In the discussion group I joined we explored the gains of applying a world-systems perspective on global environmental history, and asked if anything is lost in taking this approach. The world-systems perspective necessitates that the principal unit of analysis is the earth in it’s core and periphery divisions. By identifying the fluid dynamics between core and periphery in global environmental history we are capable of moving beyond static taxonomies and conceptualizations of state, and trajectories and impediments of development. Using world systems perspectives, which was developed as a way of understanding the capitalist system in which we currently operate, we are capable of tracing the formation of contemporary macro-scale inequalities of access to labor, resources, land, and capital. Another aspect of world-systems theory is the emphasis on inter-disciplinary approaches specifically drawing on and trying to integrate research in social and natural sciences as well as humanities, which is all useful I think for accounts of global environmental history.
The world-system perspective could be criticized perhaps at it’s inception for the focus on the industrial revolution in Europe as being the foundation of the capitalist world economy, but also for taking a reductionist approach to social systems as units of analysis. However, new theoretical developments spearheaded by people like Alf Hornborg demonstrate that the application of world-system perspectives to global environmental history is an incredibly useful adaptation. By challenging our understandings of “the natural world” and including environmental systems alongside social systems as units of analysis, we can achieve a more nuanced perspective on issues central to global environmental history such as human culture, economics, politics, global biophysical repercussions of human actions, and how global patterns of environmental change are portrayed as natural, justifiable, and fair.
Finally, what I find most intriguing is how Hornborg parallels and contrasts the accumulation and control of landesque capital in the past, and in the contemporary capitalist world-system. I find this a fascinating method for highlighting how ingrained our mystifications of cultural concepts such as wages, salaries, and market value are, and how these constructs, just like Incan minkas act to appropriate labor and land and enforce unequal exchange. Of course this drive to highlight capital accumulation in pre-capitalist world-system societies could be used to justify how inescapable and “biologically natural” inequalities are in social systems, and this is a paradox worthy of consideration (as mentioned during the seminar). However, what I find valuable is using examples from pre-modern societies to demystify and deconstruct the current cultural concepts that form the foundation of capitalism as a world-system. To me this demonstrated that while world-systems may be relatively modern the cultural foundations that capitalism encompasses are not. Therefore evaluating pre-industrial global environmental histories from a world-systems perspective still has applications. Examining the formation and dissolution of inequalities in access to labor, resources, land, and capital in past social systems we can comment on the cultural mystifications of the exploitation of subordinates and perhaps transcend objective constructions of nature, technology, and labor.