chapter  3
Historical political ecology: progress as environmental load displacement
Pages 18

The analyses of unequal exchange and machine fetishism presented in the two previous chapters have been influenced by world-system perspectives on international trade and accumulation (e.g. Frank 1967, 1978, 1998; Wallerstein 1974-1989; Braudel 1992 [1979]). In this chapter, I would like to outline some implications that such perspectives should have for our way of writing the history of environmental problems. There are different ways of writing such histories. The dominant mode has been to assume a common human history, a global ‘we’ experiencing the arrow of time through cumulative changes such as population growth, technological development, and new patterns of resource use. Ecological degradation, seen from this perspective, is the collective concern of a generalized humanity prompted to exploit new territories, harness new energy sources, and develop new transport technologies. Environmental problems, although alarming, are presented as the inevitable side effects of ‘our’ global success story. The purpose of this chapter is to explore another way of writing environmental history. Rather than focus on the abstract accretion of landscape changes or technological inventions as a collective human experience over time, it seeks to highlight how such changes are distributed in space. It acknowledges that humanity is not a single ‘we’ but deeply divided in terms of reaping the benefits versus carrying the burdens of development. This distributed aspect of environmental problems can be illuminated by approaching ecological changes from a world-system perspective, viewing the world as a social system much more inclusive than individual nations (Wallerstein 1974-1989). If the world system for a long time has built on unequal power relations between rich core areas and impoverished peripheries, this inequality can also be expected to show in how environmental burdens have been distributed.