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Who defines economy and value in international law? Who is left out? And what are the implications for social and environmental justice? A useful starting point may be to acknowledge that people value different things. In terms of what should constitute ‘the economy’, people count different things and do so in diverse ways for varying reasons. As scholars from the Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL) movement have shown, international law has difficulty reflecting this multiplicity given its history as a conduit for Eurocentric values writ large. International law is not alone in this, with the cultural priorities of those shaping the discipline of economics reflected in decisions about what values count economically and how they are counted, even if such choices reproduce existing harms and create new harms.

For instance, Western perceptions of scarcity and plenty have been central to the construction of the economy, shaping what is counted, how it is counted, and why. One of the legacies of five centuries of European empire, settler colonialism, genocide, slavery, apartheid, and racial discrimination is Western access to fossil fuels and labor worldwide. Such access has not only fuelled industrialization at unprecedented rates but has encouraged economic calculation based on the possibility of unlimited economic growth. This perception of abundant resources and labor shapes how the economy is measured. Instead of counting natural wealth, productiveness, or waste, economists count aggregate income – the sum of every instance of money changing hands – because each such instance represents income to the recipient. The exhaustion of natural resources, labor and machinery is not counted. In this way, economics gradually withdraws from studying the capacities of nature and natural resources, including human labor, and turns into a science and technology of commodification and pricing.

In international law, this divorce of economy from ecology within Western culture is reproduced in how environmental issues are addressed. International environmental law emerged from Western environmentalism and enshrines Western distinctions between environment and economy as putatively global values. Thus, international environmental laws focus on regulating waste instead of consumption, while simultaneously international economic laws that regulate natural resource exploitation (the source of pollution and waste) continue to encourage limitless growth. In such ways, race and culture determine the shape of international legal structures, which universalize the dominant culture’s conceptions of economy, value, environment, law, sustainability, and so on.

International law is disproportionately shaped by the powerful few that cause environmental destruction and inequality. Hence, such laws are structured to shield the powerful from legal responsibility and harm and enable them to continue to multiply their privileges, while the masses that experience environmental and economic harms are systemically silenced. In this sense, global economic law, and the social and environmental injustice it structures, has proven to be very sustainable so far, in that inequality and environmental destruction continually increase. Those responsible for environmental harm and inequality do not experience global economic law as unsustainable or feel compelled to rethink the ‘economy’ (or indeed ‘law’, ‘sustainability’, or ‘the global’). But from the point of view of the poor masses experiencing these harms, the vast majority of whom are in the global South, justice necessitates transcending the economy/ecology distinction to recognize that the way we treat each other is inextricable from the way we treat ‘the environment’. Environmental justice requires much more than the redistribution of environmental benefits and harms. Rather, it is a demand that the poor majority that bear the brunt of ecological change participate in knowledge production based on their own experiences with scarcity and surplus, consumption and waste, culture and history, and so on. Those creating the harms should not determine the scope of available legal solutions.

<small>(Photo: <a href=””>Eutah Mizushima</a>)</small>