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 13:13

I apologize in advance to the person in charge of commenting my reflection, because I have decided to use this reflection as a kind of exercise in order to clear things up for myself regarding my thesis topic with the help of the theoretical apparatus offered by Hornborg. It might not be in the general interest of the reader, but it might shed some light on the question I have chosen to primarily focus on; i.e. the question of relevance of the nation-state as a scale and as an analytical tool in writing environmental history. This question is particularly relevant to me, since I intend to write about the overlapping processes of industrialization and urban planning of my hometown and how landscape transformation and degradation is distributed along the axis of class and ethnicity.
Prior to the Second World War the territory of what became the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), was generally not industrialized. Thus it is interesting to see how a rapid industrialization process occurred in the second half of the 20th century in a socialist republic with planned economy and collective ownership of the means of production in regard to Hornborg’s concepts of unequal exchange and biophysical flows that do not correspond to the borders of nation-state. We have often heard that the nation-state is not the most theoretically rigorous and relevant scale in writing environmental history, first because of the obvious reason that ecosystems, natural phenomena, landscape transformation do not generally coincide with political borders. To this I will add Hornborg’s claim that taking the nation-state as a point of departure necessarily obscures the unequal flows and structural inequalities that masquerade as governments and state interests. I object to this claim since I believe that in many cases we cannot simply accept that economic interests and capital flows override state autonomy. I believe nation-states have to be considered as carriers of political agency that is not necessarily conflated with capital flows or is subordinated to them. I will explain this claim in regard to its relatedness to my thesis topic. As I’ve mentioned before, SFRY was a primarily agrarian economy up until the 1950s. My hometown, called Velenje (Tito’s Velenje in SFRY) was one of the most rapidly industrialized and urbanized regions in the whole SFRY; prior to the Second World War it was basically a village but in the first wave of post-war industrialization the region became crucial due to the massive quantities of lignite deposits (lignite is a sort of coal with low heat content). In this case a nation-state scale might be relevant, since we are dealing with a planned economy and the Yugoslavian ideal of self-sufficiency meant that the core/perifery dialectics was generally played within the borders. The second issue we must acknowledge here is that the industrialization process and technological development of all socialist republics in Yugoslavia was seen as enforcing the brotherhood (bratstvo) and the common socialist future of the southern Slavic peoples (the name Yugoslavia means exactly that, »the land of Southern Slavs«). Thus the industrialization process and the building of common identity overlap. Since the main focus of my thesis is the urban planning of my hometown, I will now briefly focus on that. The gargantuan extraction of coal deposits demanded a labour force, which in the beginning came from the rural areas sorrounding the valley where coal extraction occurred. The urbanization process occurred according to the utopian vision of urban planning envisaged by the coal mine director and the urban planners; both with a passionate penchant for social engineering. The town itself was planned basically ex nihilo, the terrain was a clean slate upon which to plan an ideal city fit for living of the working class, which was seen as the carrier of revolutionary consciousness. The town was indeed planned and constructed so as to offer an abundance of greenery, recreational surfaces and healthy living conditions in housing. I believe that without acknowledging the state autonomy and political agency of state-envisioned ideas and state financed planners, we might not understand the urbanization process of my hometown. In addition, the fragmentation of land was not an issue to urban planners, since the land was bought by the state from previous private owners (mostly small-scale farmers). Thus, again the state must be acknowledged as the carrier of agency and as a relevant unit of analysis.
There is much more to be said about this; indeed the polycentric conurbanization plan of the 1980s that was the predominant vision in SFRY in that time has to be understood within state governance. The second issue I intend to raise in my thesis, that is how environmental degradation is distributed unequally according to class and ethnicity (public health issues, water safety issues, land sinking in the valley, coupled with socio-economic marginalization of the working class predominantly of Bosnian ethnicity) in my hometown is more a matter of urban political ecology than environmental history, but Hornborg’s elaboration on Marx’s concept of the metabolic rift and fetishization of technology and commodification of workers will indeed be useful to me.