Ecological Degradation and the Evolution of World-Systems


Christopher Chase-Dunn
Institute for Research on World-Systems
University of California-Riverside
Thomas D. Hall
Department of Sociology & Anthropology
DePauw University
Greencastle, IN 46135-0037 USA
v. 8-24-04

(8131 words)

A revised version is in Andrew K. Jorgenson and Edward L. Kick (eds.)

 Globalization and the Environment. Brill, 2006


In this chapter we summarize and build upon our work in comparative world-systems analysis (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997, 2000, 2002) to explore the roles played by anthropogenic ecological degradation in the evolution of world-systems over the past one hundred thousand years. Our analysis builds on work by anthropologists on population pressure and ecological degradation. Among other things, we find that the expanding spatial scale of sedentary world-systems corresponds to the expanding scale of ecological degradation.  Thus in the long run, more complex and hierarchical systems face the same problems that smaller and simpler systems faced, despite the effects of institutional developments that temporarily overcome the constraints of demography and ecology.  Processes of ecological depletion have long been central in the evolution of social structures and human institutions, and are likely to continue to be so in the future.

We begin by summarizing our general approach, highlighting the role of ecological processes, especially environmental degradation, in systemic social evolution. Many geo-scientists have focused on the problem of the extent to which changes in climate, soil, and biosphere over the last two hundred years have been caused by human action. A few social scientists have begun doing formal comparative research on the causal connections between world-systemic developmental processes and changes in the biosphere (e.g. Grimes and Roberts 1995; Kick et al 1996, and the other chapters in this volume). It is helpful to place such work in the context of the roles that ecological factors and anthropogenic ecological degradation have played in the evolution of world-systems over the past 100,000 years.

I.  World-System Evolution:  Basic Concepts

Because we wish to study systemic transformations, we maximize the range of possible cases by including both nomadic and sedentary human groups. In our earlier work (Hall and Chase-Dunn 1997) we began with sedentism, but now we have realized that that same principles that influenced the expansion of sedentary world-systems were operating long before the first peoples began living in hamlets and villages.  Indeed it was the search for new resources that motivated our species to migrate out of Africa and to populate the whole Earth. Chase-Dunn and Hall (1997) argued that we should begin world-systems analysis with the emergence of sedentism. But nomads do not wander aimlessly across space and so it does make sense to study world-systems composed solely of nomads. The yearly migration cycles of nomads reflect both the seasonal location of resources and interactions with other groups of humans. The sequence in which larger yearly migration routes become gradually smaller, and the emergence of regional differences in Paleolithic toolkits shows that the same processes of growing population density that affect sedentary peoples are also operating on nomads.

We define world-systems as intersocietal networks in which the interactions (e.g., trade, warfare, intermarriage, information) are important for the reproduction of the internal structures of the composite units and importantly affect changes that occur in these local structures (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997). Because the boundaries of non-state social groups (e.g., "bands" or "tribes") are often empirically fuzzy, and because the term "society" can too easily imply a clearly bounded social group, we use the term "composite units" in our definition.

World-systems are fundamentally socially structured interaction networks that include different cultural groups and polities within them. As social structures they are based on biological and ecological substrata, but they are analytically separate from, and different from, biological and ecological systems. The key difference is due to culture -- the invention by humans of synthesized symbolic systems of representation and communication.  We begin with an already-formed human institutional process based on linguistically constructed social roles, relationships and normative structures that had been developed by nomadic foragers since the emergence of oral language. World-systems involve interactions among culturally different groups, and this idea can usefully be applied to nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic age. Sedentary world-systems began when diviersified foragers (hunter-gatherers) first began living most of the year in villages and they interacted with their still-nomadic neighbors. With sedentism concepts of territoriality and control of access to natural resources intensified.  This intensification was motivated by a desire to mitigate the effects of over-exploitation of resources. Thus, concern with human-caused ecological depletion coincides with the development of world-systems. The importance of deforestation and other types of ecological depletion as factors in long-term social change have long been recognized by social scientists (e.g. Chew 2000, 2001).   What we add is an extension to before the time of the invention of the emergence of states.

But what is a world-system, and where are its boundaries?

A.  Spatial Boundaries: A Multicriteria Approach

Spatially bounding world-systems necessarily must proceed from a specific locale.  While all human societies, even nomadic hunter-gatherers, interact with neighboring societies, not all intersocietal interactions have had global consequences. Here we use “world” in “world-system” in the way Wallerstein (1974a, 1974v) originally intended, as a self-contained system, not necessarily global (Earth-wide) in extent.  We use the notion of "fall-off" of effects over space to bound the networks of interaction that importantly impinge upon any focal locale. The world-system of which any locality is a part includes those peoples whose actions in production, communication, warfare, alliance and trade have a large and interactive impact on that locality.  Interactions must be two-way and regularized to be systemic. One-shot deals do not a system make. From this perspective world-systems were small regional affairs that gradually became larger as long-distance transportation and communications technology developed.

Clearly, economic forms of interaction are important in all world-systems. Of these, bulk-goods exchanges that form an intersocietal division of labor are constitutive forms of interconnection (Wallerstein 1974a, 1974b). However, we also agree with Jane Schneider (1977) that luxury goods can be very important for the reproduction of power structures. Prestige goods networks typically are much larger than bulk goods networks.  Clearly, too, regularized political-military conflicts and/or alliances are important in all systems.  The political/military network is typically intermediate in spatial size between the bulk and prestige goods networks. Finally, we note that networks of information flows including such intangibles as ideology, religion, technical information, and culture can be an important from of systemic interaction. Thus, we propose four types of interaction for spatially bounding  world-systems:

·       bulk goods exchange network (BGN)

·       prestige goods exchange network (PGN)

·       political/military exchange network (PMN)

·       information exchange network (IN)

Figure 1 gives a graphic representation of typical nested relations among these networks.   Occasionally, as in both the modern global world-system and some earlier geographically isolated systems (e.g., the Hawaiian Islands), these four networks converge to become of similar spatial scale.


Figure 1: Spatially Bounding World-Systems with Interaction Networks

B.  Core/Periphery Relations

We divide potential core/periphery relations into two aspectss:  (1) core/periphery differentiation exists when two societies are in systemic interaction with one another and one of these has higher population density and/or greater complexity than the other; (2) core/periphery hierarchy, exists when one society dominates or exploits another. While these two aspects often go together, but there are important instances of reversal.  We make this analytical distinction to facilitate empirical investigations of actual intersocietal relations. We also note that the question of core/periphery relations needs to be asked at each level of network interaction.

Core/periphery relations can be quite complex. Mitchell Allen (1996: Chapter 1) developed the concept of a "contested periphery," a peripheral region for which two non-contiguous core regions compete. He finds that once an area has been incorporated into one world-system it can more easily be moved into another world-system than if it were being incorporated for the first time. Not surprisingly, contested peripheries have more leverage in responding to core demands. Furthermore, what is peripheral in one world-system can become semiperipheral in another. A semiperipheral region may be:

1.      one that mixes both core and peripheral forms of organization;

2.      spatially located between two or more competing core regions;

3.      mediate activities between core and peripheral areas;

4.      one in which institutional features are in some ways intermediate between those forms found in core and peripheral regions.

5.      recently founded societies that are located near the edge of an older core region.

All world-systems do no necessarily have a semiperiphery, and some may have several different kinds.  We leave the existence, number, and types of intermediate levels as an empirical problem in need of further investigation.

C.  Semiperipheral Development

World-systems have gotten larger in terms of population size, population density, territorial extent, absolute and per capita productivity. Growth necessarily entails absorption of formerly external areas, the incorporation of new peoples and territories and/or the merger of formerly autonomous world-systems. Throughout these processes no one core area remains a core area indefinitely. Development is uneven. Old cores are replaced, often by formerly semiperipheral societies.

The semiperiphery is fertile ground for social, organizational, and technical innovation and has an advantageous location for the establishment of new centers of power (Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997, Ch. 5). In particular, secondary state-formation on the marches of empires has frequently been recognized as a semiperipheral phenomenon that is related to the rise and fall of empires and the shift of hegemony within interstate systems (e.g. Mann 1986). A broadly similar phenomenon occurs among chiefdoms (e.g. Kirch 1984:204).

City-states, many of which engage in merchant capitalism and production capitalism, are one special type of semiperipheral society.  They often mediated trade between the core and peripheral regions. Sometimes they manipulated this position in order to maintain political and economic autonomy, although they were often swallowed up by imperial expansion (Frankenstein 1979). Some important examples are: e.g. Dilmun, Old Assur, Byblos, Tyre, Sidon, Carthage, Malacca, Venice, Florence, Genoa, Antwerp, and the cities of the Hanseatic League.  Frequently they were agents of commodification and commercialization within the predominantly tributary world-systems.

II.  World-Systems Evolution

We see world-systemic evolution as open-ended and path dependent. That is, it occurs within the context of specific historical legacies and conditions. Important bifurcations and discontinuities of development, rapid transformations, and instances of devolution are normal characteristics of social change (see Sanderson 1990). A world-system is composed of the totality of interactions that constitute the social, economic, cultural, and political system. Thus, world-systems analysis must attend to the complex dialectics that link social change within composite units with the entire system. Causality can run from the system to the parts, but also from the parts to the system.

World-systemic evolution has three major elements:

1. semiperipheral development;

2. an "iteration" model that involves demographic and ecological variables as causes of hierarchy formation, economic intensification and technological change; and

3. transformations of modes of accumulation.

The main long-term forces of world-systemic evolution are population growth, ecological degradation, and population pressure. Population growth, other things equal, causes the decline of natural resources -- ecological degradation because more people use more natural resources. The type and scale of ecological degradation varies with the nature of production technology and the scale of the exploitation of natural resources. Population pressure results when resource scarcities require people to increase the amount of effort necessary to meet their needs, e.g. as a resource becomes depleted it take more labor to produce the same amount of a needed product.  It is not necessary for resources to be completely destroyed to promote change.  Rather, it is only necessary that more effort becomes necessary to obtain the same return. Yet, people usually prefer to continue in the way that they know as long as the increase in effort is not too great, what George Zipf (1949) called the principle of least effort.

More production leads to greater environmental degradation. This occurs because more resources are extracted, and because of the polluting consequences of production and consumption activities. Nomadic hunter-gatherers depleted the herds of big game and Polynesian horticulturalists deforested many a Pacific island. Environmental degradation is not a new phenomenon. Only its global scale is new.

Figure 2: Basic Iteration Model of World-System Evolution

When increased effort fails or becomes too costly in terms of labor time or other expenditures, emigration can be an attractive alternative.  Sometimes, however, suitable new locations are not available, either due to a lack of desireable new sites or because of effective resistance from existing occupants of desirable sites. In such cases of social and/or environmental circumscription (Carneiro 1970) people cannot easily migrate to solve these problems and so competition for resources within and between societies increases.  This usually leads to increased conflict. Sometimes endemic warfare functions as a demographic regulator by reducing the population density and alleviating (temporarily) population pressure. But in other cases new hierarchies and/or larger polities emerge (hierarchy formation) to regulate the use of resources (e.g. property, law), and/or the invention and implementation of new technologies of production (e.g. horticulture, irrigation, manufacturing, etc.) that allow larger numbers of people to live within a given area.  Even where such solutions are found, eventually population grows and causes the same problems to reemerge on a larger scale.  Hence, the process is "iterative."  In regions in which no solution is emerges  the system may cycle around the lower conflictive end of the iteration model.  Semiperipheral actors are usually the agents of political expansion, hierarchy formation and technological development. Competition, conflict and semiperipheral development are world-systemic processes, not societal ones.

As Jared Diamond (1998) points out, all continents around the world did not start with the same animal and plant resources. In Western Asia both plants (barley and wheat) and animals (sheep, goats, cows, and oxen) were more easily domesticated than the plants and animals of Africa and the New World. Since domesticated plants and animals can more easily diffuse lattitudinally (East and West) than longitudinally (North and South), these inventions spread more quickly to Europe and East Asia than they did to Africa. These exogenous factors of zoological and botanical capital affected the timing and speed of hierarchy formation and technological development. As well, climate change and geographical obstacles and opportunities affected the development of transportation and communications technologies. Many analysts content that the early large state that emerged on the Nile was greatly facilitated by the ease of controlling transportation and communications in that linear environment, while the more complicated geography of Mesopotamia stabilized the system of city-states and slowed the emergence of a core-wide empire. Patrick Kirch (1984) contends that it was the difficult geography of the Marquesas Island (short steep valleys separated by high mountains and treacherous coasts) that prevented the emergence of island-wide paramount chiefdoms, and kept the Marquesas in the “nasty bottom” of the iteration model.

This model, illustrated in Figure 2 above, involves complex feedback loops, and by no means is meant to imply that bigger hierarchies or technological development inevitably occur in each region. Primary (or pristine) states emerged in interaction with other states. Virtually all of them occurred in a context that had already experienced the formation of complex chiefdoms. Thus, as with ecological succession in the biosphere, higher orders of complexity can only emerge once the soil of institutional development has been brought to a certain level of complexity by earlier development.  But this kind of succession does not reoccur in the same place. If it did Iraq would still be the center of the world-system. Rather it is uneven in space, with the semiperipheries out on the edge performing the greatest leaps in the creation of new high levels of complexity and techniques of power.

Ecology structures the economics of least effort because it limits available resources and potential alternative resources. As world-systems become more complex and hierarchical these ecological limits and potentials change their spatial scale because of changes in social organization and technology.  The comparative world-systems perspective allows us to see that the scale of ecological constraints grows with the expanding scale of intersocietal networks and intensification. Thus, continental and global ecological constraints become more important as world-systems increased in size. Contrary to what some social evolutionists have argued (e.g. Lenski and Nolan 2004); complex societies do not transcend ecological constraints. As the scale of ecological constraints expands, their importance as intermittent constraints on social change does not diminish overall (for detailed history for these processes among states see Chew 2003).

Technological innovations act back on population growth by increasing the number of people who can be fed and sheltered within a given amount of land. This stimulates population increase, or more typically reduces the incentives to maintain cultural and social regulations on population growth. So population density tends to increase to the point where resources are again pressed. Then the whole cycle goes around again. As systems become larger, and especially as they become more diversified, regulation or maintenance of the overall system becomes more complex. Those systems that develop hierarchical structures are generally better able to manage these complexities.  We are not proposing a teleological process.  Increasing complexity does not cause hierarchy formation or extension.  Rather, among systems that face complex regulation, those that develop hierarchical systems tend to survive more often than systems that do not. But the notion of semiperipheral development provides an important gloss on this generalization.

How and when does a high level of conflict created by population pressure and ecological degradation in a circumscribed setting result in the emergence of a new level of hierarchy?  We note that hierarchy-formation by conquest occurred most frequently when a semiperipheral polity conquered an old core. The iteration model combines core-periphery hierarchy with considerations of "internal" stratification and class struggle. Semiperipheral polities in precapitalist world-systems generally had less internal stratification than older core polities. Older core regions developed greater internal inequalities as well as greater divisions among different factions in the ruling elites. Semiperipheral marcher states (and semiperipheral marcher chiefdoms) usually had less class inequality, more solidarity among elites and more solidarity between leaders and followers. This gave them an important military advantage over older core regions and allowed them to conquer entire core regions and construct larger polities.[1]  Because semiperipheral polities often occupied regions that were less ecologically desirable than those occupied by older core regions (e.g., Kirch 1984), the application of core techniques of production reached their ecological limitations more quickly. This motivated polities in stressed regions to take the risks associated with attempts to conquer the older core chiefdoms and/or to experiment with new technologies.

This model does not explain the exact kind of social change that takes place. Nor does it explain where or exactly when social change takes place. But it does provide a processual backdrop for explaining the most general features of human social change -- increasing population density, scale, and hierarchy of social organization.  Just as earlier hierarchies and technological changes were responses to the problems created by ecological degradation, population pressure and intensified conflict, larger empires, greater long-distance economic integration and the development of commodified goods, labor, land and wealth were also responses to these same problems.

The difference is that in the iteration model the institutional inventions -- larger empires, larger markets, and capitalism -- temporarily altered the way in which the iteration model worked. This was especially true during periods of expansion. The development of these institutional structures allowed population pressure to temporarily affect hierarchy formation and technological development directly rather than through the path of circumscription and intensified conflict. The demographic and ecological constraints reappear in periods of contractions, and especially in those extreme contractions that Tainter (1988) calls collapse.

This modifies the model in Figure 2 by adding positive arrows directly from population pressure to both hierarchy formation and technological change (see Figure 3). When market mechanisms articulate growing scarcities (e.g. deforestation in England), they provide incentives for new kinds of production (e.g. the coal industry). These institutional inventions are responses to the constraints and opportunities created by ecological degradation and population pressure. They allow for greater population growth and density by temporarily bypassing the conflictive path in the iteration model. We say this is temporary because eventually population pressures reemerge to create problems on a scale that the new institutional structures cannot handle. This leads to a return to the conflictive lower section of the iteration model.

Figure.3:Iteration Model with Shortcutting Institutions

Similarly, in some cases ecological degradation operated directly on technological intensification rather than by means of increasing conflict. Once the market mechanism is working, resource scarcities may provoke substitutions avoiding the disruptive processes of conflict and violent competition.

Rapid population growth also causes disruption in modern societies. Jack Goldstone (1991) demonstrates that both reform movements and revolutions originate in the effects of rapid population growth and a consequent increase in state expenditures beyond revenues. He argues that, as the revenue gap increases, the state must either raise new taxes or curtail expenditures. The growth of elite population (which is often greater than among the non-elite population) heightens competition for resources and positions. Rising grain prices create new wealth holders who, if blocked by traditional or new barriers, become marginal elites. Population growth increases the proportion of young persons, who due to un- or under-employment become an impoverished group with high potential for mass action. The increase in poverty further strains state resources.  As conditions deteriorate, elites and commoners lose confidence in the state and elites struggle for control and promote reform. If a formerly marginal elite seizes power and if the prevailing culture has an eschatological tradition, reform radicalizes into revolution. If any of these components is absent or very weak, reform or regime collapse are typical results.

Goldstone's demographic analysis is congruent with the iteration model.  However, we disagree with his claim that world-system processes do not affect state crises.  The East Asian and West Asian/Mediterranean regions he studies had been linked by long-distance trade into a single PGN at least as early as 400 BCE (see Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997:Chapter 8). In the first few centuries of the common era this linkage became sufficiently strong to transmit pathogens from Central Asia to China and Rome, unleashing epidemics in both (McNeill 1976). This recurred in the century after the Mongols temporarily merged Afroeurasia into a single PMN when the Black Death swept through Europe and epidemics occurred in China.

Goldstone acknowledges that the severe population losses brought by the Black Death set the conditions for a rather spectacular population increase a couple of centuries later when European populations had built up immunities and climate changes favored increased agricultural production.  But Goldstone does not acknowledge that the pathways along which the pathogens spread were precisely those by which the Eurasian PGN was linked. That is, the occurrence of epidemics was not an exogenous, or randomly induced, change, but one that worked along predictable world-systemic pathways. Now when we add to this the linkages implied by the correlation of urban and empire growth/decline phases in the Mediterranean/West Asian and East Asian PMNs (Chase-Dunn, Manning, and Hall 2000; Chase-Dunn and Manning 2002), the synchronies of the revolutions Goldstone examined are very likely produced by larger system-wide processes.

Rather than abandoning the basic iteration model for completely different explanations of how transformations take place in complex and hierarchical systems, we explain why the iteration model moves back stage to geopolitical and capitalist dynamics only to come forth again during periods of collapse and crisis. The basic demographic, economic, and ecological constraints posited in the iteration model do not become irrelevant. Rather, institutional superstructures such as states and capitalist accumulation temporarily overcome these constraints by raising the pace of spatial expansion and technological development.[2] But eventually even these institutional mechanisms run into limitations posed by the material substratum of demographic, economic, and ecological factors. These operate somewhat differently in the different transformations, but they do not ever completely transcend the basic iteration model.

To recapitulate, population pressure affects hierarchy formation and technological change directly once states and commodities have come into existence rather than through the mechanisms of conflict and circumscription. But the path of causality that goes through conflict and circumscription is yet again important even in the presence of states and commodities during periods of institutional breakdown and systemic collapse. In this sense there is a single underlying model of transformations, though it works somewhat differently once states and markets have become widespread social forms.

III.               East/West synchrony of urban and empire growth/decline phases

We have demonstrated that city growth and empire growth and decline phases occur synchronously in the Central (West Asian and Mediterranean) and the East Asian PMNs (Chase-Dunn, Manning, and Hall 2000; Chase-Dunn and Manning 2002). Figure 4 shows the territorial sizes of the largest empires in the Central and East Asian PMNs from 1500 BCE to 1750 CE are temporally correlated.  We also found that the intermediate Indic PMN did not experience a similar sequence of growth and decline phases.

Figure 4:  Synchrony of Empire Sizes in East and West Asia

The synchrony of the growth of cities and empires in the Central and East Asian PMNs remains a puzzle begging for an explanation. One possibility is northern Eurasian-wide climatic fluctuations. India, in an equatorial latitude south of the Himalayas, may have experienced very different climatic fluctuations. Does climate change cause urban change, or does the expansion of agriculture associated with urban growth cause climate change? It is possible that expanded agricultural activity, and/or deforestation due to human exploitation, may have affected local and regional rainfall patterns and ground water levels (see Chew 2001). Thus, population density, mediated by intense agriculture and forest exploitation, and hence urbanization, may have affected climactic fluctuations.

We must note, however, that micro parasites could also be an underlying cause, spread along trade networks. As trade increased in density and volume, formerly isolated disease pools came into contact, unleashing virgin soil epidemics (Crosby 1972, 1986). These epidemics can unleash all sorts of social, economic, and political changes (Goldstone 1991). As pathogens and hosts adapt to each other, these diseases become less lethal, and populations recover. Trade then resumes, and the cycle can repeat as other, formerly isolated disease pools come into contact, or as new diseases spread along trade networks.

Another possible explanation may be the world–systemic role played by Central Asian steppe nomads in linking both ends of the Eurasian continent (Frank 1992; Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997, Ch. 8). The Mongol Empire briefly brought Western Asia and China into a single polity in the thirteenth century CE (See Figure 4). Thus, peripheral migration and steppe–empire formation and their affects on the long distance trade carried along the Silk Roads could be the explanation of urban and empire synchrony.  It is well-known that Central Asian steppe nomads importantly interacted with agrarian states for thousands of years before the rise of the Mongols (Barfield 1989). Finally, work by population ecologists shows that very small process, such as trade, pathogens, climate etc. can induce synchronization of population cycles over great distances (for a review see Turchin and Hall 2003).

Figure 5 is a diagram that inventories all the hypothesized causes mention above.

Figure 5: Synchronization of East/West Growth/Decline Phases

IV. The Modern World-System and Transformations

Our comparative world-systems approach suggests some tentative conclusions about the nature of transformations of modes of accumulation and possibilities for the future. Social and ecological circumscriptions were important features of the evolutionary changes that took place in tributary modes. Circumscription emphasizes regional contextual factors that facilitated or constrained state formation and the intensification of production activities. The logistical factors involved in long-distance transportation and communications constrained the emergence of larger empires.

Clearly, there is little point in conquering a territory if little surplus is produced there (unless it is a strategic link to a richer zone or an important trade node). Also, it is far easier to extract surplus from a region that already has an existing tributary structure. Thus, both the growth of surplus production and the spread of institutional structures of exploitation facilitated the construction of larger and larger state structures. As agriculture and states spread they made possible the erection of larger political structures. Conversely, one state's possibilities for expansion by conquest were constrained if neighboring states were powerful enough to prevent conquest. Thus, contextual features could both constrain and facilitate expansion. Too little development in adjacent regions made expansion unprofitable, while too much development prevented it.

The costs of escape by emigration from large states increased as people became more dependent upon states for the protection and the maintenance of productive infrastructure. The tendency for peoples to attempt to escape hierarchies could be counter-balanced by either coercive force or the infrastructural supports and trade-based surpluses that the tributary empires were able to muster. Contextual factors were also involved in the emergence of capitalist institutions and their spread. Production for exchange was much easier once more land-efficient technologies of production became widespread, which in turn facilitated the growth of markets.

Contextual factors made possible the eventual concentration of many capitalist city-states in a single region -- the European "dorsal spine." One was the absence in Europe of a tributary state sufficiently powerful to extract tribute or taxes or to threaten the operations of the city-states. Another important contextual factor was the existence of the much larger Asian empires. The institutional heritage of contract law, money, and market institutions from the Roman Empire and the opportunities for trading with the larger Afroeurasian system strongly stimulated the European cities despite their mutual proximity. Local and regional markets were too small to stimulate such growth by themselves.

Whereas the tributary modes emerged and developed over the tops of the kin-based modes, the capitalist mode (commodification) emerged within spaces inside and between the tributary states. The capitalist mode did not, however, become predominant in any region until capitalist states emerged in the core of the European subregion. Though there had been many semiperipheral capitalist city-states, the first capitalist core state was the Dutch Republic in the seventeenth century. The common feature here is that, even though transformational institutions tended to arise first in the semiperiphery, it was necessary for core polities to become agents of a mode of accumulation before it could become the predominant mode.

To sum up, transformations involve circumscription, systemic contradictions, uneven development, and core-periphery relations. Agents of transformation most often come from semiperipheral regions. A comparative approach suggests that while some tributary states (such as Rome) needed to expand in order to survive, capitalism intensifies this systemic feature to a new level. Capitalism handles this by geographical expansion, by commodifying more and more aspects of life, and by paying some workers more so that they can purchase additional products. Geographical expansion of the capitalist system has reached global limits. Commodification still has room for expansion. But eventually capitalist expansion will be constrained which will exacerbate the contradictions of capitalism.

Environmental degradation continues to push new technological innovations and to exacerbate population pressure.[3] We have already argued that the spatial scale of environmental degradation increases with the size of the system. The case of oil reserves reminds us that depletion is not the only way in which degradation operates on economic and political incentives. Degradation is also caused by the side effects of consumption. Once the system has become global the possibilities of escape from ecological ruin are greatly reduced. Global industrial development wrecks the environment on a global scale, whereas earlier intensification wrecked it on a more local or regional scale.

Taking a world-systemic approach to these issues also helps analysts to cut through the tedious debates between doctrinaire Marxists and doctrinaire Malthusians.  Both extremes are wrong.  The Marxists are right in noting that population growth is almost never a truly independent variable.  Rather, it is deeply embedded in social structures, especially those that reproduce class and other inequalities.  Yet the Malthusians are right in noting the population pressure is often a key variable in social change.  By contextualizing both approaches within a larger system their interconnections can be explored more fruitfully.

Also, noting that the ecological impacts of societies increase in scale as world-systems expand helps us understand both the romantic idealization of ecological awareness of “tribal” societies and blindness of modern states to ecological issues.  Small societies are embedded in smaller and more visible feedback processes, so often they must attend to ecological impacts or perish.  Conversely, the contemporary global system is so complex and so large that tracing ecological connections has until recently been all but impossible. 

V.  Future Transformations

What do these observations suggest about possible transformation of the world-system in the next few centuries?  The invention of the first states took place about five millennia after humans first became sedentary.  The rise to dominance of capitalism took nearly another five millennia.  Despite it relative newness, capitalism has a much higher rate of social change and contains such severe internal contradictions that it is unlikely to continue for more than a few centuries.  What might come next?  How? Why?

Clearly, the contemporary world–system is far from the best of all possible worlds. Exploitation, oppression, and warfare are endemic and systemically reproduced. The proportion of national populations killed in "industrial" wars has risen geometrically (Galtung 1980). Rapid technological advancement has produced a species–threatening horror (McNeill 1982).  Donella Meadows, et al. (1992) suggest ecological disaster as population exceeds global resources.

            Political ecologists have argued that capitalism is fundamentally different from earlier modes of accumulation with respect to its relationship to the natural environment (O’Conner 1989, Foster 2000). There is little doubt that the expansion and deepening of the modern system global capitalism has had much larger effects on the biogeosphere than any earlier system. There are many more people using hugely increased amounts of energy and raw materials, and the global nature of the human system has global impacts on the environment. Smaller systems were able to migrate when they depleted local supplies or polluted local natural resources and this relationship with the environment has been a driving force of human social change since the Paleolithic. But is all this due only to capitalism’s greater size and intensity, or is there also something else which encourages capitalists to “externalize” the natural costs of production and distribution and produces a destructive “metabolic rift” between capitalism and nature (Foster 2000)?

            Capitalism, in addition to being about market exchange and commodification, is also fundamentally about a certain kind of property – private property in the major means of production. Within modern capitalism there has been an oscillating debate about the virtues of public and private property, with the shift since the 1980s toward the desirability of “privatization” being only the most recent round of a struggle that has gone on since the enclosures of the commons in Europe. 

            The ongoing debate about the idea of the “commons” –collective property-- is germane to understanding the relationship between capitalism and nature. The powerful claims about the commons being a “tragedy” because no one cares enough to take care of and invest in public property carries a powerful baggage that supports the notion that private ownership is superior. Private owners are supposed to have an interest in the future value of the property, and so they will keep it up, and possibly invest in it. But whether or not this is better than a more public or communal form of ownership depends entirely on how these more collective forms of property are themselves organized.

            Capitalism seems to contain a powerful incentive to externalize the natural costs of production and other economic activities, and individual capitalists are loathe to pay for the actual environmental costs of their activities as long as their competitors are getting a free ride. This is a political issue in which core countries in the modern capitalist system have been far more successful at building institutions for protecting the national environment than non-core countries. And, indeed, there is convincing evidence that core countries export pollution and environmental degradation to the non-core (Jorgenson 2004).

            Certainly modern capitalism has been more destructive of the natural environment than any earlier system. But it is important to know whether or not this is completely due to its effects on technology and the rapidity of economic growth, or whether or not there is an additional element that is connected to the specific institutions and contradictions of capitalism. Technological development, demographic expansion and economic growth cause problems for the environment. But are there better alternatives? And is capitalism more destructive of the environment than earlier modes of accumulation net of its demographic and technological effects?

            Undoubtedly the human species can and must do better at inventing institutions that protect the geobiosphere. Regarding earlier modes of accumulation, certainly some cultures did better than others at protecting the environment. The institutions of law, the state and property evolved, in part, as a response to environmental degradation (recall our “iteration model” above). It is not obvious that contemporary capitalist institutions are worse than earlier ones in this regard. The main problem is that the scale and scope of environmental degradation has increased so greatly that very powerful institutions and social movements will be required to bring about a sustainable human civilization. Capitalism may not be capable of doing this, and so those theoretical perspectives that point to the need for a major overhaul may be closer to the point than those that contend that capitalism itself can be reformed to become sustainable.

One solution would be the development of a world state capable of regulating these processes. But how might that occur, and what kind of world state would it be.  According to the iteration model a period of conflict typically precedes state formation. But such a period of disorder is likely to be fatal to human life. Maybe a near–catastrophe could create the political will among survivors to inspire formation of a world state as suggested by Wagar (1999).

Seen in a long run comparative perspective, the struggle for democratic socialism within core states, though currently in the doldrums, could be another path to systemic transformation. Contemporary involvement in electoral politics, coalition–formation, and in reformist movements represents an adjustment to the current period of neo-liberal ideological hegemony. As we have seen a new mode of accumulation builds by accretion in the interstices of an old one. The continuation of capitalist uneven development will likely spur new broad populist, anti–systemic movements.

Certainly capitalism developed as a subsystem in the interstices of another mode of production. Its individualist and partial rationality thrives in a competitive and conflictive setting.  In contrast, democratic socialism a mode of accumulation in which the whole arena of interaction needs to be organized on a collectively rational and democratic basis in which reciprocity and politically articulated redistribution play an important role. The interaction of capitalism and socialism has produced an interactive spiral in which the spatial scale of organization of each has increased in interaction with the other (see Boswell and Chase-Dunn 2000 for much more elaborate discussions of this possibility).

The technological dynamism of global capitalism and the extraordinary costs of the modern arms race led to the reincorporation of the Soviet Union into the international polity of the capitalist states and to the partial reincorporation of China. Thus, capitalism has evolved partly as a result of the socialist challenges mounted over the past 200 years. Are these challenges now finished with the ideological hegemony of neo-liberalism? We think not, because the structural causes of socialist challenges -- uneven development, increasing inequalities, and environmental degradation -- are still prevalent. Despite the global scale of capitalist organization and the new forms of production that are characterized as "flexible accumulation" we expect that both old and new forms of resistance will again play an important part on the stage of world politics.

What about semiperipheral development? We have already noted that the communist states were semiperipheral. Class struggles in the capitalist world-system have been dampened by nationalism in both the core and in the periphery. In the core the domination of the periphery and competition with other core states have operated to reinforce nationalism at the expense of working class solidarity in several ways. In the periphery peasants and workers have either been suppressed by elites in alliance with the core or they have made common nationalist alliances with elements of the elite against the core. So class struggle was either suppressed or crosscut in both the core and the periphery.

In the semiperiphery class struggles have been less dampened by the core-periphery hierarchy. The contradictory interests of semiperipheral elites and masses regarding alternative development paths have provided contexts in which strong peasant/worker parties could come to state power. The Russian and Chinese revolutions are the best examples, but the Mexican revolution and populist regimes in Brazil and India also fit this model to some extent. The industrialization of the semiperiphery has already led to important labor movements and electoral challenges. It is likely that these forces will continue to grow.

The communications technology that the capitalist world-system has produced can greatly facilitate the formation of world society while at the same time allowing people to understand one another's differences. The emergence of global democracy will require more than an international civil society composed of national elites, though this is how it is emerging. Trade unions and socialist parties need to understand the dynamics of the modern world-system and the prospects for transforming it into a socialist system. This will require organization at the global level, though that must be linked to local and regional organizations. Communications technology will help in this grand organizational task. But a clear understanding of the developmental dynamics of the capitalist world-system will also be necessary. The processes of globalization are an important arena of contention for ideological and organizational hegemony.

Despite the current hegemony of neo-liberalism we are optimistic about the prospects for world socialism if we can survive the next window of vulnerability without bringing on a nuclear holocaust or environmental catastrophe. World state formation, international and transnational socialist organization and forms of exchange are, thus, our prescriptions for political action. Further comparative study of world–systems and earlier systemic transformations will help us to survive and to build the institutions of a more peaceful and just world. We have made great advances in the natural and biological sciences that have transformed us from servants of the gods to kings of the jungle. Social science can now help us to understand our own past and to shape a more harmonious and wise collective future.  



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[1] Ibn Khaldun’s (1967) theory of dynastic cycles is an important subtype of this process. See Turchin (2003) and Chase-Dunn and Anderson (2004).

[2] In the modern system David Harvey (2003) calls this the “spatio-temporal fix” that is generated by recurrent crises of capitalist accumulation. Our point is that earlier systems resolved their contradictions in somewhat similar ways.

[3] Jason Moore (2003) points to how Immanuel Wallerstein’s (1974b) account of how modern agrarian capitalism emerged in Europe paid close attention to environmental history.