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

This topic contains 36 replies, has 17 voices, and was last updated by  Markus 3 years, 10 months ago.

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March 5, 2014 at 14:29 #11836
 karin_sillen@hotmail.com

Reply to Anna Shoemaker

I agree with you on this question. I think you have a red line with capitalism that´s interesting and highly important when discussing world-system perspective. Like you, I also highlighted the importance of core and periphery and the importance of understanding the connections between them. I also enjoyed your reflection about pre-modern capitalist societies and today´s capitalist society. The issues we have today are problems that can be traced back to older societies. It can by valuable to see the connections between yesterday’s social systems and todays.

You mention that we live in a capitalist system today, and the systems inequalities in regards to labor, resources, land, and capital. From what I understand about world-system perspective, these are essential connections and problems that a capitalist system has. I think it´s interesting that you speak of inter-disciplinary approaches, and that makes me think that inter-disciplinary approaches should be highlighted even more in environmental problems. Inter-disciplinary approaches can help us identify the connections in the world-system.

March 5, 2014 at 15:13 #11837
 berglund_k@hotmail.com

Relpy to Michael Deflorian’s reflection by Kristina Berglund

Michael, I do agree with the convincing nature of Hornborg’s arguments. I found it difficult not to buy his general arguments and to see that there is anything overwhelmingly provocative with his arguments, as most people with interest and concern about global environmental challenges would agree that there is something profoundly wrong with our way of organizing our economic system and the way we exploit natural resources at the expense of other people and the environment that supports us. I agree with Hornborg’s argument that many politicians, economists and people in general seem to have an unlimited faith in technology and that it will be the great solution to all our problems.

However I also share your unease with the way Hornborg presented his arguments without a full account of his normative assumptions – a clarification of this from his side would make his argument even more compelling, as you rightfully point out. I would also add to this unease his lack of a clear explanation of what the alternative, his radical reorganization of the economy, would actually look like in practice. I mean, is it really possible to organize society with only locally produced goods and foodstuff while at the same time not compromising the livelihoods of some parts of the world – is this possible today for all people in the world? With climate change and increasing areas that will not be inhabitable without imported goods, we might need to rely on global trade in some way. And how would this reorganization of society be done when so many powerful powers have extremely high stakes in continuing the unequal world system as it is? How will it be possible to make powerful politicians, economists and multinational companies to think along these linese, and I guess also ‘ordniary’ citizens for example in Sweden, that are living convenient and well-off lives? I think it is a question he does not touch upon well enough.

Anyway Michael, thank you for a thought-provoking and well written reflection. Regardless of some flaws in Hornborg’s lecture and reasoning, I am convinced that his general line of thinking will be useful in future discussions and readings in global environmental history.

March 5, 2014 at 16:18 #11838
 fszys1990@gmail.com

Response to HIRSCHSTEIN NICK’s reflection by Yaqi Fu

Thanks for your thoughtful reflection. I am very glad to have the opportunity to comment on your reflection again.

In your reflection you want to figure out what is Hornborg’s definition of technology , how human uses technology and what effects happen in the world from such usage. It seems that you put more attention on the utility and after effects, while not elaborating much on in Hornborg’s thought what technology is. It’s also hard for me to define “his technology”. From my feeling gained from his lecture and book, technology in his mind is not simply related to machines, but more symbolize an ideology and a way of capital accumulation. His ideas of technology are also interesting to me.

I am not so agreed with your perception of his idea as using technology more locally can help regain equality. What he stressed I think is a world-system perspective from his book. He wanted to let us know the limitation of a national perspective and try to incorporate the world in analyzing what technology can actually bring to us. From his perspective, a way that avoids global trade and encloses oneself locally can hardly happen in today’s world.

Your mentioned the equality of the world. I agree that living standard in popularized countries is hard to get to the level of nowadays Europe. Things may get even worse towards inequality in the framework of a zero-sum world, in which unequal exchange dominates. Another thing you noticed is how to get a better change in today’s world. A dangerous thinking you drew from him is trying to make many people die. You doubted if it can really work as you posed the examples of two world wars which did not help change to sustainability. I agree with you that sustainability can never really gained by wars. War just has the function to get to a kind of conciliation and a period of peace. But if the uneven exchange continues and become more serious, I am afraid another world war will happen some day.

March 6, 2014 at 15:41 #11853
 nik.petek@arkeologi.uu.se

Sorry for replying so late, I was on my way to Kenya yesterday/today.

Reply to Morag Ramsey on thoughts about technology

I agree that Hornborg’s ideas on technology were really interesting, and, as I wrote in my post, i was taken by his research. I can see how through his research technology appears to be something negative rather than neutral. But I would say that if technology is a negative notion completely depends on the context it is put in. Within the context of world ecological capitalism and technology’s position within it, yes, it is negative. It is displacing resources and energy from one place of the world to the benefit of another part of the world. However, I cannot feel but that technology is not completely bad. It enables us to study and research the world. Without it we wouldn’t be able to understand the world, neither would we be able to practice medicine as we do today.

I would also say that technology does not predispose the global price difference. The global price difference comes from capitalisms necessity to create excess capital. Although technology does enable that to certain extent. But technology still enable/promote a price difference in a different world-ecology system?

March 7, 2014 at 12:43 #11879
 anna.shoemaker@arkeologi.uu.se

In reply to Yu Wang:

I sincerely apologize for my late comment, I have been in transit these last few days, but luckily for me your response and reply to saelrodr’s (Sarah’s?) comment betrays your passion for this topic. I will try to add to this discussion!

It seems that Sarah very fairly raised some questions about your apparent conflation of global core, periphery, and mixed zone divisions with nation states. Saelrodr, your point is truly salient to me at the moment – I am writing from a café (with free wifi) in Junction Mall in Nairobi (see link here http://www.artcaffe.co.ke/). I am sitting in a bastion of privilege in the global south, I certainly don’t feel like I am experiencing the capital periphery that is so often equated with conceptualizations of Africa.

Yet judging from your reply to Sarah’s comment Yu, you didn’t intend to equate one with the other. It seems that you both share the view that there are core, periphery and mixed zone divisions at the national level, and I can confirm (sips latte) this is true.

If I understand you correctly Yu in your response to Sarah’s comment, you actually feel that the question “what is wrong with the nation-state as a unit of analysis for environmental history” is too leading. You believe, and I agree with you, that the nation-state cannot be dismissed in evaluations of global environmental history. In fact to advocate a theoretical approach that places focus on any one identified unit of analysis is really quite reductionist and runs the risk of excluding important economic, cultural, political, and biophysical spheres. Perhaps a more inclusive question would have been “what is wrong with the nation-state as the sole or even primary unit of analysis for environmental history?”

I really agreed with Alf Hornborg in the seminar when he discussed the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to research, which is a stance that aligns with theories of world-systems. I think it is important for researchers to try to retain their own disciplinary strengths but also to draw on wider interdisciplinary literature, all the time walking the fine line between over-generalizing non-critical source inclusion and a truly insightful and complex study. Interdisciplinary skills are particularly challenging for us early career research types as we are still developing as academics. I believe that the global environment masters course is so interesting though, because the student body draws on such a wide range of disciplines and the course material seems focused on integrating research perspectives. This is really reflected in your exciting exchange Yu and Sarah, I am glad to be included in your discourse!

December 18, 2014 at 14:55 #15782
 Markus

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.

December 18, 2014 at 14:58 #15783
 Markus

Comment on Ellen Lindh’s reflection, Alf Hornborg, March 3, 2014

You point out the two things I too see as Hornborg’s greatest contribution to the debate about what global environmental history can be, namely that a world-system approach can deepen our understanding of environmental change over time, and that the nation state as the unit of analysis does not sufficiently explain environmental change. With this said, I find your point of “micro history” being lost, or forgotten, in the effort to find the “macro history” interesting and important.
I believe this to be a problem with calling our discipline “global”. Calling our discipline, and our program, “global” environmental history is of course in critique of the nation state perspective on history, encouraging us to look beyond the man-made borders in our persuit to understand environmental change. But at the same time, the word seems to me a bit ill-chosen exactly because it implies a global approach. It sounds like the history of empires and continents, with gargantuan statistics of flows and interconnections. It does not sound like the history of the particular, the “micro”.
The way I think about it, “global” in this context is exactly what Hornborg is arguing for, that is, that a fundamental understanding of environmental history is that things separated in space and time are still connected. Mining in South America has an impact on the forests in Europe, for instance. But many times when I have had to explain what it is that I am studying to someone, it has been obvious to me that the term “global” is anything but intuitive for people not familiar with the discipline of history. In their ears, it sounds like my discipline is one intent on producing histories of “the world”. I think this to be unfortunate since many people are not really interested in “world histories” at all. I think perhaps there can be other terms that are more apt. Maybe “systemic environmental history” could work since it is the (world-) systemic approach to history that we are talking about. The drawback then would be that “systemic” sound like a methodological standpoint, that this is a history of computor models and excel sheets rather than narratives. I think maybe, therefore, the best approach would be to get rid of the whole “global” thing all together and simply call our subject “environmental history”. The systemic and global nature of a history of the environment is implicit anyway.

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