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Ecologically unequal exchange

The concept of ecologically unequal exchange (or trade) builds on the notion of ‘unequal exchange’ developed by scholars such as Arghiri Emmanuel (1972) and Samir Amin (1976) in the 1960s and 1970s, or by Latin American economists like Raúl Prebisch and Celso Furtado within the UN Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean from the 1950s. These scholars defined the concept in terms of the different quantities of labour time that had been invested in the commodities that were traded between countries. They showed that countries with lower wages generally exported more embodied labour time than they imported, and vice versa, but that this could not be detected in conventional trade statistics, which were only concerned with the monetary value of the trade flows. Their analysis was important in revealing a discrepancy between market price and quantities of embodied resources, but was restricted only to labour.

The analysis of ecologically unequal exchange is formally similar to their approach (Lonergan, 1988), but focuses on the unequal flows of embodied land, rather than labour. The category of ‘land’ includes several different kinds of natural resources, including energy, the use or deterioration of which is required for the production of a given quantity of commodities (Bunker, 1985; Hornborg, 1998; Rice, 2007; Jorgenson & Clark, 2009). As labour can also be considered a form of energy, which requires a given quantity of eco-productive land, it is even possible to argue that the unequal exchange of embodied labour is a subset of the wider phenomenon of ecologically unequal exchange.

There is an important disagreement about whether it is useful to think in terms of some kind of ‘value’ that is being underpaid, which suggests that labour and land have correct and quantifiable monetary values that are not being properly compensated in market exchange (Hornborg, 2011). Rather than posit a labour or energy theory of value, it would seem more useful to restrict the analysis to simply demonstrating that there is an asymmetric transfer of embodied resources between two social categories such as nations, which does not show in conventional economic statistics on trade (Jorgenson & Rice, 2007; Jorgenson & Clark, 2012).

The scientific concept of ecologically unequal exchange is related to the concept of ecological debt which developed in an activist context.


Amin, S. (1976). Unequal Development. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Bunker, S.G. (1985). Underdeveloping the Amazon: Extraction, Unequal Exchange, and the Failure of the Modern State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Emmanuel, A. (1972). Unequal Exchange: A Study of the Imperialism of Trade. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Hornborg, A. (1998). Towards an ecological theory of unequal exchange: Articulating world system theory and ecological economics. Ecological Economics 25(1):127-136.

Hornborg, A. (2011). Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange: Fetishism in a Zero-Sum World. London: Routledge.

Jorgenson, A.K. & J. Rice (2007). Uneven ecological exchange and consumption-based environmental impacts: A cross-national investigation. In Rethinking Environmental History: World-system History and Global Environmental Change, pp.273-288. A. Hornborg, J.R. McNeill & J. Martinez-Alier, eds. Lanham: AltaMira Press.

Jorgenson, A.K. & B. Clark, eds. (2009). Special Issue: Ecologically Unequal Exchange in Comparative Perspective. International Journal of Comparative Sociology 50(3-4).

Jorgenson, A.K. & B. Clark (2012). Footprints: The division of nations and nature. In A. Hornborg, B. Clark & K. Hermele, eds., Ecology and Power: Struggles over Land and Material Resources in the Past, Present, and Future, 155-167.London: Routledge.

Lonergan, S.C. (1988). Theory and Measurement of Unequal Exchange: A Comparison between a Marxist Approach and an Energy Theory of Value. Ecological Modelling 41, 127-145.

Rice, J. (2007). Ecological unequal exchange: Consumption, equity, and unsustainable structural relationships within the global economy. International Journal of Comparative Sociology 48(1), 43-72.

This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Alf Hornborg

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos

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