Ecology and the World-System

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

It is important to acknowledge the issues which have remained underplayed or entirely unaddressed in world-system theory and which will have to be addressed to "Green" world-system theory or applied more widely to environmental sociological understanding. The weaknesses with world-system theory are well summarized by Shannon ( 1996, 213ff.). He points out, for example, that worldsystem theory tends to overemphasize economic explanations, while remaining virtually mum on culture. This old materialism debate discussed above goes back to Marx and Weber, and certainly we will not resolve it here. However, despite our argument for the importance of material explanations, we believe that nonmaterial motivations, such as meeting culture-specific and evolving consumption expectations and more simply the desires for status, power, love, jealousy, fun, ego-gratification, etc., do have critical environmental implications, as do other social structural elements that cannot be "read off" a society's means of material production and reproduction. However we would propose that attention to these types of causation be combined with attention to a society's material system of survival.

We agree with Shannon that world-system theory explanations are often overdetermined externally to nations. World-system theory has been weak on its analyses of culture and individual agency. Imprecision and poorly operationalized concepts ( Shannon 1996, chap. 6) are major shortcomings which this young field must address. Shannon makes the important point that zones of the world system -- core, serniperiphery, and periphery -- do violence to the diversity of nations ( Shannon 1996, 213). This is an important point and in our own work we have chosen continuum measures as discussed above. However the question remains of whether any one index of WSP can capture a stratification system which is multidimensional. Finally, Shannon levels tough critiques that gender still has not been adequately addressed in the field, that world-system theory's arguments are often teleological, and that the historical accounts are often overgeneralized in the search for meta-narratives (as is true of any global theory of social change or development).

Each of these weaknesses is reparable given suitable attention, and none is fatal to the central insights of the paradigm. They can be fixed. Despite these shortcomings, we believe it clear that world-system theory carries with it vitally important environmental implications. While we regret that these implications have yet to be more thoroughly pursued, we hope that our work, along with others working on similar lines, will accelerate the employment of the tools of world-system theory to the growing environmental crisis.


NOTES
1.
Should this turn out to be the case, the consignment of capitalism to the dustbin of history would be the same ecological degradation that has likewise trashed all prior modes of accumulation (e.g., Sanderson 1995; Chew 1995).
2.
Sanderson ( 1985) makes the excellent point that while the opportunities of ruling classes are constrained by macro structures (the world economy in which they operate), sometimes they choose effectively and other times not. The wisdom of their decisions is

-77-

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