The north-south environmental crisis:

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New School Economic Review, Volume 2(1), 2007, 77-99

George Howell*
For Gideon Rosenbluth ABSTRACT
This paper offers a political economy problematisation of the current trends of production towards environmental degradation, while offering an environmental critique of mainstream economic thought and capitalistexchange and production. A case is made for a re-appraisal of ‘unequal exchange’ analysis of international trade. First, this essay explains the evolution of economic thought on trade, offering a brief explanation of where ‘unequal exchange’ analysis comes from. In Part two, unequal ecological exchange is introduced and a political analysis of how and why the South1 allows its environmental capacityto be appropriated is discussed. Part Three discusses the ecological impact of the current global trading system, and Part Four looks at the phenomenon of ‘Perverse Subsidies’ and their influence on free trade arguments. Finally Part Five examines responses to the environmental crisis, by questioning mainstream economists’ optimism about the ecological crisis. Further addressing the ‘ecologicalmodernization’ paradigm and the Red-Green approach, in order to show the salience of an unequal ecological exchange methodology for understanding the links between the expansion of global capitalism, environmental degradation and international inequality.


At every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someonestanding outside nature—but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly (Engels 1876).

This paper offers a political economy insight into the environmental crisis; it draws attention to the political andeconomic driving forces of environmental degradation. The analytical tool of ‘unequal ecological exchange’ offers a critical analysis of the extensive, hidden ecological costs of international trade.

I would like to thank all the anonymous reviewers and copy editors for their most useful comments and suggestions, and to the NSER editorial board for having faith in the potential of a ratherrough treatment of such an important subject.



NSER 2(1) – Articles

Part One explains the evolution of economic thought on trade, including the justification of producing according to comparative advantage, structuralist critiques of this approach, and the rise of the dependency theory school, offering a brief explanation of where ‘unequal exchange’ analysis comes from. In Part Twounequal ecological exchange is introduced, and the overwhelming evidence for unequal ecological exchange is presented. Ecological Footprint data shows the geographical locations of aggregate energy consumption, while Esty’s (2005) Environmental Sustainability Index draws attention to the geographical locations of environmental degradation. Unequal ecological exchange analysis is used to drawattention to the causality between these two sets of data. This is followed by an analysis of the externalization of the negative environmental effects of production, with the aim of elucidating the mechanism by which Southern ecosystems are degraded by Northern consumption patterns. A political analysis of how and why the South allows its environmental capacity to be appropriated is discussed, fromintra-national and international frames of analysis. Part Three discusses the ecological impact of the current global trading system. A materialist historical analysis of international trade is used to highlight the global trading system’s inherent inequality. Trade liberalization is critiqued from an environmental perspective; Polanyi’s (2001[1944]) analysis of the rise of ‘market freedom’ as the...
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