Measuring environmental injustice: how ecological debt defines a radical change in the international legal system

Jordi Jaria I Manzano, Antonio Cardesa-Salzmann, Antoni Pigrau, Susana Borràs

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This paper takes ecological debt as a measure of environmental injustice, and appraises this idea as a driving force for change in the international legal system. Environmental justice is understood here as a fair distribution of charges and benefits derived from using natural resources, in order to provide minimal welfare standards to all human beings, including future generations. Ecological debt measures this injustice, as an unfair and illegitimate distribution of benefits and burdens within the social metabolism, including ecologically unequal exchange, as a disproportionate appropriation and impairment of common goods, such as the atmosphere. Structural features of the international system promote a lack of transparency, control and accountability of power, through a pro-growth and pro-freedom language. In theory, this discourse comes with the promise of compensation for ordinary people, but in fact it benefits only a few. Ecological debt, as a symptom of the pervasive injustice of the current balance of power, demands an equivalent response, unravelling and deconstructing real power behind the imagery of equally sovereign states. It claims a counterhegemonic agenda aiming at rebuilding international law from a pluralist, 'third world' or Southern perspective and improving the balance of power. Ecological debt should not only serve as a means of compensation, but as a conceptual definition of an unfair system of human relations, which needs change. It may also help to define the burdens to be assumed as costs for the change required in international relations, i.e. by promoting the constitutionalization of international law and providing appropriate protection to human beings under the paradigms of sustainability (not sustainable development) and equity.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)381-393
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Political Ecology
Issue number26
Publication statusPublished - 31 Oct 2016


  • environmental justice
  • ecological debt
  • international law


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