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«Received: 03-09-2013 Accepted: 20-11-2013 ABSTRACT This paper explains the methods for counting the energy and material flows in the economy, and ...»

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Indi@logs Vol 1 2014, pp. 51-83, ISSN: 2339-8523

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------SOCIAL METABOLISM A D E VIRO ME TAL CO FLICTS I I DIA


ICTA, Universitat Autonòma de Barcelona


leah.temper@gmail.com federicodemaria@gmail.com Received: 03-09-2013 Accepted: 20-11-2013


This paper explains the methods for counting the energy and material flows in the economy, and gives the main results of the Material Flows for the economy of India between 1961 and 2008 as researched by Simron Singh et al (2012). Drawing on work done in the EJOLT project, some illustrations are given of the links between the changing social metabolism and ecological distribution conflicts, looking at responses in Odisha to bauxite mining, at conflicts on sand mining, at disputes on waste management options in Delhi and at ship dismantling in Alang, Gujarat. The aim is to show how a history of social metabolism, of socio-environmental conflicts, and of the changing valuation languages deployed by various social actors in such conflicts, could be written in a common framework.

KEYWORDS: Economic Growth; Material Flows; Bauxite Mining; Sand Mining; Ship Dismantling; Urban Waste Disposal; Environmental Movements El metabolismo social y los conflictos socio-ambientales en la India


Este artículo exlica los métodos seguidos para calcular los flujos de energía y de materiales en cualquier economía, y da los resultados (de Singh y otros, 2012) de los cálculos de Flujos de Materiales en la India desde 1961 hasta 2008. Incorporando investigaciones realizadas en el proyecto EJOLT, mostramos la conexión entre el cambiante metabolismo social y los conflictos de distribución ecológica, con las protestas en Odisha sobre la minería de bauxita, los conflictos sobre la “minería” de arena en varios lugares de la India, los debates sobre la gestión de la basura en Delhi, y el desguace de barcos en Alang, Gujarat. Nuestro objetivo es combinar en un solo marco la historia del metabolismo social y la historia de los conflictos socio-ambientales y los distintos lenguajes de valoración usados por los actores sociales de tales conflictos.

PALABRAS CLAVE: crecimiento económico; flujos de materiales; mineria de bauxita; mineria de arena; tratamiento de basura; desguace de barcos; movimientos ambientalistas The Standard Of Living The industrial economy works in practice by shifting costs to poor people, to future generations, and to other species. Could an industrial economy work otherwise? The impacts occur at various temporal and geographical scales. They arise because of the


------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------increased social metabolism, and this article shall show what the main trends in India are.

Sometimes, environmental liabilities appear in the public scene when there are complaints or when there are sudden accidents as in Bhopal in 1984 or Fukushima in 2011 and so many other cases. But here we shall look at those other scenarios that very rarely make the headlines. Shrivastava’s and Kothari’s brilliant book of 2012, Churning the Earth: the Making of Global India is written in the spirit of Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation, and also draws on the critique of uniform development brought forward since the 1980s by Ashish Nandy, Shiv Visvanathan, Arturo Escobar, Gustavo Esteva, Wolfgang Sachs (1991) and Norgaard (1994).1 Shrivastava and Kothari also draw on ecological economists such as K.W. Kapp and Herman Daly, and they criticize Amartya Sen’s notion of “development as freedom” (Sen, 1999). Development is not only growth of income per capita and the movement of low productivity farmers into higher productivity occupations, together with industrialization and urbanization. Sen’s canvass is broader, and can be summarized in the caption of “capabilities”. Development should really mean to acquire the material circumstances and the mental and social abilities to choose as much as possible your own path in life. One can agree with all this but there is still in Amartya Sen a positive view of economic development in contrast to the critics of development quoted above.

From the current Indian experience, Shrisvastava and Kothari assert that “development as freedom” falls short of accounting for disappearing natural environments and human cultures, and they ask why “even as sophisticated a writer as Amartya Sen… omits any discussion on the loss of land and livelihood, human community and culture that is invariably involved in the displacement induced by development”. In Sen’s writings, the natural environment has been seen, if at all, as amenities to be enjoyed once you are well off although in fact, using Sen’s own conceptual framework, it could be claimed that what development achieves is the loss of traditional “entitlements” to products and services formerly available outside the market. This is taken up again below in the section on “the GDP of the poor”.

Wolfgang Sachs edited a collection of these authors’ writings (Sachs, 1991) including also Serge Latouche and Vandana Shiva. They are seen in retrospect as “post-development” thinkers. There is a straight line from their critique of uniform development to today’s notion of Buen Vivir in the constitutions of Bolivia and Ecuador.

Indi@logs, Vol 1 2014, pp.51-83, ISSN 2339-8523


------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------There is still a persistent trend among economists to see the environment as a luxury good and to consider that the poor are “too poor to be green” (Martinez-Alier, 1995 & Temper & Martinez-Alier, 2007). This view is vigorously opposed by Shrivastava and Khotari whose book is dedicated to the many movements for ecological and social justice taking place today in India and elsewhere.

In British historiography, there was a debate on whether the “standard of living” for the common people increased between 1760 and 1850, and on what the “standard of living” meant. In India, a country that at present is compressing into a short time socioeconomic historical periods that could be represented in the West by Charles Dickens, Henry Ford and Bill Gates, there could be a similar debate. Moreover, sensitivity to environmental values and the diversity of languages and cultures has increased since E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm have argued for a more “pessimistic” interpretation of British society.

The British “standard of living” debate is relevant to today’s India. and these historic issues are not only defined by the enclosures and the application of the “Poor Laws”, but also by the rate of increase in real wages of labourers and industrial workers.

Quality of life had deteriorated (in terms incommensurate with money wages) because of overcrowded urban housing conditions, pollution, loss of access to land and loss of status of independent skilled workers. In due course, the condition of the English working class improved. This improvement was due to the increasingly efficient power of coal to move the machines of the “thermo-industrial” revolution (Grinevald, 1976) and to the making of markets for the textile industry all over the world, including India.

It was also due to the slowly increasing union power of the new working class and the political power of Britain to exploit other territories, both in its colonies, and in the southern United States which, until the 1860s, exported to Britain cheap slave labourpower and cheap soil services transformed into cotton. The “ghost acres” and slave labour-time in sugar production in the Caribbean also helped (Hornborg, 1998 & 2007).

Although they tried, the British were far from being able to literally strip the world bare like locusts because there were too few of them (about 27 million by 1870), many were poor, and also because coal was extracted from the island itself. In 1870 (when Charles Indi@logs, Vol 1 2014, pp.51-83, ISSN 2339-8523


------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Dickens died) coal extraction in Britain was to the tune of three to four tons per person, a figure that rose per capita until 1914.2 Poverty itself had been created by enclosures and dispossession. It decreased in Britain after the first decades of the thermo-industrial revolution but there were many losses unaccounted for. Then, something unexpected happened internationally that should have dampened the positive views on the thermo-industrial revolution. In 1896 Svante Arrhenius published the first articles showing that temperatures would increase because of increased carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere by burning coal.

Nevertheless, climate change was not a spanner thrown into doctrines of economic growth until 1985, ninety years later, with the creation of the IPCC. The Intergovernmenal Panel on Climate Change has been chaired since 2002 by an Indian, Dr R.K. Pachauri. The IPCC copes with the impossible task of making climate change one main political issue in India and the world.

There was early awareness that the economy was increasingly relying on non-renewable sources of energy. From Jevons in 1865 to Patrick Geddes from the 1880s to the 1920s, and Frederick Soddy in the 1910s and 1920s, it was repeatedly pointed out that economic growth was based on fossil energy stocks which were being burnt and irreversibly dissipated. Later, in the late 1940s, calculations of “peak oil” began to appear, and in the 1970s estimates of a decreasing EROI in agriculture and in the commercial energy sector (Pimentel, et al., 1973; Hall et al., 1986; Martinez-Alier, 1987 & 2011) Energy cannot be recycled, therefore even an economy that would not grow but that would use large amounts of fossil fuels, would need “fresh” supplies coming from the commodity frontiers. The same applies to materials, which in practice are recycled only to some extent (like copper, aluminium, steel or paper). Water is recycled in nature by sun energy but we use groundwater and sometimes also surface water quicker that it is replenished. When the economy grows, the search for water and other materials and energy sources is of course even greater.

In India coal extraction is still only about 0.5 t/cap/yr, mainly for electricity production (a process somewhat more efficient than 1870 steam engines).

Indi@logs, Vol 1 2014, pp.51-83, ISSN 2339-8523


------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------The GDP of the Poor When economic historians reconstruct GDP series, they would have to balance gains (in monetary and non monetary terms) with losses. A notion developed in India that points to such unaccounted losses is denominated the “GDP of the poor”, and was popularized by the reports published in 2008 and 2010 of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodivesity (TEEB). Authors Haripriya Gundimeda, Pushpam Kumar and Pavan Sukhdev in the first TEEB report “found that the most significant beneficiaries of forest biodiversity and ecosystem services are the poor, and the predominant economic impact of a loss or denial of these inputs is to the income security and well-being of the poor”.

Here “economic” and “income” are not or should not be meant in a chrematistic sense.

Assume a woman making a living by collecting shells in a mangrove forest with a husband who sustainably produces charcoal for the family and for the local market.

Assume that a local shrimp farming corporation or an urban developer encloses the mangrove forest and destroys it (legally or illegally). The loss in the standard of living because of displacement, the increased fear because of threats of security guards, lack of access to food and domestic energy, are not well measured in money terms. That family is likely to lack money to compensate for the losses through buying alternative accommodation and other sources of livelihood. The notion of equivalent compensation itself is in question. Moreover, the surrounding populations are now in danger because they lack protection against storms or tsunamis and, furthermore, there has also been a loss of biodiversity in itself, beyond products or services for humans.

Assume (as in India which is driven by an increased extraction of materials), that a poor rural woman working at home and also outside the home for subsistence or for wages, finds that that the water in the river or the well is now polluted because of mining nearby. This water which was once free (providing if social institutions of caste allowed access to it) is now polluted, and this woman is unlikely to have money, even if she gets Indi@logs, Vol 1 2014, pp.51-83, ISSN 2339-8523


------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------a NREGA3 wage to buy the plastic bottles for the water need for the family. If she buys water she cannot buy food or wood or clothes.

When people see their access to nature’s products or services destroyed by deforestation, mining, tree plantations, dams or transport infrastructures, they often complain. They might ask for compensation (to “internalize the externalities”) or, very likely, they will eschew chrematistic accounting and appeal instead to a language of rights.

Ecological Distribution Conflicts and the Defence of the Commons The increased use of fossil fuels and minerals, the human appropriation of the available biomass, the diversion of water to industrial use etc., all bring about an increase in conflicts related to the access to environmental products and services and on the distribution of the burdens of pollution. This does not imply that poor people are always on the side of conservation, which would be patently untrue. However, in many conflicts born out of resource extraction, transport or pollution, the local poor people (indigenous or not) are often on the side of conservation not so much because they are explicitly environmentalists but because of their livelihood needs and (often) their cultural values (Guha & Martinez-Alier, 1997; Martinez-Alier, 2005).

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