Social Metabolism and Environmental Conflicts

Joan Martinez-Alier


Capitalism (or, in general, the industrial system) advances into commodity frontiers because it uses more materials and energy, therefore it produces more waste, undermining the conditions of livelihood and existence not only of future generations but also of contemporary peripheral peoples, who complain accordingly. Such movements for environmental justice cannot be subsumed under the conflict between capital and labour. They may become a strong force in favour of sustainability and eco-socialism, and also against market-fundamentalism, because conflicts over the use of the environment are expressed in many languages of valuation. For instance, we know that economic growth goes together with increased emissions of greenhouse gases. Some social actors see climate change as an 'externality', the (damage or abatement) costs of which can be calculated in economic terms and compared to the benefits of economic growth. Others will appeal instead to the livelihood and rights of local peoples and/or future generations, or to the sacredness of nature, or to ecological and landscape values measured in their own units, or to the equal dignity of all humans when confronted by 'environmental racism'. Why should all evaluations of a given conflict (e.g. over gold or bauxite extraction in Peru or Orissa, over hydro-electrical dams in the North-East of India, over mangroves in Bangladesh or Honduras sacrificed to shrimp exports, or over the determination of an acceptable level of carbon dioxide emissions by the European Union), be reduced to a single dimension? People who are poor, and whose health and lives are cheap, often appeal to non-monetary languages of valuation. It is only capitalism, with its fetishism of commodities (even fictitious commodities, as in the 'contingent valuation' methods of neoclassical environmental economics), that sees only one way to value the world. Ecological economics rejects such a simplification of complexity, favouring instead the acceptance of a plurality of incommensurable values. By rejecting money-reductionism in favour of value pluralism, ecological economics can contribute to the success of struggles over distribution. For instance, Via Campesina denies that modern agriculture really achieves productivity increases, pointing to its decreased efficiency of energy use, chemical pollution, loss of seed varieties, and loss of local cultures.

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