The main argument in this book is that the economic, technological, and environmental polarizations of global society can be understood in terms of asymmetric transfers of resources that are made invisible by the dominant ways of representing development, economic growth, and technological progress. The acknowledgement of such asymmetric transfers – what I have called the ‘thermodynamics of imperialism’ or ‘ecologically unequal exchange’ (Hornborg 1992, 1998b) – is fundamental to understanding not only development gaps, but the very phenomenon of ‘technology’ as a social redistribution of resources. In recent years, it has been gratifying to see an increasing number of researchers involved in defining and measuring different kinds of ecologically unequal exchange (cf. Jorgenson and Clark 2009), even if the implications of this work for a radical reconceptualization of technology remain difficult for most of us to digest. In this chapter, I will take a closer look at the concept of unequal exchange, which is a cornerstone not only of Marxian social theory but also of much ecological and post-colonial critique of the notion of development. Many social scientists, looking at the world around them, are intuitively convinced that there is such a thing as ‘unequal exchange’ but would admit to having a hard time defining it. The problem of unequal exchange is a paradigmatically Marxian topic in that our difficulties in conceptualizing it can be seen as part of the conditions for its existence. Thus it cannot be understood other than through an analytically demanding combination of epistemological and ontological arguments that require at different steps in the analysis the approaches of both deconstruction and objectivism. My previous attempts to conceptualize ecologically unequal exchange (e.g. Hornborg 1992, 1998b, 2001b) have raised two related kinds of objections that deserve response. The first is that the very notion of ‘unequal’ exchange must imply some kind of value judgement, the second that it should refer to the specific definition applied by Arghiri Emmanuel
(1972). In the following section, I hope to show why the first objection must be rejected, by arguing that if objectively quantifiable net transfers of resources can be shown to be conducive to uneven capital accumulation (or development), we do not need a normative concept of value or inequality in order to observe that uneven development is a result of unequal exchange. (This important argument elaborates some observations I made toward the end of Chapter 4.) In the second part of this chapter, I shall address the second objection.