Joan Martinez-Alier receives the 2023 Holberg Prize – Interview by Tone Smith

This interview between Joan Martinez-Alier and Tone Smith was originally published as part of the Spring/summer 2023  ESEE Newsletter.

You can read the whole newsletter here.

Joan Martinez-Alier receives the 2023 Holberg Prize

Interview by Tone Smith, ESEE Board

This year’s Holberg Prize has been awarded to Joan Martinez-Alier for his research in ecological economics, political ecology and environmental justice. The Holberg Prize was established by the Norwegian Parliament in 2003 to fill a gap within the range of existing Nobel prizes. It is awarded annually to a scholar who has made outstanding contributions to research in the humanities, social science, law or theology, either in one of these fields or through interdisciplinary work. Amongst earlier winners are Sheila Jasanoff (2022), Martha Nussbaum (2021), Manuel Castells (2012) and Jürgen Habermas (2005). Martinez-Alier received the prize and gave his lecture during the Holberg Week (June 6-12 in Bergen, Oslo & online).

I met with Martinez-Alier (virtually) to talk about his work, what the prize means to him, and – more broadly – what it can come to mean to ecological economics.

T.S.: What does this prize mean to you? 

J.M-A.: It means a recognition of the fields of ecological economics, political ecology and environmental justice, and of my role in them. The Holberg prize in 2023 and the Balzan prize of 2020 should both be seen as collective prizes. The Environmental Justice Atlas (with Leah Temper, Daniela Del Bene, Arnim Scheidel and over a hundred collaborators since we started it in 2012) is a collective enterprise, a tool for the study of comparative political ecology and also for supporting the grassroot world environmental justice movements. I have been influenced by the environmental justice movement in the USA, and the principles they proclaimed in 1991, and I have been working together with some environmental groups in Ecuador, Colombia, Nigeria, India …  or, rather, leaning from them.   

Meanwhile, ecological economics was “officially” founded in the late 1980s, drawing strongly from the works of dissident economists N. Georgescu-Roegen, K. W. Kapp, K. Boulding, H. Daly, and also from the works of H. T. Odum, his students A. M. Jansson, C. Folke and many others, including the physicist R. U. Ayres and his work on material flows. I was simply one of many founders. One merit I am acquiring is longevity. “Will you still love me when I’m 84?” – to paraphrase The Beatles.

T.S.: Why do you think you got the prize at this specific time?

J.M.-A.: It was overdue. Since the mainstream economists, who control the often-called Nobel Prize for economics, so far missed all the names mentioned above and more, it had to be the Holberg prize (and before that the Balzan prize) that was given to one of us, among those of us still alive.

T.S.: What do you think the prize can mean for ecological economics?

J.M.-A.: Here is a prize given to something called “ecological economics”, that many mainstream economists would say does not even exist! So, the prize is indeed important for ecological economics.

It is also important that we call ourselves ecological economists. The young generation have been ecological economists all their lives, not becoming one later, like myself. So, with the new generation the field is more stabilised. Still, it is important who we elect as president. And the journal, of course. With rising popularity and attention comes also the risk of ecological economics being co-opted, as happened with the Beijer Institute “of Ecological Economics” in the early 1990s for example, where ecological economists were left out in favour of mainstream environmental economists such as Karl-Göran Mäler and Partha Dasgupta. This has been well described in Inge Røpke’s 2005-article about the history of ecological economics.

T.S.: Not everybody “out there” know ecological economics (yet!). How would you explain to journalists and others what ecological economics is?

J.M.-A.: I would say that it is a critique of mainstream economics. We do not study so much markets and prices, but instead the social metabolism in terms of flows of energy and materials. We also study “funds” (as Georgescu-Roegen called them), that is, the fertility of the soil, the water cycle, the productivity of the forests and the oceans. The question then is: are these funds being maintained or are they being modified and depleted? Further, ecological economists propose other social and physical indicators. For example EROI or HANPP. In macroeconomics, we are against economic growth (measured by GDP). The critique of GDP brings us together with feminist economics, at least since Marilyn Waring’s book Counting for Nothing (1988) that insisted on the essential care labour done mostly by women, without payment. She said: “Safe drinking water counts for nothing. A pollution-free environment counts for nothing. Even some people – namely women – count for nothing”. The point is not to monetise everything and include it in the GDP, but to leave GDP aside, and substitute it with physical and social indicators. Even the well-meaning Human Development Index includes GDP per capita, while leaving out environmental damages.

T.S.: Can you explain about the link between ecological economics and political ecology?

J.M-A.: In my own research in ecological economics, I bring ecological economics together with political ecology, at two points. First, the study of social metabolism. The world industrial economy is not at all circular, it is entropic. This is something that ecological economists understand well. Second, trying to bridge the “entropy hole”, there is a rather desperate search for new sources of energy (coal, oil, gas…) and for materials (now also including more and more nickel, copper, lithium etc. for the “electric transition”). Conflicts then arise at the “commodity extraction frontiers” of fossil fuels and other materials. Conflicts also arise due to waste disposal, including climate change, that is, the gigantic conflict on the excessive production of carbon dioxide. More generally we can say that ecological distribution conflicts are born from the growth and changes in the social metabolism.

Such conflicts are often also valuation contests. Social actors of such conflicts express values which cannot be reduced to economic accounting. We are dealing with plural and incommensurable values. However, political power is used to impose some valuation languages (such as cost-benefit analysis, or monetary compensation for externalities), negating others.

Political ecology studies the power to impose specific uses of the environment and also the power to impose valuation languages. This is why political ecology is called “political”. The use of the environment is not only explained by biology, or by ancestral human customs or other institutions, or by population growth and changing technologies. It also depends on the changing political power of human groups (e.g. indigenous peoples, peasants, capitalists, rulers of empires…).

The Global Atlas of Environmental Justice facilitates research on comparative, statistical political ecology. It has mapped thousands of local environmental conflicts, local resistance against inequitable distribution of environmental burdens of damaging projects and policies, from land thefts, deforestation and uniform tree plantations, and fossil fuel extraction and metal mines to pipelines, refineries and poisonous waste sites. There is a potent world movement for environmental justice. The environmentalism of the poor and the indigenous undermines the belief in elitist environmentalism (i.e. considering the environment as a luxury good).

T.S.: How was your own meeting with ecological economics? How did you come to the field in the first place? What was it that caught your interest?

J.M.-A.: I was a young ignorant economist, and I did graduate courses on agricultural economics. One of them, in Stanford in 1962-63, was on the economics of food consumption. I learned how to count calories and proteins. Then I went to Oxford (St. Antony’s College) for ten years, first as a student and then as research fellow, and wrote two books, on agrarian issues and conflicts in Southern Spain, Cuba and highland Peru (1971, 1977). In Peru, I read a lot of ecological anthropology and on energy flows in agriculture. In 1971, H. T. Odum, David Pimentel and others started to show that modern agriculture was less energy-efficient than traditional agriculture. My background in agrarian issues made me read Georgescu-Roegen already in the early 1960s, but it was not until 1979 that I wrote, together with J M Naredo, on Podolinsky’s agricultural energetics (summarising his articles published around 1880, one hundred years earlier). As is well known, Podolinsky was highly praised by Vernadsky, but was criticized by Engels who did not quite understand how the EROI of agriculture (as we would call it today) would be calculated. Engels wrote to Marx that one should not mix up physics and economics. Podolinsky was almost ignored for a long time. He had become ill after 1880 and died still young.

I met Georgescu-Roegen for a few days in person in Barcelona in 1980, and then corresponded with him as I was writing the first version of my book Ecological Economics. Energy, Economy and Society (1987), “discovering” other authors mostly from Central Europe, but also Patrick Geddes and Frederick Soddy who had written of energy and the economy before 1940 and who had criticised the economists. While writing this book, I met Jansson, Daly and Bob Costanza… We had meetings in Stockholm, in Warsaw, then in Barcelona in 1987 with more proto-ecological economists (including Dick Norgaard, Ch. Perrings, John Proops …), and also with Silvio Funtowicz and Jerry Ravetz. The international society and the journal were then founded around 1990, with Costanza as the main force.

T.S.: What do you see as the core concepts of ecological economics today?

J.M.-A.: There have been some growing new fields. In my view, ecological macroeconomics has made progress. After the early writings by Herman Daly on the “steady state”, and the ISEW (which was based on a weak notion of “sustainability”), we have left totally behind the idea of economic growth, we believe that Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are really not our goals because SDG 8 preaches economic growth (measured by GDP) everywhere. Ideas such as “prosperity without growth” and “managing without growth” (Tim Jackson, Peter Victor) has guided ecological macroeconomics in the last ten or fifteen years. Moreover degrowth has been growing as an approach, and also as a social movement in the Global North, recognised by achievements such as the recent ERC Synergy Grant to Kallis, Hickel and Steinberger  – they all explicitly say that they are ecological economists.

Also the discussion about international trade and the environment have been gaining strength, with the operationalisation of “ecologically unequal trade” in physical terms by A. Hornborg and others. In Latin America, this part of ecological economics has been very well received, and it links to the subcontinent’s “anti-extractivist” positions of Mariestella Svampa, Eduardo Gudynas and Alberto Acosta. 

Linked to this, there is work like that by Beatriz Saes in Brazil, also a card-carrying ecological economist, on the social and environmental costs of iron mining by the Vale company, the usual link from increased social metabolism to ecological distribution conflicts and to valuation contests. She has written with other colleagues two articles on what we should call business ecological economics. It sounds better in German: ökologische Betriebswirtschaft. There are chairs and departments with this name, usually devoted to greenwashing. But we can also do critical studies on corporate social irresponsibility, following in the steps of K. W. Kapp (1950) who argued that externalities are not market failures, but cost-shifting “successes” that sometimes give rise to social complaints and movements. This could become a flourishing field of ecological economics, applied to business studies with their millions of students around the world.

Finally, another trait of ecological economics is the continuing emphasis on the importance of population growth that for some time promoted a “top down approach”. One approach was to stop population growth by state rule, as to some extent has been done in China. However, in recent years there has been a very fruitful discussion on Malthusianism, calling attention the demographic transition in Europe and the USA one hundred years ago and to how this was accompanied and pushed by “feminist Neo-malthusians” preaching “conscious procreation” as part of their own fight for freedom. See e.g. anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman or Francis Ronsin’s La grève des ventres. Propagande néo-malthusienne et baisse de la natalité en France, 19e-20e siècles (1980). This view of powerful grassroot feminist movements denies the anti-immigration views of some ecological economists in the USA.

T.S.: Has your own approach to ecological economics changed over time? Your first book “Ecological economics. Energy, environment and society” is strongly focused on the material aspects of energy and resources, while more recently you seemed to have moved more into a social constructionist approach. Do you see this as a change in your approach, or are they complementary?

J.M.-A.: They are complementary. This links with another subfield of ecological economics, the study of the debates on scientific, technical knowledge as applied to policy decisions or to environmental conflicts. How dangerous are nuclear power plants? When will the next big accident take place? This is about uncertainty, rather than probabilistic risk. In many environmental conflicts (usually caused by the physical increase and changes in the social metabolism), there are discrepancies on the scientific facts. For instance, to what extent does glyphosate used in soybeans production harm human health? To what extent do eucalyptus plantations destroy biodiversity? The conflict does not only revolve around estimations of damages, but also around their very reality. Sometimes ignorance is indeed manufactured, as happened for a long time around asbestosis or climate change. Problems were known, but hidden. However, sometimes uncertainty is genuine, at least for some time. All sides in the conflict might have different plausible views. In environmental impact assessments (EIAs) the facts are contested, different social values and unequal degrees of power appear, some groups are included in the discussion while others are excluded and deemed not to understand scientific language. We are in the realm of post-normal science as defined by Funtowicz and Ravetz in the 1990s.

As regards ecological microeconomics, the IPBES reports (in which Unai Pascual and other ecological economists are involved) have put to rest the fashion of giving monetary values to “ecosystem services”. The IPBES reports use the expression “nature’s contributions to people”, which emphasise plural values. It seemed (for instance in the TEEB project) that giving money values to nature opened up business opportunities by amplifying the sphere of commodification. I wrote many years ago that such economic arguments could be counterproductive.

T.S.: The international student movement Rethinking Economics is fighting to get a diversity of economic theories back in the economics curriculum, just like it is done in the other social sciences. How do you see the chances of ecological economics being taught as part of economics?

I believe that economics, understood as the study of markets and prices, should not be a discipline of its own, but rather be understood as a specific cultural practice and be part of the study of human livelihood.

A study programme on human livelihood should start with the history of human ecology, in terms of flows of energy and materials, including energetics and nutrition. Students need to start with learning about the amount of calories in potatoes, rather than exchange! Then society and social institutions can be introduced, including forms of distributions from Polanyi: reciprocity, distribution and markets, peripheral markets. Only in the third or firth year could one start with markets as central institutions, and do micro and macro. But students should also learn about comparative economic systems, including work by economic anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins.


For more insights into Martinez-Alier’s work and legacy, see the recent publication “The Barcelona School of Ecological Economics and Political Ecology. A Companion in Honour of Joan Martinez-Alier”, edited by Sergio Villamayor-Tomas and Roldan Muradian. The book is freely available here.

Martinez-Alier’s forthcoming book “Land, Water, Air and Freedom. The making of world movements for environmental justice” will be released October/November 2023.