Reply To: Mon 3 March: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange

Start Forums Courses Current Debates and Themes in Global Environmental History Mon 3 March: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange Reply To: Mon 3 March: Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange

Author Replies # Posted on March 4, 2014 at 17:03

Reflection on Alf Hornborg (2011): Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange – Fetishism in a Zero-Sum World

Question 3: What is technology?

Alf Hornborg’s main argument relies on the interconnectedness of the world: social and environmental problems are the consequence of an unequal exchange of resources which is concealed by dominant ways of representing economic and technological progress (Hornborg 2011: 102). Thus, the very aim of Environmental History should not be to to conduct comparisons between social-environmental phenomena but to analyze the connections between them.

As Hornborg specified in his lecture, the rationale modern technology is to save time and space. Labor is to be exercised and land used more efficiently – for those who can afford technology and on the cost of those who can not. This “social strategy” requires price differences in parts of the world. The steam engine in England could ony be developed to an industrial scale because the costs of labor and land were cheaper on US cotton plantages, the latter providing the resources and buying the end product of the early English textile industry. According to Hornborg, the reason why technology is perceived as a “cornucopia”, a gift of Western development, is fetishism: “The mystification of unequal relations of social exchange through the attribution of autonomous agency or productivity to certain kinds of material objects, for instance money” (definition given in the lecture).

Furthermore, Hornborg distinguishes between two kinds of technology. The first one is based on prices and thus the appropriation of time and space of others. The second one is locally developed and thus can be beneficial for all members of a society. While the first one can be found among basically all modern technologies, the second one can only be achieved in a society which is organized in a radically different way.

Hornborg’s approach is strongly compelling. Even more, it is almost impossible to disagree with his simple but critical explanation for environmental and social crises: the world as the reservoir of a vast zero-sum game which led to an unequal distribution of resources that is concealed through the fairy tale about technology by the global elites. To disagree with his perspective would be to disagree with the connectedness of the world, with the dominance of unequal exchanges, with technology as not inherently good, progressive and problem-solving. To not follow his line of thought would entail to leave out fundamental aspects of how the modern world is constituted and functioning. To do so might even contribute the vast “project” of concealing the unequal exchange of human, natural and financial resources. His logic, it seems, is water-proof.

However, there is something that made me feel uneasy while I was reading and listening to him. I do not think it was the insight that the whole Western world, including me and everyone else in the classroom, is sitting in the boat of the global conquerors. The idea of an unequal access and use of resources among the world’s citizens is not new for me: I think everyone who feels convicted to environmentalist ideas knows the internal struggle when buying or using something that is not locally produced or served. The same applies to a critical stance towards the world healing and saving effects of technology. In this sense, Hornborg offers everyone who feels that “something is going wrong out there” with a global framework, a connection of all dots of unease, or in other words, an ontology for environmentalists.

Nevertheless, my strange feeling did not come from a disagreement with Hornborg, but from the way he presented his arguments. Although he is disguising the ideological character of technology, economic growth and sustainable development, he is not clear about his own normative assumptions. Problematizing any unequal exchange of resources (whatever they might be) makes only sense from a strong egalitarian point of view. It is based on the assumption that the world’s resources had been distributed equally in a distant past or that it is possible and desirable to achieve such a situation in the future. Of course such a perspective is shared by the large majority of Hornborg’s readers – or as Anneli called it yesterday, 80% of the audience – but at least I missed a clear positioning of Hornborg. That is not to say that he has to label himself as a (Post)Marxist or something else but to clarify why asymmetrical accumulations and machine fetishes are undesirable phenomenas of the modern world. It would make his arguments more practical and accessable for people who want to engage in a struggle for a more equally and sustainable globe but miss a scholarly base for their endeavor. Of course, one can argue that Hornborg would be criticized for losing his objectivity as a professor of a Swedish university which should be maintained more than anything else. But I am sure that he would be more satisfied about a group of young people holding up his book – in a David Graeber way – while protesting than a couple of righteous scholars.