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In the Frontline of Planetary Battles

Rohan D'Souza

By Joan Martinez-Alier
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 312, Rs. 575.00

VOLUME XXX NUMBER 1-2 January-February 2006

This book is aimed at the very heart of belief in the modern world: the ineluctable faith in economic growth. The idea of progress tied to inexhaustible desire and the unrelenting quest for want driven development have, in concert, become elements central to the globalizing economy. In the media generated imagination, a rising stock market, increasing exports, consumer confidence and growing markets are loudly claimed to be the ‘objective’ indicators of universal salvation and by implication approximations to the virtuous and good life. But many justifiably ask, are these false gods or empty idols or a cult finally gone awry? Some discontents have gone so far as to argue that the neo liberal project, at this momentous apex of its fervour and triumph, has actually begun to come apart, most dramatically upon the very earthly roots of its existence. Economic growth is exposed for what it is: wealth essentially as a fatal accounting fiction made possible at a huge ecological loss. Put differently, the economy is not a miracle; it cannot conjure loaves and fish out of thin air or walk on water, it has real and evident environmental consequences.   Amidst this monstrous reality, understandably, many a prophet of doom has flourished, but fortunately as well there has also emerged clear voices for hope and more importantly those armed with clarity and precision in analysis. The Environmentalism of the Poor can categorically and refreshingly so be declared the latter. Its author, Joan Martinez-Alier is one of the most extraordinary ecological economists of our times and for almost three decades perhaps the grand inquisitor to the profligate heresies of neo-classical environmental economics. What Matinez-Alier reaffirms in the initial chapters is that profit-seeking markets are weak guides to explaining complex ecological realities. Similarly, the logic of pricing is a fallible and flawed instrument for relating to and organizing substances of Nature.   In a nutshell, neo-classical environmental economics ‘falls apart’ on one of its central claims — the commensurability of values in the Natural world. Rather, the author avers, Nature exists in and simultaneously straddles diverse physical and biological processes and has been historically mediated through an equally varied array of social and cultural values. A pure economic valuation based approach, in other words, cannot credibly help decide and determine the availability or use of natural endowments. Consequently, concepts making up the environmental economist’s much touted tool kit such as contingent valuation, cost-benefit ...

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