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¿What is the ecological crisis?

¿What is the ecological crisis?

By Florent Marcellesi

The ecological crisis is primarily a crisis of scarcity: scarcity of raw materials, energy, land and environmental space to keep pace with the current economy, let alone extend it to all countries of the South and leave it as a legacy to future generations. The mode of production and consumption promoted by the North does not take into account the physical limits of the planet, as the ecological footprint makes clear: if all the people of this world consumed like the Spanish citizens, we would need three planets. Meanwhile, humanity already exceeds by 50% its capacity to regenerate the natural resources that we use and assimilate the waste that we discard (WWF, 2012). For its part, the scope of human domination and the extent of the environmental crisis that it causes, is clear at least through the following six phenomena (Vitousek and his collaborators (in Riechmann, 2008)):

  1. Between half and a third of the earth's surface has already been transformed by human action.
  2. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by more than 30% since the beginning of the industrial revolution.
  3. Human action fixes more atmospheric nitrogen than the combination of natural land sources.
  4. Humanity uses more than half of all accessible fresh water on the planet's surface.
  5. Approximately a quarter of the planet's bird species have been extinct by human action.
  6. Two thirds of the main marine fisheries are overexploited or depleted.

In this context, according to Lipietz (2012), we can even speak today of a “second” global ecological crisis, after the first one that took place during the Great Plague of the 14th century. Like the Great Plague, the current ecological crisis has as its origin a conflict between Humanity and Nature, through the relative scarcity of food production and the dangers of its own energy system for the human population. In addition, it is transmitted through the channels of economic globalization and hits very different civilizations, although similar enough to be able to produce and suffer similar effects. However, according to the French theorist, the current ecological crisis is profoundly different from the “exogenous” crisis of the Great Plague (an unknown and devastating microbe that attacks societies weakened by non-anthropogenic climate change and low agricultural productivity) because it is the result of the social and historical dynamics of the development model itself: liberal-productivism itself has generated the current tension between Humanity and Nature. In such a way that the "second" ecological crisis, this time "endogenous", could be summarized as follows:

[It is] the conjunction of two knots of ecological crises, internal to the dynamics of the liberal-productivist model: the "triangle of energy crises" and the "square of conflicts for land use", themselves articulated on the crisis financial, economic and social model of the neoliberal capitalist model that has triumphed worldwide since the early 1980s. This liberal model weighs heavily on the evolution of the two knots of ecological crises: we can even say that it engenders them (Lipietz, 2012).

Next, we will study in more depth these two central knots of the ecological crisis in order to better understand the challenges that humanity faces if it wants to choose the path of hope.

The triangle of energy crises

The main risks related to the energy crisis are centered around three vertices: fossil energy (coal, oil, gas), nuclear energy and energy from biomass (firewood, biofuels).

As the first vertex of the triangle, we find the risks linked to fossil fuels, which in turn are divided into two aspects: the capacity to regenerate these energies (non-renewable on a human scale) and the capacity to assimilate the waste linked to their utilization. Likewise, humanity faces the ceiling of fossil fuels, which corresponds to the inflection point from which the extraction of one unit of fossil energy per unit of time can no longer be increased, no matter how great the demand. It coincides with the moment when the accumulated extraction reaches half of the total recoverable amount, and human, technical and financial efforts can slow the rate of decline, but not reverse the downward trend of extraction. At the same time, the growing inability to offer more fossil energy runs up against a constantly increasing demand, mainly in the so-called emerging countries such as China or India, and with speculation (Bermejo, 2008), which triggers the price of fuel. energy (and other raw materials). (2) Specifically, this increasing tension between supply (which depends on ecological and economic factors) and demand (which depends on the way of life) is paradgimatic and highly dangerous for the social and economic model. current productive. This is especially true in the case of oil, since economic globalization relies on cheap, abundant and good quality oil. The deployment of the mass production and consumption model and its associated institutions need fossil energy just as the human body needs blood. For example: the agro-industrial complex, based on motorized machinery, the production and consumption of fertilizers and fertilizers, high levels of water pumping, industrial handling, intensive exploitation of soils, globalized marketing and long-distance transport to the place of consumption, gives us a good idea of ​​this dependence. (3) However, having reached the peak of oil, this era is over: we are entering the era of expensive, scarce and poor quality oil. (4) This new situation has direct repercussions on the economy as a whole and on our daily life patterns. Indeed, the financial crisis of 2008, which today triggered a wave of recessions and brutal adjustment plans, highlights a direct relationship between ecological and economic crises. In this sense, the American economist Jeremy Rifkin recalls that the subprime crisis, that is, the default on mortgages in the United States that later spread worldwide through toxic assets, began when the barrel of oil in the summer 2008 reached $ 150 and not in October when the bubble burst into public view. This increase in prices caused the price of gasoline to rise and in the United States many people, mainly the most impoverished and insolvent whose family budget has two basic items related to housing and transportation, stopped paying the mortgage (the subprimes) to maintain the possession of their private car (essential in a system based on its intensive use, for example to go to work and in turn generate the necessary income to survive).

On the other hand, let's point out that to overcome the ceiling of fossil fuel production, there is a new extractive frontier: the extraction of shale gas through the method called fracking or hydraulic fracturing. Although fracking has allowed to lower the price of gas in the short and medium term, it is a new mirage that is highly dangerous for the environment, the climate and human health and does not face the greatest challenge of industrial civilization: reducing energy consumption. within the ecological limits of the Planet (for a detailed analysis of fracking, see Marcellesi and Urresti, 2012).


Regarding the effects of the energy model on climate change, today the main environmental concern on political agendas, there is clear evidence that energy crisis and climate crisis are just two sides of the same coin. According to the Intergovernmental Group of Experts on Climate Change (GIECC), “the main cause of the growth in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since pre-industrial times is the use of fossil fuels” (2007, p2), which today is estimated around 75% (the rest is due to deforestation and land use change). Despite technological improvements per unit produced, (5) population growth and the current socioeconomic model (based on material accumulation) cause unsustainable pressure on ecosystems. In this context, anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions exceed the capacity for self-regulation and assimilation by natural sinks (oceans, atmosphere), which is leading to a dangerous situation of no return. To avoid such a case that would lead to irreversible and unpredictable changes, the GIECC recommends that there be no increase of more than 2 degrees Celsius in 2100 compared to pre-industrial levels, while the highly institutional International Energy Agency sets 2017 as the deadline. to limit the increase in temperatures. Otherwise, either the IPCC (2007) or the United Nations Development Program (2007) warn of the same environmental and social consequences. Climate change will have - and in fact, already has - effects on agriculture and forestry (change in yields according to cold or warm areas, increase in pests and insects, etc.), on water resources (extension of areas affected by the drought, deterioration of water quality, etc.), in human health (such as heat-related mortality in Europe, increase in infectious diseases, etc.) or in industry, human settlements and society (decrease in the quality of life of people in hot areas without adequate housing) as well as increased exposure to coastal flooding, extreme weather conditions and possible collapse of ecosystems.

As the second vertex of the triangle, we find nuclear energy that after the Fukushima catastrophe - tens of thousands of people evacuated outside the security perimeter, radioactive contamination even in Tokyo, political and technical scandals around the management and safety of the power plants Japanese nuclear power plants and the post-tsunami accident, (6) etc.— once again points out its high deficiencies and risks to represent any type of solution to climate change. Summarizing the main problems (Marcellesi, 2011a):

  1. The risk of an accident, in this case of low probability but of high magnitude, is more than ever present and real.
  2. We still do not have any real solution to the management of radioactive waste.
  3. Nuclear energy creates a strong dependence with the outside since uranium, whose reserves are finite, is bought from countries outside of Europe and whose political instability does not ensure a secure supply (Chad, for example).
  4. There is a risk of proliferation of nuclear energy for military purposes (reinforced by the threat of terrorist use of waste or nuclear power plants as possible targets of attack).
  5. It is not an alternative to substantially avoid greenhouse gas emissions: if the global life cycle of nuclear energy is taken into account (uranium extraction, supply to Europe, construction and dismantling of power plants, waste management ...) , it produces more CO2 than renewable energies. (7)
  6. It is a source of electricity, therefore it does not replace our dependence on fossil fuels.
  7. The jobs by energy units are below those created by renewable energies. (8)

The last vertex of the triangle is occupied by biomass, whose energy use is the oldest since Homo Erectus domesticated fire, the most constant for a great majority of humanity (firewood is still the main fuel used) and, surely, one of the most promising for the future. But biomass also has associated risks that we will analyze in the next subsection, since it is directly linked to land use, mainly with the boom in biofuels.

The land use conflict square

Anglo-Saxons often say that we make four main uses of the land, which can be exclusive: Food, Feed, Forest, Fuel (the 4 Fs). Said in Spanish, we are talking respectively about uses for 1. human food, 2. livestock feeding (natural —grass fields— or artificial —soya that is combined with corn for European cows—), ​​3. forests ( as a sink or biosphere reserve) and 4. biomass production (biofuels, firewood, etc.).

In this framework of analysis, two crucial factors: the increasingly carnivorous diet of the North and emerging countries, and the increasingly systemic introduction of agrofuels. As reported by Lipietz (2012), the polarization of income worldwide causes a transformation of the human diet that goes from a diet based on plant proteins with a little meat (“the Indian menu or the Chinese menu”), to a meat-based diet (the "European or North American menu"). However, animal proteins (feed) need 7 to 15 times more hectares for their production than vegetable proteins (food). Therefore, this represents a serious problem given the constant increase in the population with a carnivorous diet (for example, in India and China 10% of the population eats the same type of food as in Europe and North America). For their part, agrofuels (fuel), which are technically renewable energies obtained from biomass, are the official response to the crisis of fossil fuels and the oil ceiling. In fact, in societies not willing to 'negotiate their way of life', agrofuels arouse great interest and have a strong political impulse, (9) which, along with other factors, causes tensions in food prices in the world market. (10) In this context, Jean Ziegler, the UN special rapporteur for the right to food, even postulated in 2007 that the mass production of biofuels "is a crime against humanity".

Although agrofuels play a central role in the current food crises, other social and ecological factors must also be added: the rise in energy prices, poor harvests in wheat-producing countries such as Australia, Russia or Ukraine due to the change climate, globalized production models that are committed to export economies to the detriment of food sovereignty and that denigrate indigenous production to supply local markets, causing dependence on foreign markets especially for the import of basic products, the poor distribution of local or imported agricultural production, as well as speculative movements worldwide. Just as the strong political regime changes in Europe in 1848 were caused by famine revolts, Lagi et al (2011) show that there is a strong correlation between the rise in food prices - due to the combination of factors mentioned above - and the hunger riots of recent years in the world that, let us remember, have put an end in a few months to authoritarian governments - such as those of Tunisia and Egypt - that no one saw possible to overthrow.

In conclusion of this section, it is interesting - and above all worrying - to note that, in addition to what a large part of the environmental movement theorized in its beginnings, This ecological crisis not only decisively compromises future generations but now directly affects present generations. It is not only a crisis of abundance of a privileged generation ("bread for today, hunger for tomorrow"), but also a crisis of scarcity that is already manifesting itself in the day-to-day life of a large part of the world's population ( hunger is for today). Likewise, it highlights that the so-called financial, speculative or food crises are linked to underlying and interdependent crises: not only that of the real economy (or productive economy) but also that of the “real-real economy”, that is to say that of the flows of materials and energy that depend on the one hand on economic factors and on the other hand on the ecological limits of the planet.

Previous deliveries:

  • The ecological genesis: from aesthetics to survival .
  • 1968, nuclear and other foundational myths of environmentalism.

* Coordinator of Ecopolitics and member of the Political Ecology Magazine.

Published in the magazine Cuides, nº9, October 2012 (1). This is the third article of eight in the series “What is political ecology? A path to hope in the 21st century ”.


Video: Psychology and the Ecological Crisis (June 2021).