Ecology and the World-System

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

6
Economic Ascent and the Global Environment: World-Systems Theory and the New Historical Materialism

Stephen G. Bunker & Paul S. Ciccantell


INTRODUCTION

The manipulation and reorganization of the relationship between nature and society is the most complex task confronting any ascendant economy. Gaining secure, inexpensive access to the huge volume of raw materials building blocks of capitalist industrial production requires economic, political, technical, and organizational innovations that restructure both existing social relationships (e.g., coreperiphery relations) and the characteristics of the nature-society nexus (e.g., what raw materials are extracted where and by whom). The strategies of states and firms in ascendant economies to accomplish this task create what we term "generative sectors": leading economic sectors that are simultaneously key centers of capital accumulation, bases for a series of linked industries, sources of technological and organizational innovations that spread to other sectors, and models for firms and for state-firm relations in other sectors. These generative sectors in raw materials and transport industries have driven economic ascent throughout the history of the capitalist world-economy.

Our analysis of economic ascent requires the reframing of world-systems theory in terms of what we call the new historical materialism. Our argument is that the distinctive feature of the capitalist world-economy is the systematic expansion of the exploitation of nature via a division of labor on an increasingly global scale. This also does not mean that this was the first time this effort had been undertaken; earlier expanding core powers and empires had sought to intensify agricultural production and to expand their raw materials supply systems. The key difference was the intensification and extension of capitalist extraction around the globe, beginning in the "long sixteenth century" and sharply increasing in scale and scope from the mid eighteenth centuryonwards, restructuring social relations and the relationship between society and nature in support of capital accumulation.

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