Joan Martinez Alier: «Switzerland can live with 100% less GDP»

The Italian-Swiss Balzan Foundation presented its 2020 distinctions in Rome a year late, covid obliges. Catalan economist Joan Martinez Alier was awarded «for the exceptional quality of his contribution to the foundation of ecological economics»

The economy is not circular, it bears the mark of human activity as a stigma. It is this credo that guides Joan Martinez Alier, recipient of the 2020 Balzan Prize, awarded this Thursday in Rome in the presence of the President of the Italian Republic. The Italo-Swiss foundation gave him, like the three other winners, 750,000 francs devoted to a research program on the places of extraction of raw materials, generating conflicts. Because even a «decreasing» economy will have to draw on energy resources, as the recycling rate is doomed to remain very low. Joan Martinez Alier, in creating the Atlas of Environmental Justice, focused on the detailed study of these conflicts on the planet. On 14 occasions in the sixty years that it has existed, the Balzan Foundation has rewarded researchers who subsequently received a Nobel.

What is the environmental justice atlas for?

Joan Martinez Alier: This atlas has two legs. An academic and another which aims to make known the conflicts generated by the extraction of raw materials where it takes place. This allows us to do comparative political economy. There are so many conflicts that our statistics over thirty years have become sources of knowledge. From the point of view of popular ecology, the atlas serves to give visibility to the countries or peoples who are victims of these conflicts.

What do you take away from COP26?

In the thirty-five years that I have been following these questions, the concentration of carbon dioxide has continued to increase. This will inevitably continue because we have not reached the peak of emission. There is no solution to stop this phenomenon. These conferences did not succeed. We produce twice as much gas as the oceans and vegetation can absorb. What to do? There is technological progress, which can reduce part of the problem. Public policies can lessen the consequences through taxation, by helping those who are affected by the transition. I also think that the world population will necessarily stop growing in thirty years. South India already has the same fertility rate as Italy. Finally, the economy of rich countries must stop its growth. The resulting rise in unemployment will have to be accompanied by a system change via universal income. I thought the questions of the usefulness of certain jobs and universal income would emerge more clearly from the pandemic we are going through.

Stop growth to do what?

To live. A country like Switzerland would live perfectly well with 100% less GDP. One day or another, the world’s imbalance is going to reach a climax. We see it with the issue of migration. In northern Africa, gas, phosphates, cobalt and solar energy transformed into hydrogen are exported to Europe. Europeans find these energies welcome, but not the people who come from these regions. This will eventually produce political bad humor among local leaders, which could escalate into conflict. Europe and Switzerland must do something to balance the world economy.

There are, on the one hand, the collapsologists and, on the other, the proponents of technologism. I’m in the middle, which allows you to talk to both

How can the changes you advocate come about?

So has the feminist social movement, which I consider to be the most important of our age. It is a mixture of local mobilizations, statistical findings and legislative changes, which always come last.

Are we in this phase, with ecology?

No. The strongest current today is technologism. This is the famous Green New Deal. I am not against. The wind turbine transforms the wind into energy. But it is made of aluminum, a rare material. We need wood, which is mined from Ecuador and processed in China, which is causing big problems at the moment. The popular ecology that I defend is still marginal. She deals with the struggles at the frontiers of the extraction of energies and materials. In short, technological changes, a change in economic policy and social movements like the one we know with Greta Thunberg are able to transform the world. In the United States and Canada, these indigenous struggles against pipelines began. The Goldman Prize recently awarded a movement in Fukushima, where people fought against the use of gas after the nuclear disaster. In India, the movement is strong enough that people mobilize in a 300-kilometer march against coal concessions.

We hear, after the Glasgow failure, that the market can act where politicians have failed. What do you think?

The market does not value the externalities such as climate change, noise, polluted water, etc. For this to be the case, emission allowances have been created that can be traded. It can work for Europe, even China, but it depends on how these quotas are managed. The natives do not understand this system. There is a social asymmetry which means that it will not work.

Are you optimistic?

I am the opposite of Jacques Brel’s song, where the bourgeois, the older they get, the more stupid they become. We must leave hope to the new generations, with whom I work a lot.

We tell you the opposite of collapsologists. Does this definition suit you?

Yes. There are, on the one hand, the collapsologists and, on the other, the proponents of technologism. I’m in the middle, which allows you to talk to both. Jean-Pierre Dupuy wrote For an enlightened catastrophism . It suits me well. People only learn when there are disasters. Perhaps the catastrophe is too great and our interventions too late?