chapter  1
Zero- sum world: how to think about ecologically unequal exchange
Pages 21

Researchers and policy-makers addressing sustainability in the early twenty-­first­ century­ face­ a­ challenge­ so­ formidable­ that­ they­may­ prove­ incapable­of­dealing­with­ it,­ in­which­case­our­current­capitalist­civilization­ may­ well­ share­ the­ fate­ of­ ancient­ Rome­ and­ similar­ historical­ instances­of­socio-­ecological­collapse­(Tainter­1988).­This­alarmist­introduction­ is­meant­ to­ underscore­ the­ urgency­ of­ the­ analytical­ task­ that­ I­ attempt­ to­ outline­ in­ this­ book.­ The­ currently­ globalizing­ connections­ through­market­ exchange­ and­ technologies­ of­ trade­ and­ communication­ are­widely­celebrated­as­a­road­to­a­more­integrated,­prosperous,­and­even­ egalitarian­future­world,­yet­there­is­overwhelming­evidence­that­precisely­ these­connections­continue­to­generate­devastating­ecological­deterioration­ and­ increasingly­ severe­ inequalities­within­ and­ between­ nations­ (United­ Nations­Development­Program­1998;­Millennium­Ecosystem­Assessment­ 2005).­Almost­ seven­ billion­ human­ beings­ are­ currently­ implicated­ in­ a­ global system that seems inexorably to bring us all closer and closer to socio-­ecological­ collapse.­There­ is­ nothing­ inevitable­ about­ this­ process,­ many­ of­ us­ are­ aware­ of­ its­ fundamental­ direction,­ yet­ we­ seem­ quite­ unable­to­halt­it. ­ This­incapacity­to­evade­catastrophe­has­two­basic­aspects­that­are­intricately­ interrelated.­One­is­ that­our­way­of­ thinking­and­talking­about­ the­ world­prevents­us­ from­grasping­or­at­ least­ efficaciously­questioning­ the­ mechanisms­ propelling­ this­ development.­ The­ other­ is­ that­ there­ are­ extremely­ powerful­ interests­ at­ stake.­We­ are­ not­ all­ sitting­ in­ the­ same­ boat,­as­the­metaphor­goes.­We­are­sitting­in­at­ least­ two­different­boats,­ but­ one­ is­ pulling­ us­ all­ toward­ disaster.­ There­ are­ definitely­ powerful­ social­groups­who­have­very­much­to­gain­–­at­least­within­the­anticipated­ timeframe­of­their­own­lifetimes­–­from­the­current­organization­of­global­ society.­As­many­social­scientists­have­shown,­it­is­precisely­these­groups­ who­ tend­ to­ exert­ a­primary­ influence­over­ the­way­ social­ processes­ are­ defined­ –­ and­ even­ questioned.­ The­ language­ devised­ to­ manage­

socio-­ecological­ ‘problems’­ viewed­ through­ such­ system-­serving­ lenses­ will­ naturally­ constrain­ our­ capacity­ to­ actually­ ‘solve’­ problems­ in­ the­ sense­of­changing­the­direction­of­societal­development,­which­may­well­ require­ fundamentally­ reorganizing­ social­ institutions.­ The­ language­ of­ policy­and­management­thus­tends­to­avoid­questions­of­power,­conflicts,­ and­inequalities.­Although­conspicuously­present­–­and­increasingly­problematic­–­in­global­human­society,­such­issues­are­rarely­identified­as­problems­ to­ be­ solved.­ There­ is­ rather­ a­ pervasive­ assumption­ of­ consensus­ with­regard­to­appropriate­policy­and­management. ­ A­ crucial­ challenge­ for­ social­ sciences­ struggling­with­ these­ issues­ is­ that­ the­ everyday­ assumptions­ about­ the­world­ in­which­we­ are­ all­ suspended,­ and­ which­ are­ generally­ described­ for­ us­ in­ terms­ of­ flows­ of­ money­ and­ information,­ have­ very­ tangible­material­ properties­ and­ consequences.­These­material­aspects­of­global­society­are­widely­ignored­in­ social­science,­ in­part­because­they­implicate­knowledge­and­methodologies­ generally­ reserved­ for­ the­ natural­ sciences.­ Nor­ can­ they­ be­ fully­ grasped­ by­ the­ natural­ scientists­ themselves,­ simply­ because­ these­ researchers­generally­have­a­poor­understanding­of­society.­Yet­the­logic­ of­these­material­aspects­of­society­–­what­are­increasingly­referred­to­as­ ‘socio-­ecological’­systems­–­urgently­needs­to­be­understood­(Berkes­and­ Folke­1998;­Hornborg­and­Crumley­2007).­But­even­here,­in­contemporary attempts to transcend the academic distinction between social and natural­sciences,­there­is­a­clear­divergence­between­perspectives­emphasizing,­respectively,­consensus­and­conflict.­In­this­book,­I­will­take­power,­ contradiction,­and­‘capital­accumulation­by­dispossession’­(Harvey­2003)­ as­a­point­of­departure­for­understanding­the­disastrous­course­of­current­ socio-­ecological­ processes,­ but­ I­ will­ also­ briefly­ demonstrate­ why­ the­ hegemonic­interpretations­and­policies­that­instead­assume­consensus­(e.g.­ the­functionalist­discourse­on­‘resilience’)­may­be­misguided. ­ The­ chapter­ is­ divided­ into­ three­ parts.­ The­ first­ discusses­ how­ a­ population’s­perceptions­of­technology,­economy,­and­ecology­are­conditioned­ by­ its­ position­within­ global­ systems­ of­ resource­ flows,­ and­ how­ mainstream­modern­perceptions­of­‘development’­can­be­viewed­as­a­cultural­ illusion­ confusing­ a­ privileged­ position­ in­ social­ space­ with­ an­ advanced­position­in­historical­time.­The­second­part­traces­some­lineages­ of­ critical­ thinking­on­environmental­ load­displacement­ and­ecologically­ unequal­exchange,­arguing­that­such­acknowledgement­of­a­global­environmental­‘zero-­sum­game’­is­essential­to­recognizing­the­extent­to­which­ cornucopian­ perceptions­ of­ ‘development’­ indeed­ represent­ an­ illusion.­ The­ third­ part,­ finally,­ offers­ some­ examples­ of­ how­ the­ rising­ global­ anticipation­ of­ socio-­ecological­ contradiction­ and­ disaster­ is­ being­ ideologically­disarmed­by­the­rhetoric­on­‘sustainability’­and­‘resilience’.