Fair Enough? : Ecologically Unequal Exchange, International Trade, and Environmental Justice

Abstract: The theory of ecologically unequal exchange (EUE) posits that contemporary international trade facilitates a net flow of resources from the peripheral global South to feed industrial processes and capital accumulation in the core North. This situation, it is argued, imperils the development of the South. Trade is a socio-metabolic process which can be analyzed through systemic aggregate approaches or LCA. Most empirical EUE methods apply the economy-wide systemic approaches. LCA is commonly used to compare embodied resource intensities of different commodities but has not been used to assess EUE. An LCA-based EUE assessment methodology which simultaneously investigates the free-market ideology is developed and tested on trade of Dutch cheese for Kenyan coffee and roses. It has two parts: i) Determination of embodied resource intensity per unit of product and ii) Determination (and comparison) of resource intensity per unit of exchange value. Specifically, the exchange of embodied land, water, energy, CO2, and labor are examined. The results confirm the EUE theory’s hypothesis. EUE theory remains marginalized in relation to mainstream economic doctrine. To enhance its utilization, the core tenets or claims of EUE theory are synthesized and translated into policy assessment criteria. The key claims are discussed in terms of i)Structure of the capitalist world-economy, ii) Valuation languages, and iii) Equity and justice. The treadmill logic of capitalism in which capital extracts ecological resources and releases waste in an endless pursuit of profits creates an expansionary dynamic which draws peripheral countries into exploitative market relations. This peripheralization is actively supported by ‘free-trade’ economic theories presented as win-win policies, while states and international politico-economic institutions such as the WTO and WorldBank provide the regulations which ensure the proper functioning of the system. Monetary valuation caps it all by obscuring the inverse relationship between thermodynamics and economics in which raw (low entropy) materials are lowly priced while processed goods which have dissipated most of their matter-energy (and thus represent high entropy) are highly priced, ensuring that surplus value and resources accumulates in industrialized countries. The dominant economic conception of the world system is being challenged by a “cultural” perspective which offers a postcolonial critique of the cultural hegemony of the Global North, beyond political economy. I apply this analytic shift to argue that EUE can also be conceived as a social process of Othering. Our understandings of economy and the environment reflect past experiences,present preoccupations, socio-cultural assumptions, and specific discursive practices – a Political Unconscious. Global environmental politics cannot be understood without considering such assumptions. Conventional hegemonic discourses of neoliberalism and ecomodernism suffer from such a political unconscious. Borrowing perspectives from postcolonial, feminist, and critical social theories, I discuss how Western science exhibit such a political unconscious and their significance for EUE. Ultimately, EUE is a political problem which can only be solved politically.