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 13:50

Morag Ramsey
Alf Hornborg Reflection: According to Hornborg, what is technology?

Technology is a word that encompasses many dimensions to Alf Hornborg. In his book, Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange: Fetishism in a Zero-Sum World, he spends a great deal of time introducing his own ideas about technology and how they contrast with a more traditional understanding of the word’s definition. What seems to be one of Hornborg’s biggest grievances with ideas about technology is the way it is imagined as politically innocent (Hornborg, 35).

For Hornborg, this idea of technology being politically innocent partly stems from the manner in which technology is separated from other cultural categories. As he stated in his first chapter, “’technology’, ‘economy’ and ‘ecology’ are cultural categories that train us to think about socio-ecological realities in particular ways.” (Hornborg, 8) This is problematic to Hornborg as it separates entities that he views as being completely intertwined, and allows people to disconnect actions and results occurring in one cultural category from the other. As Hornborg illustrated in his lecture, a brief examination of two global maps, one showing electricity at night and the other GDP per capita, illustrates very clearly that economics and technology are closely connected. As Hornborg simply stated, where there is money there is technology.

This connection between economics, technology and ecology illustrates Hornborg’s bigger picture of technology. For Hornborg, the truest way to see technology is a result of a triangular exchange where someone gains the privilege of more time and space at the expense of someone else’s time and space. As Hornborg commented in chapter four of his book, “Technologies designed to solve one kind of problem will, ironically, tend to generate even more severe problems of another kind, for other groups of people.” (Hornborg, 67) To illustrate his point, Hornborg mentioned open pit copper mining in South America. This work dramatically underpays the miners for their work, and uses up a large swath of their land to extract the copper for exportation. There is a displacement of space and time from one area of the world to another in order to gain a technological advantage. (Which Hornborg would argue is not only a technological advantage, but an economic and an ecological one as well.) A process that leaves such economic, ecological and technological discrepancies between what can be seen as the global north and the global south is not politically innocent, which is what Hornborg stresses throughout his work.

In addition to a looking at technology as a triangular exchange, Hornborg also points to how technology predisposes a global price difference, which only contributes to the inequality. He used the example of price difference between slave labour in Alabama versus labour in England to illustrate his point. While Hornborg’s treatment of technology is extremely interesting and thought provoking, I am slightly disappointed we were not able to hear his lecture on his local currency project as a way to implement a positive change. I was interested to hear how Hornborg’s idea of technology would develop if this triangular exchange disappeared, as he did not have time to expand on this idea.