Paper to be discussed in the INES 2000 workshop C3, Session 4, Friday, June 16th, 2000.




Professor Alf Hornborg, Human Ecology Division, Lund University, Finngatan 16, 223 62 Lund, Sweden.

The paper is the first two chapters from the forthcoming book The Power of the Machine: Money, Modernity, and Global Ecology

Chapter 1


After several decades of strong public awareness that industrial civilization is moving in an unsustainable direction, there is an uneasy feeling that all this talk is not going to help. The concerned scientists, the "green" politicians, the uncounted thousands of activists around the world: will all their awareness ever have a real impact on the grinding wheels of the world economy? Why do so many of us remain skeptical? Is it, perhaps, because the recipes themselves seem contradictory? How, for instance, can the engineers be expected to come up with increasingly complex technologies which are simultaneously cleaner and less expensive? How can the economists be expected to devise "green taxes" which will both discourage consumption and stimulate growth? How is it possible to organize "development aid" which will stimulate production for export and yet increase local self-sufficiency? These are some of the impossible tasks specialists are being confronted with, should they try to implement the dominant, contemporary doctrine, as codified, for instance, in the Brundtland Report (WCED 1987). As long as the concept of "development" continues to hinge on growth, the notion of "sustainable development" remains an oxymoron.

In very general terms, I argue in this book, the problem is our way of conceptualizing the relationship between socio-cultural constructions and material processes. We seem to have difficulties understanding exactly in which sense human ideas and social relations intervene in the material realities of the biosphere. Rather than continuing to approach "knowledge" from the Cartesian assumption of a separation of subject and object, we shall have to concede that our image-building actively participates in the constitution of the world. Our perception of our physical environment is inseparable from our involvement in it.

In this and the next six chapters, I wish to challenge the fragmentarized world view which treats "technology" and "economy" as if they were separate parts of reality. My argument is a plea for holistic perspectives on technology as a total social phenomenon, but it follows a somewhat different track than the "social constructivist" approach (cf. Bijker et al. 1987). It is not enough to say that the specific forms of technology are socially constructed; ultimately, the whole idea of a technological "realm", so to speak, rests on social relationships of exchange. This implies that what is technologically feasible cannot be distinguished from what is socially, i.e. economically, feasible. If, since Newton, the machine has served as a root metaphor for the universe, an advocate of a less mechanistic world view might begin by demonstrating than even the machine is an organic phenomenon.


Seen as a total phenomenon, industrial technology represents the conjunction of three different factors, or levels of reality: (1) thermodynamics and other properties of matter and energy, or nature, for short, (2) technical knowledge, or ideas about how to assemble various components and substances so as to exploit such material properties, and (3) economics, defined as socio-cultural institutions for exchange between individuals and groups. In sum, machines are part nature, part knowledge, and part exchange.

I hope to show that the world view of industrial society does not properly reckon with the interrelatedness of these three levels. If we were to recognize how nature, knowledge and exchange interact in order to generate industrial technology, machines would assume a quite different appearance than as indices of "progress" and "development". We would see that technology is not just a matter of applying technical knowledge to nature, for in order for this knowledge to result in anything at all, the components and substances to which it refers must be socially accessible. In order for the machines to continue running, specific components have to be provided, and at specific rates. It could be argued that this is what the world market is really all about. Although it is theoretically conceivable to keep the machines supplied with fuels and raw materials through some other mode of extraction, such as keeping colonies of slaves, the market has proven a more successful institution because it requires less soldiers and has made the exploitative nature of the extractive process less obvious.

Calling world trade exploitative, I insist, is more than a value judgement. It is an inference based on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. If production is a dissipative process (Georgescu-Roegen 1971), and a prerequisite for industrial production is the exchange of finished products for raw materials, then it follows that industrialism implies a social transfer of entropy. The sum of industrial products represents greater entropy than the sum of fuels and raw materials for which they are exchanged. The net transfer of "negative entropy" to industrial centers is the basis for techno-economic "growth" or "development". In other words, we must begin to understand machines as thoroughly social phenomena. They are the result of asymmetric, global transfers of resources. The knowledge employed to keep them running would be infertile if the world market did not see to it that the industrial sectors of world society maintain a net gain in "negative entropy" (or in exergy, see next chapter). Inversely, the non-industrial sectors must experience a net increase in entropy as natural resources and traditional social structures are dismembered. The ecological and socio-economic impoverishment of the periphery are two sides of the same coin, for both nature and human labour are underpaid sources of high-quality energy for the industrial "technomass". Perhaps I should add that I use the concepts of center/periphery and industrial/non-industrial sectors in an abstract sense, to denote a structural relationship rather than discrete geographical areas or political units (cf. Frank 1966). The polarization of "developed" and "underdeveloped" countries is an expression of this structural relationship, but does not exhaust it.

In not reckoning with the intimate connection between economics and technology - the social and the material aspects of industrialism - we tend to talk as if technology was primarily a matter of knowledge. We imagine that education and "technology transfer" might solve problems of "underdevelopment", forgetting, as it were, that new centers of industrial growth require new peripheries to exploit, and that peripheries are already in so high demand that, looking East, we are seeing former centers turn into peripheries rather than vice versa. The science of technology is not simply a matter of applying rational thought to nature, for the "natural" conditions for matter-energy conversions in privileged, so-called developed areas have been transformed by world trade. Technological science deals with the management of resources locally accumulated within such restricted areas through unequal, global exchange. It presupposes such accumulation, which implies that its own applicability is socially restricted. Conventional economics, in recognizing no other concept of value than exchange value ("utility"), tends to conceal this inequality.

If technology is nature plus knowledge plus exchange, we tend to forget the last part of the equation. The social processes through which its components are supplied are visualized as external to the definition of technology. Our machines fool us into thinking that they can exist without the socio-economic premisses that I have just outlined, and that they are simply revealed regularities of nature, to be approached as non-social phenomena. This illusion is related to our conception of the "material" world as natural, non-negotiable, open to scientific revelation and manipulation, but in its fundamentals immune to contamination by human thought and society. We seem to have difficulties understanding that machines, being material structures, for their very existence are dependent on social relations. Machines occupy an ambiguous position in the Cartesian scheme: they are material, yet products of mind. This is probably why we are having such a hard time grasping them as the social phenomena that they are.

The environmental debate increasingly focuses on ways in which economics and ecology do not harmonize. The argument in this book, however, is that industrial technology is a product of this disharmony. Its power to conduct work "in itself", as it were, is a cultural illusion. It is the productive potential of the fuels and other raw materials which is at work in our machines, not the machines "in themselves". And the accessibility of raw materials hinges on the socially constructed discrepancy, in world trade, between material qualities and price, ecology and economics. Thus, social distribution is necessarily prior to production, and global terms of trade a crucial "productive force" or "factor of production".

One way of grasping the nature of this illusion is to think in terms of how industrialism has shifted the boundary between negotiable and non-negotiable aspects of human production systems. If we exclude local barter, most pre-industrial trade was in items the primary value of which was symbolic, for instance as magic sources of fertility or indicators of social prestige. Since work was generally manual, the local exchange value of such items corresponded to their productive potential, that is the rate at which they could be converted into human labour. To say that an item's local exchange value was proportional to its productive potential would be tautologically true for such economic systems. Whenever an object of exchange carries an intrinsic (thermodynamic) productive potential, however, there is a chance that exchange value and productive potential are not proportional, that is that a unit of productive potential is underpaid relative to the product into which it is transformed. The delegation of work from human bodies to machines thus introduced new possibilities for maintaining a discrepancy between exchange value and productive potential, which in other words means new possibilities for underpayment and accumulation.

Whereas traditional, long-distance trade conveyed symbols, the productive potential of which was defined by the ratio according to which they could be converted into local labour, modern trade has increasingly conveyed the productive potential itself in the form, for instance, of fossil fuels. Whereas the productive potential of traditional trade goods was defined by local value systems and subject to negotiation, technology renders that of fossil fuels a locally unnegotiable aspect of reality. Yet - and this is my main point here - this unnegotiably "material" appearance is a cultural illusion, for the technology itself is contingent on the rates at which products can be exchanged for raw materials, that is on world market prices. And world market prices, of course, are as negotiable and socially constructed as any local evaluations. It is by having been delegated from the local and personal level to the global and impersonal that market evaluations - and the technologies which they make possible - have assumed the appearance of natural law. "Growth" is not something which technology generates in a purely material sense, but a consequence of how industrial products are evaluated in relation to raw materials. Neither growth nor technology are thus primarily material parameters, but socio-cultural constructions. In order to move beyond the self-contradictions of conventional recipes for sustainability, we will need to avoid reifying such socially constructed and value-based phenomena as if they were more "real" and binding - and less negotiable - than the ideas which generate them. We will need to reach a holistic understanding of how human ideas and social institutions in a very tangible sense intervene in material reality. Only then can we begin to see the options realistically open to the human species.

Marx visualized an egalitarian society based on advanced, industrial technology. The collapse of the Soviet Union ultimately reflects the failure of Marxist thought to escape the illusions of what I refer to in this book as "machine fetishism". The communist alternative has proven unviable, but it would be unwarranted to simply conclude that the mainstream economists were right, for the so-called "free" world may well be next in line for economic collapse. The industrialized sectors have to sell in order to survive, because selling is their means of drawing fresh resources from their peripheries. Because of the dissipative character of industrial production, however, this is an inherently contradictory relationship. There is a constant pressure to keep prices of raw materials low, and yet the periphery must have the revenue to transfer - through purchase of industrial products - enough money back to industry to grant it continued access to those materials. If industrial growth was generative of "productive potential" rather than dissipative, this would not be a problem. Then industrial sectors could be content with domestic markets, and the sums gained from sales would not have to exceed the sum of costs. Then, also, growth would be able to "spill over" into peripheral areas in the form of rising prices for raw materials and increasing amounts of "development aid". To believe in such a vision, however, is to disregard the Second Law of Thermodynamics. As the "technomass" of industrial sectors grows, so does its thermodynamic costs of maintenance, not only in terms of the amounts of fresh resources required in the center, but also in terms of the inputs of resources required to extract increasingly inaccessible resources in the periphery. Faced with this predicament, industry would not have been able to survive and expand for two hundred years were it not for the curious cultural institution we know as money.

Industrialism and the logic of money: The algorithm of destruction

Money in itself is merely an idea about the interchangeability of things, and about the mutability of the rates at which things are exchanged. In practical, social life, it is a regulation of people's claims on one another. Against the thermodynamic background which I have just outlined, it is clearly the very vacuity of money that has propelled industrial expansion, and the claims on non-industrial sectors have grown in proportion. This has been achieved in several ways:

1. Most fundamental is the fact that, by and large, prices have to be inversely related to the productive potential of the traded products. This becomes apparent once we realize that production is dissipative rather than generative. It is simply a logical consequence of what the idea of money implies in a universe complying with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Any moment in the production process aiming to enhance the utility of the substances thus transformed will reduce the sum of their productive potential (e.g. the availability of energy). A process of production based on exchanging manufactured products for the fuels and materials essential for that process must consequently assign the traded substances prices inversely proportional to their productive potential. An item produced from oil and metal ores must be priced as if it were more valuable than the oil and the ores which were destroyed in making it, or the process could not go on. This in turn amounts to a constant rewarding of the continued destruction of oil and ores by giving industry access to increasing amounts of oil and ores to destroy.

2. A second expression of the appropriation of productive potential is the imperative that the sum gained from sales must be kept higher than the sum of costs, which generates inflation and, by extension, reveals the incapacity of the industrial sector to constitute its own, self-sufficient market. Industry's need of monetary profits expresses its incapacity to generate structural growth on its own, since the profits simply represent a claim on new fuels and materials from the outside. As long as there are new populations to draw into the market, increased production ("growth") is the major strategy for resource appropriation. If such advantageous exchange rates were not fundamental to the viability of industrialism, we should ask why there should be so much concern about "underconsumption" (cf. Brewer 1990), or, in the seventies, about the threat of higher oil prices? It is time to consider what this vulnerability could be telling us about the social nature of machinery, i.e. about the ultimate thermodynamic dependency of industrial on non-industrial space.

3. Also important is the difference in pace of inflation for different goods, that is the falling prices of most raw materials relative to those of finished products. This clearly amounts to falling prices per unit of productive potential, from the vantage-point of industrial sectors, while implying rising costs for non-industrial ones, permitting exchange ratios to increasingly favour the former. The relative fall of prices for raw materials is industry's way of procuring accelerating imports of resources when increased production is no longer as feasible a strategy, that is when markets are becoming saturated and industry is faced with the pervasive spectre of "underconsumption".

4. Grafted to the idea of money - and related to the fact of inflation - is the notion that it decreases in value over time and, if loaned, should be compensated in the form of interest. Interest rates, however, are as shifting and socially constructed as other prices, and the international credit institutions have encouraged Third World countries into taking loans with escalating debt payments, coercing them into higher rates of exploitation (K?rner et al. 1986, Altvater et al. 1991). More than acts of charity, the loans extended to "underdeveloped" sectors serve not only to stimulate continued, unequal exchange, but to provide "developed" sectors with substantial, financial income, further augmenting their claims on peripheral resources. Figures on falling prices of raw materials and on rising Third World debt payments are alarming in themselves, but even more so if we consider the thermodynamic realities orchestrated by these sums of money. Since the quantity of productive potential that can be purchased per dollar is higher in the periphery than in the center, the sums loaned to "underdeveloped" countries will be able to purchase less such potential per dollar (in the form of produce from the center) than the interest repaid to "developed" countries (used to purchase produce from the periphery.) In a similar line of reasoning, Odum and Arding (1991) have estimated that credits extended from the United States to Ecuador yield an interest of 360%, if energy rather than dollars is taken into account.

It seems apparent that this process of accumulation cannot continue forever. Perhaps we need not be as worried about the depletion of natural resources in absolute terms as about the inherent social limitations in the whole industrial arrangement. The inevitably falling capacity of the periphery to pay for what the center must sell - in order to cover rising, thermodynamic costs of maintenance - suggests an ultimately insoluble equation. The fact that the Soviet Union ran into these constraints of industrialism prior to the "free" world may largely be due to the considerable extent to which its economic tentacles had confined themselves within the political borders of a single national community. National borders have not constrained industry based in the U.S., Japan or Western Europe. Making a market economy out of the former Soviet Union essentially means giving inequality - between centers and peripheries - freer reigns, and postponing for a while the critical point at which world industrialism reveals itself to be a zero-sum game.

Any centralized production process must maintain a net appropriation of productive potential. It must see to it that the suppliers of labour and natural resources contribute more productive potential than they receive. A market economy is simply the most elegant way of giving such asymmetries free reign. The notion of a "correct" price conceals the implications of the fact that what is being exchanged are intact for dissipated resources. Finished products and natural resources are incommensurable values because, from a thermodynamic point of view, products are not "refined" but degraded resources. How can we ever say what a fresh apple is worth in apple cores? Should it not be equally unreasonable to evaluate a gallon of oil in terms of products representing oil already dissipated? And, concomitantly, to reward the combustion of oil with more oil to dissipate? Does not the free exchange of industrial products for fuels and raw materials, by means of the logic of money, quite obviously encourage an accelerating creation of entropy and destruction of natural resources?

Much recent literature suggests that ecology and economics study related and ideally congruent phenomena. Indeed, both biomass and "technomass" represent positive feedback processes of self-organization, where the system's use of harvested resources is "rewarded" with new resources in a continuing cycle. Both are dissipative structures, requiring inputs higher than outputs and subsisting on the difference. But the crucial difference is that biomass is a sustainable process whereas technomass is not. For biomass, energy resources are virtually unlimited, and entropy - in the form of heat - is sent out into space. For technomass, resources are limited, and we are left with much of the entropy in the form of pollution. For biomass, most importantly, growth is a reward granted by nature itself, while for technomass it is a reward resulting from human ideas. Considering the fact that technomass competes with biomass for living-space on our planet, it is essential that we reach a more profound understanding of the cultural concepts through which we intervene in nature, so as perhaps to be able to consciously generate less destructive ideas with which to replace them.

Such a reconceptualization of technology may also have to imply acceptance of the dependency of the global technomass on the combustion of fossil fuels, and abandonment of the vision of a technical means of harvesting solar energy more efficient than photosynthesis. If modern technologies for generating electricity from renewable sources (sun, water and wind) were not subsidized by the global appropriation of fossil fuels, what do we mean by saying that the "underdeveloped" countries cannot "afford" these technologies? And what makes them so "unprofitable" even in "developed" countries? When the destructive nature of our economic system is emphasized, economists will often reply by expressing confidence in better technologies, but when technologists are asked why these have not yet been introduced, they tend to refer to faulty economics. These mystifications are founded on a conceptual dichotomy between "technology" and "economy", which permits us to jump back and forth between two, presumably independent levels of reality, without grasping the techno-economic logic through which they are connected.

In fact, any discussion of how to make the economy sensitive to ecological requirements is severely constrained as long as it is couched in conventional, monetary terms such as the "costs" of environmental protection or revenue gained from emission permits. "Costs" and "gains" are relationships between people, not between people and nature. They are ultimately a matter of relaxed or intensified claims on the periphery by the center or on the center by the periphery. Unless we are prepared to reorganize society in a much more fundamental way, it seems that any "green taxes" or other brakes on the system substantial enough to have a real impact on consumption would create economic chaos, the most obvious sign of which would be rocketing unemployment rates, in the face of which any government would very quickly retract its "green taxes". More likely, the "green taxes" would never reach the magnitude at which such effects would follow, in which case they would remain symbolic and pointless. Mainstream economists are right in that industry cannot be burdened with too much taxes if it is to survive, but for reasons that they are not themselves quite aware of. There is a determinacy in the logic of money itself which outrules the conventional recipes, no matter how high we raise our voices. Neoclassical economics may have completely misunderstood ecology and thermodynamics, but it understands money. As long as the system is challenged on its own terms, the logic of money will be invincible. Our only hope is to replace that logic with a new systemic orientation, which requires a transformation of money itself.

This certainly also requires a transformation of economic science. In closing itself to the realities of physical processes, the peculiarly self-referential, neoclassical paradigm outrules the very idea of unequal exchange. Its axiom of intersubstitutivity conceals the irreversibility and inequity of the industrial process. If technology is the science of managing accumulated natural resources, economics can thus be seen as the science of accumulation itself.

Technology as salvation or curse: A view from 1962

If, as I have indicated, industrial technology presupposes asymmetric exchange and accumulation, it is important to ask why we are having such difficulties perceiving machines as the thoroughly social phenomena that this would imply that they are. Conventional discourse fails to recognize precisely why industrial technology remains the privilege of a global minority. This failure protrudes somewhat more clearly if we go back four decades to the records of the "Encyclopedia Britannica Conference on the Technological Order" in 1962 (Stover 1962). The pages of this special issue of Technology and Culture codify the major strands of discourse on technology that remain with us today. Among the participants were Jacques Ellul, Aldous Huxley and Walter Ong.

On the optimistic side, professor Zvorikine of the U.S.S.R. Academy of Sciences proclaims that

"the possibilities of technology depend upon the level of man's knowledge of the laws of nature. Modern technology is the material embodiment of the knowledge garnered by man in the struggle to subdue the forces of nature, the struggle to dominate them."

He goes on to say that the Communist Party "envisages unprecedented scientific and technical progress." He claims that Lenin showed that whereas "imperialism turns technical achievements against mankind...only socialism uses technology for the well-being of the people." He assures us that energy sources for industry are "practically inexhaustible." Finally, he offers the eerily prophetic conclusion that "Soviet science has done more than just open wide the door of nature's treasure house. It is transforming nature." In the records of the conference discussions, Zvorikine is reported to have said that as a member of "the other side," he would not try to give the West "the secrets of Russia's success." At one point he exclaims, "How can technique be harmful to man?"

Another version of optimism is represented by Arthur Goldschmidt of the United Nations' Department of Economic and Social Affairs. In his very first paragraph he introduces the implicit assumption that efforts to "improve the economic and social conditions in the less-developed countries of the world" are synonymous with efforts to "transfer technology." He proclaims that "there have been enormous successes," but observes that there are great obstacles to overcome, and argues, in effect, for a technology for transferring technology. His general outlook is best reflected in his observation that "the conditions of rural life that make for ignorance, prejudice, and resistance to change are...repugnant to those trained people whose presence is needed to break down that resistance."

Mr. Vu Van Thai, having served as economic advisor to the presidents of Vietnam and the Republic of Togo, shares Zvorokine's and Goldschmidt's technological image of development. He adopts an admonishing posture:

"The peoples of the underdeveloped countries want the fruits of technology without recognizing the cost, or being willing to pay it. Yet they must pay the price. They must make a synthesis between their own culture and the technological order. They must integrate technology and make it their own. The developed countries cannot carry their technological cross for them..."

Professor Zvorikine, Mr. Goldschmidt, and Mr. Vu Van Thai spoke the same language, but the Soviet professor was less ready to admit to problems. According to the records of the discussion, Goldschmidt asked Zvorikine about problems of technology transfer within Russia, and the latter replied that "local people adjusted quite easily and rapidly to the technologies thus brought to them," and that "no special problems" seemed to be involved.

On the pessimistic side, of course, was Jacques Ellul's image of la technique as an autonomous and self-determining "accumulation of means which have established primacy over ends." Ellul's critique of technology is a critique of rationality, of the modern ambition "to render accountable everything which is subconscious, and to quantize everything which is qualitative." Its major concern, in other words, is with technology's detrimental impact on humanistic and spiritual values, and with man's lack of control over it.

Another kind of pessimism was expressed by Aldous Huxley, the only one at the conference who addressed the impact of technology on the natural environment. "The relationship of technology to nature has deeply concerned me," he says.

"We are part of the natural order and must conform to the rules of that order. ... It is absurd to attempt - to use that dreadful old-fashioned phrase - to conquer nature. ... If there is a general industrialization, resources will be eaten up even faster. When the rest of the world is consuming as fast as America the acceleration in the destruction of raw materials will be enormous."

But Huxley would not turn his back on technology. He adds that "these tremendous problems have developed because technology accomplished something intrinsically good." He says that "Gandhi's prescription is absurd," and assures his audience that

"if we went back to the spinning wheel four-fifths of the human race would die in about two years. We must go on. But we have somehow to see that we don't destroy our planet. ... The problems are enormous, and we have just the next few years to meet them."

Huxley said that he hoped that the "relatively new notion of ecology" might enable man to regain some of the psychic unity with nature of which Christianity had deprived him, and he was seconded by the Reverend Walter Ong.

Much has happened in the world since 1962. The collapse of a modern, technological empire based on Marxian theory, a widespread disillusionment with the concept of development, the retreat of humanist critiques of rationality, and an extensive, industrial co-optation of the ecology movement: all these transformations demand that we resume the philosophical scrutiny of technology and examine how such changes have prompted new interpretations of the global predicament.

Cornucopia or zero-sum game: The epistemology of sustainability

On the very first days of the new millennium, newspapers in Sweden - as elsewhere - devoted some editorial space to assessing the state of the world. The leading daily Dagens Nyheter expressed puzzlement over a survey showing that a large percentage of Swedish youth were not particularly optimistic about the future. Why this worry about global ecology, the editor asked, now that the pessimistic prophecies of the Club of Rome could be dismissed once and for all? Yet, the day before in the same newspaper, an environmental journalist had observed that the state of the world environment is considerably worse than most people in the richer countries realize. The problem, he said, is that these people can choose to stay ignorant about the South's environment simply by switching television channels. Here are thus two very different messages on global ecology offered in the same newspaper.

Similarly contradictory were its assessments of global inequality. On New Year's Eve, an editorial proclaimed that the Marxist notion that the affluence of the rich is based on other people's impoverishment can be decisively dismissed. In the very same issue of Dagens Nyheter, however, an entry with the heading "Rennaissance for Marx" reports that a new biography of Karl Marx is the season's bestseller in Britain. The next day, there is a two-page interview with the Marxist sociologist Manuel Castells, introduced as "the hottest intellectual in the world", who perceives the present as a process of unprecedented social polarization and warns that the conflict may soon become critical. How are we to understand these schizophrenic messages on global environment and development, which surround us as we enter the third millennium?

Judging from mainstream public discourse, the faith in technology and economic growth seems stronger than ever. The WCED conference in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 - the climax of three decades of negotiations on global issues - finally resulted in an official creed suggesting that growth is the general solution to environmental problems (WCED 1992). The key concept, of course, became "sustainable development". This creed is now often referred to as "ecological modernization" (Hajer 1995). Meanwhile, however, there remains a widespread counter-current of skepticism, passive and invisible for the most part, but remarkably powerful when demonstrating strength enough to overturn an important WTO meeting in Seattle. Many people must be asking themselves today if the critics in the seventies were really so completely wrong about the conflict between growth and environment, and if WCED:s interpretation of global issues is really the only one possible. In the seventies there was a widespread concern that the economic growth of industrial sectors occurred at the expense of the Third World and the global environment. According to the WCED paradigm, however, growth is of benefit for both the global economy and global ecology. We may refer to the two paradigms as "zero-sum game" versus "cornucopia" theories of growth.

It might seem as if the choice between zero-sum game and cornucopia models should be a simple empirical question. What do the data say? But it no longer seems feasible to identify "simple empirical" questions in the social sciences. The global interconnections are too complex. Each specific piece of information can be turned inside out by the opposite camp by putting it in a different context and approaching it from a different perspective.

In a book the translated title of which would be The True State of the World, the Danish statistician Bj?rn Lomborg (1998) contradicts Worldwatch Institute, Greenpeace and WWF by suggesting that what have been perceived as global problems of inequality and environmental deterioration are mostly illusions. One by one, he dismisses all our worries about resource depletion, per capita food production, increasing gaps between rich and poor, deforestation, acidification, species extinction, chemical pollution and global warming. The conclusion that not just some but all of these worries are illusory is indeed remarkable. It is obvious that both the compilation and the interpretation of statistics to a large extent boil down to whether we wish to see this or that pattern. This is not a simple question of manipulation, but of a fundamental human desire to see the patterns we imagine to exist in the world continuously verified by data. But how do we choose these patterns or interpretations to begin with?

To the extent that we do choose our models, it is evident that our considerations are not only concerned with the criterion of credibility. We like to think that our most fundamental criterion for "truth" is whether a specific interpretation of causal connections can explain the most aspects of our global predicament, but the widespread paradigm shift which has occurred since the seventies rather suggests that a more crucial consideration is which interpretation we can live with. In the industrialized nations in the sixties and early seventies there was an existential space, so to speak, for radical criticism. Especially among younger people, there was a widespread faith in the capacity of collective, social movements to transform fundamental structures in society. When faith in the future and collective change withered in the mid-seventies, most people found the idea that our affluence was based on the impoverishment of the Third World and the global environment unbearable and thus impossible to accept. An important factor underlying this shift was the increasing globalization of capital. Faced with the threat of unemployment, local populations everywhere grew more careful in their criticism of power (cf. Bauman 1998). To the extent that some of the indignation over environmental problems and global inequality persisted, it was generally transformed from revolutionary fervour to resignation. Globalization thus implied contradictory impulses which condemned the globally conscience-stricken to a predicament of perpetual, cognitive dissonance. Through media they came into ever closer contact with environmental problems and the suffering of the Third World, while at the the same time it became increasingly evident to them that there was virtually nothing they could do about it.

This may explain some of the market for the new genre of "green-bashing", counter-environmentalist books like Lomborg's. Many readers probably felt comfortable with Lomborg's wholescale denial of environmental concern. But there are more subtle ways of disarming indignation than simple denial. What ecological modernization has achieved is a neutralization of the formerly widespread intuition that industrial growth is at odds with global ecology. The environmental concern of young people is now being redirected into special educational establishments designed to promote the message that the adverse effects of economic growth can best be amended with more growth. The discursive shift since the seventies has been geared to disengaging concerns about environment and development from the criticism of industrial capitalism as such. But the central question about capitalism should be the same now as it was in the days of Marx: Is the growth of capital of benefit to everybody, or only to a few at the expense of others? However much contemporary debate tries to sweep this question under the carpet, it will continue to reappear, albeit in new forms. Since Marx' time, it has been extended primarily in two directions. On the one hand, questions of injustice and unequal exchange have transcended the local relation between worker and capitalist and been applied to the global exchange between industrial centers and their peripheries; on the other hand, there have been attempts to include global ecology in the same analysis.

Judging from much contemporary public discourse, asking questions about unequal exchange would seem obsolete or irrelevant for today's world. Concepts like "imperialism" and "exploitation" have well-nigh vanished in the sustainababble following the Rio conference. Yet, Marx' basic intuitions seem impossible to eradicate, how ever hard the neo-liberal discourse of the eighties and nineties has tried. Bj?rn Hettne (1990) shows how thinking about global development has oscillated through the past century. In the mid-twentieth century, the dominant paradigm was based on a Euro-centric concept of modernization which, through the work of Walt Rostow and others, translated global inequality into a temporal axis which defined the future for the "underdeveloped" countries. "Development aid" was viewed as a global, Keynesian welfare policy that in the end would be of benefit both to the poor and to the rich. In the seventies, the dependency theory of Gunder Frank, Samir Amin and others gained prominence in connection with demands for a "New Economic World Order" and the success of the OPEC countries in bargaining oil prices. It argued for a kind of zero-sum perspective, in which the affluence of the "metropolis" or "core" was to be understood as based on the impoverishment of the "satellite" or "periphery". In the eighties, however, a neo-liberal "counter-revolution" swept away both Keynesianism and dreams of a new world order. Milton Friedman, the World Bank and the IMF redefined poverty as mismanagement and opened the world to an even tougher brand of capitalism. In 1990, Hettne believed that a new counter-point may have been emerging in the form of "anti-modern" and marginalized groups such as environmental movements, feminists, peasants, indigenous peoples, and the unemployed, but in the decade that followed the most publicized criticism of unfettered capitalism came from the multi-millionaire George Soros. Like Castells, he is deeply worried about the omnipotence of money and the growing vulnerability of globalized capitalism. Is Marx there, after all, waiting for us at the end of the road?

The zero-sum perspective: Failures and prospects

It is valid to ask why dependency theory has lost so much of its former influence in development studies. Was it because the development strategy it inspired - isolationism - proved such a failure? Hettne reminds us that the attempts of Chile and Nicaragua at "de-linking" were soon countered by measures from more powerful nations aiming at "de-stabilization" of these deviants. Meanwhile, the Newly Industrialized Countries of southern Asia were rewarded for their opportunism and willingness to submit to the conditions of global capital. Instead of dismissing dependency theory we might refer to Wallerstein's (1974a) observation that "development" is to advance from periphery to semi-periphery. Conversely, we can understand the current "underdevelopment" of major parts of the former Sovjet Union as process of peripheralization. Seen in this perspective, development and underdevelopment are the results of movements of capital in the world system, and the shifts of affluence in the eighties and nineties can be seen as a confirmation not of the recommendations of dependency theory but of its fundamental, zero-sum model. There is evidently an inclination to dismiss the theoretical understanding of the dynamics of the world system - like the Marxist perspective as such - as soon as the practical implications someone has derived from it prove a failure. This is tragic, since it should be quite feasible to arrive at a correct analysis of a problem without (yet) having developed a good solution.

Brewer (1990) lists several major types of criticism which have been directed at dependency theory. According to Brewer, the argument that core areas have a "monopoly" and that they "exploit" their peripheries does not include explicit, theoretical definitions of these concepts, but rather approaches tautology. It is particularly problematic that the theory does not define a central concept like "surplus" or explain in which ways metropolis-satellite relations are to be seen as projected in geographical space. Brewer argues that nations are not really relevant entities in this context. He also criticizes dependency theory for not being able to explain why certain countries seem to be able to break free from their dependency.

The critics are right in that there is an element of tautology in dependency theory as long as the "core" or "metropolis" is defined as the place where accumulation occurs, while "accumulation" is defined as what occurs in the core. There are, however, more substantial specifications, such as the focus of the Prebisch-Singer theorem on the structural logic of exchange relations between industrial sectors and those sectors which deliver their raw materials. It is nevertheless true that the concept of "surplus" - that which is transferred from periphery to core - is not defined in a clear manner. For more or less self-sufficient subsistence economies, Paul Baran offered a simple definition of "surplus" as the difference between what is produced and what is consumed, but for societies engaged in production for the market it is necessary to refer to some other measure than money (market prices) in order to be able to argue that a particular exchange is exploitative. To solve this problem and produce a more rigorous argument, dependency theory could build on concepts from the natural sciences such as energy (see below).

Brewer is also right in that nations are not relevant units, simply because core-periphery relations cannot in any but the crudest manner be represented in terms of spatially demarcated areas. Gunder Frank (1966) rather argued that they were to be conceptualized as polarizing exchange relations at different levels of scale both within and between countries. These polarized flows can be traced even in local contexts such as the exchange between a hacienda owner and his workers. This geographical indeterminacy has been accentuated by the increasing globalization of capital flows, which make it all the more difficult to identify the "core" as a spatially distinct social unit or actor. There is no necessary congruity between the spaces where the appropriated resources are accumulated, where the capitalists live, and where they have their bank accounts.

Yet capital continues to generate obvious spatial patterns, as anyone can see for themselves on nightly satellite photos. Such images lend concrete, visual support, for instance, to statistics which say that the average American consumes 330 times more energy than the average Ethiopian. When new parts of the world system succeed in attracting capital - i.e., when they "develop" - it shows clearly in the satellite images, as in the strong contrast between the dark northern and luminous southern half of the Korean peninsula. It must be of relevance to world system theory that the United States' share of world energy consumption is 25%, while 20% of the world's population do not have access to enough energy to successfully maintain their own body metabolism. This obviously also has an environmental dimension. The richest 20% of the world's population consume 86% of the aluminium, 81% of the paper, 80% of the iron, 76% of the lumber (Brown 1995). Per capita carbon dioxide emissions in 1990 were around five tons in the U.S., but only 0.1 ton in India. (Remarkably, however, many people in the industrialized North continue to believe that it is their mission to educate people in the South on how to live and produce sustainably, as if the North was setting a good example, and as if environmental problems in the South were the result of ignorance rather than impoverishment.)

If rates of energy dissipation are an essential component in the inequitable dynamics of the world system, it must be a central theoretical challenge to integrate perspectives from the social and natural sciences that are required to achieve a more complete understanding of capital accumulation. An explicit attempt to connect dependency theory and energy flows is Stephen Bunker's (1985) study of underdevelopment in the Amazon. He shows how the "extractive" economies of peripheral Amazonia are at a systematic disadvantage in their exchange with the "productive" economies of industrialized sectors. The flows of energy and materials from the former to the latter tend to reduce complexity and power in the hinterland while augmenting complexity and power in the core. Extractive economies generally cannot count on a cumulative development of infrastructure as can the productive economies in the core, since economic activities in the former are dispersed and shifting according to the location of the extracted materials. As the stocks of natural resources become increasingly difficult to extract as they are depleted, an intensification of extraction will tend also to increase costs per unit of extracted resources, instead of yielding the economies of scale associated with intensification in the industrial core. Bunker's analysis suffers from his inclination to view energy as a measure of economic value (see next chapter), but in other respects his underlying intuition is valid. The luminous agglomerations of industrial infrastructure in the satellite photos are the result of uneven flows of energy and matter, and these processes of concentration are self-reinforcing, since the increasingly advantageous economies of scale in the center progressively improve its terms of trade and thus its capacity to appropriate the resources of the hinterland. Extractive economies are thus pressed to overexploit nature, while those parts of the landscape in industrial nations which have not been urbanized can instead be liberated from the imperative to yield a profit and rather become the object of globally speaking privileged conservation programmes. Environmental quality is thus also an issue of inequitable, global distribution. "Environmental justice" is merely an aspect of the more general problem of justice within the framework of world system theory.

The cornucopia model: Is growth really good for the environment?

The preceding arguments to me seem logically coherent, credible and persuasive. I am thus all the more curious about the alternative interpretation: what I refer to as the "cornucopia" model, viz. the currently hegemonic world view which declares capital accumulation in the core completely innocent with regards to poverty and environmental problems in the South. An unusually accessible and instructive example of this world view is the Swedish economist Marian Radetzki (1990, 1992), whose essays address the overarching question of whether there is a positive or negative correlation between economic growth and environmental quality. He observes that the worst environmental destruction occurs in the poor rather than the richer countries, and concludes from this that environmental quality improves as the economy grows and becomes "denser". The explanation, says Radetzki, is that the intensity of environmental damage decreases as per capita GNP increases. This intensity is defined as the quantity of "environmental resources" that are expended in order to generate one unit of GNP. Intensity of environmental wear is reduced because with growth there is a tendency for "material intensive" production to be replaced by the production of services. Meanwhile there is an increase in the willingness of consumers to pay for a clean environment the more affluent they become, and environmental policies in wealthier nations encourage the development of new environmental technologies. Instead of intensifying the consumption of "environmental utilities", these nations can substitute services from "human and physical capital" for those of natural resources. For this reason, forests and other natural resources are not diminishing in the industrialized countries. Instead, much of the landscape is reverting to something approaching a "natural state". Growth and technological development make it possible to invest in aquaculture instead of depleting wild fish stocks, plantations instead of cutting down rainforests, and swimming-pools instead of exploiting natural beaches. Radetzki concludes that it is thus possible to maintain continued economic growth, and that there is in fact an unlimited potential for "sustainable growth".

Radetzki's texts are useful reading because they summarize, in a nutshell, the logic of an economist's approach to the relation between growth and environment in a way which makes it very clear how the basic assumptions of the cornucopia model differ from those of the zero-sum game model. An essential difference is evidently Radetzki's assumption that an economic activity and its environmental consequences coincide geographically. If environmental quality is relatively high where growth is high (and vice versa), he concludes that growth reduces environmental damage, instead of (or perhaps without hesitating at?) the equally feasible interpretation that the environmental consequences of growth have been shifted to other parts of the world system. It is in fact unclear if Radetzki discusses the "environment" as a local or a global phenomenon. It seems unlikely that he would consider it a solution to environmental problems to have them shifted to someone else's back yard, but some of his arguments leave it an open matter. He writes, for instance, that growth makes it feasible to legislate so as to increase production costs for polluting industries, which has led to "a considerable shift of environmentally damaging activities from richer countries to poorer, where costly environmental policies are absent" (Radetzki 1990:38-39; my translation). "The environment," he continues, "is to a very large extent a concern of the wealthy." It is to be noted that this reasoning is offered in a context where he argues for growth as a solution to environmental problems. If we assume that Radetzki is not advocating a continued shifting of pollution to poorer countries, as some prominent economists actually have done (see chapter 3), we must draw the conclusion that his vision of the future is that all people in the world shall be "wealthy". This strikes me as impossibly naive, considering that the gap between rich and poor instead continues to widen. Between 1947 and 1987, the difference in per capita income between the richest and the poorest countries increased from 50:1 to 130:1 (Adams 1993). It has been estimated that the 358 dollar billionaires in the world have assets of the same magnitude as the annual income of the forty-five poorest per cent of the world's population, or about 2.5 billion people.

Not only is the growth recipe in a global perspective politically naive. It disregards the fundamental objection that processes of resource depletion and environmental destruction will increase with wealth, after all, even if they are shifted to other locations and thus vanish from sight. We have already mentioned emissions of carbon dioxide, which are 50 times higher for the average American than for the average citizen of India. Mathis Wackernagel and his colleagues have estimated that if all the people in the world were to reach the same standard of living as that in the richest countries, they would require three additional Earths (Wackernagel & Rees 1996, Wackernagel et al. 1997). Although the global access to "ecoproductive" land decreased from 5 to 1.7 hectares per capita between 1900 and 1990, the per capita "footprints" of the richer countries meanwhile increased from 1 to between 4 and 6 hectares (ibid.). To accumulate money is ultimately to be able to increase one's claims on other people's resources. It is evident that these claims cannot increase indefinitely, since the resources are not unlimited.

When Radetzki argues that there is a positive connection between economic growth and environmental quality, we must ask what this connection looks like. Does growth simply dissolve environmental problems as such (and not just locally), or does it shift them to poorer areas? Again and again we are inclined to interpose the crucial question: "where?" Where is environmental quality improved? Where is it realistic to build artificial micro-environments (such as swimming-pools) which reduce wear on the local environment, and where are the natural resources procured with which to build them? Where can the landscape revert to a "natural state", and from where are the resources appropriated which substitute for its former yields?

Two fundamental objections can be directed at Radetzki's argument, which both concern the capacity of the market and monetary measures to conceal other dimensions of economic processes. When he claims that intensity of resource use decreases as per capita GNP increases, we may forget that whereas resource use is a physical reality, GNP is "only" a symbolic reality. GNP is ultimately a measure of the terms of trade (world market prices) which a country has been able to secure for its products and services in exchange for those of other countries. GNP is thus a measure which reflects a country's position in socially negotiated, global exchange relations. Rather than say that intensity of resource use decreases per unit of GNP per capita, we can just as well say that the prices of a nation's products increase faster than its resource use. This could be understood as an expression of increasing margins of profit in industrial sectors as a consequence of increasingly advantageous terms of trade vis-?-vis the raw materials sectors. To conclude, from what Radetzki says about the relation between resource consumption and GNP, that growth is good for the environment would be tantamount to saying that it does not matter if environmental damage increases, as long as GNP increases faster. The crucial question, of course, should be whether environmental damage increases in absolute terms.

The second objection can be directed at the claim that growth and technological development make it possible to substitute the services of "human and physical capital" for those of nature. The issue boils down to what we mean by "substitute". From a local perspective it might appear possible to "substitute" labour and capital for land; this approach became fundamental to industrial society from the very start. But to the (large) extent that these extra inputs of labour and technology are made possible by utilizing natural resources from another part of the world system (e.g., by importing food for the labour force or fossil fuels for the machines), it is questionable if it is valid to claim that labour and capital really can "substitute" for land. From a global and physical perspective it is to a very large extent an illusion that the stocks of natural resources can be increased with the help of more labour and capital. The faith in "substitution" shows the extent to which economic science has emerged as a local (originally British) perspective, which really does not ask questions about the global management of resources beyond the territory of the individual nation. As long as the primary knowledge interest of a science is to generate growth strategies for individual companies or nations, it is only natural that its fundamental assumptions should differ from those required of a science of global resource management. Only when the world is viewed as a finite and in certain respects closed system are we able to discover that what is locally perceived as a cornucopia may in fact be a component in a global zero-sum game. This discovery must be allowed to shake the very foundations of the two centuries old assumptions of economics. We must finally ask ourselves whose knowledge interests our research is to serve: the individual corporation, the individual nation, or all of humanity?


In order to build an understanding of global interconnections between ecology and economy that serves the knowledge interests of global resource management and environmental justice, rather than national or corporate growth, we need to reconceptualize several aspects of development theory. Instead of visualizing nations as autonomous territories the environmental condition of which reflects, in a simple and immediate way, their own economic activities, we must learn to think of the world as a system, in which one country's environmental problems may be the flip side of another country's growth. Those of us who live in the privileged, affluent core would be amiss to use our green forests and fertile fields as evidence that worries about global ecology are unfounded, since the liberation and recovery of previously impoverished landscapes to a large extent has been made feasible by the import of resources from peripheral areas both within and between nations. The most difficult but perhaps also most important point is to learn to view technological development as an expression of capital accumulation, and thus ultimately of unequal relations of exchange with less "developed" sectors of world society. Growth and technological development in some parts of the world system are thus organically linked to underdevelopment and environmental deterioration in others. If we want to work for global, environmental justice we first need to develop a new theoretical understanding of technology as a redistribution of resources made invisible by the vocabulary and ideology of the market. This unequal exchange of resources can only be made visible by identifying, beneath the flows of monetary exchange value, uneven flows of real resources such as energy, labour time, and hectares of land productivity.

I am inclined to think that our preparedness to abandon the "cornucopia" model of growth and technology for a "zero sum game" perspective will be connected to wider, existential concerns. It would probably be naive to think that a majority of people in the wealthier nations, out of pure quest for truth and solidarity with the distant and anonymous masses of the South, would choose an interpretation of reality which could be expected to subject them to deep and continuous, ethical conflict. Perhaps their own affluence would first have to be seriously jeopardized in order for such a paradigm shift to occur at any substantial scale. Above all, we may assume that the zero-sum game perspective will only be acceptable if accompanied by a concrete and attractive vision of how the fundamental logic of capital accumulation can be transformed or domesticated in the name of global solidarity. For a large part of the twentieth century, the Marxist world view offered one such vision which attracted a substantial part of humanity. Very few would today deny that that vision was incomplete and misguided in several respects. If we were to endeavour a new vision, it would probably have to proceed further in its questioning not only of the market, but of even more fundamental, modern institutions such as money and technology. In order to domesticate the market, a long-term aim might be to split it horizontally so as to render local subsistence and global communication two parallel but distinct and incommensurable domains. Changes in that direction could amount to an immunization of local ecosystems and human life-worlds vis-?-vis the ravages of global capital flows. This would also serve to restrain the unevenly distributed growth of technological infrastructure, so that the machinery of the wealthier nations does not continue to expand at the expense of the very life-space of the global poor.

Chapter 2



President Bush pioneered the current discourse on sustainability by claiming that "successful economic development and environmental protection go hand in hand; you cannot have one without the other" (quoted in Corson 1990:309). Whether serving to advocate restraint or increased economic and technological ambition, superficial environmental arguments can be used to underpin the present world order. Philosophers such as Naess (1981) and Evernden (1985) have criticized the mainstream environmental movement for participating in a discourse on terms defined by the industrial establishment. Citing Galtung, Naess (1981:246) argues that the superficial, environmentalist discussion which pervades the discourse on global development might function as yet another means of imperialist domination: the message that we are "all in the same boat (or spaceship)" is not true; there are at least two boats, and one of them is pulling the others towards catastrophe.

Emerging concepts of "political ecology" and "environmental justice"

recognize that environmental problems are socially distributed. But the problem of how human societies distribute ecological risks should not be separated from the problem of how they distribute resources. The two problems are, so to speak, opposite sides of the same coin. Martinez-Alier and O'Connor (1996) have suggested a distinction between Political Economy, which studies "economic distribution conflicts," and Political Ecology, which "would study ecological distribution conflicts." Ultimately, however, such a dichotomy needs to be transcended, and ecology recognized as part and parcel of any attempt to understand political economy. It is only by looking at the ecological conditions of human economies that we can adequately conceptualize the mechanisms which generate inequalities in distribution. The focus of this chapter is on how an ecological perspective might provide us with an analytically more precise way of defining "unequal exchange."



Unequal exchange: Problems of conceptualization

Unequal exchange has been a central concern of various strands of Marxist

social theory, including early theories of imperialism, the dependency and world system perspectives of Frank (1967, 1978) and Wallerstein (1974a, 1974b-1989), and more orthodox Marxist arguments focused on "modes of production" and the international appropriation of labour value (for a review, cf. Bunker 1985:38-48). None of these approaches has been able to convince conventional economists that free market trade may entail such a thing as "unequal exchange." Considerations of monopoly aside, neoclassical economic ideology has dispelled all possible criteria for assessing a market transaction as unequal or unfair. Economists are generally simply not able to see how there could be a standard that would allow one to speak of some participant in market exchange as being undercompensated. This is indeed the conceptual predicament that conventional economics forces upon us.

Anthony Brewer (1990) observes that Marx viewed capitalism as a system that can exist by itself, without necessarily having to expand geographically. It was Rosa Luxemburg (1913) who presented the thesis that a capitalist system cannot constitute its own market but is condemned to expansion, and thus in the long run to destroying its own conditions of existence. Some years earlier, in 1902, Hobson had argued that monopoly conditions and capital accumulation reduced demand and encouraged export of capital, and that the incentive to protect foreign investments and markets generated "imperialism" defined as territorial expansion. From his exile during the First World War, Lenin in 1916 suggested that the best paid workers of the industrialized nations (the "labour aristocracy") could be perceived as implicated in the exploitation of poorer sections of the global working class. It was Lenin who coined the expression that imperialism was the "highest stage of capitalism".

Much later, Paul Baran (1957) followed Luxemburg in arguing that capitalist economies must suffer from a chronic deficit in demand and concomitant "underconsumption", since the purchasing-power of the workers is always bound to be lesser than the value of the produce which has to be sold in the market. This is the incentive toward capturing new, external markets in areas which as a result become structurally incapable of "development". This zero-sum perspective was particularly distinct in Gunder Frank's (1966, 1967) influential analysis of underdevelopment in Latin America as a result of its exchange with Europe and North America. Samir Amin (1974) showed how an unequal, international division of labour can be founded in historical disparities in productivity and production costs, which have restricted the competitiveness of peripheral areas to the raw materials sector. To dependency theorists like Frank it was evident that "underdevelopment" was not to be seen as a survival from an earlier stage - a question of lagging behind - but the result of economic relations of dependency between "metropoles" and "satellites" at various scales of geographical inclusiveness. Another important contribution from the dependency school is the so-called Prebisch-Singer theorem, according to which differences in the elasticity of demand between raw materials and industrial products has a tendency to undermine the bargaining position of the periphery and the market prices of raw materials vis-?-vis those of industrial products. Inspired by dependency theory, Immanuel Wallerstein (1974a, 1974b-1989) elaborated world system theory, arguing that economic history could be understood in terms of uneven relations of exchange and power between core areas, semi-peripheries, and peripheries. Wallerstein connects to Luxemburgs ideas about the necessary exchange between capitalist and non-capitalist modes of production, and explicitly suggests that the distribution of "surplus" in an economic system is a zero-sum game. Arghiri Emmanuel (1972) showed how wage disparities between different countries generate an "imperialism of trade" in the sense of an unequal exchange of hours of labour, since a low-wage country has to export more products in exchange for a given volume of imports from a high-wage country than it would have needed to if the wage level had been uniform.

Most of these contributions can be seen as offshoots of the basic Marxist tenet that the growth of capital involves a transfer of surplus from one category of people to another, even if the shift of perspective from the local factory to global trade relations generated considerable theoretical antagonism between the more and the less orthodox Marxists. The common denominator of this Marxist tradition, widely defined, is the observation that a relation of exchange, even when it has been entered voluntarily, can generate a systematic impoverishment of one party's resources, independence, and development potential. Eric Wolf (1982) has shown how Europe's trade relations with the Americas, Africa and Asia through several centuries implied precisely this for the majority of societies that were drawn into this exchange.

World system theories and more orthodox Marxist perspectives are

vulnerable to criticism in opposite ways. The former are unable to provide adequate definitions of key notions such as "core/periphery," "exploitation" and "accumulation" as long as they do not relate to factors specified independently of the premises of the model itself. As noted in the previous chapter, there is an obvious risk of tautology when concepts of core/periphery relationships and accumulation are used reciprocally to define each other, i.e. core as the locus of accumulation and accumulation as what goes on in the core. The more traditional Marxist model, on the other hand, does specify exploitation independently, by referring to the quantifiable appropriation of labour value, but is immediately contradicted by the poor, empirical correspondence between the economic value of goods and the quantities of labour time invested in them (cf. Bunker 1985:44-45; Adams 1988:96-97). To extend this specification to the appropriation of "energy values" (Bunker 1985), though intuitively valid, remains conceptually misleading. This chapter will argue that energy transfers are indeed crucial to understanding unequal exchange, but that energy and values should not be confused.

An alternative approach would be to ground notions of underpayment and

unequal exchange not in some (contestable) theory of value (whether based on bullion, land, labour, or energy), but in the proportion of a manufacturer's or manufacturing centre's total, finished product that is continuously returned to the suppliers of energy and raw materials in the context of various institutional arrangements. This proportion defines how much of the productive potential of energy and materials is permanently being transferred to the manufacturing centre and likely to be accumulated in its own, expanding infrastructure. The only adequate way to assess the occurrence of unequal exchange may be to look at the direction of net flows of energy and materials (concrete, productive potential), but without falling into the trap of equating productive potential with economic value. On the contrary, as was suggested in the previous chapter, it can be analytically demonstrated that unequal exchange emerges from a kind of inverse relationship between productive potential and value. Logically, in accordance with the Second Law of Thermodynamics (cf. Georgescu-Roegen 1971), the productive potential of a given set of resources diminishes as it is being converted into a product, i.e. as its value or utility increases. Thus, since Bunker (1985:45) observes that "additional value is created when extracted materials are transformed by labor," it becomes confusing when he elsewhere states that energy is a value. We cannot have it both ways. To pursue the implications of this paradox means building bridges between world system theory and ecological economics.

The material and the social

One of the most sophisticated statements of ecological economics to date

is Martinez-Alier's (1987) book with that title. His point of departure seems to have been to find a meeting-point between Marxism and ecology. In his researches, he discovered that a Ukrainian narodnik by the name of Serhii Podolinsky (1850-1891) had tried to convince Marx and Engels to bring natural science into their theories on surplus value, but that they would not listen. More than a hundred years later, we are still struggling with the same problems of transdisciplinary communication. Although basically sympathetic to the world systems perspectives of Frank and Wallerstein, specifically mentioning Frank's (1959) work on the correlation between the growth of capital stocks and energy consumption in the US and UK, and observing that dependency theory helped "prepare the terrain" for ecological critique, Martinez-Alier twice reproaches them for paying too little attention to ecology (Martinez-Alier 1987:15, 238).

Theories of labour value, like energy theories of value (e.g. Bunker

1985; Odum 1988; Costanza 1980), belong to a tradition of ideas that goes back to Aristotle's distinction between "real" economics (oikonomia), concerned with the management of concrete use values, on the one hand, and chrematistics, or the art of making money, on the other (cf. Daly & Cobb 1989). The operation of human economies, however, can only be understood in terms of the interfusion of objective, material conditions and subjective, cultural constructions. The history of economic thought reflects a systematic incapacity to deal with this mutual interpenetration of the material and the social. Its two recurrent pitfalls are either (1) to attempt to specify objective criteria of value (such as labour or energy), or, inversely, (2) to more or less ignore, like the neoclassicists, the objective substratum of the human economy.

The recent discourse on ecological economics, although increasingly

explicit about its aspiration to overcome such difficulties, still has to find a way of adequately handling the recursive (positive feedback) links between material conditions and cultural constructions. A recurrent problem is an inability to deal with cultural valuation, social institutions, and thermodynamic laws as analytically separate levels of reality. There is a concern with calculating "correct" prices and even establishing energy theories of value, endeavours which, it will be argued, represent a confusion of what Bertrand Russell called logical types. A meeting of world system theory and ecological economics, however, could be a very productive one, because each could contribute something that the other is missing. World systems theorists have generally been as unconscious about thermodynamics as ecological economists have been naive about imperialism.

The perspective of anthropology, finally, should provide an ideal setting

for such a meeting. No other science has a tradition of handling the comparative, cross-cultural study of human economies, technologies, and ecologies. Nor has any other science proceeded as far in conceptualizing the recursive interfusion of cultural categories and material circumstances. One of the central ambitions of anthropology is to "defamiliarize" aspects of Western civilization by means of "cross-cultural juxtaposition" (Marcus & Fischer 1986:138). If we are ever to escape from the cultural categories that continue to govern our rapacious industrial economy, this may be a strategy that we shall have to pursue (cf. Sahlins 1976, Godelier 1986, Gudeman 1986).

"Emergy" and value

Theories of value should be of a different logical type than valuation

itself, that is the assigning of values to things by market actors. They should be descriptive, that is, they should tell us why people value things the way they do. This is, in fact, what neoclassical economic theory does. Even if the argument is tautological ("people find things useful because of their utility"), it is logically coherent. Labour or energy theories of value, however, are not primarily descriptive but normative. They propose to establish the "real", objective value of goods and services. In effect, what they are doing is not telling us how people value things but how they should value them. In other words, they insert themselves on the same logical level as the phenomena they are to explain. This is what qualifies them as confusions of logical types. Valuation must be recognized as a subjective, cultural, and contextual phenomenon (cf. Sahlins 1976), not to be conflated with the material aspects of production. It is only by keeping these levels analytically separate that we can develop a scientific, non-normative theory of unequal exchange. Instead of trying to reduce economics to thermodynamics, we should show how the two are connected.

Probably the most famous theory of unequal exchange based on

thermodynamics is that of Howard T. Odum (1988; Odum & Arding 1991). His point of departure is the concept of "emergy" (with an m), which originally was meant to stand for "embodied energy." Formally, it is similar to Marx' concept of labour value in that it denotes the amount of energy that has been invested in a product. Odum is an ecologist, and the idea of embodied energy ultimately derives from studies of ecological food chains. In other words, he uses a food chain metaphor to understand production processes. Top predators such as eagles, wolves or humans represent the embodied energy of all the lower trophic levels all the way down to the plants.

The problem for Odum was that it was simply incorrect to speak of all the

energy consumed as remaining, as it were, "embodied" in the top predators or, by extension, finished industrial products (cf. Adams 1988:96). Most of the energy, of course, would have been dissipated on the way. So in 1984, he decided to keep holding on to the concept of emergy, but to give it a new definition (Odum 1988:1139, n.11). Henceforth, it would not stand for "embodied energy" but "energy memory." Eagles and electric tooth brushes would thus carry within themselves the memory, so to speak, of all the energy spent to produce them. But the concept is obviously a metaphysical one. Let us only mention two problematic implications. One is that two identical craft objects should have different emergy values depending on the efficiency of the craftsman. Another is that the emergy value of a junk car, having been subjected to years of maintenance, should be higher than that of a brand new one. If the early definition of emergy was downright mistaken, the latter is metaphysical. Emergy is not a property of the items exchanged. The notion that the dissipated energy is somehow still there in the object only confuses things.

Odum (1988:1136) has explicitly argued that emergy provides us with a

theory of value. He and his associates have demonstrated correlations between the amounts of energy expended in production and the price of the product (cf. Costanza 1980). It remains unclear, however, whether an emergy theory of value proposes to be (a) descriptive, (b) normative, or (c) both? In other words, does it propose to explain how people actually do evaluate things (as reflected in prices) or how they ought to evaluate things? The emergy/price correlations suggest that it is descriptive, but Odum clearly also considers it normative. He undoubtedly feels that energy memory should be a measure of value. But if it is both descriptive and normative, it would seem to amount to nothing less than a way to legitimate, by and large, world market prices as they are. Industrial products, of course, have a higher emergy value than the fuels and raw materials from which they were produced.

On the other hand, Odum is very much concerned with exposing the unequal

exchange of emergy between nations and regions. He suggests that there are differences in the emergy/dollar ratio in different parts of the world system, and discusses trade between different countries in terms of their "emergy exchange ratio" (Odum & Arding 1991). Odum believes that the periphery is being underpaid for the emergy content of its natural resources because these are free gifts of nature and thus not properly evaluated on the market. In this part of his argument, the emergy theory of value is presented as normative, but not descriptive. Global trade policies, he concludes, should be directed at achieving "emergy equity." From a world systems perspective, however, this concept suggests no less of an oxymoron than does "sustainable development." If a major rationale of international trade is precisely the transfer of energy and other resources from peripheries to centers of accumulation, the commendable principle of "emergy equity" would amount to nothing less than to deprive world trade of its raison d'?tre.

"Exergy", prices, and the social foundations of technology

It has been suggested that "emergy" is a metaphysical concept. There is,

however, another concept, building on thermodynamics, that is useful for our purposes because it does say something about the properties of the items exchanged. This is the concept of "exergy" (with an x), which is the quality of energy in a particular substance or context, or, in other words, that part of the energy which is available for mechanical work (cf. Wall 1986; K?berger 1991; M?nsson & McGlade 1993). Strictly speaking, there is no consumption of energy anywhere, only of its quality and accessibility (that is, exergy.) Exergy is closely related to the concept of negative entropy. A non-mathematical interpretation might describe it as the potential for work that is inherent in any physically manifest information, order, structure or contrast. When such material structures or contrasts are neutralized, e.g. in combustion, some of the energy that once generated them can be unleashed as work.

The concept of exergy can give us a completely different perspective on

the relationship between energy and trade than can Odum's concept of emergy. Briefly, if emergy and price are positively correlated, exergy and price are not. In fact, there is a specific sense in which they are negatively correlated: Up to the point where the final product is sold, there is a negative correlation between price and the proportion of the original exergy that is left in a set of processed substances. The more of the original exergy that has been dissipated, the higher the price. We shall return to this matter shortly.

Another perspective that needs to be introduced at this point is Ilya

Prigogine's concept of "dissipative structures" (Prigogine & Stenger 1984; cf. also Adams 1982, 1988). Dissipative structures are systems which stay far from thermodynamic equilibrium by continually drawing in exergy (negative entropy) from the outside and exporting the entropy, or disorder, they produce in the process. Erwin Schr?dinger (1967:79) suggested that "the device by which an organism maintains itself stationary at a fairly high level of orderliness

(= fairly low level of entropy) really consists in continually sucking orderliness from its environment." This interpretation can be extended from biological to social systems (cf. Adams 1982, 1988). Societies also maintain their internal structure by drawing order from their environments. For hunter-gatherers this is generally a matter of exploiting other species in a fairly local, ecological context. For cities or world system centres, however, the maintenance of structure relies on exchange with other, peripheral social sectors more directly involved in the extraction of exergy from nature. This social dimension of exergy appropriation has proven very difficult to conceptualize in terms which can be integrated with the perspectives of thermodynamics. Bunker (1985:33) observes, for instance, that Adams (1982) has "not fully realized the sociological implications of his essentially physical formulation."

The question we must address is: If organisms draw order into their

systems by eating, and export disorder by discharging waste materials, heat, etc., how do cities go about doing it? How do world system centres do it? The answer must be all around us, like water to fish. It is just a matter of getting our eyes on it, and permitting ourselves the naivety of a first encounter. The reader may have anticipated that market prices are the specific mechanism by which world system centres extract exergy from, and export entropy to, their peripheries. It would be impossible to understand accumulation, "development", or modern technology itself without referring to the way in which exchange values relate to thermodynamics, that is the way in which market institutions organize the net transfer of energy and materials to world system centres.

For a century and a half, ecologists and economists have been trapped on

opposite sides of a dualistic cosmology. Ecologists have looked for objective foundations for subjective, cultural phenomena, as when the Technocrats of the 1930's and later H.T. Odum offered their different versions of an energy theory of value. Economists, on the other hand, continue to assume that objective phenomena should be reckoned with in terms of subjectively founded criteria such as "willingness to pay." In the former case, there is an attempt by natural science to subsume the economy by suggesting that prices should reflect energy flows. In the latter case, there is an attempt by economics to subsume nature by suggesting that ecology can be evaluated in terms of prices. Herman Daly (1992:211-223) calls these two perspectives "ecological reductionism" versus "economic imperialism". Neither position, it seems, properly accounts for the way in which ecology and economics - nature and society - are actually interfused.

The conundrum for ecological economics boils down to two, seemingly

contradictory and irreconcilable observations. The first is that prices are cultural constructions that do not measure or reflect real, material flows. This observation was emphasized by pioneers such as Geddes (1854-1932), Lotka (1880-1949) and Soddy (1877-1956), and continues to be a point of departure for ecological economics (Martinez-Alier 1987:13,90-91,128-143). The second, which should have become evident during the so-called oil crises of the 1970's, is that prices are real determinants of local, material conditions for production. In the first sense, prices are not coupled to real, material conditions; in the second sense, they are. They thus seem to be unreal and real at the same time.

Another way of approaching this conundrum is by juxtaposing certain

conclusions of ecological economics into a logical syllogism, the pursuit or spelling-out of which seems to have been effectively blocked by the Cartesian matrix. On the one hand, it has long been observed that technology ("productivity" or "productive forces") is a matter of energy availability (Martinez-Alier 1987:226-227). On the other hand, it is equally evident that energy availability is a matter of prices (ibid., 4,187,210). To complete the syllogism, then, we would have to conclude that technology is a matter of prices. Systematic ratios of exchange and energy appropriation are at the very foundation of our industrial infrastructure. Unequal exchange in the world system is what reproduces machines, and machines are what reproduce unequal exchange. But does this agree with our everyday conception of technology as an application of inventive genius to natural resources? In some important sense it seems as if we have not yet grasped what technology really is. Not even the Marxist understanding of "capital" or "productive forces" seems to have pursued the syllogism to its distinctly post-Cartesian conclusion.

Capital accumulation and the appropriation of energy

Technology has always represented a junction of the subjective and the

objective (the mental and the material), but capital refers to those specific kinds of technologies that are dependent not only on human knowledge, but on human evaluations regarding the social exchange of labour time and other energy resources. In other words, capital represents the interfusion of technology and economics. The recursive relationship between technology and economy is well exemplified by modern transport technology (railways, steamboats, etc.), which neutralized the ancient distinction between distantly traded luxuries and locally traded bulk goods. In suddenly rendering long-distance transports of bulk goods rational, nineteenth century technology thus also reinforced the accumulative process of which it itself was a manifestation.

All infrastructure founded on an asymmetric exchange of energy between

different social categories represents an appropriation of productive potential (cf. Borgstr?m 1965; Rees & Wackernagel 1994). Our intuitive, everyday understanding of modern technology, however, is generally not that it is inherently exploitative. We are aware that it consumes energy (or exergy, to be precise), but what seems to escape us is the social logic by which it inexorably provides itself with ever increasing amounts of this energy. Yet this is crucial to an understanding of the very nature of modern technology. Industrial technology does not simply represent the application of inventive genius to nature, but is equally dependent on a continuous and accelerating social transfer of energy organized by the very logic of market exchange.

It may seem trivial to point out that New York and Tokyo are net

importers of energy. Yet we rarely reflect on why this must be the case. From a purely thermodynamic perspective, cities "must" be net importers of energy because, like all other dissipative structures (such as biomass), their techno-industrial infrastructures require continuous inputs of energy in order to maintain their structure. But this explanation is only one side of the story: a retrospective account in which the presence of urban technomass is taken as a self-evident point of departure. From another perspective, we can turn the question around and observe that the import of energy to industrial sectors is an inexorable consequence of market exchange. If industrial processes necessarily entail a degradation of energy (Georgescu-Roegen 1971), the sum of products exported from an industrial center must contain less energy than the sum of its imports. But in order to stay in business, of course, every industrialist will have to be paid more money for his products than he spends on fuels and raw materials. At an aggregated level, then, this means that the more energy that has been dissipated by industry today, the more new resources it will be able to purchase tomorrow.

If we consider, longitudinally along the production process, any given

set of fuels and raw materials destined to be transformed into a given product plus waste, its content of available energy will be inversely related to its price, i.e., the more of its original energy that has been dissipated, the higher its price. The significance of this correlation is that it defines the logic of an expanding cycle of past, present and future exchanges. We can completely disregard the subjective "utility" of the products, which is more or less arbitrary and ephemeral anyway - arbitrary because it is culturally defined (cf. Sahlins 1976) and ephemeral because it diminishes rapidly with use - and observe that if a finished product is priced higher than the resources required to produce it, this means that "production" (i.e. the dissipation of resources) will continuously be rewarded with even more resources to dissipate.

In the past few centuries, this logic has given the industrial sectors

access to accelerating quantities of energy of various kinds. So blinded are we by the miraculous "discoveries" and "achievements" of technology, that we generally fail to appreciate the extent to which the development of new technologies in itself is a manifestation of this increasingly intensive, social appropriation of energy. It has become everyday knowledge that a minority of the world's population consumes an increasing proportion of its energy resources, but because technology and economy tend to be conceived as separate domains, this unequal distribution of resources is attributed to the "requirements" of industrial technology (i.e. an advanced level of "development") rather than to the accumulative tendencies which are inherent in market exchange, and which made industrial technology possible to begin with.

The best way to achieve a sufficiently distanced view of modern,

techno-industrial growth may be to compare it with other modes of accumulation in pre-modern cultures. This complies with the method which Marcus and Fischer (1986:138) refer to as "defamiliarization by cross-cultural juxtaposition." Such a comparison will need to consider three factors which enter into any process of accumulation: (a) the social institutions which regulate exchange, (b) the symbolic systems which ultimately define exchange values and exchange rates, and (c) the thermodynamic and other physical circumstances which allow us to determine the direction of net flows of energy and materials.

In order to support themselves, notes Norman Yoffee (1988), centers of

civilization must be able to disembed from their peripheral sectors those goods and services which they require for their metabolism. A pervasive aspect of such appropriation is that it is represented as a reciprocal exchange (Godelier 1986). The Inca emperor, for instance, engaged local populations to work in his maize fields by offering them chicha (maize beer) and mimicking traditional labour exchange. We can assess the exploitative nature of such arrangements by observing that the chicha with which he appeased his labourers could only have represented a fraction of the harvest he gained from their labour. It is from the same perspective that we must view modern market exchange. Increasingly with modern technology, however, the productive input that is being underpaid is resources rather than labour. We can observe that the resources imported to industrial centers are transformed into quantities of products vastly greater than the fraction which is returned to their peripheries. And we must ask by what ideological means this unequal exchange is represented as reciprocal exchange. The answer, as we have seen, is the very notion of "market price."

The concept of capital conjures two images, one relating to abstract

wealth, or purchasing power, the other to a technological infrastructure of some sort. Because capital is both symbolic and material in constitution, economists and ecologists are equally handicapped in their struggle to account for it. In a very general, cross-cultural, world-historical sense, capital accumulation is a recursive (positive feedback) relationship between technological infrastructure and the symbolic capacity to make claims on other people's resources. Such a general understanding of capital accumulation would be as applicable to agricultural terraces in ancient Peru as to the textile factories of eighteenth century England. In both cases, the infrastructure is used to produce an output that is culturally transformed into more infrastructure. The important thing is not whether this transformation is conducted by means of maize beer parties hosted by the Inca emperor or by the sale of British textiles on the world market. The important thing is that, in both cases, the material operation of a technological system presupposes specific rates of exchange that ultimately rest on human evaluations and that guarantee a minimum net transfer of energy from one social sector to another. Whether this energy is in the form of labour, food, fodder, draught animals or fuels is also secondary to the essential logic of unequal exchange underlying capital accumulation itself.


The notion of a reasonable market price conceals the fact that what is

being exchanged are intact resources for products representing resources already spent. This argument is not to be confused with an energy theory of value. It would be nonsensical to offer an "exergy theory of value," since it would systematically contradict the valuations which people actually make. Most attempts at achieving a dialogue between ecology and economics are deeply entrenched in the ambition to envisage principles for ecologically correct pricing that will guarantee long-term sustainability, and thus ultimately in the faith that such principles can be devised. But to pursue the logical implications of such a policy must lead to the discovery that it runs counter to those structural imperatives on which the very viability of industrialism is founded. The industrial sectors of world society subsist precisely on that discrepancy between the material and the symbolic which ecological economics is in the process of exposing. It is no coincidence that the emergence of modern industrialism, for which the discrepancy between price and productive potential is so crucial, was accompanied by an ideology (neoclassical economics) which rendered this very discrepancy invisible.

Since valuation is an altogether cultural phenomenon, a discussion of the

objective aspects of industrial resource management that does not examine the assumption that finished products have a higher value than the raw materials for which they are exchanged remains imprisoned by the very cosmology that it should try to account for. A thorough analysis must struggle to distance itself from the cultural categories through which the system operates. As "prices" are socially negotiated exchange relationships between human beings, it is useless to search for their correlates in the material world. Only when we stop looking for a real measure of value, which should correlate with price, and recognize the impossibility of such a congruity, can we appreciate the profundity of the problem and perhaps begin to envisage ways of transcending it.

If human evaluation is viewed, as it were, from the outside, as a component in socio-ecological systems, we can achieve a clearer grasp of the way in which economic institutions allow human subjectivity to impinge on objective processes. Then we might also begin to discern how the very framework of human transactions will have to be modified so as not to permit this impingement to ruin the conditions for human survival. This is not the place for visions of remedies, but in a very general sense the core of the problem is perhaps to find other ways of compensating manufacturers for the value they have added to the raw materials than to give them access to increasing volumes of the same materials, which tends to generate an accelerating destruction of resources. In a society where everything is not interchangeable (i.e. a society without general-purpose money), a manufacturer could conceivably be compensated in other spheres of exchange than that in which his raw materials are conveyed, an arrangement which might curb the incentive to accelerate production.

The ideology of prices and money fetishism continues to confuse us in

many ways, not least in the contemporary debate on ecology and sustainable development. In the Brundtland Report, even the adverse effects of economic growth are marshalled to reinforce our faith in it. But in representing exchange relationships, money cannot repair damages to the biosphere, only redistribute them in the world system. Ecological issues and distributional issues are truly inseparable.

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Updated May 28 2000