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
Sabbath Sunday # Posted on March 4, 2014 at 17:49

Seminar 3, Mon 3rd March:
Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange
Reflections by Sabbath Sunday

Alf Hornborg’s book: Hornborg, A. 2012. Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange: Fetishism in a Zero- Sum World, is another piece of academic work aimed at arguing out the dynamics of world systems order. Under the theme of ‘Ecology, History and Unequal Exchange’, my reflection will be based on the development in time and space of unequal exchange and its impact on world ecological systems. In this case ‘time’ refers to the chronological events that have resulted into socio-economic disparities among humans and the geographical ‘space’ which is the ecosystem.

From a historical point of view, unequal exchange came about because of capitalism which was according to J. W Moore, characterized by developmentalism, financialism, globalization and accumulation. In a show of wealth and power the postmedieval European nations, rushed out to conquer new frontiers looking for new lands for mining, agricultural investments and other cheap raw materials. It was the discovery of the ‘New World:’ the Americas and South East Asia, which culminated into the practice of unequal exchange. With the advent of Industrial Revolution and subsequent proliferation of machine driven fossil fuels, both human labour and vast areas of land were highly exploited. The cheap raw materials for European industries were unfairly extracted by poorly paid or slave labour from the New Worlds. The notion of the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world’ is clearly reflected in the modern theory of ecological and economic world systems whereby, the core nations (developed) are engaged in the unequal exchange with the periphery nations (developing) in the zero-sum capitalistic game.

I agree with Alf Hornborg’s argument that the modern mainstream thinking is quite unaware of unequal exchange games behind resource converting and space adjustment technology which represents a ‘cornucopian perception of development.’ The interconnected illusions about technology, economy, and ecology have resulted into machine fetishism, monetary fetishism and commodity fetishism. Hornborg’s argument is that technology which is a cultural concept is a global social phenomenon that actually represents labour input and ecological space somewhere else, which is unfairly considered. Due to consumer blindness about unequal exchange, the affluent societies tend to worship their commodities little knowing that the raw materials for manufacturing the commodity are ill-gotten at the expense of environmental integrity and cheap human labour and even lost lives. Some examples to this are the ‘blood diamonds’ from conflict regions, coltan mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo which has got the largest deposits of this mineral in the world. Coltan is a mineral used for the manufacture of capacitors and integrated circuits (ICs) for all electronics.

My final reflection on Hornborg’s arguments about unequal exchange is that he does not seem to have a solution for this global economic and ecological problem. For sure, the two world systems i.e the core and peripheral regions remain to co-exist on interdependency of each other in their unequal exchange game, maybe until the collapse of capitalism and a new dispensation. His other suggestion of the introduction of a common global metric unit of exchange may however not go smooth with those who are already lost in the illusion of ‘development.’