In trying to decipher why the world that we live in creates small, deep pockets of wealth while leaving whole continents to suffer malnutrition, disease and violence, people tend to offer up a number of reductionistic explanations depending on political favoritisms. One bitter narrative blames the poor themselves, putting it down to cultural laziness, inspiring the typically unsophisticated Trump-style definition of ‘shit-hole countries’. This can be easily dismissed by a complete lack of evidence that the rich work harder than the poor, and mostly explained away by racial bias. Other more pragmatic and ‘intellectualised’ approaches try to naturalise inequality as a human and even animal condition (a la Jordan Peterson), but this twists findings and lacks legitimate evidence. Most simply, it ignores that hunter gatherer groups were and are egalitarian societies. All humans lived and evolved as hunter gatherers for all but 13,000 of our 300,000 odd years of existing as homo sapiens. A little bit of maths shows that inequality on the kind of scale experienced today, is a far cry from evolutionary or sociobiological for our species; in-fact such disciplines mostly point to the opposite. Closer to the point, others locate capitalism and the small posse of elites that it serves as the crux of the problem. But this perspective still lacks a wider conception of the geographical and ecological history of our civilisations global activities that have shaped the world into what it is today. Capitalism is but a new symptom of deeply embedded patterns of eco-geographical theft and displacement, developed over the course of our civilisation.
As one of the so-called ecological economists undercutting the idiosyncrasies of our modern world, Professor Alf Hornborg describes how industrial society operates by accumulation and the “capacity to locally save time and space[…]at the expense of (human) time and (natural) space lost elsewhere in the world”. This has played out over a history of colonial and imperial expansion, which grabbed land from local communities in order to extract resources such as cotton in North America, silver in Peru, tea in India and slaves in Africa, to name a few of many. Anti-colonial philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon put it best:
“Europe has stuffed herself excessively with the gold and raw materials of colonial countries. Latin America, China and Africa. From all these continents, under whose eyes Europe today raises up her tower of wealth, there has flowed out for centuries, towards that same Europe, diamonds and oil, silk and cotton, wood and exotic products. Europe is literally the creation of the third world. The wealth which smothers her, is that which is stolen from the underdeveloped peoples.”
Global trade and exchange networks, through biospheric and geographic exploitation, have created a reality where there is a higher net transfer of resources that have moved from poor to rich countries. This means that Europe and North America, and more recently Japan and China, have received the vast majority of energy, embodied land and embodied labour, flowing to these areas from around the globe. This continues in the current era of neoliberal capital expansion, guided by modern elites. Hence capitalism is the shiny new tool in the work-shed, used to maintain the complex cogs of trade extraction, but now with a nuanced rhetoric that hails the individual and the global free market rather than king and country. As Algerian researcher-activist Hamza Hamouchene writes “accumulation by dispossession cannot be dissociated from the pivotal role of imperialism and colonialism in the process of capitalist development.”. And so corporations continue to tirelessly, and unoriginally, grab land and exploit cheap labour in impoverished and post-colonial regions.
To be sure, local political corruption and oppression makes things worse, but while development agendas charge lack of political stability, poor infrastructure and low investments with causing poverty and unrest in the Global South, fundamental to the problem is the continuous physical extraction of human and natural resources from these regions, headed for the North. These flows undermine the capacity for sovereignty and subsistence in impoverished regions. This also means that the success of what some scholars call WEIRD (western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic) countries is directly tied to their ability to accumulate more energy in the form of human labour and natural resources at the expense of other regions. All of this is not a metaphor, nor an abstract way of understanding history, scientists have meticulously calculated this net inequality over time in terms of hours of labour and tons of wheat, cotton and wool, for instance. It is also not news that consumption in the developed world outpaces the rest of the world, with Africa, the Middle East, South East Asia and South and Central America providing cheap raw materials at a low export value to sustain such consumption patterns. In return, these regions wear the human and environmental costs.
If inequality is a fundamental physical reality that can be measured and quantified, why is this not commonly thought of when considering the widening gap between rich and poor? Why is this not discussed by The UNDP, The World Bank, NGO’s or rich philanthropists, who meet endlessly to discuss ‘the problem of the South’, and address it by funnelling aid and infrastructure into these regions, with little to no change (most foreign aid ends up back in the sending country, and infrastructure mostly benefits local elites or transnational investors). The answer is that physical inequalities between WEIRD and non-WEIRD countries is obscured by monetary flows of value. In economic exchange, value is tied to a subjective and intangible concept: money. What something is worth, has less to do with the value of a thing as determined by its usefulness in context, and more to do with market factors, that even the most prestigious economists have trouble grasping and predicting. This means that unequal amounts of labour and materials can and have moved between regions unnoticed, ultimately resulting in the gradual impoverishment of one area and the enrichment of the other, and so we have the incredibly unequal world of today. This perspective is not particularly ground-breaking or novel, but it is a commonly ignored yet keystone factor in human rights, poverty, conflict and migration, all of which have their separate fields of influence that tend to explain phenomenon through separatist political idioms. Beneath the language of ‘governance management’, ‘transparency’ and ‘international cooperation’ lies a reality of energy colonialism.
Understanding these material realities that undermine equality around the world also challenges a common fiction that, to greater and smaller extents, whispers in the ears of all WEIRD citizens, and underpins international human rights and development agendas. That is, the myth of ‘European exceptionalism’. It tells that the white man is superior due to some kind of exceptional cultural evolution. How else do we explain why all Western countries are rich and powerful, while all the countries populated by black and brown people are not? This belief would surely make life simple, but it is nothing but a racist fantasy. Technological development, scientific innovation and capital accumulation are all impossible without land and labour sustaining these processes with human time and natural space, that must come from somewhere. Most infamously, the industrial revolution in Britain beginning in the mid 18th century, would have been impossible without stolen land and free labour in the form of slaves in the New World producing cheap goods to sustain British society. Having exhausted their own stocks and soils, and having promised their citizens democracy and decent living and working standards, it is no surprise that WEIRD countries are continuing to abuse labour and grab land in poor regions in order to draw in more and more energy resources at the expense of local livelihoods. The benefits from energy and agribusiness projects continue flowing to WEIRD citizens, with little to no evidence of the ‘trickle down’ benefits promised to the locals whose land and labour is used — only worsened violence, corruption and health outcomes. To match the political climate, these webs of accumulation are becoming more ‘progressive’ and sophisticated by, for instance, annexing indigenous land in the name of climate change and sustainable development in order to grow plantations, so that the wealthy can pay off their ecological guilt in the form of carbon credits.
Continuing to investigate these global processes, not only at the level of the political and economic, but in terms of geographical and ecological movements of labour and goods, helps to illuminate the underlying functions of both human and environmental injustices. Comprehending how our world system works is imperative if we are to truly address global crises, from migration to climate change. We should start by thinking about inequality as a biophysical process, that has been playing out through culture and geography for centuries at least.