Joan Martínez Alier


2020 Balzan Prize for Environmental Challenges: Responses from the Social Sciences and the Humanities


The main objective of Joan Martínez Alier’s Balzan research project is to carry out research on the world environmental justice movement (or movements) through a mixture of methods of political ecology, including some fieldwork. One main tool will be the EJAtlas, a large and growing database of over 3,350 “ecological distribution conflicts” built up at ICTA UAB since 2012 ( Our main hypothesis is that these conflicts arise from the growth and changes in the social metabolism at the frontiers of commodity extraction and of waste disposal. In the past 120 years, human population has nearly multiplied by five, while the yearly inputs processed in the global economy (biomass, fossil fuels, building materials, metals) grew almost thirteen times from 7.5 to 95 Gt (Haas et al 2020). The economy is not circular; it is increasingly entropic (Giampietro and Funtowicz, 2020). The recycled materials are only about 8 per cent of the total material input. Energy from fossil fuels – the photosynthesis of the distant past – is burned and dissipated. Another reason for this lack of circularity is the expansion of stocks of buildings and infrastructures; once in place, a large input of materials and energy is needed for their maintenance and operation. Even without further economic growth, the industrial economy would need new supplies of energy and materials extracted from commodity frontiers, which would in turn produce more waste (including excessive amounts of greenhouse gases). Therefore, new “ecological distribution conflicts” arise all the time. They imply “valuation contests”, where plural values are displayed by the social protagonists whose collective identities, forms of mobilization, or repertoires of contention are studied here. In this way, this research helps to place political ecology at the centre of politics (Charbonnier, 2019).

Martínez Alier’s Balzan research project will improve the geographical and thematic coverage of the EJAtlas as a tested tool for the study of comparative, statistical political ecology. The number of cases recorded in the EJAtlas will increase to at least 4,000 by 2023, thus improving geographical and thematic coverage. Further work in the atlas is required now that the team’s publications have established it internationally as a reliable database of environmental conflicts (Scheidel et al 2020, Temper et al 2020). A recent assessment (LeBillon and Lujala, 2020) states:

While providing the best worldwide record of cases, with 2,957 cases reported at the time of analysis, EJAtlas is not comprehensive, and statistics must thus be understood as reflecting the database’s limits, including uneven geographical coverage (e.g. link with transnational activist networks), variable quality of information and updating, and possible biases in interpretation of contexts, processes and outcomes.

When faced with this and other such assessments, the team will concentrate on carrying out further work to improve the coverage of the EJAtlas, which will ensure that its contents be used not only for peer-reviewed publications (as per current practice) but also as support for environmental justice movements. The Balzan prize will contribute to this.

Underlying Martínez Alier’s Balzan project is a research programme that actually started some time ago (Guha and Martinez-Alier, 1999). It was summarized by Professor Catherine Larrère, who contrasted it with fashionable collapsologie on the one hand and with a powerful international school of “eco-modernism”, “eco-efficiency”, and “green economic growth” on the other. In an interview with Larrère published in Reporterre (20 November 2019), she gave this explanation of the success of collapse theories:

I think there is a certain enjoyment of impotence. To say that we are headed towards collapse – but that we are aware of it – makes us superior to those who do not know it. For me, the anti-Pablo Servigne, the author of How Everything Can Collapse (Seuil, 2015), is Joan Martinez-Alier, an economist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. He is known for his book The Environmentalism of the Poor (2014). He was one of the first to show that there was popular mobilization around issues of survival. He has a program to map the places where environmental struggles take place around the world, from South America to China. These social struggles are different from those of 19th-century workers because they are no longer just about work, but about livelihood. They aim to preserve and defend the living environment. It is not a question of empty exhortations to reactivate forms of solidarities: they are already there and take different forms depending on the places where they take root.1

The sub-projects listed below will result in the publication of several articles in top academic journals, and possibly in one book. They will also reach beyond the academic world, and support movements for environmental justice. All publications will acknowledge support from Martínez Alier’s Balzan Research project. The following sub-projects have been chosen from among many other possible ones. One recent publication based on the EJAtlas compares iron ore mining conflicts in India and Brazil (Saes and Bisht, 2020). Another (Wagner and Walter, 2020) analyses mining conflicts in Argentina, showing that half the conflictive projects were stopped. Still another publication reveals the “transition to coal” taking place in India and accounts for the increase in coal-related conflicts in some areas of the country (Roy and Schaffartzik, 2021). The Balzan project researchers could, for instance, study the following groups as protagonists: women environmental activists, working-class environmentalism, and religious groups participating in environmental conflicts. Alternatively, themes like these could be studied: palm oil conflicts around the world; waste pickers’ unions and the issue of the incineration of domestic waste; conflicts on “militarized” biodiversity conservation; conflicts on the metals required for electricity transition; conflicts on coal mining and burning in CFPP; conflicts on CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) – and many others.

“World Movements for Environmental Justice” will be divided into sub-projects. The topics chosen in the list of viable sub-projects and the names of the members at ICTA UAB involved might change in a few cases due to issues with mobility in the lives of young researchers. The main institution for the project will be ICTA UAB. Collaboration with other institutions is foreseen, mainly with China Agricultural University, the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, Beijing; UNAM (Morelia campus), Mexico; the Scuola Normale Superiore, Florence, Italy: and the Escola Paulista de Política, Economia e Negócios da Universidade Federal de São Paulo (Unifesp), Brazil.

The deputy supervisor will be Dr Mariana Walter of ICTA UAB. She will work on the project part-time for three years.

- In China, part-time support will be provided for Prof Dr Juan Liu, China Agricultural University, Beijing (after May 2021), for advancing and exploring the EJAtlas with Bowen Gu (ICTA UAB) and writing two articles for international and Chinese journals of political ecology. In the past three years the number of cases from China recorded in the EJAtlas has increased to 150, but this is still too small a sample (e.g. compared to India’s nearly 350).

- In India, part-time support will go to Dr Brototi Roy (Indian Society for Ecological Economics) and one graduate student at ICTA UAB to enter and analyse different types of conflicts in the EJAtlas in India from a comparative political ecology perspective. Two articles will be published.

- One-year part-time postdoc support (after September 2021) will be allocated to Dr Daniela Del Bene (at ICTA UAB and possibly the Scuola Normale Superiore, Florence) to write articles and possibly a book based on her eight-year experience on the EJAtlas, with particular reference to conflicts on hydropower, worldwide.

- Dr Grettel Navas at ICTA UAB will work under a part-time contract, on support for the EJAtlas and a visit to the Scuola Normale Superiore, Florence. These research questions regarding health and the environment will be addressed: How do people mobilize against environmental pollution? Do scientists enhance or undermine such mobilizations? This sub-project will also involve a statistical analysis of over 1,000 cases in the EJAtlas as well as field studies in contaminated areas in Central America. Two articles will be published.

- Dr Arnim Scheidel, ICTA UAB, specialist in SE Asia, will lead the publication of two or three collective articles in statistical political ecology based on the EJAtlas focus on disproportionate impacts on indigenous peoples, and the contributions to sustainability achieved through resistance by environmental defenders (after September 2021). A visit to the Scuola Normale Superiore, Florence, is foreseen.

- A postdoctoral part-time contract will go to Dr Ksenija Hanacek, for two years. These issues will be addressed: a) racially motivated environmental conflicts involving Roma communities in Europe; b) the Arctic as a commodity extraction frontier, updating of current work not yet published; c) statistical analysis of the impacts recorded in EJAtlas as “Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures”; d) nuclear energy conflicts in Russia and Eastern Europe. Four publications, work at the ICTA UAB, and a visit to the Scuola Normale Superiore, Florence, are foreseen.

- Pre-doctoral support will be provided for Teresa Saenz at ICTA UAB, for analysis of the iconography and other cultural expressions of environmental conflicts (following her article submitted to the journal Geoforum 2020). This research is based on the EJAtlas, with field work in Chile and possibly Philippines.

- This sub-project carries out research on specific issues involving Brazil, Colombia and South Africa: the relevance of the EJAtlas for Business Economics and Management; research on environmental liabilities and corporate social irresponsibility, e.g. the Vale company (Brazil and Mozambique); the AngloGold Ashanti company (South Africa, Ghana, Colombia). A team led by Dr Beatriz Saes (Univ. Sao Paulo), Tatiana Roa (Censat/FoE Colombia), Bobby Peek (GroundWork, FoE South Africa), will publish resuts in the Journal of Business Ethics or similar publications, building on work started on the Vale company. The sub-project should last one year, 2022-23.

- Dr Sofia Avila will work on the completion and launching of the Mexican EJAtlas, with 170 entries, this is scheduled for June 2021, with Prof. Victor Toledo, UNAM, Morelia (cooperation with Dr Aida Luz López, Conycet).

- The Philippines is one of the most violent countries as regards the killing of environmental defenders.2 According to Global Witness, over half of the 212 reported killings in 2019 occurred in just two countries: Colombia (peaking at 64) and the Philippines (rising from 30 in 2018 to 43 in 2019). This sub-project will expand research on the Philippines by critically evaluating the research on determinants of killings of environmental defenders, cooperating with local NGOs.

In 2021-2023, members of the team will take part in conferences in ecological economics, political ecology, and social movement theory so that they can present their work sponsored by Martínez Alier’s 2020 Balzan Prize. Although it is difficult to predict time and place with certainty at present, the conferences will most likely include international, European and Indian events of the international or regional societies for ecological economics (ISEE, ESEE, INSEE), as well as the POLLEN conference of political ecology.

Moreover, a large conference organized by Martínez Alier’s team is planned for 2023, so that the results of this project can be presented. It could take place at the ICTA UAB or perhaps in Florence (Centre for the Study of Social Movements, Scuola Normale Superiore).

ICTA UAB will take care of administrative costs (apart from the Deputy supervisor), including office space and facilities. ICTA UAB is a medium-sized research institute, and currently the recipient of eight ERC grants. Some of the research activities and the public events of the Balzan award, in particular the final conference, are likely to be co-financed by ICTA UAB, which was accredited as Maria de Maeztu Unit of Excellence for the second time by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation in July 2020.

Charbonnier, P. 2019. Abondance et Liberté. Une histoire environnementale des idées politiques. La Découverte, Paris.

Giampietro M. and Funtowicz S.O. 2020. From elite folk science to the policy legend of the circular economy, Environmental Science & Policy, 109, pp 64-72.

Guha, R. and Martínez Alier J. 1999. Political Ecology, the Environmentalism of the Poor, and the Global Movement for Environmental Justice', Kurswechsel, 3, 27–40.

Haas, W., Krausmann, F. Wiedenkfer, D. Lauk, C. Mayer, A. 2020. Spaceship earth's odyssey to a circular economy - a century long perspective. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 163, 105076

LeBillon, P. and Lujala, P. 2020. Environmental and land defenders: Global patterns and determinants of repression. Global Environmental Change.

Martinez-Alier J., Anguelovski I., Bond P., Del Bene D., Demaria F., Gerber J.-F., Greyl L., Haas W., Healy H., Marín-Burgos V., Ojo G., Porto M., Rijnhout L., Rodríguez-Labajos B., Spangenberg J., Temper L., Warlenius R., Yánez I. 2014. Between activism and science: grassroots concepts for sustainability coined by Environmental Justice Organizations. Journal of Political Ecology. 21: 19-60.

Martinez-Alier J., Temper L., Del Bene D., Scheidel A. 2016. Is there a global environmental justice movement? The Journal of Peasant Studies. 43(3): 731-755.

Martinez-Alier J., Demaria F., Temper L., Walter W. 2016. Changing social metabolism and environmental conflicts in India and South America. Journal of Political Ecology. 23: 467-491.

Martinez-Alier, J., 2016. Global Environmental Justice and the Environmentalism of the Poor. In: Gabrielson, T., Hall, C., Meyer, J.M., Schlosberg, D. (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Environmental Political Theory, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 547-562.

Martínez-Alier, J. 2020. A global environmental justice movement: mapping ecological distribution conflicts. Disjuntiva, 1(2), 83-128.

Roy, Brototi, and Anke Schaffartzik. 2021. Talk renewables, walk coal: The paradox of India’s energy transition. Ecological Economics 180: 106871.

Saes, B.M. and Bisht, A. 2020, Iron ore peripheries in the extractive boom: A comparison between mining conflicts in India and Brazil. The Extractive Industries and Society.

Scheidel A., F. Demaria, L. Temper, J. Martinez-Alier, 2018, Ecological distribution conflicts as forces for sustainability: an overview and conceptual framework, Sustainability Science 13(3): 585-598.

Scheidel, A. Liu, J. Del Bene, B. Navas, G. Mingorría, S. Demaria,F. Avila, S. Roy, B. Ertor, I. Temper, L. Martinez-Alier, J. 2020. Environmental conflicts and defenders: a global view. Global Environmental Change.

Temper, Leah; Daniela Del Bene; J. Martinez-Alier. 2015. Mapping the frontiers and front lines of global environmental justice: the EJAtlas. Journal of Political Ecology 22: 255-278.

Temper L., Demaria F., Scheidel A., Del Bene D., Martinez-Alier J. 2018. The Global Environmental Justice Atlas (EJAtlas): ecological distribution conflicts as forces for sustainability. Sustainability Science. 13(3): 573–584

Temper, L.; Avila, S.; Del Bene, D.; Gobby, J.; Kosoy, N.; LeBillon, P.; Martinez-Alier, J.; Perkins, P.; Roy, B.; Scheidel, A.; Walter, M. 2020. Movements shaping climate futures: A systematic mapping of protests against fossil fuel and low carbon energy projects. Environmental Research Letters, 15(2).

Wagner, L. and Walter M., 2020, Cartografía de la conflictividad minera en Argentina (2003-2018). Un análisis desde el Atlas de Justicia Ambiental, in G.Merlinsky, Forthcoming in English in the journal Extractive Industries and Society.