Ecology and the World-System

By Walter L. Goldfrank; David Goodman et al. | Go to book overview

Introduction

In organizing this volume, we have sought to emphasize three ways in which environmental analysis intersects with the long-standing concerns of scholars working within the world-systems framework, if not always explicitly so. These are (1) the emergence of threats to the global environment and of ecological limits to the sustainability of capitalism; (2) the differences in environmental impacts among different types of historical systems and among different parts of the capitalist world-economy; and (3) replication and variation among environmental social movements in the contemporary world. At the same time, we intend that this volume demonstrate ways in which the consideration of environmental issues can enrich accounts of change at the local, regional, national, and world levels, by showing how ecological threats and limits rebound upon the systems that generate them, thus undermining their capacity to reproduce themselves.

Prior to the second half of our century, environmental damage typically occurred on a local or regional level. But with its unprecedented impacts on the biosphere, the most recent phase of world-system development has introduced new concerns: global warming, also known as the greenhouse effect; ozone depletion; altered oceanic ecosystems. Along with the danger of widespread nuclear war, these global trends introduce the real possibility that the continuation of human life itself may be measured in decades or centuries rather than millennia.

In less dramatic ways, but no less inexorably, the accelerating commodification of nature makes livelihood problematic for large numbers of people in many parts of the world, through desertification and salinization of land; depletion and pollution of water; destruction of wetlands and fisheries; and harvesting or burning of forests. Although the measurement of environmental damage is an enterprise fraught with controversy, there are virtually no reputable analysts who claim that the world as a whole as well as many parts of it are not deteriorating environmentally. Rather, the questions are how much and how fast they are deteriorating, how imminent are which dangers, and with what consequences for the system and its parts.

The chapters in Part I address issues at a global level. Immanuel Wallerstein's chapter argues that capitalism as an historical system is reaching its limits largely because it is simultaneously exhausting its reserves of nonpolluted, nondepleted

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