The University of Arizona

Core tenets of the theory of ecologically unequal exchange

Martin Oulu


In this article, core tenets and claims of the theory of ecologically unequal exchange (EUE) are synthesized. EUE theory postulates a net flow of natural resources from peripheral developing to core industrialized countries through international trade, a situation which undermines the development of the periphery while enhancing that of the core. The key claims and EUE mechanisms are categorized and discussed under three topics: 1) the structure of the capitalist world-economy, 2) monetary valuation, and 3) equity and justice. The treadmill logic of capitalism in which capital extracts ecological resources and release waste in an endless pursuit of profits creates an expansionary dynamic which draws peripheral countries into exploitative market relations. This peripheralization is supported by 'free trade' economic policies, while nation-states and other political-economic institutions such as the WTO and IMF provide the regulations which ensure proper functioning of the system. Monetary valuation caps it by obscuring the inverse relationship between thermodynamics and economics, in which low-entropy energy and materials indispensable in economic production processes are lowly priced while processed goods which have dissipated most of their matter-energy are highly priced, ensuring that biophysical resources and profits accumulates in the industrialized Northern countries. This EUE framework is applied to the EU's Raw Materials Initiative from the vantage point of policy as implicit theory. By challenging mainstream policies and their underlying theories, the EUE perspective demonstrates that alternatives to neoliberal policy prescriptions exist and policy can play a crucial role in bringing about the necessary structural changes.

Key words: ecologically unequal exchange, environmental justice, EU, capitalism, free trade, policy

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