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Markus # Posted on December 18, 2014 at 14:55

Markus Nyström. Reflection on Alf Hornborg seminar, march 3, 2014

Ever since I first encountered Hornborgs writings a few years ago, he has been someone whose arguments and ideas I cannot help but agree with to a large extent. At the same time as his ideas are reasonably clear and simple – although sometimes complexly explained in his writings – they hold vast implications. The capitalist economy looks like it is intent on destroying the foundations for its own existence by disrupting ecosystems, climates, depleting resources of a number of kinds, etcetera. But within the discourse of modernity, there is no way to formulate a way out of these problems except through continuation. That is, the problems that industrialism and capitalism har brought can only be fixed by more industrialism and capitalism. The “right kind” of industrialism and capitalism. What Hornborg’s analysis brings, in my opinion, is the possibility to start thinking outside this one-dimensional discourse. It is only by doing so that we can begin to understand the world in new ways, and therefore imagine new solutions rather than repeating old mistakes.
In particular, his perspective on technology (or rather, industrial technology) is what I see as the centerpiece of Hornborg’s analysis. That technology is “politically innocent” (p. 35), a source of wealth, and sprung out of human (or, rather, western) inventivness is criticized. Instead, technology is seen as a result of, and dependent on, unequal exchanges of space/time in the world-system. The labor (time) of one group of people and/or their environment (space) is, through the unequal mechanisms of trade, at the disposal of other, wealthier groups. Without this unequal exchange, industrial technology would not come into existence in the first place, much less be sustained.
Hornborg forces us to question basic things that we (or at least I) have come to take for granted, like for instance that it is just “normal” that different people’s time is valued differently – and incredably much so. Or that the development of technology is a sign of the progression of society.
Hornborg writes and talked in his lecture about how the nation state is not an appropriate unit of analysis in environmental history, that the material flows in the world-system ought to be under scrutiny instead. I agree with this, but do recognize, like some of my class mates, that the nation state has political agency and is therefore still important to deal with as an environmental historian. I do not believe the two has to mutually exclude each other – an environmental historian can focus on the nation state and still recognize the importance of material flows in the world-system as central to that nation state. I believe maybe that Hornborg’s position – focusing on flows – is more pertinent in the history of more recent times than older times. The last thirty years or so, since the dawn of the neoliberal era, the autonomy of the nation state and the importance of borders has descreased, at least in the west. International constallations, like the EU and AU, IMF and the World Bank, has grown in importance. At the same time, the political spectrum has shrunk, and political parties from left to right are generally agreeing on most part when it comes to the general definitions of problems in society, and are fighting over details in how to address those problems. To put it simply: in a world governed more by capitalism and free trade, rather than impregnable nation state protectionism, it grows more important that historical analysis takes material flows in the world-system as starting point of analysis rather than the nation state.