The World-System and the Earth System
Struggles with the Society/Nature Binary in World-System Analysis and Ecological Marxism
Efforts to conceptualize the role of asymmetric resource transfers in the capitalist world-system have been constrained by the emphasis on surplus value and the labor theory of value in Marxist thought. A coherent theory of ecologically unequal exchange must focus on asymmetric flows of biophysical resources such as embodied labor, land, energy, and materials. To conceptualize these flows in terms of “underpaid costs” or “surplus value” is to suggest that the metabolism of the world-system can be accounted for using a monetary metric. This paper rejects both labor and energy theories of value in favor of the observation that market pricing tends to lead to asymmetric resource flows. The Marxist labor theory of value is an economic argument, rather than a physical one. In acknowledging this we may transcend the recent debate within ecological Marxism about whether “nature” and “society” are valid categories. Nature and society are ontologically entwined, as in the undertheorized phenomenon of modern technology, but should be kept analytically distinct. Since the Industrial Revolution, technological progress has been contingent on the societal ratios by which biophysical resources are exchanged on the world market. The failure among Marxist and world-system theorists to properly account for this central aspect of capitalist accumulation can be traced to the pervasive assumption that market commodities have objective values that may exceed their price. Instead of arguing with mainstream economists about whether market assessments of value are justified, it is more analytically robust to observe that market valuation is destroying the biosphere.
Altvater, Elmar. 2007. “The Social and Natural Environment of Fossil Capitalism.” Socialist Register 43: 37-59.
Amin, Samir. 1976. Unequal Development. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Borgström, Georg. 1965. The Hungry Planet. New York: Collier.
Brennan, Teresa. 1997. “Economy for the Earth: The Labour Theory of Value Without the Subject/Object Distinction.” Ecological Economics 20: 175-185.
Bunker, Stephen G. 1985. Underdeveloping the Amazon: Extraction, Unequal Exchange, and the Failure of the Modern State. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
______. 2007. “Natural Values and the Physical Inevitability of Uneven Development under Capitalism.” Pp. 239-258 in Rethinking Environmental History: World-System History and Global Environmental Change, edited by Alf Hornborg, John R. McNeill, and Joan Martinez-Alier. Lanham: AltaMira.
Bunker, Stephen G. and Paul S. Ciccantell. 1999. “Economic Ascent and the Global Environment: World-Systems Theory and the New Historical Materialism.” Pp. 107-122 in Ecology and the World-System, edited by Walter L. Goldfrank, David Goodman, and Andrew Szasz. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
______. 2005. Globalization and the Race for Resources. Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Burkett, Paul. 2003. “The Value Problem in Ecological Economics.” Organization & Environment 16(2): 137-167.
______.  2014. Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective. Chicago: Haymarket.
Burkett, Paul and John B. Foster. 2006. “Metabolism, Energy, and Entropy in Marx’s Critique of Political Economy: Beyond the Podolinsky Myth.” Theory and Society 35:109-156.
Clark, Brett and John B. Foster. 2012. “Guano: The Global Metabolic Rift and the Fertilizer Trade.” Pp. 68-82 in Ecology and Power: Struggles over Land and Material Resources in the Past, Present and Future, edited by Alf Hornborg, Brett Clark, and Kenneth Hermele. London: Routledge.
Clark, Brett and Richard York. 2005. “Carbon Metabolism: Global Capitalism, Climate Change, and the Biospheric Rift.” Theory and Society 34: 391-428.
Deléage, Jean-Paul. 1989. “Eco-Marxist Critique of Political Economy.” Capitalism Nature Socialism 1 (3): 15-31.
Dorninger, Christian, and Alf Hornborg. 2015. “Can EEMRIO Analyses Establish the Occurrence of Ecologically Unequal Exchange?” Ecological Economics 119: 414–18.
Emmanuel, Arghiri. 1972. Unequal Exchange: A Study of the Imperialism of Trade. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Foster, John B. 2000. Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. New York: Monthly Review Press.
______. 2008. “Peak Oil and Energy Imperialism.” Monthly Review 60(3): 12-33.
______. 2014. “Foreword.” Pp. vi-xiii in Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective, edited by Paul Burkett. Chicago, IL: Haymarket.
______. 2018. “Marx, Value, and Nature.” Monthly Review, July 1, 2018.
Foster, John B. and Paul Burkett. 2004. “Ecological Economics and Classical Marxism: The ‘Podolinsky Business’ Reconsidered.” Organization & Environment 17(1): 32-60.
______. 2008. “Classical Marxism and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Marx/Engels, the Heat Death of the Universe Hypothesis, and the Origins of Ecological Economics.” Organization & Environment 21(1): 3-37.
______. 2016. Marx and the Earth: An Anti-critique. Leiden: Brill.
______. 2018. “Value Isn’t Everything.” Monthly Review 70(6), November 1, 2018.
Foster, John B. and Brett Clark. 2004. “Ecological Imperialism: The Curse of Capitalism.” Socialist Register 2004: 186-201.
Foster, John B. and Hanna Holleman. 2014. “The Theory of Unequal Ecological Exchange: A Marx-Odum Dialectic.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 41(2): 199-233.
Foster, John B., Brett Clark and Richard York. 2010. The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Foster, John B., Hannah Holleman and Brett Clark. 2019. “Imperialism in the Anthropocene.” Monthly Review, July-August 2019.
Gellert, Paul K. 2019. “Bunker’s Ecologically Unequal Exchange, Foster’s Metabolic Rift, and Moore’s World-Ecology: Distinctions With or Without a Difference?” Pp. 107-140 in Ecologically Unequal Exchange: Environmental Injustice in Comparative and Historical Perspective, edited by R. Scott Frey, Paul K. Gellert and Harry F. Dahms. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.
Georgescu-Roegen, Nicholas. 1971. The Entropy Law and the Economic Process. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hornborg, Alf. 1998a. “Ecosystems and World Systems: Accumulation as an Ecological Process.” Journal of World-Systems Research 4(2): 169-177.
______. 1998b. “Towards an Ecological Theory of Unequal Exchange: Articulating World System Theory and Ecological Economics.” Ecological Economics 25(1): 127-136.
______. 2001. The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira.
______. 2015. “Why Economics Needs to be Distinguished from Physics, and Why Economists Need to Talk to Physicists: A Response to Foster and Holleman.” Journal of Peasant Studies 42(1): 187-192.
______. 2017. “Artifacts have Consequences, not Agency: Toward a Critical Theory of Global Environmental History.” European Journal of Social Theory 20(1): 95-110.
______. 2019a. Nature, Society, and Justice in the Anthropocene: Unraveling the Money-Energy-Technology Complex. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
______. 2019b. “The Money-Energy-Technology Complex and Ecological Marxism: Rethinking the Concept of “Use-value” to Extend our Understanding of Unequal Exchange, Part I.” Capitalism Nature Socialism 30(3): 27-39.
Hornborg, Alf and Carole L. Crumley, eds. 2007. The World System and the Earth System: Global Socioenvironmental Change and Sustainability Since the Neolithic. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.
Hornborg, Alf, John R. McNeill and Joan Martinez-Alier, eds. 2007. Rethinking Environmental History: World-System History and Global Environmental Change. Lanham: AltaMira.
Huber, Matthew T. 2008. “Energizing Historical Materialism: Fossil Fuels, Space and the Capitalist Mode of Production.” Geoforum 40: 105-115.
Latour, Bruno. 1993. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
______. 2017. Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge: Polity.
Lonergan, Stephen C. 1988. “Theory and Measurement of Unequal Exchange: A Comparison Between a Marxist Approach and an Energy Theory of Value.” Ecological Modeling 41:127-145.
Malm, Andreas. 2016. Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. London: Verso.
______. 2018. The Progress of this Storm: Nature and Society in a Warming World. London: Verso.
Malm, Andreas and Alf Hornborg. 2014. “The Geology of Mankind? A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative.” The Anthropocene Review 1: 62-69.
Martinez-Alier, Joan, and José M. Naredo. 1982. “A Marxist Precursor of Energy Economics: Podolinsky.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 9 (2): 207-224.
Marx, Karl.  1967. Capital, vol.1. New York: International Publishers.
______.  1976. Capital, vol.1. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.
Moore, Jason W. 2000a. “Marx and the Historical Ecology of Capital Accumulation on a World Scale: A Comment on Alf Hornborg’s ‘Ecosystems and World Systems: Accumulation as an Ecological Process.’” Journal of World-Systems Research VI(1): 133-138.
______. 2000b. “Environmental Crises and the Metabolic Rift in World-Historical Perspective.” Organization & Environment 13(2): 123-157.
______. 2001. “Book Review Essay: (Re)discovering Marx’s Materialism.” Organization & Environment 14(2): 240-245.
______. 2007. “Silver, Ecology, and the Origins of the Modern World, 1450-1640.” Pp. 123 -142 in Rethinking Environmental History: World-System History and Global Environmental Change, edited by Alf Hornborg, John R. McNeill, and Joan Martinez-Alier. Lanham, MD: AltaMira.
______. 2011. “Transcending the Metabolic Rift: A Theory of Crisis in the Capitalist World-Ecology.” Journal of Peasant Studies 38(1): 1-46.
______. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital. London: Verso.
______. 2016. “The Rise of Cheap Nature.” Pp. 78-115 in Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, edited by Jason W. Moore. Oakland, CA: PM Press.
O’Connor, James. 1998. Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism. New York: Guilford.
Odum, Howard T. 1988. “Self-organization, Transformity, and Information.” Science 242: 1132-1139.
Odum, Howard T. and Jan E. Arding. 1991. Emergy Analysis of Shrimp Mariculture in Ecuador. Working Paper, Coastal Resources Center, University of Rhode Island, Narragansett.
Podolinsky, Sergei.  2008. Human labor and the unity of force. Historical Materialism 16: 163-183.
Polanyi, Karl.  1957. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston, MA: Beacon.
Roberts, J. Timmons and Peter E. Grimes. 1999. “Extending the World-System to the Whole System: Toward a Political Economy of the Biosphere.” Pp. 59-83 in Ecology and the World-System, edited by Walter L. Goldfrank, David Goodman, and Andrew Szasz. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Salleh, Ariel. 1997. Ecofeminism as Politics. London: Zed Books.
Wackernagel, Mathis and William E. Rees. 1996. Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing Human Impact on the Earth. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1999. “Ecology and Capitalist Costs of Production: No Exit.” Pp. 3-11 in Ecology and the World-System, edited by Walter L. Goldfrank, David Goodman, and Andrew Szasz. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Copyright (c) 2020 Alf Hornborg
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Authors who publish with this journal agree to the following terms:
- The Author retains copyright in the Work, where the term “Work” shall include all digital objects that may result in subsequent electronic publication or distribution.
- Upon acceptance of the Work, the author shall grant to the Publisher the right of first publication of the Work.
- The Author shall grant to the Publisher and its agents the nonexclusive perpetual right and license to publish, archive, and make accessible the Work in whole or in part in all forms of media now or hereafter known under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License or its equivalent, which, for the avoidance of doubt, allows others to copy, distribute, and transmit the Work under the following conditions:
- Attribution—other users must attribute the Work in the manner specified by the author as indicated on the journal Web site;
- The Author is able to enter into separate, additional contractual arrangements for the nonexclusive distribution of the journal's published version of the Work (e.g., post it to an institutional repository or publish it in a book), as long as there is provided in the document an acknowledgement of its initial publication in this journal.
- Authors are permitted and encouraged to post online a prepublication manuscript (but not the Publisher’s final formatted PDF version of the Work) in institutional repositories or on their Websites prior to and during the submission process, as it can lead to productive exchanges, as well as earlier and greater citation of published work. Any such posting made before acceptance and publication of the Work shall be updated upon publication to include a reference to the Publisher-assigned DOI (Digital Object Identifier) and a link to the online abstract for the final published Work in the Journal.
- Upon Publisher’s request, the Author agrees to furnish promptly to Publisher, at the Author’s own expense, written evidence of the permissions, licenses, and consents for use of third-party material included within the Work, except as determined by Publisher to be covered by the principles of Fair Use.
- The Author represents and warrants that:
- the Work is the Author’s original work;
- the Author has not transferred, and will not transfer, exclusive rights in the Work to any third party;
- the Work is not pending review or under consideration by another publisher;
- the Work has not previously been published;
- the Work contains no misrepresentation or infringement of the Work or property of other authors or third parties; and
- the Work contains no libel, invasion of privacy, or other unlawful matter.
- The Author agrees to indemnify and hold Publisher harmless from Author’s breach of the representations and warranties contained in Paragraph 6 above, as well as any claim or proceeding relating to Publisher’s use and publication of any content contained in the Work, including third-party content.
Revised 7/16/2018. Revision Description: Removed outdated link.