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Growth in the docks: ports, metabolic flows and socio-environmental impacts

Borja Nogué-Algueró

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Scientific paper

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Shipping carries virtually all internationally traded goods. Major commercial ports are fully integrated into transnational production and distribution systems, enabling the circulation of massive flows of energy and materials in the global economy. Port activity and development are usually associated with positive socio-economic effects, such as increased GDP and employment, but the industry’s continuous expansion produces adverse outcomes including air and water pollution, the destruction of marine and coastal environments, waterfront congestion, health risks, and labor issues. In its quest to marry economic growth and environmental sustainability in the maritime industries, proponents of the newly coined blue growth paradigm assume the negative impacts of ports and shipping to be fixable mostly through technological innovation. This paper questions the validity of the premise that the unlimited growth of the port and shipping industries is compatible with environmental sustainability and analyses the feasibility of technological improvements to offset the sector’s associated negative impacts. Based on insights from ecological economics and political ecology, ports can be described as power-laden assemblages of spaces, flows, and actors, which produce unequally distributed socio-ecological benefits and burdens at multiple scales. Focusing on the case of the Port of Barcelona, this study argues that the continuous expansion of port activity increases seldom accounted-for negative socio-environmental impacts, acquiring an uneconomic character for port cities and regions. In contrast, de-growth is presented as a radical sustainability alternative to ocean-based growth paradigms. The paper concludes by discussing its prospective ‘blue’ articulation in the context of maritime transportation while offering some avenues for future research and policymaking.

Sustainability Science, vol. 15, 2020

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