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New Left Review I/211, May-June 1995


J. Martinez-Alier

Political Ecology, Distributional Conflicts, and Economic Incommensurability

Environmentalism is sometimes seen as a product of prosperity, an approach usually known as the ‘post-materialist’ thesis. But this fails to do justice to the scope of environmentalist movements today; there is also the ‘environmentalism of the poor’ which grows out of distribution conflicts over the use of ecological resources needed for livelihood. Despite the importance of this contradiction, an ecological Marxism has scarcely existed, though attempts have been made to ‘ecologize’ Sraffian economics. Most environmental goods and services, however, are not in the market, hence the importance of the notion of ‘ecological distribution’, i.e. the social, spatial and temporal asymmetries in access to natural resources or the burdens of pollution (whether traded or not). Political economy, the historic name for economics, is nowadays used for those branches of economics that focus on distributional conflicts. The branches of ecological economics (or human ecology) that focus on ‘ecological distribution’ conflicts can likewise be referred to as political ecology. Several arguments can be adduced against economic commensurability (following a lead from Otto Neurath in the debate of the 1920s on economic calculus in a socialist economy). The issue cannot be resolved by bringing externalities into surrogate markets (there cannot be ‘ecologically correct prices’, though there might be ‘ecologically corrected prices’), but only by social activism against depletion of resources and environmental pollution.

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