The Interplay between Social and Environmental Degradation in the Development of the International Political Economy*


  • Robert Biel University College London



This article considers capitalism as a dissipative system, developing at the expense of exporting disorder into two sorts of ?environment?: the physical ecosystem; and a subordinate area of society which serves to nourish mainstream order without experiencing its benefits. Particularly significant is the relationship between the two forms of dissipation. The paper begins by assessing the dangers of translating systems theory into social relations, concluding that the project is nevertheless worthwhile, provided that exploitation and struggle are constantly borne in mind. Exploring the concepts of ?core? and ?periphery,? the paper highlights the contradictory nature of an attribute of chaos which is both ascribed to the out-group, and also really exported to it. If the core?s growth merely destroyed peripheral order, the entropy of capitalism would be starkly exposed in the form of an exhaustion of future room for maneuver. This problem can be kept at bay by maintaining a self-reproducing ?low? order within the subordinate social system; however the fundamental entropy is still there, and will sooner or later manifest itself in the shape of threats to the sustainability of that subordinate system. At the level of the international political economy (IPE), this dialectic unfolds against the background of a ?lumpy? development whereby (following structural crises) order can be reconstituted, but at a cost which must be absorbed somewhere. In the case of the post-World War II reordering, this cost was massively exported to the physical environment. Since a high level of ecological depletion now appears permanently embedded within the capitalist IPE, future major efforts of order-building cannot rely on this dimension to the same degree, and must instead access some new forms of dissipative relationship with the social environment. The paper argues that this is the fundamental significance of the ?sustainable development? discourse: it brings together the physical and social environments into a single approach, where substitution between one and the other can be experimented. To some extent, the social environment can be treated as ?fuel,? and contemporary management sys-tems are noteworthy for exploring the access to an added value through the self-exploitation of small producers, realized through emergent process such as production chains. But ultimately, the ?fuel? definition cannot be separated from the other definition of dissipa-tion, the export of disorder; and this must be managed somehow. The dominant interests respond by means of social engineering in the periphery, for example by pushing the sustainability notion in the direction of social development theories like ?sustainable livelihoods.? Most immediately the problem appears in the form of purely negative phenomena: namely unmanageable levels of poverty and conflict. But there is another issue, even more threatening to the capitalist order, but hopeful for those critical of it: the increasing likelihood of unco-opted forms of emergent social order.




How to Cite

Biel, R. (2006). The Interplay between Social and Environmental Degradation in the Development of the International Political Economy*. Journal of World-Systems Research, 12(1), 109–147.



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