World-Systems Theory and the
Environment
The Unequal Ecological Exchange
Thesis
Due to their economic, military, and political
power, wealthy nations have the capacity to:
– Make environmental “withdrawals” from poor
nations (in terms of natural resource extraction),
and,
– Make environmental “inputs” in poor nations in
terms of pollution or waste.
World-systems theory pays great attention to
the historical development of capitalism…
Why are some countries wealthy (core) or others
relatively poor (semi-periphery) or very poor
(periphery)?
• The establishment of an international division of
labor.
• The creation and maintenance of unequal terms
of exchange.
• Processes of underdevelopment.
Three Periods of Colonialism
• Global Expansion 1492-1776: Spanish,
Portuguese, Dutch, French, and the English.
• 1776-1870: British Dominance.
• 1870-1914: The “New Imperialism.”
European colonies in 1674
World colonies, 1800
World colonies, 1900
Colonialism and the Slave Trade
– Peaked in 18th C
– Colonial expansion
and triangular trade –
exchange between
Europe, Africa, and
the Americas – built
from slave trade
routes.
Colonial Commercial Relationships
• Shaped colonial economies.
– Orientation away from a subsistence to a cash economy.
– Extractive / external-market focus.
• Established a new international division of labor.
– Colonies produce and export raw materials (minerals, timber,
monoculture commodity agriculture).
– Colonizers export manufactured goods.
– Set up export dependence.
• Established unequal terms of exchange.
• Underdeveloped colonies.
– Extracted tremendous wealth in terms of natural resources.
– Created vast amounts of upheaval and social disruption.
The Unequal Ecological Exchange
Thesis
Due to their economic, military, and political
power, wealthy nations have the capacity to:
– Make environmental “withdrawals” from poor
nations (in terms of natural resource extraction),
and,
– Make environmental “inputs” in poor nations in
terms of pollution or waste.
Potosi, as described by Galeano in
The Open Veins of Latin America
The Recent History of Colonialism.
Africa:
• Ethiopia: 1944
• Ghana: 1957
• Seventeen African nations achieve independence
in 1960.
• South Africa: 1994
Asia:
• Indonesia: 1949
• Vietnam: 1954, 1973
World-systems theorists argue that relationships of
unequal ecological exchange continue to characterize
relationships between nations today.
Two examples and a counter-example:
• Oil in Nigeria.
• Electronic waste in China.
• Possible counter-example: China and rare
earth minerals. (Or is it simply an indication of
a changing world.)
World-systems theorists argue that unequal
ecological exchange continues to characterize coreperiphery relations.
• The international division of labor established
during periods of colonialism still largely exists.
• Economic “development,” is often geared toward
export production.
– i.e. development in the form of railways or roads
between mines and ports rather than meeting
community needs.
• Economic development in the periphery is often
its continued “underdevelopment.”
Modernization Theory: A Competing
Perspective
• Natural resource extraction is a viable means of
economic development, providing:
–
–
–
–
Influx of capital.
Local high-paying jobs.
Provision of services to communities.
Tax revenues for countries to invest in further
development.
• Proposes the “environmental Kuznets curve” thesis:
– As a poor nation’s economy grows in terms of GDP, its
rates of environmental degradation will also increase.
– As a nation develops, and its GDP reaches a certain size,
rates of environmental degradation will decrease.
Criticisms of World-Systems Theory?
• Core/periphery relations between nations
might overlook similar kinds of relations
within nations?
• Overlooks real success stories in
development?
• Other criticisms…?
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World-Systems Theory and the Environment