Degrowth: Interview with Joan Martinez-Alier

Joan Martinez-Alier. Photo by CCCB

Joan Martinez-Alier. Photo by CCCB


Interview with Joan Martinez-Alier

Interviewer : Richard Swift

Joan Martinez-Alier is one of the founders of ecological economics and the author of numerous important and pioneering works in this field. Some of his most important works include Ecological Economics (!990) and The Environmentalism of the Poor (2002). His most recent book is Ecological Economics From the Ground Up (with Hali Healy). He has worked extensively in Latin America, and is familiar with the resource wars and political ecology of the region. He is a Catalan who teaches at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and is active in Europe’s nascent degrowth/decroissance movement.

Martinez-Alier is interviewed by Richard Swift, a Montreal-based journalist/activist who works in print and radio. A long-time editor for the Oxford-based New Internationalist magazine, Swift has written several books on themes as varied as mosquitoes, tax justice and street gangs. His current interests include forms of radical democracy and degrowth ecological alternatives. His most recent book SOS: Alternatives to Capitalism, is published in Canada by Between The Lines Press, and will be released in the spring. The book, a critique of capitalism and its stunted alternatives, is a voyage in search of a democratic and ecological rupture with past practices.

Richard Swift:  Joan Martinez-Alier, you made your name as an environmental economist.  How is it that you came to be an  advocate of degrowth?

Joan Martinez-Alier: Well because, when one looks at what the growth of the economy means, it means to — for an industrial economy –it means to use more oil, more coal, more gas and therefore to produce more greenhouse gases.  So, this cannot go on like this.  The growth of the world economy means more environmental damage, also loss of biodiversity.  All this damage is not counted in the GDP account, the Gross National Product which all the governments talk about all the time.  This is what measures economic growth but economic growth is not well measured because it does not count all the damage which we are doing to the environment.  So, we are living in a kind of non-sustainable economy.  And this is why many ecological economists have come to believe that we need to go into a steady state economy or a period of some degrowth in industrial economies as Herman Daly, from the States,  has put it .

Richard Swift: How would you define degrowth?

Joan Martinez-Alier:  From a physical point of view, what we have to do is to decrease the amount of fossil energy and materials going into the economy.  You see what happens today in the world: we’re going to burn around 90 million barrels of oil and tomorrow again, and after tomorrow, every week, every day more or less the same amount.  If China grows, then from 90, we will go to 100 million barrels of oil per day.  So there is not going to be enough oil. The world is not large enough for this and therefore we should degrow: from 90 million barrels, we should go to 80, 70, 60. Then,  we could have very good lives with less use of energy and materials.

The question here is how to distribute this degrowth around the world and inside each country.

Richard Swift: Does this degrowth position mean that you’re against any kind of growth, or do you just restrict that to economic growth?

Joan Martinez-Alier:  We don’t want to have 100% degrowth.  So, what we would need in industrial economies would be a period of degrowth in energy and materials, in the physical sense.  But some sectors of the economy could grow very well, for instance, agro-ecology could grow very well. What could also grow is the whole business of rehabilitating and improving the existing stock of houses, instead of building new ones.  In Europe, this is very relevant because we have a large stock of houses.  In Spain there was a building bubble that stopped in 2008. Now,  there are many empty homes, but instead of placing them at the disposal of the people who need them, they are lying empty, and are mortgaged. So, the whole thing is a disaster from an economic and an environmental point of view.

The economy was expected to grow because debts were increasing, leading to a kind of debt-fuelled growth.  This was until 2008.  First the banks gave credit, too much credit, so that people had to have a growing economy in order to pay the debts. Now this has to stop and we would have to build an economy that is not based so much on this idea of growth. We should have an economy that is more attuned to what we can do from an environmental point of view because economic growth, in an industrial economy is not environmentally sustainable.

Richard Swift:  Back in the 1970s, there was quite a lively debate, I guess it was the time of the Limits to Growth report and there was a lot of discussion of steady state economy, but that seemed to have come to an end or at least have a hiatus.  Why do you think that happened?

Joan Martinez-Alier: In 1971 there was a book by an economist called Georgescu-Roegen of Romanian origin, but he was teaching in the States, and the book is called The Entropy Law and the Economic Process.  The entropy law means that energy cannot be recycled.  You cannot use your 90 million barrels of oil that you are burning today.  If they are burned, they are burned forever.  You cannot use them again tomorrow. Everybody knows this. He was telling the economists that they should realize how economy is embedded, from inside, within a physical framework, and that they should not be as metaphysical as economists usually are.

Howard Thomas Odum. Photo credit: Mark T. Brown

Howard Thomas Odum. Photo by Mark T. Brown

In 1971, you also had a book by Howard Odum, who was a very famous systems ecologist. Written from the perspective of ecology instead of economics, the book is called Energy, Power and Society. He more or less says similar things: that the economy is a system of transformation of energy.  For instance, in modern agriculture, we are less energy efficient than in traditional agriculture because modern agriculture is using so many fertilizers and other stuff, and so many  tractors etc. that we are losing efficiency. So this was in the 1970s.  Then I think in the 1980s what happened was that there was a counter-offensive if you like, an anti-environmental offensive and the orthodox view at the time was that you could have what we call ecological modernization, and better technologies. But then with this technology, we could have growth, and also we could also have good environment.  Of course the UN and many people around the world thought that this, politically, was much easier to sell than an idea of non -growth in the rich countries.   This was called sustainable development, and sometimes they call it green growth . It is a kind of view that I think has lasted for too long. From 1992 [date of the Rio de Janeiro United Nations Conference on Environment and Development] to today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is growing 2 parts per million (ppm)  per year, has grown from 360 to 400 ppm and the IPCC ,which is the International Panel on Climate Change, is going to  publish a new report in a few weeks, and we know that nothing is being done to stop climate change.  Nothing is being done to stop the loss of biodiversity. Nothing is being done to stop the acidification of the oceans, and nothing is being done on the contrary, to stop the kind of awful things that are going on in the world trying to get copper, bauxite, oil, coal, gas from everywhere in the world at these frontiers of extraction.  The only thing that can change that in a more environmental direction is a kind of alliance between the small degrowth movements in the North,–degrowth or prosperity without growth, or steady state economy–and a strong movement in the South which is a movement for environmental justice.  Many people are complaining, many people are being killed around the world, fighting for the environment. This is not because these are members of Greenpeace, but because they live in the countryside, whether they are indigenous or not, and they know that the environment is being destroyed.  Ecuador, Perù, México, Colombia and Brazil — we know, every week or every 2 weeks somebody gets killed in some fight against deforestation: defending the mangroves against the shrimp industry, defending the environment against oil extraction, and this goes on and on.  So these are the true environmentalists I think, or the people who are paying a higher price. Perhaps they don’t know about the greenhouse effect, and they probably don’t know about the entropy law, but these people are at the vanguard of this kind of environmental justice movement.  So what I think is that these movement that are growing around the world should be the main allies of the degrowth movement in Europe.

Rihard Swift: You talked before about the debt economy but isn’t there a different kind of debt?  Isn’t there a kind of ecological debt?

Joan Martinez-Alier: We – the rich people – we have a historical and a modern debt because we are using the environment much more intensely than the poor or indigenous people have ever done.  There is a trade around the world, to Europe, to Japan, even to the States, exporting raw materials at a relatively cheap price.  This has gone on from colonial times but it has never been as large as now.  So we have this ecologically unequal trade.  This is part of the debt.  But the other one is from the climate, the climate change, because we are using — rich people in the world — are using carbon sinks resulting in carbon dioxide lasting in the oceans and the atmosphere for some tens of — hundreds of years.  We are using it as if we were the owners of the oceans and the atmosphere, and we’re using it unilaterally without any kind of property rights.  It’s like pirates in a way.  We are occupying the atmosphere and the oceans in a disproportionate way. We should acknowledge that there is a debt to future generations and to other species and also to the poor people of today because the greenhouse effect is still not too strong. It is going to become much stronger.  For instance here, in Ecuador, in Perù, in Bolivia, people are becoming aware that there is no line in the glaciers at five thousand meters where the water is, and the glaciers are receding.  The scientists are checking this and it’s strong. So little by little, all the irrigation systems are going to disappear– in Perù especially and Bolivia which are very dry countries, because they depend a lot on the snow and the glaciers in the high mountains, and these are going to disappear.  So all these things, I think, make it quite plausible to talk about the ecological debt from the North to the South.

Bhutan Glaciers

Bhutan Glaciers

Ricard Swift: You’ve been spending some time in Ecuador, how’s the dynamics between growth and degrowth played out in Ecuador at the moment?

Joan Martinez-Alier: Degrowth is not for the poor countries in the world.  There is too much poverty.  They have to have economic growth, and this should be sustainable and with different technologies such as more solar energy and more windmills. This is perhaps happening gradually,  but it is too little and too late  The debate in Ecuador is different; it’s if they should go on with a totally extractive economy, meaning oil mainly, because Ecuador is producing — exporting — extracting and exporting about 500 million barrels of oil.  One million barrels of oil would mean 50 million tons per year, and they are exporting half of this, or 500 000 barrels per day which comes to about 25 million tons per year.  So it’s like one ton and a half for each Ecuadorian that each inhabitant of the country is exporting at the price which — now it’s good but I mean, after all, it’s a lot of energy in a barrel of oil — they’re exporting this one ton and a half per person, per year.  It’s a lot, it’s almost 5 kg per day of oil.  It’s a lot of energy. It’s about 20 times the energy they need for eating.  So they’re exporting this from the Amazon and getting some money.  The debate is between people who say that we should turn to a more sustainable economy, and not to be an extractive economy. The President, Rafael Correa, who seemed to believe in the same thing  has suddenly changed. He’s saying that ,in order to get out of an extractive economy, they need still more extraction.  So now, they’re going to extract even more oil from the Amazon and probably also increase copper and gold mining with either some Canadian or Chinese mining firms that are now coming to Latin America in full force.  The Chinese are coming to get raw materials and the debate now, right now, in the last two weeks has been in a place called Yasuni, in a part of this National Park which is called ITT because of the name of the oil wells there– Ishpingo Tambococha Tiputini. They were supposed to be leaving the oil in the ground and perhaps to ask for some help from outside, money, from rich countries to compensate for the non-production of carbon dioxide and for the avoidance of deforestation. There are also the indigenous people and indigenous refugees who are not here have not  been “contacted.” If the oil industry goes there, they are going to die.  I mean obviously, they are not going to kill them but they are going to die because of the contact or,  in some cases, because of violent encounters. Therefore, there was very good reason to leave the oil in the ground. But  now, the President has decided, that he needs the money for the good of the country .  So there is a big debate in the country, and there is a discussion on whether there should be a referendum on this. We are going to see what will happen at the end.

Rafael Correa - President of Ecuador. Photo by Wilson Dias Ag Br.

Rafael Correa – President of Ecuador. Photo by Wilson Dias
Ag Br.
“Here for instance, they talk about the constitution that says that the objective of Ecuador is not economic growth forever, but to live well, and to live well is called sumak causay. Which means: ” living well.” “

Richard Swift: Just shifting ground a little bit here, back to the Northern degrowth proposal.  What would a degrowth society look like in your mind?

Joan Martinez-Alier:  Well, degrowth would mean not using so much fossil energy. So if the economy doesn’t grow, then what we would have is a different system of distribution, and there are already many ideas about this.  The idea, that I am very much in favor of, is like a minimum income for everybody, which could range, depending on the country, from $300 per month to $500, $600. We have to deconstruct a little this notion of wage work as something that is the right way of making a living. I think that there is big room for this kind of alternative kind of living in which we don’t completely separate so money from jobs and money that comes from other places.  And then there is also room for getting out of the money system altogether, at least locally with these kinds of local moneys  that in part  come from exchanges  — not so much through a capitalist economy, but more from an economy of reciprocity since humanity has lived for a very long time in this kind of system based on reciprocity among different people. We have to restrict the scope, little by little, of the capitalist money economy and to go more into these other ways of living.  Many young people, I think, like this system either because of necessity or because they prefer this kind of life. They say, “ Well we want to do different things – agro-ecology today, and tomorrow we’ll take care of all the people, and then of course, have a family; learn to do some carpentry, and so on.”

Richard Swift: So I guess a lot of the economic categories that people learn in the economic faculties in universities are thrown up in the air in a degrowth situation like interest rates, inflation, employment rates, the division of wealth of the society.

Joan Martinez-Alier:  Well, I think, the teaching of Economics is very bad for real economy.  I mean, it consists in glorifying the market, saying that the market is very good for production and for the freedom of consumers; but, one has to realize that the market is totally myopic, and blind towards the future.  Also, since the future for many of these environmental issues is the near future within the next 50 or 100 years,   the market is not useful at all.  The market is also blind towards the needs of other species.

Also the needs of poor people are not covered by the market.  The market is only good for those who have money. Therefore,  all that glorification of the market in economic theory is very bad for for people and the real economy.  This is what is still taught in the faculties of economics.  Here in Ecuador they have introduced words in Quechua, for instance, in the local languages, the old languages.  Here for instance, they talk about the constitution that says that the objective of Ecuador is not economic growth forever, but to live well, and to live well is called sumak causay.  Which means: ” living well.”  So, it’s also very old and traditional

If you go to India, they have an expression called aparigrahaAparigraha means to live well without accumulating possessions.  So many people in human history have thought that the idea would be to live well, without accumulating possessions.  What is new perhaps in the last 200 years because of the capitalist system, is this compulsion to accumulate profit and then accumulate possessions. The  system needs people to consume more and more in order to sell what is being produced. This  system cannot go on forever.   So, what is strange is for people to continue to believe in economic growth forever.  I think that what is normal is to believe that we have to stop this economic growth based on non-sustainable technologies..

Richard Swift: You make the controversial claim that it is often a case of needing to aggravate ecological conflicts rather than to solve them.  Why do you say this?

Joan Martinez-Alier: Because — what does it mean to solve ecological conflicts?  Quite often, it means to — for instance in the case of oil extraction,–that you give some compensation to the people who are losing their livelihoods so that extraction of oil can go on and on.  The asymmetry between the oil companies or the mining companies and the local people is so large that the conflict is resolved to the advantage of one side and to the disadvantage of the other.  I don’t know if you are familiar with what happened recently in India, in Odisha, in the east, with the Dongria Kondh, a tribal group, an Adivasi group .The place where they live is a mountain, and they think that the mountain is sacred, and represents one of the gods.. They feel that it is good to live there since the god is there to help. Now, there is bauxite in this mountain.  So a company, based in Britain, went there to extract the bauxite.  After ten years of debate, the Supreme Court [of India] decided to listen to the people, and to hold local referendums. Now, the people there, the Dongria Kondh, have decided that in the Niyamgiri hill, they do not want bauxite mining.  To my mind, this has been a real solution to the problem.

Khonda Woman

Khonda Woman