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 15:05

Kristina Berglund
Reflection on discussion seminar and lecture with Alf Hornborg, 3rd of March 2014

According to the instructions I will try to answer one of the questions discussed at the seminar, namely what in Hornborg’s perspective technology is. Hornborg rightfully argues that in modern society, we seem to have an unconditional faith in technology, a belief that technology is the answer to continued growth and development but also the solution to current climate change and environmental challenges. This view of technology is heard from politicians, economists as well as many ‘ordinary’ citizens. But in this view, technology is seen as detached from the social and physical realities that are prerequisites for the existence of the technology in the first place. In other words, we put an immense faith in technology without questioning the underlying factors that made it possible, namely unequal resource transfers causing environmental and social degradation in the areas where the resources are exploited from. Therefore, Hornborg question wheather the modern concept of technology isn’t just a ‘cultural illusion’, and a way of organizing society that turns the blind eye to the fact that technology is a zero-sum game where we in the rich part of the world “save time and space at the expense of humans and environments in the poorer parts”.
A central concept to Hornborg’s argument about technology and modern society is what he calls ‘machine fetichism’ – the kind of illusion that allow us to view machines without any regard of what unequal exchange of time and space, such as natural resources extraction and labor that made the machine possible. We have thus become so ‘dependent’ and greedy for our cherished machines (mobile phones, cars, computers etc.) that we must maintain them at any cost, “even at the cost of the land that support us”.
Horborg’s view of technology is very central to his whole argument about how the modern socity is organized and founded – on unequal exchanges of resources that has benefitted a small part of the world’s population at the expense of the less priveleged’s space and time. When ‘doing’ environmental history therefore, Hornborg argues that we must acknowledge these connection between areas and places in the world, instead of comparing them. We must recognize what is happening in the marginalized areas of the world as a concequence of the richer part of the world maintaining our advantaged positions aquired from the creation of industrial society, with consumerism, burning of fossil fuels and ‘globalized’ society. Hence, we must acknowledge that there are different kinds of environmental problems in the core and the peripheries, that there is not THE global environmental history but different environemental histories depending on which part of the world you are referring to.
For me, Hornborg’s arguments are very clear, sound and easy to comprehend. Since this is not always the case, I found this session very appealing and interesting. Hornborg said various times that his arguments might be very provocative, but I do not think they are. I think it is obvious that we have to rethink our economic system, that the market is not fair and that we have built our wealth on the expense of marginalized people and their environments (and in the extension also ‘our global environment’). The challenge I guess, is to make politicians and economists to think along these lines, and not to mention the large and powerful coorporations. I don’t know what will be needed in order to accomplish this, if it is a severe economic crisis or the end of fussil fuels, but it is indeed a challenge of huge proportions.