The World-System and the Earth System

Struggles with the Society/Nature Binary in World-System Analysis and Ecological Marxism

  • Alf Hornborg University of Lund, Sweden
Keywords: ecologically unequal exchange, society/nature distinction, theories of value, ecological Marxism, technological progress


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.


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How to Cite
Hornborg, A. (2020). The World-System and the Earth System: Struggles with the Society/Nature Binary in World-System Analysis and Ecological Marxism. Journal of World-Systems Research, 26(2), 184-202.
Special Issue: World-Systems Analysis in the Anthropocene