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 5, 2014 at 11:05

Comment on Yaqi’s reflection:

Yaqi provided here a balanced and critical reflection on a world-systems approach following Alf Hornborg. I totally agree with you that such a perspective offers two advantages: first, it illuminates that the world is strongly connected (not just since people talk about ‘globalization’) and that any analysis that focusses on environmental problems in only one country or on even only one continent falls short in the addressing the full chain of events that lead to social and environmental problems. Second, a world-systems approach helps to understand why the world is connected in this particular way and why that triggers continuously to multiple crises: because the logic of capitalism that is based on the permanent accumulation of various resources (time, land, money ect.) and leads to an unequal ratio of these materials. For a global perspective, a world-systems approach might indeed be one of the most fruitful ones in Environmental History.

Nevertheless, as you pointed out, it looses its explanatory power when it comes to a lower scale, be it national or local. World-systems scholars might be so occupied with analyzing with global connections and processes that they loose their eyesight for local and national factors. The nuclear crisis of Chernobyl could be traced back to a couple of human failures that do not reach out the regional scope. Mao Zedong’s Great Sparrow Campaign could be rooted in a modern undervaluation of ecology, but was conceived and affected millions of people within the national borders of China. The fact that there is a world-system does not mean that there are no connections on a lower scale, nor does it mean that these systems affect societies or nature in a minor way than the global system. It is always up to the Historian to scrutinize all connections she or he can observe in her or his work – and depending on each case, their will be different factors that are more relevant than others.

Finally, I would like to refer to your thoughtful metaphor in your conclusion. In appreciating the connectedness of the human body, Chinese medicine had been ahead of Western medicine and might still be (I don’t want to know how many poor patients had unnecessarily lost body parts because doctors just chopped off the hurting region of the body). However, I think you can go even further and extend this idea to the sphere outside the single body, that is society. Your headache might be caused by something wrong in your feet. But that might have been affected by overly pressure due to hard labour which is demanded by a lord, state or company. You can apply this extended metaphor even to contemporary nations. This morning I heard in the news that China’s Premier Li Keqiang announced on the National People’s Congress a “war” on pollution while slowing down economic growth. Indeed you can diagnose that environmental pollution is triggered by overly economic growth. But you can also “zoom out” and trace the vast flows of goods to the so-called “Industrialized Countries”. Why should China have to cope with the negative effects of its export economy alone if was the West that had outsourced those harmful economic activities before, to countries they have already exploited in the past? I think, if it comes to the health the Chinese national body, a world-systems approach might be the best diagnosis.