Ecological unequal exchange is helping Europe maintain its leading role, greenhouse gases and overconsumption

Ecological unequal exchange, or the zero-sum model, can help us understand many things about the world's international trade, political order and environmental degradation. It can help put out the air on a few misleading claims about our so-called postmodern western societies and help people understand that Europe is at the top because of ecological imperialism and an ecologically unequal exchange in the world-system.

To fully understand the idea of ecological unequal exchange one must first understand how the stratification system in the world works. This global stratification system, which can also be known as the division of labor, ranks nations into three different categories:

  1. The top category is called the core. The world's wealthiest nations who have enjoyed centuries of social and economic progress at the expense of poorer nations are placed here. Examples of nations placed in the core could be USA, England, Japan and the EU.
  2. The second category is called the semi-periphery. Nations placed here mostly acts as a "middleman" to the bigger and wealthier nations in the core. Semi-periphery nations could for example be China, India, Russia and Brazil.
  3. The last category is called the periphery. Poor third-world countries, most of who are from Africa and Latin America are placed in this category. These nations are characterized by their enormous exports of cheap labor and natural resources to the core.

Periphery nations are exporting large quantities of low-value products, such as metals and timber, to core nations for consumption. But the core nations are on the other hand not exporting these low-value goods. Instead they are exporting more high-value products such as cars and other technological goods. Simply put, the raw commodities are exported from poor nations to the core market in the rich world where the final product can be worth many times more when it's been refined. The exported goods from the periphery also involve bigger ecological degradation than exports from the core. This degradation can for example be soil erosion, deforestation, polluted air and the loss of nutrients but also in a higher intensity of energy wasted and CO2 produced. Exports from periphery nations also involve a much higher intensity in underpaid human labor. So besides an unequal ecological exchange there is also an unequal exchange of embodied labor.

The European Union is a large importer of oil, coal, gas, minerals, metals, biomass etc. If you add the weight of all the goods together the EU imports four times more than it actually exports. Compare that to Latin America which exports about six times more than it imports and you can clearly see the difference. Colombia in Latin America imports every year around 10 million tons but their exports are about 70 million tons. Research has also shown that the EU-15 region exports are valued, in terms of money, at 4 times more than its imports. For periphery nations in Africa and Latin America one ton of import from the EU-15 region is worth 10 times more than one ton of export from these periphery nations to the EU-15 core.

You can see this stratification system in a more local environment as well. Consider for example a city and the countryside or even more local: the downtown of the city and its surrounding suburbs. Here the core is the city and the downtown. The countryside and the suburbs are the periphery. This global stratification system is dynamic. Good examples of this are Australia and Ireland who both have been former British colonies but now have advanced into core nations. But the system is still very much static and the unequal structure is kept intact mostly because of domestic political unrest and high levels of social inequality in the periphery nations, worsening terms of trade and unstable product prices on the global market. Many periphery nations also struggle with the legacy of imperialism and its postcolonial political institutions.

The rich nations are maintaining this unequal world system with the help from political and market-based ways. And what might be more shocking, or not, is that they sometimes even do this with sponsored or direct military power from the core nation itself. For example: The core nations are enforcing strong patent and intellectual property right laws and agreements that give a disadvantage to the periphery nations development. Worsening terms of trade, which I mentioned before, are also keeping the prices down on natural resources making it easier and easier for the core nations to keep importing and consuming. This means that periphery nations need to export more and more of their low-value goods to be able to pay for the high-value imports from the core. The USA is now importing more than half of the oil it consumes from nations outside its borders. Most of those imports come from Latin America. Venezuela and Bolivia who are both oil rich nations have lately tried to stand up against the energy and political influence from the core nations. The democratically elected Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez has increased his nation's control of major oil and energy projects from 40% to 60% in recent years. Chavez has used this extra income to raise his people's living standards. Similar things are happening in Bolivia where the President Evo Morales have nationalized the countries energy industry. This has helped give Morales an approval rating of 80% back home. But core nations such as the USA are not happy over this as it might threaten their increasing oil imports. So both Morales and Chavez have been criticized by the core for their "weak commitment to democracy". To secure future oil imports USA is now using "force to reassert dominanc" via "state terror and coercion" in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The nations in the core are, because of their overconsumption and production scale, the main greenhouse gas polluters. Nations in the periphery are also big polluters but they are, according to researchers, hindered to pursue a more efficient and environmental friendly approach. The reason for this is that they are strained by economic debts, lack of technological knowledge and an export dependency which is based on a limited range of production.

You often hear claims by people that the developed nations are moving into a more dematerializing, postconsumerist, postmodern or service-focused economy where they consume more services than actual materialistic products. Many people state that this is a "great environmental victory". World Bank and WTO analysts claims that exports from developing nations are "continually being upgraded" and that these exports to the core nations are improving developing nations own economic growth and development. But research has shown that developed nations who have moved into this postmodern service-focused economy has not yet lowered emissions in any significant way. Models have also shown that developing countries that take part in the international trade emits more than other periphery nations that are not as actively involved in the trade. The developed world has basically been able to outsource its dirty industries and the worst ecological impacts of production to nations in the periphery.

Learn more about this topic:

  • Roberts, J.T. & Parks, B.C. (2006). "A Climate of Injustice: Global Inequality, North-South Politics, and Climate Policy"
  • Hornborg, A., J.R. McNeill & J. Martinez-Alier, red. (2007)."Rethinking Environmental History: World-System History and Global Environmental Change"
  • Tabb, William K. (2007). "Resource Wars"
  • Davis, Mike (2004). "The View from Hubbert's Peak"


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Simon Leufstedt
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