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 17:48

Response to Michael’s Reflection:

I shared your unease with some of the manner of Hornborg’s analysis, and completely agree that it would have helped his argumentation if he had explained in basic terms what his principal political assumptions are, particularly with regards environmental justice. His argument makes more sense if it is read as a response to a basic political positioning which states what it believes in. Without this, the analysis seems to attempt to speak for itself in a way which I do not think is wise. That is to say, his conclusions are not politically neutral, but he suggests that they could be.

Your reflection references an issue which I found interesting and difficult in what Hornborg said with regard local sustainability about which you asked him (about delicious bananas). I did not think his answer to your question was fully convincing. He argued (in the lecture but also in other conversations during the seminar etc) that we should return only to a local mode of production. I know this is also a very attractive model for many environmentalists (you included to some extent I think Michael!), but I would contest that it is always the best socio-ecological approach. Ecological resources are not evenly distributed across the world. If everyone returned to local production there would therefore be a consequent inequality in the ability (and certainly the ease) with which different populations were able to achieve different levels and qualities of life, including in fundamental issues such as life-span, as well as in areas such as labour input per calories produced. Hence a unitary localism does not appeal to me as a model of sustainability. A classic example is that of the Jamaican milk industry; imports of milk powder in the 1980s destroyed the local milk industry and stopped Jamaicans being able to have local milk, but the imports of cheaper milk powder benefited poor families and infant health. That, and any other, story is not straightforward at all and I don’t want to oversimplify it, but in essence I believe that trade can, in theory, be a source of social benefit. Simply because trade is not fair and is a factor in driving ecological damage at the moment is not an adequate analysis to prove that trade cannot be fair, nor that it could never be ecologically sound. Which is not to say that localism, organic etc cannot be extremely beneficial, but that I do not believe it is adequate.

One further point you raise is about the strength of Hornborg’s basic analysis. I agree with you in essence, and I’m part of the 80%! However, I think it is important that in criticising global capitalism as the source of all ills we do not fall into the trap of suggesting that other approaches are necessarily better, and that the current world system is somehow ultimately bad. Environmental history (the bits of it I’ve read, anyway!) demonstrate that multiple different systems result in multiple types of damage. Judith Shapiro’s book Mao’s War Against Nature demonstrates that a Maoist system resulted in devastating environmental damage, and we should resist simplistic renderings that says that global capitalism equals environmental destruction. We don’t have another global system to compare it against; perhaps a population of over 7 billion people would do what we’re doing to the world under a different system anyway? Or worse? For example, there’s no guarantee that more income equality would lead to less environmental damage; this sometimes seems to be a suggestion implicit in what you could broadly term Marxist analyses.

To be clear – I’m not suggesting that you’re making this argument, my point is that perhaps a world-systems type approach can easily fall into this kind of determinism.

Thanks Michael!