promotes “eco-efficiency,” which “describes a research programme of worldwide relevance on the energy and material throughput in the economy, and on the possibilities of ‘delinking’ economic growth form its material base.”  (6)

Now, seeing the environmental movement in the First World in terms of these two movements is reasonable.  Martinez-Alier, however, concludes that the history of environmentalism between these two movements carries a pessimistic air:

If the monetary returns of conservation are low in the short run, and if the logic of conservation becomes purely an economic logic, conservation will be even more threatened than before.  Indeed, other American conservation biologists (Michael Soule, for instance) complain that the preservation of Nature is losing its deontological foundation because economists with their utilitarian philosophy are taking over the environmental movement.  In other words, a lamentable recent change has occurred in the environmental movement; the idea of sustainable development has overcome the idea of wilderness.  (9)

The weakness of the cult of wilderness is that it “concedes defeat in most of the industrial world, but it fights a ‘rearguard action’… in order to preserve the remnants of pristine natural spaces outside the market (2), and so it doesn’t challenge industrialism or market economics.  The industrialists have then dreamed their own, more inclusive, version of environmentalism.  There is a third current of environmentalism, however, that has come to challenge the first two currents:

  1. the “environmentalism of the poor,” which has as its main interest “not a sacred reverence for Nature but a material interest in the environment as a source and a requirement for livelihood; not so much a concern with the rights of other species and of future generations of humans as a concern for today’s poor humans.”  This is the “environmental justice” movement, and it is centered around what Martinez-Alier calls “ecological distribution conflicts.” (12)  Its protagonists are locals whose livelihoods are threatened by environmental impacts.  It “receives academic support from agroecology, ethnoecology, political ecology and, to some extent, from urban ecology and ecological economics.” (12)

The third type of environmentalism was not recognized as such until the 1980s and 1990s, as “actors in such conflicts” over environmental justice “have often not used an environmental idiom” (14).  Martinez-Alier suggests that the three strands of environmentalism complement each other; but his rhetorical tack is to persuade us that the first two types are rather limited in what they can do, and that (as objective thinkers) we ought to seriously investigate the third type (even though the people who practice such “environmentalism” often do not consciously regard themselves as “environmentalists”).

The Environmentalism of the Poor is a difficult-to-piece-together book which nevertheless asks us to bend our brains in some very important ways.  Its author wants us to face up to some rather essential facts about environmentalism: 1) the economy is not “dematerializing,” and so environmental harm (and its corresponding environmentalism) is not going to go away, 2) environmental concerns use different languages of valuation than economic concerns, with one language often not translatable into another, and that 3) the environment, like the economy, is about “distributional issues” (23).  These facts set the stage for an endorsement of the “environmentalism of the poor.”

Chapters 2 and 3 of this book are about ecological economics, which for Martinez-Alier means the discussion of how economic growth is bad for ecosystem integrity over the long run.  He lists a number of indices of “unsustainability,” and briefly touches upon neoMalthusianism and the doctrine of “carrying capacity,” that the Earth only has resources to support so many human beings.  This is done as a sort of demonstration of the insufficiency of the gospel of eco-efficiency, as the beginning of chapter 4 reveals:

The clash between economy and environment cannot be convincingly be solved by pious invocations to ‘internalize the externalities’ into the price system, spreading the gospel of ‘sustainable development,’ ‘ecological modernization’ and ‘eco-efficiency.’  Studies of social metabolism show that the economy is not ‘dematerializing.’  The environment is under threat because of population growth and overconsumption.  (54)

Martinez-Alier then dives into political ecology, because (I am guessing here) “the unequal incidence of environmental harm gives birth to environmental movements of the poor” (54) and so, in our search for an effective environmental movement, we are now going to examine the environmentalism of the poor.  We were discussing ecological economics; now we are discussing political ecology.  Martinez-Alier is brilliant; yet his transitions are too abrupt, and so this reader (at least) tends to question why he is reading what he is reading.

At any rate, here we are told that

Political ecology studies ecological distribution conflicts.  By ecological distribution is meant the social, spatial, and intertemporal patterns of access to the benefits obtainable from natural resources and from the environment as a life support system, including its ‘cleaning up’ properties.  The determinants of ecological distribution are in some respects natural (climate, topography, rainfall patterns, minerals, soil quality and so on).  They are clearly, in other respects, social, cultural, political, and technological.  (73)

Martinez-Alier then proceeds to look, in depth, at a series of conflicts in political ecology.  These conflicts are, for the most part, conflicts between particular money-making entities and groups hoping to preserve their traditional ways of making a living.  One whole chapter, chapter 5, is devoted to the conflicts in tropical regions throughout the world, between shrimp farmers and those who live sustainably in the mangrove forests which are sometimes destroyed for shrimp farms.  Chapter 6 is devoted to various other conflicts over natural resources – the book offers a fairly comprehensive survey of situations where technologized “developers,” looking for gold or oil, colonizing farming, putting in dams, harvesting forests, confront peasants with complex value-relations to natural settings.

Chapter 7 is then about cities which, we are baldly told, are unsustainable (153).  Martinez-Alier’s main concern, however, is assessment; how are we to assess the environmental damage caused by the growth of cities?

Chapters 8 and 9 are about the “environmental justice” movement and its congruence with the “environmentalism of the poor.”  Here, Martinez-Alier discusses (among other things) “environmental racism” against African-Americans by polluting industries in Louisiana, and the dispute between (on the one hand) the western Shoshone and the anti-nuclear grassroots and (on the other hand) forces wishing to use Yucca Mountain in Nevada as a nuclear dump.  With Chapter 10 we are confronted with the notion of “ecological debt.”  The idea of ecological debt is encapsulated in this explanation:

First, as we shall see immediately, the exports of raw materials and other products from relatively poor countries are sold at prices which do not include compensation for local or global externalities.  Second, rich countries make a disproportionate use of environmental space or services without payment, and even without recognition of other people’s entitlements to such services (particularly, the disproportionate free use of carbon dioxide sinks and reservoirs).  (213)

Behind the generous use of big words in the above explanation is the following notion: “prosperity” in the “rich countries” (227) is currently put on an economic footing by the availability of cheap goods and cheap resources in the “relatively poor countries,” all of which are being extracted and produced for the sake of the “rich countries” without an assessment of the ecosystem damages done to Planet Earth.  Therefore, it is reasoned, the “rich countries” ought to be an assessed an “ecological debt” for their destructive privileges.

Of course, environmental destruction can’t be fully quantified in dollar values or Euro values or what have you, for the reasons Martinez-Alier has himself explained in this book.  Martinez-Alier’s response:

My excuse is that the language of chrematistics (the art of making money) is well understood in the north.  We know that the movement in Thailand that opposed eucalyptus plantations at times used a religious language by protecting the trees threatened by plantations with the yellow clothing of Buddhist monks and calling meetings with the ritual pha pha ba normally employed for the consecration of temples.  This would not impress the IMF in its everyday business.  (228)

But, then, Martinez-Alier later admits that economics (i.e. the “language of chresmatics”) does not “hold the key to an integrated assessment” (229) of what the ecological debt would really be.  So the “ecological debt” talkers are using a language that can’t really express “ecological debt,” just so they can get the presumed ecological “debtors” to listen.  (Whether they will listen is another question.)

The point of all this is that “the claim of the ecological debt… will contribute to the ‘ecological adjustment; which the north must make.” (233)  The rhetoric of “ecological debt,” then, offers a “talking point” to coerce the “rich nations” into doing something about the ecological damage caused by their citizens’ consumer habits, and to make said nations liable for abrupt climate change.  The point, moreover, of calculating the value of a human life (and Martinez-Alier recognizes cynically that the lives in the “rich nations” fetch far higher dollar values) is to calculate damages when human lives are taken, such as in the dispute over Union Carbide’s Bhopal disaster.

Martinez-Alier also suggests that the conversion of environmental damage into money terms can be used by the fossil-fuel exporting countries to impose carbon taxes on their customers (239).  A larger discussion of who pays such taxes should have occurred in this book, but didn’t.

This leads us to the last chapter of Martinez-Alier’s book, titled “On the relations between political ecology and ecological economics.”  I think it’s important at this point that readers of this book take a deep breath and try to remember how Martinez-Alier got to this point in his reasoning.  If I remember correctly, political ecology is the study of conflicts over “ecological distribution,” in which the poor defend values which have been deemed “ecological” and ecological economics is the study of economic systems from an ecological point of view.  Well, ecological economics, being the “theory on the structural conflict between the economy and the environment,” (252) has failed to dissolve such a conflict through demonstration of “win-win situations,” and so this structural conflict continues.

The case for a general “win-win” solution (better environment with economic growth) is far from proven.  On the contrary, since the economy is not “dematerializing” in per capita terms, there are increasing local and global conflicts over the sharing of the burdens of pollution (including the enhanced greenhouse effect) and over the access to natural resources (including ‘biopiracy’).  (252)

The book, then, concludes with the thought that

the “environmentalism of the poor,” popular environmentalism, livelihood ecology, liberation ecology and the movement for environmental justice (local and global), growing out of the complaints against the appropriation of communal environmental resources and against the disproportionate burdens of pollution, may help to move society and economy in the direction of ecological sustainability. (270)

This isn’t, of course, what the politicians say.  The most sophisticated of the bunch is likely to grant us the wisdom of “ecological modernization,” telling us that there is some technical fix to the environment problem and that he or she is going to bring more money to bear upon that technical fix.  What Martinez-Alier has shown in the bulk of the book, however, is that environmental values come out of a diverse set of desires (desires to have an ecologically “safe” place to live, economic desires, desires connected to beautiful landscapes etc.) and that these desires can’t all be equated with monetary values (the desire to breathe, for instance, can be satisfied by the clean-up of toxic air, but can’t be remunerated in any real sense).  The victims of environmental injustice, moreover, tend to be in groups so marginalized by economic and political power (the “poor”), that they are obliged to suffer ecosystem damage along with nature.  This is what makes them a much better measure of sustainability than politicians.

Meanwhile, our environmentalism, right here, right now, really does need some of the elements of the “environmentalism of the poor” in its repertoire.  The first requirement is that we need to living in a way that supports ecosystem resilience on the Earth, rather than viewing the Earth as the mere receptacle of the raw materials which other people’s labor uses to our favorite consumer appliances.


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