Preceding and governing measurements: an Emmanuelian conceptualization of ecological unequal exchange

Departmental Seminar
Open to the Public
Nador u. 9, Faculty Tower
Thursday, February 14, 2013 - 1:30pm
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Thursday, February 14, 2013 - 1:30pm to 3:10pm

You are cordially invited to the Political Science departmental seminar

"Preceding and governing measurements: an Emmanuelian conceptualization of ecological unequal exchange"

delivered by

Carl Nordlund, PhD, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Center for Network Science | Department of Political Science,

Date: Thursday, February 14, 2013 - 13:30,

Venue: FT908.


Defined as the chronic disciplinary trespasser among the social sciences, the recent combination of world-system analysis with ecological economics represents an interesting and promising incursion into the natural sciences. With both scholarly strands focusing on system totalities and interactions among component parts, resource distributions within such systems are deemed as more relevant than the conventional Hobbesian focus on the developmental trajectories of the, presumably independent, component parts. The particular novelty of this scholarly union is the biophysical lens provided by ecological economics: world-system studies at the intersection between the social and the material can shed new light on the most pressing and conflict-laden issues in the contemporary world-ecology, namely the sharing of planetary bounties and burdens.

One of the hallmarks of this disciplinary combination is the ecological approach to unequal exchange. Although a variety of interpretations exist, it is typically conceptualized as occurrences of monetarily non-compensated net transfers of biophysical resources or unequal sharing of environmental burdens. Using various metrics and methods to identify and measure this phenomenon, previous studies in this genre overall confirm its occurrence, to the benefit of the core.

Although yielding interesting findings per se, the typical conceptualizations and operationalization of ecological unequal exchange in this genre have some significant shortcomings. First, even though the concept explicitly revolves around exchange, very few studies analyze actually-occurring exchange on the world market. Instead, assumed to reflect such exchanges, national indicators of resource consumptions often constitute the empirical data. Secondly, the concept is typically used to signify the occurrence of such net transfers of biophysical resources, rather than more comprehensive theories of the underlying mechanisms that lead to such occurrences. Jorgenson, however, is an exception in this regard: by correlating the structural position of countries in the world-system with the presumed effects of such exchanges, Jorgenson does propose a structural theory of ecological unequal exchange. However, thirdly, even though contemporary studies in this genre dutifully refer to Arghiri Emmanuel, they are not concerned with theories on factor cost differentials that characterize the original theory of unequal exchange.

This paper presents a network-analytical framework that combines the original Emmanuelian theory of unequal exchange with Jorgenson’s structural theory of ecological unequal exchange. Focusing explicitly on primary commodity trade, analyzing both the monetary and the biophysical dimensions of such flows, it is argued that such flows represent allocations of the third Ricardian production factor, i.e. land/resources, among nationally-bound commodity chain segments. The structural positionality of trading countries are subsequently established using the formal role-analytical tools found in social network analysis. These network-analytical findings are subsequently contrasted with the cost-resource ratios for this particular production factor. Thus, whereas Emmanuel analyzed cost differentials among countries for the first production factor, i.e. labor, the suggested framework depicts ecological unequal exchange as cost differentials of the third Ricardian production factor as possibly related to positionality within the world-system.

Applying this framework on longitudinal trade data for primary commodities, the paper traces occurrences of Emmanuelian ecological unequal exchange during the last three decades.