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Human ecology and development


Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona

Human ecology

Martínez-Alier argues that human ecology cannot be explained in the same way as that of plants or other animals, as it is necessary to refer to natural and social sciences at the same time. An appropriate mix of the two subjects yields an approach using it as an opportunity for trans-disciplinary education.

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It is easy to remember how much of the energy we consume comes from the food we eat. Just ask someone who is trying to lose weight. An average person consumes around 2,000 to 2,500 kcal a day in this way. So, given that 2400 kcal equals 10 MJ (megajoules), we can calculate an average person’s annual consumption of endosomatic energy (to use Alfred Lotka’s terminology) to be 3.6 GJ (gigajoules). When it comes to exosomatic HIGHLIGHTSProfile: Joan Martínez-Alier
consumption, however, humans have nothing in their biological programming to stop them increasing their energy use to 30 GJ, 100 GJ or 500 GJ a year. This depends on our level of economic income and on our preferences. We have developed a series of exosomatic tools (cars, aeroplanes, central heating, air conditioning, and even the computer on which I am writing these lines) which enable us to increase our energy use.

In today’s modern civilisation our energy is largely drawn not from current photosynthesis (which remains of the source of calories for endosomatic consumption), but from deposits of fossil fuels laid down millions of years ago. This energy can only be used once. And we have to extract it wherever it happens to be: in the Amazon rainforest, or in the Niger Delta, which is what Chevron, Shell, Repsol and other private or state-owned companies do. Human ecology is therefore bound up with conflicts over the extraction of natural Studying human ecology does not need to be depressing. A lot of trends are negative, but not all of themresources and disposal of wastes, such as the excessive amounts of carbon dioxide that are being produced, exceeding the capacity oceans and the atmosphere to absorb it, and which is consequently modifying their composition somewhat.

Table 1 shows a simplified representation of social metabol-ism over the course of human history. The two first stages relied on current photosynthesis (hunter-gatherers and farmers) whereas the third stage, which is where much of the world is today, uses the “Underground Forest,” as the historian Rolf Peter Sieferle, has called it. In other words, coal, oil and gas. The switch from hunter gatherer societies to agrarian societies is marked in Table 1 by the use of domestic animals to till the soil and for transport. This explains the increase in energy and materials used in economies still based on current solar energy (and not the solar energy of the past, locked up in fossil fuels). However, not all agrarian societies have used large domestic animals.

The population density figures are approximate. Some rich countries have low densities (e.g. America and Australia), and some agricultural countries that were until recently poor have densities similar to those of Western Europe or Japan (e.g. India). But a trad-itional agricultural economy, no matter how intensive, cannot sustain more than five or six people per hectare. The current worldwide process of urbanisation is a product of fossil-fuel-powered industrial-isation. This is something that separates human ecology from that of other creatures.

Environmental education: between values and the sciences
Human ecology cannot be explained solely in the same terms as that of plants and other animals. We need to turn to both the natural and social sciences at the same time.

There are specialists who explain how environmental education should be delivered in secondary schools. I do not entirely agree with them because frequently they put too much emphasis on values. That is to say, they try to make schoolchildren see and believe that all living creatures have the right to be respected; that we must take future generations into account; that we need an environmental ethic based on an awareness that planet Earth is finite; that the human population has already expanded enormously; and, that through our arrogance we have caused many species that existed before we did disappear. All these arguments are valid when it comes to spreading green or environmental social values, and these are attractive to many young people. Others, or perhaps the same young people, but at a different time, think that if there is not enough Species are disappearing at a rate which is perhaps a thousand times faster than normal, without there even being time to catalogue them so we can now what has been lostfor everybody, these must at least be enough for them; that the bigger their car or motorbike, the better; that there is no point in thinking in future generations because maybe the world will end sooner than you think; and that animals plants and micro-organisms are on the earth to serve human needs.

Environmental topics have enormous virtues for teaching purposes: they make it possible to break the traditional division between social sciences and natural sciences. In environmental education this crosscutting vision should not the excuse for just one or two extra classes during the school year, but should be part of day-to-day teaching, such that social and natural sciences are taught together. For example, photosynthesis is explained to pupils between the ages of 10 and 12. In spring it is nice to see its results in the way plants grow by capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing oxygen. But it would be important in the same class to explain how photosynthesis also underpins the discovery of agriculture in various parts of the world around eight or ten thousand years ago, the purpose of which was precisely to exploit photosynthesis to meet human nutritional needs, and at the same time teach about the sun-worship religions that emerged in some cultures. And the next day’s lesson could explain that we are currently discharging so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that we are increasing the greenhouse effect. And from there we would go on to talk about the international politics of oil and the Hubbert peak.

When the time comes to talk about energy units, it would be worth bringing up the controversial subject of nuclear power stations, the wind turbines which are appearing everywhere, or how much power they produce, how many joules, how many cal-ories, how many kilowatt-hours they will supply. And if the topic is sulphuric acid, the chemistry lesson should be turned into a social sciences lesson talking about the (involuntary) production of sulphur dioxide by coal-fired power stations and metal foundries, which explains acid rain and its harmful effects.

The same barriers should also be broken down in history lessons. History is not a discip-line limited to the arts and social sciences: the universe, biological evolution and geology are also history. Moreover human history cannot be understood without talking about biological evolution, energy, diseases, bacteria or viruses.

The appropriate mix of social and natural aspects when studying human ecology can yield an approach to environmental education which is not based solely on social values but is taught a trans-disciplinary way.

  In spring it is nice to see the way plants grow by capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and releasing oxygen.

What the economists do not tell us
Studying human ecology does not need to be depressing. A lot of trends are negative, but not all of them. The first positive fact, looking at a 30 year horizon, is the end of popul-ation growth. Whereas in the 20th century the human population increased fourfold, in the 21st-century it will probably reach a peak of 8.5 billion in 2045 and then decline somewhat. This will cause certain local problems, but will be excellent news for climate change and biodiversity conservation. As we have known since the debates between Paul Ehrlich and Barry Commoner, 40 years ago, environmental impact does not depend solely on population density but also on per capita income and technology. The poor of the world need to boost their income, and many of them (in India, China and Indonesia) are managing to do so, but the technologies they are currently using are envir-onmentally damaging. Industrialisation in China and India is coal-intensive. For the world’s population to peak and then start to fall is, therefore, a good thing.

Another positive development is the formation of alliances between the burgeoning environmental justice movement in the South and the small degrowth movement in certain rich countries, such as France and Italy, and also in Catalonia, where in March 2010 we organised the Second International Conference on Economic Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability ( Although the European degrowth movement would have a hard time winning parliamentary elections or turning itself into an official European policy (where “sustainable development” has been replaced in the midst of bureaucratic confusion by “green growth”), this social movement for degrowth nevertheless reflects the loss of appetite in Europe for a model of growth which we know leads to economic crises, which relies on impossible levels of indebtedness, which lacks solidarity, is destructive and is unable to boost levels of happiness or joie de vivre by raising our levels of income above the current average. Why grow and grow, as the president of the European commission Sicco Mansholt said in 1972 having read the report by Meadows et al. to the Club of Rome that year?

Despite the psychological and institutional resistance of economists who defend themselves against environmentalism tooth and claw, the criticism that began in the 1960s and in the early 1970s with the Club of Rome’s report in 1972, the great books of Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and H.T. Odum in 1971 and other contributions from this time by European writers such as Jacques Ellul, Cornelius Castoriadis, Ivan Illich, André Gorz and Fritz Schumacher, are all beginning to make inroads. There is a clear continuity from the criticisms in 1968-69 of the proto-ecological economists Kenneth Boulding, Robert Ayres and Herman Daly, to the current positions in favour of gentle economic degrowth in the rich countries.
Thus, within the pessimism justified by some of today’s trends, to which we might add the inability to reach effective international agreements on climate change or biodiversity conservation, I think that both demographics and environmentalist thought and activism (and the growing loss of credibility of economics) enable us to view the outlook for the next few decades positively.

As James Gustave Speth recently argued (“Towards a new economy and a new politics”, Solutions, 2010), the reasons for calling for a fundamental change in current trends in the use of energy and materials, the destruction of biodiversity, are that if we carry on as at present, climate change (as we are adding two ppm of CO2 atmosphere per year), and the disappearance of many species, is a certainty.

At the current rate, as the energy from fossil fuels can only be used once, and as only a fraction of the materials we use are recycled, we have to look for them in ever more extreme locations, destroying biodiversity and human lives on the way. These locations are If growth relies on technologies similar to present ones, the result will be the impoverishment of future generationssometimes the home of tribal groups or other people who protest, and are the true protagonists of environmental justice movements, although these movements also exist, but with less strength, in the world’s advanced countries.

In his article Speth says (as does the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment) that half the world’s wetlands and a third of its mangroves have disappeared and the availability of many species of fish is declining. A fifth of the oceans’ coral has been lost. Forests are expanding in the countries of Europe and North America (firewood having been replaced by fossil fuels) but the destruction of tropical rainforests continues at a rate of half a hectare per second. Species are disappearing at a rate which is perhaps a thousand times faster than normal, without there even being time to catalogue them so as to know what has been lost. There are POPs (persistent organic pollutants) dispersed across the globe, even in the polar ice, and our bloodstream is laden with toxic chemicals even if we have never worked in an industry using them. Human appropriation of net primary production of biomass (HANPP) has perhaps reached 40% and continues to rise as trees are planted for paper, crops planted to produce biofuels or feeds for livestock, thus pushing other species further back into a corner.

And there is hardly a river left in the world which has not been dammed.

The paradox of optimism
Traditional economics do not recognise that these impacts all represent costs which should be deducted from GDP (if we knew how to measure them in monetary terms) but have faith in the capacity of economic growth to remedy the damage. This metaphysical faith in growth justifies in their eyes the undervaluation of the future, because they believe that thanks to today’s investments and technological change, our descendants will be richer and the additional satisfaction that they obtain from increasing consumption will be less than ours. The hypothesis of continual growth justifies our current use of exhaustible resources and the gener-ation of more pollution, as it is assumed that our descendants will be richer and will easily be able to tackle these drawbacks. The truth is, however, that growth, if it is produced with technologies similar to those we have today, is going to impoverish future generations because they will have a degraded environment and lower quality of life.

Faith in economic growth leads to an undervaluation of the future and therefore produces an ethic, if one can call it that, of Carpe Diem, enjoying the present although the legacy we leave is a world marred by biodiversity loss, nuclear waste, and climate change; but none of this matters, because the assumption is that our descendants will be richer than us and they will know what to do about this damage and be able to offset it somehow.

Economists undervalue the future because they suppose that our descendants are going to be richer; we are therefore going to leave them a world that is impoverished and polluted. This is the ‘paradox of optimism.’ In fact, against this metaphysical optimism (with its attendant undervaluation of the future), all we need for our descendants to be worse off than us and for our species to disappear is to carry on as we are at present. However, not only are we continuing at the same rate but we want to, and are even managing to, increase it. The global economy, with China and India in the fore, but also including countries such as Germany and others in the leading group, grew 4% in 2010 (without deducting environmental damage). This GDP growth also shows up in the increase in indicators such as the “ecological footprint” (an index which adds land use and carbon dioxide emissions), after a short interruption in its upward path with the crisis in 2008-2009.

Profile: Joan Martínez-Alier

Has been a professor in the Department of Economics and Economic History at the Barcelona Autonomous University since 1976. Over the last twenty-five years he has come to be recognised as a leading academic and major spokesman of the new field of “ecological economics.” In 1987 he joined colleagues from around the world in becoming a founding member of the International Society of Ecological Economics, of which he was president in 2006 and 2007. He has extensive experience in various institutions: he was a research fellow and lecturer at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford, visiting researcher at the Berlin Free University, Stanford University, the University of California, and FLACSO in Quinto.

As well as his professional research work in Europe, he has sought to explore the implications of ecological economics in Latin America and India. His current research focuses on ecological economics and languages of evaluation, political ecology, environmental justice and ecologism among the poor.

Published in No. 04

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