The economist Joan Martínez-Alier (Barcelona, 1939) received this Thursday the prestigious Balzan Prize 2020 from the president of the Italian Republic, Sergio Mattarella. This award, sometimes considered a prelude to the Nobel, was awarded in the category of environmental challenges, and carries 710,000 euros, half of which must be dedicated to projects of young researchers. Veteran professor at the Autonomous University, the money will allow him to continue his Atlas of Environmental Justice project, where since 2012 he has collected all the environmental conflicts in the world. He declares himself a “repentant economist.”
“The peak of emissions will come when the world population stabilizes”
Congratulations on the award. What will you spend the money on?
To enlarge the Atlas. We will do more cases from China, India and the Philippines, which are difficult countries to access, such as Congo or Pakistan.
Years ago they had about 1,700 classified cases. They now have more than 3,000.
There are many more. Perhaps in the world we could count 20,000 or 30,000 major conflicts of people protesting against companies both on the extractive side and over factories or waste.
He receives it just after the G-20 and COP26, which have had minimal agreements.
I agree with Greta Thunberg: it is bla bla bla . I’ve seen it: when we started the Environmental Sciences degree, in 1992, there were 360 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. This is measured by the Keeling curve. We have gone to 420 parts per million. In thirty years it will reach 450 parts per million. And this will not stop.
It was sold as a great success that China and India committed to zero emissions by the middle of the century.
We have to start lowering the burning of oil, coal and gas first, rather than increasing. The peak of emissions will come when the world population stabilizes, which may happen in 20 or 30 years, and the birth rate is not promoted.
Why is it necessary to reduce the population?
The population multiplies emissions, with large differences between rich and poor. What happens is that poor people rightly do not want to be so poor and so energy use increases. This is what happened in China. Population is a factor.
What are the others?
That technologies change or that there is no economic growth. Without economic growth there will be less energy and fewer materials, contrary to what has happened in the last 200 or 300 years.
Should the rich countries grow less?
They have to stop growing. And the population too. In addition, public policies are necessary that help as environmental taxes so that the poorest people receive a subsidy in exchange for this. And finally, I believe in social movements, of young people who care about future generations. Nobody expected such a big move.
Are you pessimistic in the battle for the West’s ecological debt?
Yes, because rich countries do not want to know anything. The only one who talks about this is Pope Francis, in his ecological encyclical. In Paris there was a lot of discussion but in the end it was decided to put a clause that says that the agreement does not imply ecological responsibility. They were afraid that if they signed there would start to be lawsuits.
Is credibility lost to ask China or India to lower their emissions?
Exactly. I have always thought that the recognition of this legal or moral guilt would help the energy transition in the countries of the south. In Copenhagen they silenced Bolivia with threats that tariff preferences would be taken away from them, and with bribes to African countries.
Do you agree with the Pope in everything?
No, because he is not talking about population reduction. I believe that at some point the Church should speak of the freedom of women to have the children they want. The feminist movement is more important than the environmentalist. He is winning little by little.
Is there too much talk about GDP?
This is what we have been saying from the ecological economy for decades. GDP counts as production what is a temporary extraction that cannot continue over time, and does not count damage to the environment, climate change, diversity, or damage to culture. They are priceless, but they do exist. The values that count in life are not just money.
Was the pandemic an opportunity to see it?
The pandemic served to cast doubt on GDP. The important thing was that the disease did not spread. Everyone made the effort to stay home, sacrificing the cheap economy. GDP fell 8%, but what did they want, 30% of the people to die? Then the discussion about essential jobs began. Neither yours nor mine are. Those of the firefighters, garbage men or those who work at Mercadona seemed more essential. It is very interesting because GDP measures you by your salary but not by the social value that readers give you.
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Joan Martínez-Alier: “The feminist movement is more important than the environmentalist”