The paper contributes to the ongoing discussion of uneven development and unequal exchange within development studies. The point of departure is the world system theory that attributes uneven development to an inherently deficient world political and economic structure. In this paper, we propose the concept of ‘social metabolism’ and its operational tool, Material Flow Accounting (MFA) as a means to empirically illustrate the notion of ‘ecological’ unequal exchange by tracking flows of matter in international trade. Using examples from developed and developing economies, we show that there is a net flow of materials and resources from parts of the periphery to the core to allow for surplus to accumulate, both in monetary and biophysical terms. However, we also demonstrate that this pattern cannot be generalised for all periphery and core countries; other factors, such as population density and available land area, play an important role as well.
The paper introduces the emerging field of ecological economics and evaluates its potential for addressing some of the concerns within development studies. It takes as its point of departure the study of the relationship between nature and society that emerged in the wake of the environmental discourse in the 1960s. In the first section, a new perspective in the study of the interaction between society and nature is briefly outlined. Thereafter, the field of ecological economics is discussed as a specific example of this new perspective, followed by its potential link to the development debate, in particular the combination of the environmental and distributional issues and the challenges therein. Finally, the paper reflects on the persuasive potential of ecological economics in relation to politics.
The acknowledgement of asymmetric transfers of material, biophysical resources such as energy, matter, embodied land, and embodied labor is fundamental to understanding not only development gaps, but the very phenomenon of technology as a social redistribution of resources. This paper argues that to posit the occurrence of ecologically unequal exchange does not need to imply a value judgement, or being constrained by the approach to unequal exchange provided by Arghiri Emmanuel. During two centuries of fossil fuels, ecologically unequal exchange has not always involved net transfers of energy, nor has it always involved net transfers of embodied land, but it has always involved net transfers of one of these resources. In a future dominated by biofuels, ecologically unequal exchange will again involve concerns with both energy and embodied land. In terms of economic theory for understanding the course of history, this would amount to the bankruptcy of both Ricardian and Marxian concepts of labor value in favor of a cosmology more akin to pre-industrial Physiocracy.
As a means by which uneven development is created and reproduced, international trade has received much attention. Foreign trade leads to a draw on natural resources and an interference with regenerative capacities of ecosystems that extend far beyond the borders of the importing country or region. Next to the structural and/or systemic evidence which can be cited, a method for the quantification of the redistribution of ecological burden which occurs through international trade is needed. The ecological footprint (EF) proposes to translate human societies demand for natural resources into a bioproductive area requirement expressed in global hectares. The latter figure can be compared to the locally or globally available bioproductive area, in order to verify whether or not a given society is consuming natural resources within or beyond local or global limits. In communicating the draw of countries on biocapacity outside their borders through trade, ecological footprint analysis is a powerful tool. At the same time, it does not permit straightforward conclusions as to the sustainability of these trade relations. This paper outlines the ecological footprint methodology and, more specifically, examines how trade is accounted for in EF analysis in order to gauge the utility of the ecological footprint as a tool for quantifying ecological distribution conflicts.
Innovation is ultimately linked to the human desire to think about new and better things and to try them out in practice. In this article, we suggest farmer participatory research as an approach to foster community-led innovation in smallholder agriculture in western Uganda. Farmer participatory research is a process of designing and implementing on-farm trials to test and further improve agricultural technologies and agronomic practices. For smallholder farmers who lack access to formal agricultural research and support services, farmer participatory research supports community-led innovation aimed at improving ecological sustainability agriculture.