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Ecological distribution conflicts as forces for sustainability: an overview and conceptual framework

Ecological distribution conflicts as forces for sustainability: an overview and conceptual framework Can ecological distribution conflicts turn into forces for sustainability? This overview paper addresses in a systematic concep- tual manner the question of why, through whom, how, and when conflicts over the use of the environment may take an active role in shaping transitions toward sustainability. It presents a conceptual framework that schematically maps out the linkages between (a) patterns of (unsustainable) social metabolism, (b) the emergence of ecological distribution conflicts, (c) the rise of environmental justice movements, and (d) their potential contributions for sustainability transitions. The ways how these four processes can influence each other are multi-faceted and often not a foretold story. Yet, ecological distribution conflicts can have an important role for sustainability, because they relentlessly bring to light conflicting values over the environment as well as unsustainable resource uses affecting people and the planet. Environmental justice movements, born out of such conflicts, become key actors in politicizing such unsustainable resource uses, but moreover, they take sometimes also radical actions to stop them. By drawing on creative forms of mobilizations and diverse repertoires of action to effectively reduce unsustainabilities, they can turn from ‘victims’ of environmental injustices into ‘warriors’ for sustainability. But when will improvements in sustainability be lasting? By looking at the overall dynamics between the four processes, we aim to foster a more systematic understanding of the dynamics and roles of ecological distribution conflicts within sustainability processes. Keywords Environmental justice · Social movements · Social metabolism · Sustainability transitions · Grassroots politics · Environmental Justice Atlas Introduction against such grassroots activists, including their brutal assas- sination are increasing (Del Bene et al. this feature; Navas Transitions towards more sustainable futures could benefit et  al. this feature). Global Witness (2017), for instance, from supporting those civil society actors that relentlessly recently reported that 200 environmental defenders have oppose and transform local unsustainabilities across the been killed in 2016. Many of these civil society actors turned globe. Instead, persecution, criminalization and violence into environmental activists to contest cases of unsustain- able extraction, trade and consumption of resources, because these activities threatened their own livelihoods. Gadgil and Guha (1995) have called those who resist environmental Handled by Osamu Saito, UNU-Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability, Institute of Sustainability and Peace, Japan. devastation to defend their own livelihoods ‘ecosystem peo- ple’ and Martinez-Alier (2002) has referred to them as ‘envi- The original version of this article was revised due to a ronmentalists of the poor’. In their acts of resistance, they retrospective Open Access order. contribute to a larger social purpose—by not only opposing * Arnim Scheidel and sometimes transforming unsustainable resource uses, arnim.scheidel@gmail.com but also by creating needed political debates on the use of the environment, and by constantly renegotiating public val- International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus ues of what is considered ‘sustainable’. Often criminalized University Rotterdam (EUR), The Hague, The Netherlands by governments and companies for their actions, we argue Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA), that such activism is among the most promising social forces Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona (UAB), Barcelona, Spain Vol.:(0123456789) 1 3 586 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 to promote not only social justice but also environmental story’ (Alonso-Fradejas 2015), we are particularly interested sustainability. They might be seen as an example of Polanyi in scoping and reviewing those processes that can contribute (1944)’s double movement, meaning a self-protection of to sustainability transitions. society against the commodification of life and nature. As we argue, unsustainable resource uses create not only Addressing issues of justice is a fundamental component environmental destruction, but also conflicts and social of sustainability science (Jerneck et al. 2011; Golub et al. forces that contest them, as seen in the 2200 cases regis- 2013). Understanding the ways how ecological distribution tered in the EJAtlas by August 2017. Ecological distribution conflicts and environmental justice movements can contrib- conflicts relentlessly bring to light unsustainable resource ute to both social justice and environmental sustainability is, uses affecting people and the planet as well as conflicting however, not straightforward. It requires asking why, through values over the environment. Environmental justice move- whom, how and when do conflicts over the use of the envi- ments, born out of such conflicts, can become, therefore, ronment take an active role in shaping transitions toward key actors in politicizing and confronting such unsustainable sustainability. Answers to these questions can be found in resource uses, by pushing public debates on the use of the studying the processes through which unsustainable resource environment, and also through formal means of contestation, uses have given rise to ecological distribution conflicts and and through direct and disruptive actions to stop unsustain- environmental justice movements, as well as the pathways abilities. We argue that such politically contentious actions that such movements have taken to transform them (Temper can be very effective in enhancing ecological sustainabil- et al. 2018). Empirical research linking changes in resource ity and social justice. By examining the overall dynamics uses and social metabolism, society’s processes of extrac- between resource use patterns, conflicts, and mobilizations, tion, trade and disposals of material and energy, to the rise we present some reflections on the conditions required for of ecological distribution conflicts, have grown over the past lasting sustainability transitions and the role environmental two decades (Martinez-Alier 2002; Martinez-Alier et al. justice movements may play in these. 2010; Muradian et al. 2012). As has the body of empiri- The next section introduces the conceptual backgrounds cal studies on environmental justice movements that have upon which we build our analysis: social metabolism, eco- emerged out of such conflicts, fighting to protect not only logical distribution conflicts, environmental justice move- their livelihoods but also the environment surrounding them ments and sustainability transitions (“Concepts: social (e.g. Pellow et al. 2002; Temper et al. 2015; Martinez-Alier metabolism, ecological distribution conflicts, environmen- et al. 2016). The way these processes of social metabolism, tal justice movements and sustainability transitions”). We ecological distribution conflicts, environmental justice then move on to address some of the key relations between movements and transitions towards sustainability interact them, particularly in relation to sustainability issues (“From with each other can be multi-faceted, requiring nuanced ecological distribution conflicts to sustainability transitions: research on each of these interactions. Yet to better under- understanding dynamic interactions”). Section “Breaking stand the broader dynamics at play calls for a conceptualiza- the vicious cycle of unsustainabilities and ecological distri- tion of the interactions of all these processes as a whole, in bution conflicts” focuses on their dynamics as a whole, and a systematic way. So far this has not been done. across different resource use regimes. Section “Conclusion” This overview paper, therefore, presents a conceptual concludes on the role of environmental justice movements in framework that schematically maps out and describes the shaping and repoliticizing sustainability processes. dynamics of interaction between social metabolism, ecologi- cal distribution conflicts, environmental justice movements, and sustainability transitions. For scholars new to the field, Concepts: social metabolism, ecological we aim to review and summarize some of their key link- distribution conflicts, environmental justice ages. For the advanced study of the role of environmental movements, and sustainability transitions justice movements within sustainability processes, we aim to push further an understanding of the overall dynamics at Social metabolism and socio‑metabolic play between social metabolism, environmental conflicts, configurations grassroots politics and sustainability transitions. By draw- ing these research fields together, we revisit and identify key Sustainability depends largely upon the interactions and arguments regarding why, through whom, how and when the material and energy exchange processes of socio-eco- ecological distribution conflicts can play a role for sustain- nomic systems with the environment and its biogeochemi- ability and illustrate them with empirical examples and cal cycles. In this context, the concept of social metabolism insights from the Atlas of Environmental Justice (EJAtlas, has turned into a key approach to study such biophysical http://www.EJAtlas.org). While we acknowledge that path- interaction processes. It originated from the idea that socio- ways of conflict and resistance are ‘anything but a foretold economic systems—similar to biological organisms or 1 3 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 587 ecosystems—require a continuous throughput of energy and how social metabolism relates to ecological distribution materials to self-organize and to maintain and develop their conflicts, one must not only look into the quantification and internal functions and structures (Giampietro et al. 2014) . distribution of biophysical flows, but also upon the power Nowadays, social metabolism has become an interdisci- relations that configure them. Finally, the co-evolution of plinary concept for which different applied methods have its biophysical and social dimensions transforms and shapes become available. They allow characterizing and quanti- resources uses. We refer to this as a political ecology of fying the material and energy exchange processes for spe- social metabolism. cific socio-economic processes as well as different types of societies (for an overview see Gerber and Scheidel 2018). The study of ecological distribution conflicts Different societies have obviously distinctive metabolisms that sometimes co-exist and evolve over time. Compare, for The term ‘ecological distribution conflicts’ emerged in instance, the material basis and forms of organization of the 1990s. It was coined by Martinez-Alier and O’Connor hunter-gatherer, agrarian subsistence communities or indus- (1996) to describe social conflicts arising over the unequal trial societies (Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl 2007). Their distribution of environmental benet fi s, such as access to nat - socio-metabolic characterizations allow not only understand- ural resources, fertile land, or ecosystem services, as well as ing the very distinct sustainability problems faced by differ - over unequal and unsustainable allocations of environmental ent societies in material terms (ibid), but also how resources burdens, such as pollution or waste. By social conflict, we are unequally allocated and consumed within and across refer to a clash of interests, values and norms among indi- them (Jerneck et al. 2011). viduals or groups that leads to antagonism and a struggle for Beyond its biophysical dimension, society’s metabolism power. From a Marxist perspective, such conflict constitutes is also fundamentally characterized and shaped by social, the driving force of social life, with an emphasis on class political and economic dimensions, i.e. the political econ- struggle for ownership of the means of production. Further, omy and the institutions of societies, which govern modes we share the functionalist perspective of Simmel (1904) that of appropriation, distribution and disposal of materials and considers how conflict can lead to the creation of new norms energy. For instance, modern capitalism is among the main and institutional structures (see Temper et al., this feature, drivers of the current growth in social metabolism across for further elaboration on conflict as transformative). the globe (Muradian et al. 2012) that furthermore defines In contrast to ‘economic distribution conflicts’ over sala- substantially the social relations under which resources are ries, prices, profits or rents, ecological distribution conflicts extracted, used and disposed. In fact, capital accumulation cannot necessarily be resolved through economic meas- takes place not only by expanded reproduction (i.e. the pro- ures, such as monetary compensation, or ‘correct price’ duction and capitalization of new surplus value created by schemes, that would include internalization of social and wage-labor) but also via extra-economic means, namely environmental costs. These conflicts express themselves as dispossession (i.e. the separation of the laborers from their struggles over valuation processes in terms of which are the means of production) (Harvey 2004), or contamination (i.e. values deemed relevant for decision making in particular the socialization of costs, or cost-shifting) (Demaria and projects, such as market and monetary values; livelihood D’Alisa 2013). Such processes further characterize the social values; indigenous territorial rights; or ecological values in metabolism. Following Demaria and Schindler (2016), we their own units of account. For instance, can sacredness of a propose to use the term ‘socio-metabolic configurations’ landscape imply a veto power over profit-oriented extractive to refer to both biophysical and social aspects of society’s industries (Temper and Martinez-Alier 2013)? metabolism. For instance, the metabolization of waste in Research on ecological distribution conflicts has grown Delhi, India has to do with the production, throughput and notably (Martinez-Alier 2002; Martinez-Alier et al. 2010; processing of waste (see EJAtlas 2014a). The materiality Muradian et al. 2012), whereas the term is often used inter- relates to the quantity, composition and calorific value of changeably with similar notions of ecological, environmen- waste processes within the waste sector and its physical tra- tal, or socio-environmental conflicts (see Walter 2009). jectory and transformation. The political economy has to As the term suggests, the study of ‘ecological distribution do with how, where, and by whom it is managed, what is conflicts’ puts particular emphasis on distributional aspects deemed to be waste, the forms of value attached, and the (who gets what environmental benefits and burdens) and interests, laws and institutions that govern it. To understand related distributional justice claims. This does not mean that conflicts over procedural issues or recognition of different values and worldviews (Schlosberg 2004) are not consid- ered. However, we consider that such conflicts are bivalent For an overview of the intellectual history of the concept and its or trivalent in that they also often inevitably entail a distri- relation to the social sciences see Fischer-Kowalski (1997, 1998), Fis- butional perspective, that is, the lack of participation and cher-Kowalski and Hüttler (1999). 1 3 588 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 recognition contributes to unjust distributional outcomes. affected communities elsewhere, or activists and organiza - Environmental justice movements emerge out of ecological tions not directly affected but conscious about the caused distribution conflicts, and claim just sustainabilities, simulta- environmental destruction, who empathize with affected neously addressing environmental quality and human equal- groups and who aim to change the larger power structures ity (Agyeman et al. 2003). leading to systematic unjust distribution of environmental benefits and burdens. Through such alliances, mobiliza- The rise of environmental justice movements tions against unsustainabilities can go beyond ‘Not In My Backyard’ (NIMBY) concerns limited to specific places. In philosophy and ethics, ‘environmental justice’ pertains They build the basis for larger movements that question the to the field of theories of justice that focuses on the natural broader structures causing environmental injustices. Their environment. It includes debates on intergenerational equity approach is often radical and broad-minded. For instance, and on the fair treatment of non-human species. In political they might reaffirm the rights of affected people, such as ecology and environmental sociology, it focuses largely on workers or indigenous, to safety and health, oppose capital- the present generation, and the words ‘environmental jus- ism and the destructive operations of multi-national corpo- tice’ apply to a social movement that has a precise date and rations as a central cause of environmental injustices, and place of birth: the United States in the early 1980s (Bullard at the same time declare the sacredness of Mother Earth 1990, 1994; Pellow et al. 2002). This movement, with roots (Temper et al. 2015; Martinez-Alier et al. 2016). in the Civil Rights movement, defended ‘people of color’ against environmental and health damage. The concept arose Visioning sustainability transitions because minority communities were seen as being dispro- portionately subjected to higher levels of environmental bur- The aim to radically restructure current systems of produc- dens, which led to the emergence of a grassroots campaign tion, consumption and exchange are also shared by the flour - against environmental racism and for environmental justice, ishing literature on ‘sustainability transitions’ (Grin et al. spearheaded by activists including religious leaders. 2010; Brown et al. 2013). This term refers to a growing Such concepts were later taken up by environmental consensus that holds that the pervasive and wicked environ- sociologists and geographers. Parallel to the establishment mental challenges humanity faces differ in scope, scale and of political ecology as an established academic field begin- complexity from previous environmental challenges and call ning in 1987 (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987) and its focus on for responses that go beyond incremental changes or new the Global South (Peet and Watts 1996; Bryant and Bailey technologies. Sustainability transitions are meant to be dif- 1997), the US environmental justice movement from the out- ferent from quick techno-managerial ‘sustainability fixes’. set was concerned with justice beyond the US. In 1990, it For example, closing one polluting factory is a one-time fix, proclaimed the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice in a whereas establishing and enforcing laws that prohibit pol- meeting in Washington DC, focusing on damage to minor- luting factories is a transition, reflected in actions that may ity groups in the US and making also a strong appeal for all augur a broader transformation in the regime of production. peoples of color in the world to rise against ‘environmental One branch of scholarship on transitions, rooted in inno- racism’, and calling for respect for other species . Nowadays vation and Science and Technology Studies, primarily aims a global movement for environmental justice is flourishing to understand historical technological change and how the with greater strength than in the US, although often sub- development of specific technologies and institutional frame- ject to strong repression. The movement has emerged out works lead to the reconfiguration of socio-technical relation- of worldwide struggles against open-pit mining, fossil fuel ships (Geels 2010). Stemming from this understanding of extraction, tree plantations, dams, nuclear energy, waste the factors which enable or constrain transitions, transition disposal, urban pollution and other issues, as the over 2200 management is a policy-oriented application of transition cases gathered in the EJAtlas testify to . theory that seeks to guide society towards more sustainable The actors of such movements are comprised not only of futures (Kemp et al. 2007). While transition theories are those directly affected by one project. They often involve inherently normative, in that they call for radical systemic shifts in deeply held values and beliefs, patterns of social behavior (Westley et al. 2011); the field has come under critique for being depoliticized, managerial and limited in http://www.ejnet.org/ej/principles.html. its analysis of the deeply political and contested nature of There are for instance activist groups with names including the words ‘environmental justice’ in Sri Lanka (Camisani, this feature), sustainability transitions (Shove and Walker 2007; Stirling Mozambique, or Brazil (da Rocha et al., this feature). Similar groups 2015; Avelino et al. 2016). use other names elsewhere, such as Acción Ecológica in Ecuador, There is space for further engagement between transi- CENSAT in Colombia, and so many others, some of them grouped in tions studies and critical perspectives from political ecology, Friends of the Earth International. 1 3 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 589 Fig. 1 Schematic overview and key questions to understand How do sustainability How do changes in interactions between socio-met- transions alter socio-metabolic configuraons Socio-Metabolic abolic configurations, ecological socio-metabolic redistribute environmental Configurations distribution conflicts, envi- configuraons? benefits and burdens? ronmental justice movements, and sustainability transitions. Source: the authors Ecological Sustainability Distribution Transitions Conflicts How can How are emerging Environmental environmental jusce ecological distribuon movements contribute to Justice conflicts transformed more sustainable sociees? into collecve acon? Movements social movement theory, critical environmental justice stud- processes. Figure  1 shows a schematic overview of their ies (see for instance Geels 2006; Lawhon and Murphy 2012), interactions and related key questions. as well as with voices both within and beyond the academy advocating for more radical transitions (Escobar 2015), Changes in socio‑metabolic configurations redefine sometimes referred to as ‘transformations’ (Temper et al., distribution of environmental benefits and burdens this feature). They include degrowth (see special feature in this journal, Asara et al. 2015); post-capitalism (Gibson- Research on the links between social metabolism and eco- Graham 2006); radical ecological democracy (Kothari et al. logical distribution conflicts has generally focused on how 2015); or buen vivir (Gudynas 2011). These are often meant increases or changes in the former provoke conflicts by caus- to be alternatives to (and not of) development, and intend ing unjust and unsustainable allocations of environmental to outline that there is politics beyond a unilinear future, benefits and burdens. Burdens sometimes take the form of unsustainable and unjust, consisting primarily of economic market ‘externalities’ (or else, cost-shifting), such as pol- growth (Kothari et al. 2015). We suggest that a systematic lution from extractive industries (e.g., Teran, 2017). They view on the role of ecological distribution conflicts and often also include dispossession and displacement of peo- environmental justice movements in sustainability transi- ple to make way for extractive industries (Martinez-Alier tions can provide meaningful inputs to understanding how 2002; Martinez-Alier et al. 2010; Muradian et al. 2012). such transitions happen. This is precisely what we address For instance, Martinez-Alier identified a “three-tier rela- in the next section. tion between the increasing social metabolism of human economies pushed by population and economic growth, the resulting ecological distribution conflicts among human groups, and the different languages of valuation deployed From ecological distribution conflicts historically and currently by such groups when they reaffirm to sustainability transitions: understanding their rights to use the environmental services and products dynamic interactions in dispute” (Martinez-Alier 2009). The hypothesis of ‘more metabolism, more conflicts’, How do the above introduced processes and patterns of most fruitfully applied to national economies (e.g., Perez- socio-metabolic configurations, ecological distribution con- Rincon et al., this feature), is a difficult one to test. While flicts, environmental justice movements and sustainability there are clear (read increasing) historical trends on mate- transitions shape each other? While there are numerous rial flows (Schaffartzik et al. 2014), this would need to be interactions and outcomes between them, we particularly compared with historical and exhaustive inventories of eco- focus in this section on those relevant within sustainability logical distribution conflicts. The EJAtlas represents such an 1 3 590 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 inventory, with 2200 cases globally by August 2017, but still light of overall increases in societal energy demand, the first this remains an uneven sample of an unknown total across hypothesis still holds in this case. countries. Further, there are numerous other (local) factors Summing up, both large and ecologically harmful levels influencing whether conflicts will emerge and the charac- of social metabolism are generally characterized by inten- teristics they may take. These are for instance the pace of sive pollution/environmental destruction at the frontiers of environmental change at given scales: fast or slow, and the extraction, processing and disposal. Changes in the social ability to establish a connection between socio-metabolic metabolism often imply new environmental burdens which changes and environmental and health impacts and the are disproportionately allocated to some social groups, cre- capacity of actors to adapt to these changes in a way that ating unjust distributional outcomes that may turn into vis- they perceive as just. For example, climate impacts related to ible conflicts. Returning to the question of ‘why’ ecological carbon emissions may still not be identified as such by many distribution conflicts play a role for sustainability, we argue actors suffering from weather disruption. Also changes in that they fundamentally expose such unsustainable resource the composition of material flows extracted from the envi- uses, by putting them into the spotlight. As discussed next, ronment, usually accompanied by changes in the actors conflicts hold tremendous power for change by mobilizing extracting them, matter. For example, farming communities social forces that can contest, politicize and transform such sustainably extracting biomass displaced by a mining project unsustainabilities. extracting minerals will protest because of a clash between two incompatible socio-metabolic configurations (Silva- Ecological distribution conflicts mobilize Macher and Farrell 2014). Finally, also the direction and environmental justice movements dynamics of change influence whether conflict emerges or not. For example, we may assume that increased extraction Ecological distribution conflicts have given rise to many of a mining project will lead to conflicts with neighbors due environmental justice movements around the globe. An illus- to increased pollution. Yet in some situations also decreases trative example is the case from Kōchi, Japan, during the in material extraction can cause conflicts. For instance, for - 1970s, where after decades of air and water pollution, citi- est conservation policies that established the Sri Nakarin zen and fishermen groups initiated a movement to remove a Dam National Park, Thailand, posed a ‘moratorium’ on for- paper pulp factory. When the company management refused est biomass extraction, i.e. firewood or non-timber forest to negotiate with the citizens group in May 1971, the group products (NTFPs), which strongly affected the livelihoods resorted to direct action by pouring cement into the mouth of of forest-dependent communities (EJAtlas 2015a). To these the factory effluent outlet. Being under pressure, the admin- examples of biophysical dynamics influencing conflict out- istrative authorities were forced to ask the company to either comes, we further need to add political, social and institu- move the factory elsewhere or to install proper pollution- tional aspects of metabolism affecting distributive aspects, control equipment. The company was unable to meet these i.e., how it is governed and shaped by power relations across demands and closed the polluting factory in May 1972 (see its stages of extraction, distribution and disposal (Demaria EJAtlas 2016a). Globally, around 17% of all environmental and Schindler 2016). conflicts registered in the EJAtlas report environmental jus- To understand the full spectrum of how social metabo- tices ‘successes’, such as stopping an unsustainable project . lism relates to ecological distribution conflicts, the central The answer to our initial question of ‘who’ are the actors question is how changes in socio-metabolic configurations through which ecological distribution conflicts most directly redefine the distribution of environmental benefits and bur - can shape sustainability processes is simple: it is through dens across different actors, therefore creating unjust distri- environmental justice movements, comprised of those most butional outcomes that give rise to distributional conflicts. directly affected by such unsustainabilities and those allying An overall increase in social metabolism (nationally or with them. However, to explain when and how strong envi- globally) may indeed alter all the above-mentioned factors, ronmental justice movements emerge, we need to ask why of which many address the local scale, thereby reconfig- do some cases of unsustainable, unjust ecological distribu- uring distributional outcomes. To this broad hypothesis of tion give rise to successful environmental justice movements, ‘more metabolism, more conflicts’ focusing on quantitative and why others not? This question fundamentally aims to aspects (i.e. size of total material flows, number of conflicts understand the conditions under which affected actors have across stages of production, transport and disposal), we also been able to enact (successful) collective action against envi- emphasize the role of qualitative material aspects: ‘the more ronmental injustices. It represents one of the core inquiries ecologically harmful, the more socially conflictive’. To take the example of nuclear waste, only small amounts of such toxic materials will lead to conflicts over their allocation. 4 For a discussion on what ‘environmental justice success’ can mean, However, since nuclear waste problems can also be seen in see Özkaynak et al. (2015). 1 3 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 591 of (environmental) social movement studies (e.g. Keck and aim to reframe and create new environmental narratives that Sikkink 1998; McAdam et al. 2001; della Porta and Rucht resonate with the public and open the potential for broader 2002; Heijden and van Der 2006). alliances. They serve thus as mobilizing frames. The concept of ‘political opportunity structures’, under- Pellow et al. (2002) emphasized the following key points stood as the characteristics of a political system that facili- to understand the emergence of environmental justice move- tates or constrains collective action, has been key to under- ments: (a) the importance of the history of environmental stand strategies, successes, organization and mobilization inequalities and the processes by which they unfold. This levels of movements (Heijden and van Der 2006). Analyzing entails taking into account longstanding liabilities, as well such political opportunity structures is important for under- as future concerns in environmental policy-making. (b) The standing the venues chosen for successful lobbying and role of social stratification by ethnicity, race, class (and political actions. Movements further build up their ‘reper- caste), given the fact that the poor and people of color are toires of contention’ in terms of protest forms and direct generally the most vulnerable to environmental inequalities. actions, which are often shaped by national and local con- These are not ‘minorities’—they are the majority of human- texts and histories (Tilly 2002). Timing and proactivity of kind, if not the ‘99%’. However, it must be kept in mind collective action is also a key to achieving environmental that communities and racial groups are frequently divided, justice. The EJAtlas demonstrates that the sooner mobiliza- as addressed in the next point. (c) The role of multiple tion occurs, the more likely success is. For instance, out of stakeholders in these conflicts and their internal divisions. the almost 380 EJAtlas cases reported as an environmental An analysis of the political dynamics within and between justice success (such as ‘project stopped’), 57% of cases movements, based on understanding the different interests of involved preventive mobilizations, whereas those with the classes, social identities and ideologies helps to understand mobilization beginning only in reaction to construction/ current frictions as well as possible alliances to strengthen operation represent 27%, and those where mobilizations movements (see Edelman and Borras 2016). (d) The role of arise in response to damages only 13% . marginalized groups in reshaping environmental inequali- In environmental justice struggles, the biophysical char- ties. For example, indigenous people and ethnically discrimi- acteristics of the conflict can further shape the forms of nated groups are involved in 44% of the EJAtlas cases. With mobilization and direct action. Resistance strategies can their territories located at the frontiers of resource extrac- take advantage of ‘biophysical opportunity structures’, tion, they often take a leading role in mobilizations, but also where they attempt to identify, change or disrupt the dam- face disproportionately high rates of repression, including aging ecological processes they are confronting towards murder (see Del Bene et al. this feature; Global Witness their cause. Consider for instance pulling out of saplings to 2017). Also the role of women leaders is noticeable in many halt tree plantations, as has been the case in protests against environmental justice conflicts worldwide. It is often the eucalyptus plantations, in Tumkur, Karnataka, India (Ger- marginalized segments of society who shape the contours ber 2011; EJAtlas 2014b), uprooting of genetically modi- of environmental justice struggles. fied crops, burning of wood logs to oppose illegal logging (EJAtlas 2015b), or countless cases of land occupation by Environmental justice movements can support the landless. sustainability transitions in various ways Finally, the ‘collective action frames’ (Tarrow 1992) of movements emerging in response to environmental conflicts The environmental justice perspective unmasks the ques- becomes very powerful when they challenge current under- tions of ‘who gets what environmental goods and bads, why, standings of our relationships with the environment. These and in what amounts’, calling for grassroots movements to frames are often expressed through pithy protest slogans, struggle for environmental health strategies to ensure the that we refer to as the ‘vocabulary of environmental justice’ equal protection of all citizens, including indigenous peo- and which includes concepts and phrases such as ‘environ- ples who often live at the extractive commodity frontiers. mental racism’, ‘tree plantations are not forests’, ‘keep the For instance, the South African Environmental Justice oil in the soil’, ‘keep the coal in the hole’ and the like (Mar- Networking Forum asserted (1997, quoted in McDonald tinez-Alier et al. 2016). Such concepts and slogans draw on a 2002) “Environmental justice is about social transformation collective identity of those negatively affected by ecological directed towards meeting basic human needs and enhancing distribution conflicts. By offering a new vantage point, they our quality of life—economic quality, health care, housing, human rights, environmental protection, and democracy. In linking environmental and social justice issues, the envi- ronmental justice approach seeks to challenge the abuse Based on EJAtlas data, July 2017. The remaining 4% are comprised of power which results in poor people having to suffer the of cases with not visible mobilizations, or unknown start of mobiliza- tion. 1 3 592 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 effects of environmental damage caused by the greed of that draw wide attention to their cause. In 2012, following others”. increasing awareness and pressure before general elections, How can such environmental justice movements achieve the government cancelled several extractive projects jeop- such claimed transitions towards more sustainable futures? ardizing the forest. Some described this as a ‘rare victory’ Several strands can be distinguished that are useful for delin- (EJAtlas 2015b). In 2015, the movement was awarded the eating their potential roles for sustainability transitions. UNDP Equator Prize that recognizes “outstanding local The distinction posed by Gadgil and Guha (1993) between achievement in advancing sustainable development” . intramodal and intermodal ecological conflicts is helpful in A powerful global example of how grassroots movements this regard. Intramodal conflicts emerge over the distribu - can shape sustainability processes is also given by trans- tion of environmental benefits and burdens within an estab- national agrarian movements, such as La Via Campesina lished pattern of resource use between and amongst different (LVC), or the International Planning Committee for Food social groups, sometimes along class, gender or ethnic lines. Sovereignty (IPC). In their defense of peasant agriculture For example, this entails conflicts between farmers over the and against large-scale capitalist industrial agriculture, both distribution of irrigation water; access to common land; or LVC and the IPC have fundamentally contributed to promot- exploitation quotas (González de Molina et al. 2009). It also ing agroecology as a sustainable agriculture model across covers conflicts over equitable distribution of other environ - the globe. Also, their efforts in making education accessi- mental benefits and burdens (water, energy, parks and green ble to poor groups, thanks to popular peasant universities, spaces, land, etc.) across the same user group. Related move- represent an important contribution to sustainability efforts ments may be arguing for a reduction of environmental haz- (Edelman and Borras 2016). ards through improved governance or technology, together Movements arising out of intermodal conflicts may take with a more equitable distribution of environmental goods the form of groups confronting specific forms of damag- and bads (ibid). Some of them might also take the form of ing industrial activities as well as those claiming against NIMBY conflicts, concerned mainly of not having hazardous unknown risks (Beck 1992). Yet their scope of action goes project in their own backyard, but without fundamentally often well beyond specific places and feeds into alliances questioning the underlying systems and their potential (un) and solidarity with other movements across regions and the sustainability. This type of ecological distribution conflict is globe (see Tramel 2016). It is a type of environmentalism unlikely to contribute directly to radical transformations in that is different from conservationism focusing on wildlife socio-metabolic configurations, as they often focus only on and also from ecological modernization focusing on techno- specific places and do not question the mode of production logical change and on the internalization of externalities in itself. However, if redistributive claims are accomplished the price system. As capitalism is a major force behind the and environmental cost-shifting is diminished as a result, expansion of extractivist, industrial projects that transform this could lead to improved management within a given former socio-metabolic configurations across the globe, socio-metabolic configuration. intermodal movements, either implicitly or explicitly, tend On the contrary, intermodal conflicts are those which to take anti-capitalist stances . Such movements often ques- defend a particular mode of resource use against industrial tion the dominant form of valuation of resource uses (i.e. society’s attempts to transform it. González de Molina et al. monetary values and cost-benefit analyses) and renegotiate (2009) give as a historical example, the case of Galician the values deemed relevant for sustainability (Martinez-Alier farmers (Spain) who fought to preserve communal land from 2002). Sometimes, particularly when the resistance weakens, attempts of industrialization. In doing so, they played a key demands for monetary compensation are made (in a frame- role for maintaining an agricultural model largely independ- work of ‘weak sustainability’; Martinez-Alier et al. 1998). ent from fossil energy. A current example is the Prey Lang The same groups, at other times or when feeling stronger, Community Network in Cambodia, a forest movement that might argue in terms of values which are not commensurate originated to protect one of the biggest primary forests in Southeast Asia. For decades, Prey Lang forest has been http://www.equatorinitiative.org/. under threat of logging and contamination due to illegal In this way, we can argue that intermodal movements go beyond timber trade, agro-industries and mining concessions. After simply tweaking capitalism to be greener (which may apply to some years of cooperation between forest-depended communities intramodal movements). By contesting the very socio-metabolic basis to halt forest destruction, the network was established in of the industrial capitalist growth economy, they may therefore also 2007 by local activists of Khmer and Kuy indigenous iden- go beyond mitigating the ‘second contradiction of capitalism’ pro- voked by environmental destruction (O’Connor 1988). We may argue tity. The decentralized movement, spanning several prov- that such uncompromising, intermodal resistance serve to threaten inces, established regular community forest patrols to stop the very basis of the capitalist economy itself. They may thus repre- illegal loggers, burned illicit timber piles, confiscated chain sent what O’Connor (1988***, 28) described as the “powerful social saws, lobbied authorities and launched several campaigns movements demanding an end to ecological exploitation”. 1 3 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 593 with money, such as indigenous territorial rights, irrevers- with environmentalists and after 8 years of strong resistance, ible ecological values, human right to health or the sacred- they were successful in 2015 in stopping the project. Now, ness of Mother Earth, implicitly defending a conception of there is some local implementation of alternative energy ‘strong sustainability’. In contesting and redefining the very systems (EJAtlas 2015c). economic, ecological and social principles behind particular Many similar stories can be found in the EJAtlas . They uses of the environment, such intermodal conflicts are those illustrate indeed our hypothetical rule: more success for that are most clearly forces towards broader sustainability environmental justice, more environmental sustainability. transitions. Whether ‘just sustainabilities’ (Agyeman and Evans Sustainability transitions reshape socio‑metabolic 2004) are really easy to achieve has been forcefully ques- configurations tioned by Andrew Dobson (1998), who pointed to the con- flicts and tensions between environmental sustainability and All visions of sustainability transitions entail concomitant distributive justice, both widely regarded desirable social transformations in socio-metabolic relations. Nowadays, the objectives. Let us consider ‘climate justice’. Removing primary emphasis in socio-metabolic terms is the transition world’s energy poverty by providing every citizen with a to a low-carbon and resource-efficient economy. This calls right to burn fossil fuels to the tune of emitting 5 tons of for major changes in energy, transport, and agri-food sys- CO /year could be seen as a modest and equitable outcome tems (Geels 2012), a fundamental transformation towards in distributive terms—but it would not be conducive to sus- more sustainable modes of production and consumption tainability. The sustainability condition would argue that the (Markard et al. 2012) and re-localization of production and European average of 10 tons of CO /person/year is far too consumption to shorten resource flow and supply chains high and should be reduced quickly by 70 or 80%. Remov- (Asara et al. 2015). ing energy poverty is desirable but cannot entail raising Yet, a narrow focus on increased efficiency, or relative the world average to 5 tons/person/year. Other means must dematerialization and decarbonization, is insufficient, not be sought, such as alternative sources of energy perhaps least because it might lead to Jevons’ effects (i.e. increase in financed by the ‘ecological/carbon debt’ owed historically efficiency might lead to greater, rather than lesser, total con- by the rich (Warlenius et al. 2015). Acknowledgement of sumption), and many argue for a more radical transformation liability for climate change (brutally excluded in the Paris of the socio-metabolic regime (Polimeni et al. 2008). Atten- COP agreement of 2015) would mean a redistribution of tion to the many social, ecological and economic issues of wealth among and within nations. However, Dobson’s point sustainability is required. Furthermore, if we conceptualize remains that distributive ‘climate justice’ in itself does not a major sustainability transformation as a shift into a com- ensure sustainability, or rather ‘climate justice’ implies two pletely new socio-metabolic regime, it becomes clear that separate objectives, one regarding equity and another one this time the transition must entail a substantial reduction regarding climate stability. in energy and material flows per capita (Fischer-Kowalski In practice, by looking at the outcomes of different eco- and Rotmans 2009). This is in sharp contrast to past transi- logical distribution conflicts collected in the EJAtlas, we tions which were associated with a substantial increase in could give many examples in which both objectives are metabolic rates. This thermo-dynamic reality is what leads served; hence, in which the success in environmental jus- Degrowth, Décroissance or Post-Wachstum proponents to tice does not undermine the objective of sustainability, mobilize for social transformation towards absolute reduc- rather on the contrary. For instance, the proposed Fuleni tions of energy and material throughput; as well as more coal mine in Kwa Zulu Natal stands very near the border of equitable distribution of resources, as a means to combine the very valuable Hluhluwe-Mfolozi Wilderness area. There social justice and environmental concerns (Demaria et al. is confluence of protests from conservationists and the local 2013). people (in MCEJO - Mfolozi Community Environmental This is uncharted territory, calling for a shift to a yet Justice Organisation) opposing mining. Although their main unknown type of social organization. Such a transition can motivations are local, both conservationists and local peo- ple have learnt to praise the policy of ‘leaving coal in the hole’ against climate change (EJAtlas 2016b). In Sompeta For instance in Phulbari, Bangladesh, there was very violent repres- in Andhra Pradesh, the government had allotted 972 acres sion with several victims leading to a ban on open-pit coal mining of land including wetlands to Nagarjuna Construction Com- in the area and withdrawal of international funding (https://EJAtlas. org/conflict/protest-against-open-pit-coal-mine-project-in-phulbari- pany to build a coal-based thermal power plant. Community region). Also the Ende Gelände movement in Germany, motivated members were extremely opposed to the construction since not only by climate change, became an important force in reducing it would destroy their entire livelihoods, which is based on or stopping lignite mining in the country (https://EJAtlas.org/conflict/ this land to sustain their fisheries and farmlands. They allied linginte-mining-and-the-ende-gelande-movement). 1 3 594 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 be well informed by combining socio-metabolic assess- (Avila, this feature). This points to how within low-carbon ments with a political economy/ecology analysis of how metabolic configurations, environmental justice activists aim particular forms of technology and resource use regimes to bring attention to issues of scale, control, sovereignty and are constructed and employed, who owns the resources and democracy, arguing that the sustainability transformation how benefits are distributed; and how movements of opposi- must be defined not only by changes in resource use, i.e. a tion contest and aim to reshape resource governance. Take shift from fossil to renewables, but also in how they are gov- for example the transition from fossil to renewable energy erned. For instance, the Lubicon Cree Community of Little sources. Biofuels can be produced at the local level in a Buffalo, Alberta, who have suffered from massive oil spills decentralized and democratic manner with waste materi- and contamination related to tar sands exploitation on their als. They can also be produced on a large-scale based on territory have recently launched the Piitapan Solar Project environmentally destructive monocultures that are far from that powers the health center as a means of resistance to tar resolving the problem of energy supply (Giampietro and sands expansion through showing the world that the shift to Mayumi 2009), but rather dispossess local farmers through renewables is possible (EJAtlas 2014c). This highlights that associated land-grabbing (Borras et al. 2010; Scheidel and energy transitions and environmentally just socio-metabolic Sorman 2012). In the case of the latter, such mistakenly configurations are not only about the form of energy, but called ‘sustainability transitions’ would just produce new about energy for what and for whom and under what social socio-metabolic configurations that are as conflictive and relations. unsustainable as the previous, restarting the circle outlined in Fig. 1. But there are also historic cases in which sustainability Breaking the vicious cycle transitions pushed new socio-metabolic configurations that of unsustainabilities and ecological did not (immediately) provoke a new set of unsustainabili- distribution conflicts ties, conflicts and mobilizations. Bond and Dorsey ( 2010) put forward as an example the 1996 Montreal Protocol on So far we have addressed some key linkages between socio- chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which succeeded in banning metabolic configurations, ecological distribution conflicts, emissions outright to prevent growth of the hole in the ozone environmental justice movements and sustainability transi- layer, as perhaps the last example of effective globally coor - tions. As seen in the previous section, some transitions bring dinated top-down environmental action. In the EJAtlas, we an end to some ecological distribution conflicts, but they also find numerous cases of effective activism from below also can produce a whole set of new ones. leading to reduced extractive activities or moratoria at the For instance,  Špirić, this feature, and  Pérez-Rincón project, local, sub-national and national scale. The decline et al. this feature offer a historic account on how ecological of the shale gas boom in Europe is one notable example, distribution conflicts change across different political and with countries such as France, Bulgaria and the Netherlands, economic regime transitions. Above, we have mentioned among others, declaring a ban on the exploitation of new biofuels and land-grabbing conflicts as an example of how natural gas deposits (EJAtlas 2015d). It should be noted, sustainability transitions can ironically trigger a whole new however, that while extraction is not proceeding in these set of unsustainabilities and conflicts. The EJAtlas reports countries, pipeline connectivity to import fracked gas from numerous of such cases, but also here, local movements North Africa and other locations is expanding, potentially have managed to stop many unsustainable agro-fuel pro- shifting conflicts elsewhere. But opposition also appears jects (Temper 2018). Many other examples exist in which there (EJAtlas 2015e). renewable energy systems have caused new conflicts and We may also note that the way sustainability transitions mobilizations (for hydroelectric dams see Del Bene, et al., reshape socio-metabolic configurations depends on the this feature; for windfarms, Avila, this feature; for waste to materiality of resources themselves and how these contribute energy see Herrero and Vilella, this feature, as well as John- to shaping power relations and social systems. For exam- son et al., this feature). Further examples also include the ple, oil as a resource requires large-scale capital investment recent emergence of ‘green grabs’ (Fairhead et al. 2012), in and centralized control and distribution. In contrast, many which resources are grabbed from local users for environ- renewable energies such as wind and solar could be har- mental ends such as for CO sequestration through large- nessed at small-scales with lower capital investment, mean- scale forestry projects (Lyons and Westoby 2014). ing they could be controlled at the community scale with Hence, as sustainability transitions move on to resolve important implications for decentralized and democratic old issues, they create new problems along the way by governance (Lawhon and Murphy 2012). But also here, altering socio-metabolic configurations that—again—re- wind-energy is often produced at large scale and can lead distribute environmental benefits and burdens. Sieferle and to local conflicts on land use or biodiversity conservation Müller-Herold (1996) argued that a ‘risk spiral’ exists in 1 3 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 595 sustainability, in which the reduction of one risk usually Conclusions requires innovations that produce new uncertainties and future sustainability problems. In our analysis, we see this This paper has aimed to address a fundamental paradox of unfolding as a ‘conflict spiral’ in which the solution of for - sustainability. On one hand, science has been consolidat- mer sustainability issues creates new environmental conflicts ing the arguments to prove that humanity is facing a sus- through a redistribution of environmental benefits and bur - tainability crisis, yet on the other, calls for action seem to dens. Is there a way to escape this conflict spiral? have been futile. Scientists might get the feeling that their Progress, at least, requires reducing rather than expanding voices have not been heard, but instead here we argue that the circles of this conflict spiral across resource use regimes it might be them who failed to hear the voices of those who and to avoid that new pressures are not shifted to marginal- struggle everyday for sustainability, even at the expense ized groups, such as indigenous. Sustainability politics are of their own lives. needed that consider impacts beyond narrow fixes to single With the conceptual framework laid out in this paper, problems but rather across different resource use regimes, we have aimed to give a systematic overview and clarify by anticipating the social and ecological implications of pro- how struggles over environmental conflicts can contribute posed socio-metabolic configurations across different social to processes towards sustainability. Driven by patterns of groups. In line with our hypothesis, we are convinced that unsustainable social metabolism, ecological distribution this calls for a reduction of social metabolism in absolute conflicts often provoke the emergence of environmental terms, particularly of those material and energy flows that justice movements. Their collective actions to shed light are most damaging and conflictive. The Degrowth move- on—and to transform—these resources uses damaging ment, composed not only of academics but also activists, humans and the environment can contribute to transitions has collected many ideas of how this may be envisioned towards more sustainable futures in various ways that we and achieved (D’Alisa et al. 2015). With no doubt, it would discussed in this paper. From this perspective, conflicts require a fundamental restructuring of the way modern soci- bear a tremendous power of mobilizing social forces for eties operate. change. To achieve such restructuring, co-production of knowl- The Environmental Justice Atlas and other inventories, edge and exploration of alternatives is strongly needed and such as those of OCMAL (Observatorio de Conflictos environmental justice movements, in alliance with other Mineros de América Latina) or GAIA (Global Alliance for movements, have much to contribute here (Martinez-Alier Incineration Alternatives) show that there are thousands 2012; Conde 2014; Kothari et al. 2015; Temper and Del of local environmental conflicts where millions of people Bene 2016). Beyond this, environmental justice movements struggle to defend their health and livelihood. While not are also crucial in monitoring impacts of new socio-meta- only contributing to the sustainability of the economy by bolic configurations provoked by emerging alternatives. Karl transforming environmental injustices caused by unsus- Polanyi (1944) argued that a double movement exists, mean- tainabilities, such environmental justice movements are ing a dialectical process of marketisation and push for social at the forefront in repoliticizing and reimagining sustain- protection against that marketisation. Here, we see that a ability transitions. This is urgently needed to confront the double movement exists where environmental justice move- profound sustainability crises of today. ments react to socio-metabolic configurations that are unsus- Contributions of environmental frontline defenders are tainable in either their biophysical characteristics or govern- slowly reaching more global visibility, such as through ance. In defense of their means of existence and subsistence, the Goldman environmental prize, also known as ‘green but also for the general interest of protecting the public good, Nobel’, or the UNDP Equator prize awarding community- environmental justice movements are crucial in politicizing based initiatives for sustainability. Nevertheless, environ- and sometimes also transforming such unsustainabilities. mental activists are coming under increasing threat and They continually contribute to reframing and questioning repression. Violence against them has become systematic. what sustainability means, which vision of sustainability is Alliances for sustainability must, therefore, not only inte- operationalized, and what socio-metabolic configuration is grate in a fruitful way the work of academics and activ- most compatible with social justice and ecological health. ists—for example through co-produced knowledge—but Environmental justice movements are, therefore, essential also seek growing institutional support for threatened ‘safeguards of society’ that address adverse impacts of not grassroots activists. How such mechanisms of support only unsustainable policies, but also the impacts of sustain- and protection may look like in practice, remains to be ability policies themselves. Therefore, they might be among explored. Relevance of developing such effective support the most promising social forces to promote sustainability. is high as currently many of them are not only essential There it is where sustainability science should be looking but also endangered actors for sustainability. for alliances to achieve change. 1 3 596 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 Acknowledgements The authors acknowledge funding from a Catalan Camisani P (2017, this feature) Sri Lanka: a political ecology of socio- Beatriu de Pinos grant (Grant-No. 2014 BP_A 00129) (A. Scheidel); environmental conflicts and development projects. Sustain Sci from the Transformations to Sustainability Programme, which is coor- (under Review) dinated by the International Social Science Council and funded by Conde M (2014) Activism mobilising science. Ecol Econ 105:67–77. the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2014.05.012 and implemented in partnership with the National Research Founda- D’Alisa G, Demaria F, Kallis G (2015) Degrowth: a vocabulary for a tion of South Africa through the ACKNowl-EJ project (Grant-No. new era. Routledge, Abingdon TKN150317115354) (L. Temper); from the Spanish government da Rocha DF, Porto MF, Pacheco T et al. (2017, this feature) The through the project CSO2014-54513-R SINALECO (F. Demaria) and map of conflicts related to environmental injustice and health in from the European Research Council (ERC) advanced grant ENVJUS- Brazil. Sustain Sci. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-017-0494-5 TICE (Grant-No. 695446) (A. Scheidel, F. Demaria, and J. Martínez- Del Bene D, Scheidel A, Temper L (this feature) More dams, more Alier). We thank the Barcelona group of Political Ecology for constant violence? Analysing global resistances and repression around inspiration and for sharing radical thought. A. Scheidel also thanks the conflictive dams through co-produced knowledge. Sustain Sci MOSAIC research network for inspiring discussions on related topics. della Porta D, Rucht D (2002) The dynamics of environmental cam- Three anonymous reviewers provided helpful comments to improve the paigns. Mobilization 7:1–14 paper. All errors remain our own. Demaria F, D’Alisa G (2013) Dispossession and contamination: strate- gies for capital accumulation in the waste market. Lo Squaderno 29:37–39 Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Demaria F, Schindler S (2016) Contesting urban metabolism: strug- Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecom- gles over waste-to-energy in Delhi, India. 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Ecological distribution conflicts as forces for sustainability: an overview and conceptual framework

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Springer Journals
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Copyright © 2017 by The Author(s)
Subject
Environment; Environmental Management; Climate Change Management and Policy; Environmental Economics; Landscape Ecology; Sustainable Development; Public Health
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1862-4065
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1862-4057
DOI
10.1007/s11625-017-0519-0
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Abstract

Can ecological distribution conflicts turn into forces for sustainability? This overview paper addresses in a systematic concep- tual manner the question of why, through whom, how, and when conflicts over the use of the environment may take an active role in shaping transitions toward sustainability. It presents a conceptual framework that schematically maps out the linkages between (a) patterns of (unsustainable) social metabolism, (b) the emergence of ecological distribution conflicts, (c) the rise of environmental justice movements, and (d) their potential contributions for sustainability transitions. The ways how these four processes can influence each other are multi-faceted and often not a foretold story. Yet, ecological distribution conflicts can have an important role for sustainability, because they relentlessly bring to light conflicting values over the environment as well as unsustainable resource uses affecting people and the planet. Environmental justice movements, born out of such conflicts, become key actors in politicizing such unsustainable resource uses, but moreover, they take sometimes also radical actions to stop them. By drawing on creative forms of mobilizations and diverse repertoires of action to effectively reduce unsustainabilities, they can turn from ‘victims’ of environmental injustices into ‘warriors’ for sustainability. But when will improvements in sustainability be lasting? By looking at the overall dynamics between the four processes, we aim to foster a more systematic understanding of the dynamics and roles of ecological distribution conflicts within sustainability processes. Keywords Environmental justice · Social movements · Social metabolism · Sustainability transitions · Grassroots politics · Environmental Justice Atlas Introduction against such grassroots activists, including their brutal assas- sination are increasing (Del Bene et al. this feature; Navas Transitions towards more sustainable futures could benefit et  al. this feature). Global Witness (2017), for instance, from supporting those civil society actors that relentlessly recently reported that 200 environmental defenders have oppose and transform local unsustainabilities across the been killed in 2016. Many of these civil society actors turned globe. Instead, persecution, criminalization and violence into environmental activists to contest cases of unsustain- able extraction, trade and consumption of resources, because these activities threatened their own livelihoods. Gadgil and Guha (1995) have called those who resist environmental Handled by Osamu Saito, UNU-Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability, Institute of Sustainability and Peace, Japan. devastation to defend their own livelihoods ‘ecosystem peo- ple’ and Martinez-Alier (2002) has referred to them as ‘envi- The original version of this article was revised due to a ronmentalists of the poor’. In their acts of resistance, they retrospective Open Access order. contribute to a larger social purpose—by not only opposing * Arnim Scheidel and sometimes transforming unsustainable resource uses, arnim.scheidel@gmail.com but also by creating needed political debates on the use of the environment, and by constantly renegotiating public val- International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus ues of what is considered ‘sustainable’. Often criminalized University Rotterdam (EUR), The Hague, The Netherlands by governments and companies for their actions, we argue Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA), that such activism is among the most promising social forces Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona (UAB), Barcelona, Spain Vol.:(0123456789) 1 3 586 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 to promote not only social justice but also environmental story’ (Alonso-Fradejas 2015), we are particularly interested sustainability. They might be seen as an example of Polanyi in scoping and reviewing those processes that can contribute (1944)’s double movement, meaning a self-protection of to sustainability transitions. society against the commodification of life and nature. As we argue, unsustainable resource uses create not only Addressing issues of justice is a fundamental component environmental destruction, but also conflicts and social of sustainability science (Jerneck et al. 2011; Golub et al. forces that contest them, as seen in the 2200 cases regis- 2013). Understanding the ways how ecological distribution tered in the EJAtlas by August 2017. Ecological distribution conflicts and environmental justice movements can contrib- conflicts relentlessly bring to light unsustainable resource ute to both social justice and environmental sustainability is, uses affecting people and the planet as well as conflicting however, not straightforward. It requires asking why, through values over the environment. Environmental justice move- whom, how and when do conflicts over the use of the envi- ments, born out of such conflicts, can become, therefore, ronment take an active role in shaping transitions toward key actors in politicizing and confronting such unsustainable sustainability. Answers to these questions can be found in resource uses, by pushing public debates on the use of the studying the processes through which unsustainable resource environment, and also through formal means of contestation, uses have given rise to ecological distribution conflicts and and through direct and disruptive actions to stop unsustain- environmental justice movements, as well as the pathways abilities. We argue that such politically contentious actions that such movements have taken to transform them (Temper can be very effective in enhancing ecological sustainabil- et al. 2018). Empirical research linking changes in resource ity and social justice. By examining the overall dynamics uses and social metabolism, society’s processes of extrac- between resource use patterns, conflicts, and mobilizations, tion, trade and disposals of material and energy, to the rise we present some reflections on the conditions required for of ecological distribution conflicts, have grown over the past lasting sustainability transitions and the role environmental two decades (Martinez-Alier 2002; Martinez-Alier et al. justice movements may play in these. 2010; Muradian et al. 2012). As has the body of empiri- The next section introduces the conceptual backgrounds cal studies on environmental justice movements that have upon which we build our analysis: social metabolism, eco- emerged out of such conflicts, fighting to protect not only logical distribution conflicts, environmental justice move- their livelihoods but also the environment surrounding them ments and sustainability transitions (“Concepts: social (e.g. Pellow et al. 2002; Temper et al. 2015; Martinez-Alier metabolism, ecological distribution conflicts, environmen- et al. 2016). The way these processes of social metabolism, tal justice movements and sustainability transitions”). We ecological distribution conflicts, environmental justice then move on to address some of the key relations between movements and transitions towards sustainability interact them, particularly in relation to sustainability issues (“From with each other can be multi-faceted, requiring nuanced ecological distribution conflicts to sustainability transitions: research on each of these interactions. Yet to better under- understanding dynamic interactions”). Section “Breaking stand the broader dynamics at play calls for a conceptualiza- the vicious cycle of unsustainabilities and ecological distri- tion of the interactions of all these processes as a whole, in bution conflicts” focuses on their dynamics as a whole, and a systematic way. So far this has not been done. across different resource use regimes. Section “Conclusion” This overview paper, therefore, presents a conceptual concludes on the role of environmental justice movements in framework that schematically maps out and describes the shaping and repoliticizing sustainability processes. dynamics of interaction between social metabolism, ecologi- cal distribution conflicts, environmental justice movements, and sustainability transitions. For scholars new to the field, Concepts: social metabolism, ecological we aim to review and summarize some of their key link- distribution conflicts, environmental justice ages. For the advanced study of the role of environmental movements, and sustainability transitions justice movements within sustainability processes, we aim to push further an understanding of the overall dynamics at Social metabolism and socio‑metabolic play between social metabolism, environmental conflicts, configurations grassroots politics and sustainability transitions. By draw- ing these research fields together, we revisit and identify key Sustainability depends largely upon the interactions and arguments regarding why, through whom, how and when the material and energy exchange processes of socio-eco- ecological distribution conflicts can play a role for sustain- nomic systems with the environment and its biogeochemi- ability and illustrate them with empirical examples and cal cycles. In this context, the concept of social metabolism insights from the Atlas of Environmental Justice (EJAtlas, has turned into a key approach to study such biophysical http://www.EJAtlas.org). While we acknowledge that path- interaction processes. It originated from the idea that socio- ways of conflict and resistance are ‘anything but a foretold economic systems—similar to biological organisms or 1 3 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 587 ecosystems—require a continuous throughput of energy and how social metabolism relates to ecological distribution materials to self-organize and to maintain and develop their conflicts, one must not only look into the quantification and internal functions and structures (Giampietro et al. 2014) . distribution of biophysical flows, but also upon the power Nowadays, social metabolism has become an interdisci- relations that configure them. Finally, the co-evolution of plinary concept for which different applied methods have its biophysical and social dimensions transforms and shapes become available. They allow characterizing and quanti- resources uses. We refer to this as a political ecology of fying the material and energy exchange processes for spe- social metabolism. cific socio-economic processes as well as different types of societies (for an overview see Gerber and Scheidel 2018). The study of ecological distribution conflicts Different societies have obviously distinctive metabolisms that sometimes co-exist and evolve over time. Compare, for The term ‘ecological distribution conflicts’ emerged in instance, the material basis and forms of organization of the 1990s. It was coined by Martinez-Alier and O’Connor hunter-gatherer, agrarian subsistence communities or indus- (1996) to describe social conflicts arising over the unequal trial societies (Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl 2007). Their distribution of environmental benet fi s, such as access to nat - socio-metabolic characterizations allow not only understand- ural resources, fertile land, or ecosystem services, as well as ing the very distinct sustainability problems faced by differ - over unequal and unsustainable allocations of environmental ent societies in material terms (ibid), but also how resources burdens, such as pollution or waste. By social conflict, we are unequally allocated and consumed within and across refer to a clash of interests, values and norms among indi- them (Jerneck et al. 2011). viduals or groups that leads to antagonism and a struggle for Beyond its biophysical dimension, society’s metabolism power. From a Marxist perspective, such conflict constitutes is also fundamentally characterized and shaped by social, the driving force of social life, with an emphasis on class political and economic dimensions, i.e. the political econ- struggle for ownership of the means of production. Further, omy and the institutions of societies, which govern modes we share the functionalist perspective of Simmel (1904) that of appropriation, distribution and disposal of materials and considers how conflict can lead to the creation of new norms energy. For instance, modern capitalism is among the main and institutional structures (see Temper et al., this feature, drivers of the current growth in social metabolism across for further elaboration on conflict as transformative). the globe (Muradian et al. 2012) that furthermore defines In contrast to ‘economic distribution conflicts’ over sala- substantially the social relations under which resources are ries, prices, profits or rents, ecological distribution conflicts extracted, used and disposed. In fact, capital accumulation cannot necessarily be resolved through economic meas- takes place not only by expanded reproduction (i.e. the pro- ures, such as monetary compensation, or ‘correct price’ duction and capitalization of new surplus value created by schemes, that would include internalization of social and wage-labor) but also via extra-economic means, namely environmental costs. These conflicts express themselves as dispossession (i.e. the separation of the laborers from their struggles over valuation processes in terms of which are the means of production) (Harvey 2004), or contamination (i.e. values deemed relevant for decision making in particular the socialization of costs, or cost-shifting) (Demaria and projects, such as market and monetary values; livelihood D’Alisa 2013). Such processes further characterize the social values; indigenous territorial rights; or ecological values in metabolism. Following Demaria and Schindler (2016), we their own units of account. For instance, can sacredness of a propose to use the term ‘socio-metabolic configurations’ landscape imply a veto power over profit-oriented extractive to refer to both biophysical and social aspects of society’s industries (Temper and Martinez-Alier 2013)? metabolism. For instance, the metabolization of waste in Research on ecological distribution conflicts has grown Delhi, India has to do with the production, throughput and notably (Martinez-Alier 2002; Martinez-Alier et al. 2010; processing of waste (see EJAtlas 2014a). The materiality Muradian et al. 2012), whereas the term is often used inter- relates to the quantity, composition and calorific value of changeably with similar notions of ecological, environmen- waste processes within the waste sector and its physical tra- tal, or socio-environmental conflicts (see Walter 2009). jectory and transformation. The political economy has to As the term suggests, the study of ‘ecological distribution do with how, where, and by whom it is managed, what is conflicts’ puts particular emphasis on distributional aspects deemed to be waste, the forms of value attached, and the (who gets what environmental benefits and burdens) and interests, laws and institutions that govern it. To understand related distributional justice claims. This does not mean that conflicts over procedural issues or recognition of different values and worldviews (Schlosberg 2004) are not consid- ered. However, we consider that such conflicts are bivalent For an overview of the intellectual history of the concept and its or trivalent in that they also often inevitably entail a distri- relation to the social sciences see Fischer-Kowalski (1997, 1998), Fis- butional perspective, that is, the lack of participation and cher-Kowalski and Hüttler (1999). 1 3 588 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 recognition contributes to unjust distributional outcomes. affected communities elsewhere, or activists and organiza - Environmental justice movements emerge out of ecological tions not directly affected but conscious about the caused distribution conflicts, and claim just sustainabilities, simulta- environmental destruction, who empathize with affected neously addressing environmental quality and human equal- groups and who aim to change the larger power structures ity (Agyeman et al. 2003). leading to systematic unjust distribution of environmental benefits and burdens. Through such alliances, mobiliza- The rise of environmental justice movements tions against unsustainabilities can go beyond ‘Not In My Backyard’ (NIMBY) concerns limited to specific places. In philosophy and ethics, ‘environmental justice’ pertains They build the basis for larger movements that question the to the field of theories of justice that focuses on the natural broader structures causing environmental injustices. Their environment. It includes debates on intergenerational equity approach is often radical and broad-minded. For instance, and on the fair treatment of non-human species. In political they might reaffirm the rights of affected people, such as ecology and environmental sociology, it focuses largely on workers or indigenous, to safety and health, oppose capital- the present generation, and the words ‘environmental jus- ism and the destructive operations of multi-national corpo- tice’ apply to a social movement that has a precise date and rations as a central cause of environmental injustices, and place of birth: the United States in the early 1980s (Bullard at the same time declare the sacredness of Mother Earth 1990, 1994; Pellow et al. 2002). This movement, with roots (Temper et al. 2015; Martinez-Alier et al. 2016). in the Civil Rights movement, defended ‘people of color’ against environmental and health damage. The concept arose Visioning sustainability transitions because minority communities were seen as being dispro- portionately subjected to higher levels of environmental bur- The aim to radically restructure current systems of produc- dens, which led to the emergence of a grassroots campaign tion, consumption and exchange are also shared by the flour - against environmental racism and for environmental justice, ishing literature on ‘sustainability transitions’ (Grin et al. spearheaded by activists including religious leaders. 2010; Brown et al. 2013). This term refers to a growing Such concepts were later taken up by environmental consensus that holds that the pervasive and wicked environ- sociologists and geographers. Parallel to the establishment mental challenges humanity faces differ in scope, scale and of political ecology as an established academic field begin- complexity from previous environmental challenges and call ning in 1987 (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987) and its focus on for responses that go beyond incremental changes or new the Global South (Peet and Watts 1996; Bryant and Bailey technologies. Sustainability transitions are meant to be dif- 1997), the US environmental justice movement from the out- ferent from quick techno-managerial ‘sustainability fixes’. set was concerned with justice beyond the US. In 1990, it For example, closing one polluting factory is a one-time fix, proclaimed the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice in a whereas establishing and enforcing laws that prohibit pol- meeting in Washington DC, focusing on damage to minor- luting factories is a transition, reflected in actions that may ity groups in the US and making also a strong appeal for all augur a broader transformation in the regime of production. peoples of color in the world to rise against ‘environmental One branch of scholarship on transitions, rooted in inno- racism’, and calling for respect for other species . Nowadays vation and Science and Technology Studies, primarily aims a global movement for environmental justice is flourishing to understand historical technological change and how the with greater strength than in the US, although often sub- development of specific technologies and institutional frame- ject to strong repression. The movement has emerged out works lead to the reconfiguration of socio-technical relation- of worldwide struggles against open-pit mining, fossil fuel ships (Geels 2010). Stemming from this understanding of extraction, tree plantations, dams, nuclear energy, waste the factors which enable or constrain transitions, transition disposal, urban pollution and other issues, as the over 2200 management is a policy-oriented application of transition cases gathered in the EJAtlas testify to . theory that seeks to guide society towards more sustainable The actors of such movements are comprised not only of futures (Kemp et al. 2007). While transition theories are those directly affected by one project. They often involve inherently normative, in that they call for radical systemic shifts in deeply held values and beliefs, patterns of social behavior (Westley et al. 2011); the field has come under critique for being depoliticized, managerial and limited in http://www.ejnet.org/ej/principles.html. its analysis of the deeply political and contested nature of There are for instance activist groups with names including the words ‘environmental justice’ in Sri Lanka (Camisani, this feature), sustainability transitions (Shove and Walker 2007; Stirling Mozambique, or Brazil (da Rocha et al., this feature). Similar groups 2015; Avelino et al. 2016). use other names elsewhere, such as Acción Ecológica in Ecuador, There is space for further engagement between transi- CENSAT in Colombia, and so many others, some of them grouped in tions studies and critical perspectives from political ecology, Friends of the Earth International. 1 3 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 589 Fig. 1 Schematic overview and key questions to understand How do sustainability How do changes in interactions between socio-met- transions alter socio-metabolic configuraons Socio-Metabolic abolic configurations, ecological socio-metabolic redistribute environmental Configurations distribution conflicts, envi- configuraons? benefits and burdens? ronmental justice movements, and sustainability transitions. Source: the authors Ecological Sustainability Distribution Transitions Conflicts How can How are emerging Environmental environmental jusce ecological distribuon movements contribute to Justice conflicts transformed more sustainable sociees? into collecve acon? Movements social movement theory, critical environmental justice stud- processes. Figure  1 shows a schematic overview of their ies (see for instance Geels 2006; Lawhon and Murphy 2012), interactions and related key questions. as well as with voices both within and beyond the academy advocating for more radical transitions (Escobar 2015), Changes in socio‑metabolic configurations redefine sometimes referred to as ‘transformations’ (Temper et al., distribution of environmental benefits and burdens this feature). They include degrowth (see special feature in this journal, Asara et al. 2015); post-capitalism (Gibson- Research on the links between social metabolism and eco- Graham 2006); radical ecological democracy (Kothari et al. logical distribution conflicts has generally focused on how 2015); or buen vivir (Gudynas 2011). These are often meant increases or changes in the former provoke conflicts by caus- to be alternatives to (and not of) development, and intend ing unjust and unsustainable allocations of environmental to outline that there is politics beyond a unilinear future, benefits and burdens. Burdens sometimes take the form of unsustainable and unjust, consisting primarily of economic market ‘externalities’ (or else, cost-shifting), such as pol- growth (Kothari et al. 2015). We suggest that a systematic lution from extractive industries (e.g., Teran, 2017). They view on the role of ecological distribution conflicts and often also include dispossession and displacement of peo- environmental justice movements in sustainability transi- ple to make way for extractive industries (Martinez-Alier tions can provide meaningful inputs to understanding how 2002; Martinez-Alier et al. 2010; Muradian et al. 2012). such transitions happen. This is precisely what we address For instance, Martinez-Alier identified a “three-tier rela- in the next section. tion between the increasing social metabolism of human economies pushed by population and economic growth, the resulting ecological distribution conflicts among human groups, and the different languages of valuation deployed From ecological distribution conflicts historically and currently by such groups when they reaffirm to sustainability transitions: understanding their rights to use the environmental services and products dynamic interactions in dispute” (Martinez-Alier 2009). The hypothesis of ‘more metabolism, more conflicts’, How do the above introduced processes and patterns of most fruitfully applied to national economies (e.g., Perez- socio-metabolic configurations, ecological distribution con- Rincon et al., this feature), is a difficult one to test. While flicts, environmental justice movements and sustainability there are clear (read increasing) historical trends on mate- transitions shape each other? While there are numerous rial flows (Schaffartzik et al. 2014), this would need to be interactions and outcomes between them, we particularly compared with historical and exhaustive inventories of eco- focus in this section on those relevant within sustainability logical distribution conflicts. The EJAtlas represents such an 1 3 590 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 inventory, with 2200 cases globally by August 2017, but still light of overall increases in societal energy demand, the first this remains an uneven sample of an unknown total across hypothesis still holds in this case. countries. Further, there are numerous other (local) factors Summing up, both large and ecologically harmful levels influencing whether conflicts will emerge and the charac- of social metabolism are generally characterized by inten- teristics they may take. These are for instance the pace of sive pollution/environmental destruction at the frontiers of environmental change at given scales: fast or slow, and the extraction, processing and disposal. Changes in the social ability to establish a connection between socio-metabolic metabolism often imply new environmental burdens which changes and environmental and health impacts and the are disproportionately allocated to some social groups, cre- capacity of actors to adapt to these changes in a way that ating unjust distributional outcomes that may turn into vis- they perceive as just. For example, climate impacts related to ible conflicts. Returning to the question of ‘why’ ecological carbon emissions may still not be identified as such by many distribution conflicts play a role for sustainability, we argue actors suffering from weather disruption. Also changes in that they fundamentally expose such unsustainable resource the composition of material flows extracted from the envi- uses, by putting them into the spotlight. As discussed next, ronment, usually accompanied by changes in the actors conflicts hold tremendous power for change by mobilizing extracting them, matter. For example, farming communities social forces that can contest, politicize and transform such sustainably extracting biomass displaced by a mining project unsustainabilities. extracting minerals will protest because of a clash between two incompatible socio-metabolic configurations (Silva- Ecological distribution conflicts mobilize Macher and Farrell 2014). Finally, also the direction and environmental justice movements dynamics of change influence whether conflict emerges or not. For example, we may assume that increased extraction Ecological distribution conflicts have given rise to many of a mining project will lead to conflicts with neighbors due environmental justice movements around the globe. An illus- to increased pollution. Yet in some situations also decreases trative example is the case from Kōchi, Japan, during the in material extraction can cause conflicts. For instance, for - 1970s, where after decades of air and water pollution, citi- est conservation policies that established the Sri Nakarin zen and fishermen groups initiated a movement to remove a Dam National Park, Thailand, posed a ‘moratorium’ on for- paper pulp factory. When the company management refused est biomass extraction, i.e. firewood or non-timber forest to negotiate with the citizens group in May 1971, the group products (NTFPs), which strongly affected the livelihoods resorted to direct action by pouring cement into the mouth of of forest-dependent communities (EJAtlas 2015a). To these the factory effluent outlet. Being under pressure, the admin- examples of biophysical dynamics influencing conflict out- istrative authorities were forced to ask the company to either comes, we further need to add political, social and institu- move the factory elsewhere or to install proper pollution- tional aspects of metabolism affecting distributive aspects, control equipment. The company was unable to meet these i.e., how it is governed and shaped by power relations across demands and closed the polluting factory in May 1972 (see its stages of extraction, distribution and disposal (Demaria EJAtlas 2016a). Globally, around 17% of all environmental and Schindler 2016). conflicts registered in the EJAtlas report environmental jus- To understand the full spectrum of how social metabo- tices ‘successes’, such as stopping an unsustainable project . lism relates to ecological distribution conflicts, the central The answer to our initial question of ‘who’ are the actors question is how changes in socio-metabolic configurations through which ecological distribution conflicts most directly redefine the distribution of environmental benefits and bur - can shape sustainability processes is simple: it is through dens across different actors, therefore creating unjust distri- environmental justice movements, comprised of those most butional outcomes that give rise to distributional conflicts. directly affected by such unsustainabilities and those allying An overall increase in social metabolism (nationally or with them. However, to explain when and how strong envi- globally) may indeed alter all the above-mentioned factors, ronmental justice movements emerge, we need to ask why of which many address the local scale, thereby reconfig- do some cases of unsustainable, unjust ecological distribu- uring distributional outcomes. To this broad hypothesis of tion give rise to successful environmental justice movements, ‘more metabolism, more conflicts’ focusing on quantitative and why others not? This question fundamentally aims to aspects (i.e. size of total material flows, number of conflicts understand the conditions under which affected actors have across stages of production, transport and disposal), we also been able to enact (successful) collective action against envi- emphasize the role of qualitative material aspects: ‘the more ronmental injustices. It represents one of the core inquiries ecologically harmful, the more socially conflictive’. To take the example of nuclear waste, only small amounts of such toxic materials will lead to conflicts over their allocation. 4 For a discussion on what ‘environmental justice success’ can mean, However, since nuclear waste problems can also be seen in see Özkaynak et al. (2015). 1 3 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 591 of (environmental) social movement studies (e.g. Keck and aim to reframe and create new environmental narratives that Sikkink 1998; McAdam et al. 2001; della Porta and Rucht resonate with the public and open the potential for broader 2002; Heijden and van Der 2006). alliances. They serve thus as mobilizing frames. The concept of ‘political opportunity structures’, under- Pellow et al. (2002) emphasized the following key points stood as the characteristics of a political system that facili- to understand the emergence of environmental justice move- tates or constrains collective action, has been key to under- ments: (a) the importance of the history of environmental stand strategies, successes, organization and mobilization inequalities and the processes by which they unfold. This levels of movements (Heijden and van Der 2006). Analyzing entails taking into account longstanding liabilities, as well such political opportunity structures is important for under- as future concerns in environmental policy-making. (b) The standing the venues chosen for successful lobbying and role of social stratification by ethnicity, race, class (and political actions. Movements further build up their ‘reper- caste), given the fact that the poor and people of color are toires of contention’ in terms of protest forms and direct generally the most vulnerable to environmental inequalities. actions, which are often shaped by national and local con- These are not ‘minorities’—they are the majority of human- texts and histories (Tilly 2002). Timing and proactivity of kind, if not the ‘99%’. However, it must be kept in mind collective action is also a key to achieving environmental that communities and racial groups are frequently divided, justice. The EJAtlas demonstrates that the sooner mobiliza- as addressed in the next point. (c) The role of multiple tion occurs, the more likely success is. For instance, out of stakeholders in these conflicts and their internal divisions. the almost 380 EJAtlas cases reported as an environmental An analysis of the political dynamics within and between justice success (such as ‘project stopped’), 57% of cases movements, based on understanding the different interests of involved preventive mobilizations, whereas those with the classes, social identities and ideologies helps to understand mobilization beginning only in reaction to construction/ current frictions as well as possible alliances to strengthen operation represent 27%, and those where mobilizations movements (see Edelman and Borras 2016). (d) The role of arise in response to damages only 13% . marginalized groups in reshaping environmental inequali- In environmental justice struggles, the biophysical char- ties. For example, indigenous people and ethnically discrimi- acteristics of the conflict can further shape the forms of nated groups are involved in 44% of the EJAtlas cases. With mobilization and direct action. Resistance strategies can their territories located at the frontiers of resource extrac- take advantage of ‘biophysical opportunity structures’, tion, they often take a leading role in mobilizations, but also where they attempt to identify, change or disrupt the dam- face disproportionately high rates of repression, including aging ecological processes they are confronting towards murder (see Del Bene et al. this feature; Global Witness their cause. Consider for instance pulling out of saplings to 2017). Also the role of women leaders is noticeable in many halt tree plantations, as has been the case in protests against environmental justice conflicts worldwide. It is often the eucalyptus plantations, in Tumkur, Karnataka, India (Ger- marginalized segments of society who shape the contours ber 2011; EJAtlas 2014b), uprooting of genetically modi- of environmental justice struggles. fied crops, burning of wood logs to oppose illegal logging (EJAtlas 2015b), or countless cases of land occupation by Environmental justice movements can support the landless. sustainability transitions in various ways Finally, the ‘collective action frames’ (Tarrow 1992) of movements emerging in response to environmental conflicts The environmental justice perspective unmasks the ques- becomes very powerful when they challenge current under- tions of ‘who gets what environmental goods and bads, why, standings of our relationships with the environment. These and in what amounts’, calling for grassroots movements to frames are often expressed through pithy protest slogans, struggle for environmental health strategies to ensure the that we refer to as the ‘vocabulary of environmental justice’ equal protection of all citizens, including indigenous peo- and which includes concepts and phrases such as ‘environ- ples who often live at the extractive commodity frontiers. mental racism’, ‘tree plantations are not forests’, ‘keep the For instance, the South African Environmental Justice oil in the soil’, ‘keep the coal in the hole’ and the like (Mar- Networking Forum asserted (1997, quoted in McDonald tinez-Alier et al. 2016). Such concepts and slogans draw on a 2002) “Environmental justice is about social transformation collective identity of those negatively affected by ecological directed towards meeting basic human needs and enhancing distribution conflicts. By offering a new vantage point, they our quality of life—economic quality, health care, housing, human rights, environmental protection, and democracy. In linking environmental and social justice issues, the envi- ronmental justice approach seeks to challenge the abuse Based on EJAtlas data, July 2017. The remaining 4% are comprised of power which results in poor people having to suffer the of cases with not visible mobilizations, or unknown start of mobiliza- tion. 1 3 592 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 effects of environmental damage caused by the greed of that draw wide attention to their cause. In 2012, following others”. increasing awareness and pressure before general elections, How can such environmental justice movements achieve the government cancelled several extractive projects jeop- such claimed transitions towards more sustainable futures? ardizing the forest. Some described this as a ‘rare victory’ Several strands can be distinguished that are useful for delin- (EJAtlas 2015b). In 2015, the movement was awarded the eating their potential roles for sustainability transitions. UNDP Equator Prize that recognizes “outstanding local The distinction posed by Gadgil and Guha (1993) between achievement in advancing sustainable development” . intramodal and intermodal ecological conflicts is helpful in A powerful global example of how grassroots movements this regard. Intramodal conflicts emerge over the distribu - can shape sustainability processes is also given by trans- tion of environmental benefits and burdens within an estab- national agrarian movements, such as La Via Campesina lished pattern of resource use between and amongst different (LVC), or the International Planning Committee for Food social groups, sometimes along class, gender or ethnic lines. Sovereignty (IPC). In their defense of peasant agriculture For example, this entails conflicts between farmers over the and against large-scale capitalist industrial agriculture, both distribution of irrigation water; access to common land; or LVC and the IPC have fundamentally contributed to promot- exploitation quotas (González de Molina et al. 2009). It also ing agroecology as a sustainable agriculture model across covers conflicts over equitable distribution of other environ - the globe. Also, their efforts in making education accessi- mental benefits and burdens (water, energy, parks and green ble to poor groups, thanks to popular peasant universities, spaces, land, etc.) across the same user group. Related move- represent an important contribution to sustainability efforts ments may be arguing for a reduction of environmental haz- (Edelman and Borras 2016). ards through improved governance or technology, together Movements arising out of intermodal conflicts may take with a more equitable distribution of environmental goods the form of groups confronting specific forms of damag- and bads (ibid). Some of them might also take the form of ing industrial activities as well as those claiming against NIMBY conflicts, concerned mainly of not having hazardous unknown risks (Beck 1992). Yet their scope of action goes project in their own backyard, but without fundamentally often well beyond specific places and feeds into alliances questioning the underlying systems and their potential (un) and solidarity with other movements across regions and the sustainability. This type of ecological distribution conflict is globe (see Tramel 2016). It is a type of environmentalism unlikely to contribute directly to radical transformations in that is different from conservationism focusing on wildlife socio-metabolic configurations, as they often focus only on and also from ecological modernization focusing on techno- specific places and do not question the mode of production logical change and on the internalization of externalities in itself. However, if redistributive claims are accomplished the price system. As capitalism is a major force behind the and environmental cost-shifting is diminished as a result, expansion of extractivist, industrial projects that transform this could lead to improved management within a given former socio-metabolic configurations across the globe, socio-metabolic configuration. intermodal movements, either implicitly or explicitly, tend On the contrary, intermodal conflicts are those which to take anti-capitalist stances . Such movements often ques- defend a particular mode of resource use against industrial tion the dominant form of valuation of resource uses (i.e. society’s attempts to transform it. González de Molina et al. monetary values and cost-benefit analyses) and renegotiate (2009) give as a historical example, the case of Galician the values deemed relevant for sustainability (Martinez-Alier farmers (Spain) who fought to preserve communal land from 2002). Sometimes, particularly when the resistance weakens, attempts of industrialization. In doing so, they played a key demands for monetary compensation are made (in a frame- role for maintaining an agricultural model largely independ- work of ‘weak sustainability’; Martinez-Alier et al. 1998). ent from fossil energy. A current example is the Prey Lang The same groups, at other times or when feeling stronger, Community Network in Cambodia, a forest movement that might argue in terms of values which are not commensurate originated to protect one of the biggest primary forests in Southeast Asia. For decades, Prey Lang forest has been http://www.equatorinitiative.org/. under threat of logging and contamination due to illegal In this way, we can argue that intermodal movements go beyond timber trade, agro-industries and mining concessions. After simply tweaking capitalism to be greener (which may apply to some years of cooperation between forest-depended communities intramodal movements). By contesting the very socio-metabolic basis to halt forest destruction, the network was established in of the industrial capitalist growth economy, they may therefore also 2007 by local activists of Khmer and Kuy indigenous iden- go beyond mitigating the ‘second contradiction of capitalism’ pro- voked by environmental destruction (O’Connor 1988). We may argue tity. The decentralized movement, spanning several prov- that such uncompromising, intermodal resistance serve to threaten inces, established regular community forest patrols to stop the very basis of the capitalist economy itself. They may thus repre- illegal loggers, burned illicit timber piles, confiscated chain sent what O’Connor (1988***, 28) described as the “powerful social saws, lobbied authorities and launched several campaigns movements demanding an end to ecological exploitation”. 1 3 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 593 with money, such as indigenous territorial rights, irrevers- with environmentalists and after 8 years of strong resistance, ible ecological values, human right to health or the sacred- they were successful in 2015 in stopping the project. Now, ness of Mother Earth, implicitly defending a conception of there is some local implementation of alternative energy ‘strong sustainability’. In contesting and redefining the very systems (EJAtlas 2015c). economic, ecological and social principles behind particular Many similar stories can be found in the EJAtlas . They uses of the environment, such intermodal conflicts are those illustrate indeed our hypothetical rule: more success for that are most clearly forces towards broader sustainability environmental justice, more environmental sustainability. transitions. Whether ‘just sustainabilities’ (Agyeman and Evans Sustainability transitions reshape socio‑metabolic 2004) are really easy to achieve has been forcefully ques- configurations tioned by Andrew Dobson (1998), who pointed to the con- flicts and tensions between environmental sustainability and All visions of sustainability transitions entail concomitant distributive justice, both widely regarded desirable social transformations in socio-metabolic relations. Nowadays, the objectives. Let us consider ‘climate justice’. Removing primary emphasis in socio-metabolic terms is the transition world’s energy poverty by providing every citizen with a to a low-carbon and resource-efficient economy. This calls right to burn fossil fuels to the tune of emitting 5 tons of for major changes in energy, transport, and agri-food sys- CO /year could be seen as a modest and equitable outcome tems (Geels 2012), a fundamental transformation towards in distributive terms—but it would not be conducive to sus- more sustainable modes of production and consumption tainability. The sustainability condition would argue that the (Markard et al. 2012) and re-localization of production and European average of 10 tons of CO /person/year is far too consumption to shorten resource flow and supply chains high and should be reduced quickly by 70 or 80%. Remov- (Asara et al. 2015). ing energy poverty is desirable but cannot entail raising Yet, a narrow focus on increased efficiency, or relative the world average to 5 tons/person/year. Other means must dematerialization and decarbonization, is insufficient, not be sought, such as alternative sources of energy perhaps least because it might lead to Jevons’ effects (i.e. increase in financed by the ‘ecological/carbon debt’ owed historically efficiency might lead to greater, rather than lesser, total con- by the rich (Warlenius et al. 2015). Acknowledgement of sumption), and many argue for a more radical transformation liability for climate change (brutally excluded in the Paris of the socio-metabolic regime (Polimeni et al. 2008). Atten- COP agreement of 2015) would mean a redistribution of tion to the many social, ecological and economic issues of wealth among and within nations. However, Dobson’s point sustainability is required. Furthermore, if we conceptualize remains that distributive ‘climate justice’ in itself does not a major sustainability transformation as a shift into a com- ensure sustainability, or rather ‘climate justice’ implies two pletely new socio-metabolic regime, it becomes clear that separate objectives, one regarding equity and another one this time the transition must entail a substantial reduction regarding climate stability. in energy and material flows per capita (Fischer-Kowalski In practice, by looking at the outcomes of different eco- and Rotmans 2009). This is in sharp contrast to past transi- logical distribution conflicts collected in the EJAtlas, we tions which were associated with a substantial increase in could give many examples in which both objectives are metabolic rates. This thermo-dynamic reality is what leads served; hence, in which the success in environmental jus- Degrowth, Décroissance or Post-Wachstum proponents to tice does not undermine the objective of sustainability, mobilize for social transformation towards absolute reduc- rather on the contrary. For instance, the proposed Fuleni tions of energy and material throughput; as well as more coal mine in Kwa Zulu Natal stands very near the border of equitable distribution of resources, as a means to combine the very valuable Hluhluwe-Mfolozi Wilderness area. There social justice and environmental concerns (Demaria et al. is confluence of protests from conservationists and the local 2013). people (in MCEJO - Mfolozi Community Environmental This is uncharted territory, calling for a shift to a yet Justice Organisation) opposing mining. Although their main unknown type of social organization. Such a transition can motivations are local, both conservationists and local peo- ple have learnt to praise the policy of ‘leaving coal in the hole’ against climate change (EJAtlas 2016b). In Sompeta For instance in Phulbari, Bangladesh, there was very violent repres- in Andhra Pradesh, the government had allotted 972 acres sion with several victims leading to a ban on open-pit coal mining of land including wetlands to Nagarjuna Construction Com- in the area and withdrawal of international funding (https://EJAtlas. org/conflict/protest-against-open-pit-coal-mine-project-in-phulbari- pany to build a coal-based thermal power plant. Community region). Also the Ende Gelände movement in Germany, motivated members were extremely opposed to the construction since not only by climate change, became an important force in reducing it would destroy their entire livelihoods, which is based on or stopping lignite mining in the country (https://EJAtlas.org/conflict/ this land to sustain their fisheries and farmlands. They allied linginte-mining-and-the-ende-gelande-movement). 1 3 594 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 be well informed by combining socio-metabolic assess- (Avila, this feature). This points to how within low-carbon ments with a political economy/ecology analysis of how metabolic configurations, environmental justice activists aim particular forms of technology and resource use regimes to bring attention to issues of scale, control, sovereignty and are constructed and employed, who owns the resources and democracy, arguing that the sustainability transformation how benefits are distributed; and how movements of opposi- must be defined not only by changes in resource use, i.e. a tion contest and aim to reshape resource governance. Take shift from fossil to renewables, but also in how they are gov- for example the transition from fossil to renewable energy erned. For instance, the Lubicon Cree Community of Little sources. Biofuels can be produced at the local level in a Buffalo, Alberta, who have suffered from massive oil spills decentralized and democratic manner with waste materi- and contamination related to tar sands exploitation on their als. They can also be produced on a large-scale based on territory have recently launched the Piitapan Solar Project environmentally destructive monocultures that are far from that powers the health center as a means of resistance to tar resolving the problem of energy supply (Giampietro and sands expansion through showing the world that the shift to Mayumi 2009), but rather dispossess local farmers through renewables is possible (EJAtlas 2014c). This highlights that associated land-grabbing (Borras et al. 2010; Scheidel and energy transitions and environmentally just socio-metabolic Sorman 2012). In the case of the latter, such mistakenly configurations are not only about the form of energy, but called ‘sustainability transitions’ would just produce new about energy for what and for whom and under what social socio-metabolic configurations that are as conflictive and relations. unsustainable as the previous, restarting the circle outlined in Fig. 1. But there are also historic cases in which sustainability Breaking the vicious cycle transitions pushed new socio-metabolic configurations that of unsustainabilities and ecological did not (immediately) provoke a new set of unsustainabili- distribution conflicts ties, conflicts and mobilizations. Bond and Dorsey ( 2010) put forward as an example the 1996 Montreal Protocol on So far we have addressed some key linkages between socio- chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) which succeeded in banning metabolic configurations, ecological distribution conflicts, emissions outright to prevent growth of the hole in the ozone environmental justice movements and sustainability transi- layer, as perhaps the last example of effective globally coor - tions. As seen in the previous section, some transitions bring dinated top-down environmental action. In the EJAtlas, we an end to some ecological distribution conflicts, but they also find numerous cases of effective activism from below also can produce a whole set of new ones. leading to reduced extractive activities or moratoria at the For instance,  Špirić, this feature, and  Pérez-Rincón project, local, sub-national and national scale. The decline et al. this feature offer a historic account on how ecological of the shale gas boom in Europe is one notable example, distribution conflicts change across different political and with countries such as France, Bulgaria and the Netherlands, economic regime transitions. Above, we have mentioned among others, declaring a ban on the exploitation of new biofuels and land-grabbing conflicts as an example of how natural gas deposits (EJAtlas 2015d). It should be noted, sustainability transitions can ironically trigger a whole new however, that while extraction is not proceeding in these set of unsustainabilities and conflicts. The EJAtlas reports countries, pipeline connectivity to import fracked gas from numerous of such cases, but also here, local movements North Africa and other locations is expanding, potentially have managed to stop many unsustainable agro-fuel pro- shifting conflicts elsewhere. But opposition also appears jects (Temper 2018). Many other examples exist in which there (EJAtlas 2015e). renewable energy systems have caused new conflicts and We may also note that the way sustainability transitions mobilizations (for hydroelectric dams see Del Bene, et al., reshape socio-metabolic configurations depends on the this feature; for windfarms, Avila, this feature; for waste to materiality of resources themselves and how these contribute energy see Herrero and Vilella, this feature, as well as John- to shaping power relations and social systems. For exam- son et al., this feature). Further examples also include the ple, oil as a resource requires large-scale capital investment recent emergence of ‘green grabs’ (Fairhead et al. 2012), in and centralized control and distribution. In contrast, many which resources are grabbed from local users for environ- renewable energies such as wind and solar could be har- mental ends such as for CO sequestration through large- nessed at small-scales with lower capital investment, mean- scale forestry projects (Lyons and Westoby 2014). ing they could be controlled at the community scale with Hence, as sustainability transitions move on to resolve important implications for decentralized and democratic old issues, they create new problems along the way by governance (Lawhon and Murphy 2012). But also here, altering socio-metabolic configurations that—again—re- wind-energy is often produced at large scale and can lead distribute environmental benefits and burdens. Sieferle and to local conflicts on land use or biodiversity conservation Müller-Herold (1996) argued that a ‘risk spiral’ exists in 1 3 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 595 sustainability, in which the reduction of one risk usually Conclusions requires innovations that produce new uncertainties and future sustainability problems. In our analysis, we see this This paper has aimed to address a fundamental paradox of unfolding as a ‘conflict spiral’ in which the solution of for - sustainability. On one hand, science has been consolidat- mer sustainability issues creates new environmental conflicts ing the arguments to prove that humanity is facing a sus- through a redistribution of environmental benefits and bur - tainability crisis, yet on the other, calls for action seem to dens. Is there a way to escape this conflict spiral? have been futile. Scientists might get the feeling that their Progress, at least, requires reducing rather than expanding voices have not been heard, but instead here we argue that the circles of this conflict spiral across resource use regimes it might be them who failed to hear the voices of those who and to avoid that new pressures are not shifted to marginal- struggle everyday for sustainability, even at the expense ized groups, such as indigenous. Sustainability politics are of their own lives. needed that consider impacts beyond narrow fixes to single With the conceptual framework laid out in this paper, problems but rather across different resource use regimes, we have aimed to give a systematic overview and clarify by anticipating the social and ecological implications of pro- how struggles over environmental conflicts can contribute posed socio-metabolic configurations across different social to processes towards sustainability. Driven by patterns of groups. In line with our hypothesis, we are convinced that unsustainable social metabolism, ecological distribution this calls for a reduction of social metabolism in absolute conflicts often provoke the emergence of environmental terms, particularly of those material and energy flows that justice movements. Their collective actions to shed light are most damaging and conflictive. The Degrowth move- on—and to transform—these resources uses damaging ment, composed not only of academics but also activists, humans and the environment can contribute to transitions has collected many ideas of how this may be envisioned towards more sustainable futures in various ways that we and achieved (D’Alisa et al. 2015). With no doubt, it would discussed in this paper. From this perspective, conflicts require a fundamental restructuring of the way modern soci- bear a tremendous power of mobilizing social forces for eties operate. change. To achieve such restructuring, co-production of knowl- The Environmental Justice Atlas and other inventories, edge and exploration of alternatives is strongly needed and such as those of OCMAL (Observatorio de Conflictos environmental justice movements, in alliance with other Mineros de América Latina) or GAIA (Global Alliance for movements, have much to contribute here (Martinez-Alier Incineration Alternatives) show that there are thousands 2012; Conde 2014; Kothari et al. 2015; Temper and Del of local environmental conflicts where millions of people Bene 2016). Beyond this, environmental justice movements struggle to defend their health and livelihood. While not are also crucial in monitoring impacts of new socio-meta- only contributing to the sustainability of the economy by bolic configurations provoked by emerging alternatives. Karl transforming environmental injustices caused by unsus- Polanyi (1944) argued that a double movement exists, mean- tainabilities, such environmental justice movements are ing a dialectical process of marketisation and push for social at the forefront in repoliticizing and reimagining sustain- protection against that marketisation. Here, we see that a ability transitions. This is urgently needed to confront the double movement exists where environmental justice move- profound sustainability crises of today. ments react to socio-metabolic configurations that are unsus- Contributions of environmental frontline defenders are tainable in either their biophysical characteristics or govern- slowly reaching more global visibility, such as through ance. In defense of their means of existence and subsistence, the Goldman environmental prize, also known as ‘green but also for the general interest of protecting the public good, Nobel’, or the UNDP Equator prize awarding community- environmental justice movements are crucial in politicizing based initiatives for sustainability. Nevertheless, environ- and sometimes also transforming such unsustainabilities. mental activists are coming under increasing threat and They continually contribute to reframing and questioning repression. Violence against them has become systematic. what sustainability means, which vision of sustainability is Alliances for sustainability must, therefore, not only inte- operationalized, and what socio-metabolic configuration is grate in a fruitful way the work of academics and activ- most compatible with social justice and ecological health. ists—for example through co-produced knowledge—but Environmental justice movements are, therefore, essential also seek growing institutional support for threatened ‘safeguards of society’ that address adverse impacts of not grassroots activists. How such mechanisms of support only unsustainable policies, but also the impacts of sustain- and protection may look like in practice, remains to be ability policies themselves. Therefore, they might be among explored. Relevance of developing such effective support the most promising social forces to promote sustainability. is high as currently many of them are not only essential There it is where sustainability science should be looking but also endangered actors for sustainability. for alliances to achieve change. 1 3 596 Sustainability Science (2018) 13:585–598 Acknowledgements The authors acknowledge funding from a Catalan Camisani P (2017, this feature) Sri Lanka: a political ecology of socio- Beatriu de Pinos grant (Grant-No. 2014 BP_A 00129) (A. Scheidel); environmental conflicts and development projects. Sustain Sci from the Transformations to Sustainability Programme, which is coor- (under Review) dinated by the International Social Science Council and funded by Conde M (2014) Activism mobilising science. Ecol Econ 105:67–77. the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2014.05.012 and implemented in partnership with the National Research Founda- D’Alisa G, Demaria F, Kallis G (2015) Degrowth: a vocabulary for a tion of South Africa through the ACKNowl-EJ project (Grant-No. new era. Routledge, Abingdon TKN150317115354) (L. Temper); from the Spanish government da Rocha DF, Porto MF, Pacheco T et al. (2017, this feature) The through the project CSO2014-54513-R SINALECO (F. Demaria) and map of conflicts related to environmental injustice and health in from the European Research Council (ERC) advanced grant ENVJUS- Brazil. Sustain Sci. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-017-0494-5 TICE (Grant-No. 695446) (A. Scheidel, F. Demaria, and J. Martínez- Del Bene D, Scheidel A, Temper L (this feature) More dams, more Alier). We thank the Barcelona group of Political Ecology for constant violence? Analysing global resistances and repression around inspiration and for sharing radical thought. A. Scheidel also thanks the conflictive dams through co-produced knowledge. Sustain Sci MOSAIC research network for inspiring discussions on related topics. della Porta D, Rucht D (2002) The dynamics of environmental cam- Three anonymous reviewers provided helpful comments to improve the paigns. Mobilization 7:1–14 paper. All errors remain our own. Demaria F, D’Alisa G (2013) Dispossession and contamination: strate- gies for capital accumulation in the waste market. Lo Squaderno 29:37–39 Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Demaria F, Schindler S (2016) Contesting urban metabolism: strug- Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecom- gles over waste-to-energy in Delhi, India. 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