Alf Hornborg on Ecology, Economy, and Technology

A few excerpts from professor of human ecology Alf Hornborg‘s book The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment (2001).

Alf Hornborg

“We seem to have difficulties understanding exactly in which sense human ideas and social relations intervene in the material realities of the biosphere. Rather than continuing to appraoch ‘knowledge’ from the Cartesian assumption of a separation of subject and object, we shall have to concede that our image-building actively participates in the constitution of the world. Our perception of our physical environment is inseparable from our involvement in it” (10).

“Calling world trade exploitative, I insist, is more than a value judgment. It is an inference based on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. If production is a dissipative process, and a prerequisite for industrial production is the exchange of finished products for raw materials and fuels, then it follows that industrialism implies a social transfer of entropy. The sum of industrial products represents greater entropy than the sum of fuels and raw materials for which they are exchanged. The net transfer of ‘negative entropy’ to industrial centers is the basis for techno-economic ‘growth’ or ‘development.’ In other words, we must begin to understand machines as thoroughly social phenomena. They are the result of asymmetric, global transfers of resources. The knowledge employed to keep them running would be infertile if the world market did not see to it that the industrial sectors of world society maintain a net gain in ‘negative entropy’ (or in exergy). Inversely, the non-industrial sectors experience a net increase in entropy as natural resources and traditional social structures are dismembered. The ecological and socioeconomic impoverishment of the periphery are two sides of the same coin, for both nature and human labor are underpaid resources of high-quality energy for the industrial ‘technomass.’ In not reckoning with the intimate connection between economics and technology–the social and the material aspects of industrialism–we tend to talk as if technology were primarily a matter of knowledge. We imagine that education and ‘technology transfer’ might solve problems of ‘underdevelopment,’ forgetting, as it were, that new centers of industrial growth require new peripheries to exploit…The science of technology is not simply a matter of applying rational thought to nature, for the ‘natural’ conditions for matter-energy conversions in privileged, so-called developed areas have been transformed by world trade…Conventional economics, in recognizing no other concept of value than exchange value, tends to conceal this inequality” (11).

“Money in itself is merely an idea about the interchangeability of things and about the mutability of the rates at which things are exchanged. In practical, social life, it is a regulation of people’s claims on one another” (14).

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Mark pharoah says:

    The second law and increasing entropy is only applicable in ‘closed systems’. The biosphere is not a closed system. There are significant quantities of energy generated by the moon’s orbit and the sun. It just is not managed very well… yet.

    1. Doesn’t his point still hold? There is still a finite amount of energy flowing through the earth system, meaning the accumulation of exergy at the industrial centers is inevitably at the expense of the “underdeveloped” peripheries. The only true “producers” on the planet–the only real “power plants” if you will–are photosynthesizing plants, since only they transform the heat/light of the sun into biomass. Human industry (thus far) doesn’t produce anything but net entropy.

  2. Here’s a video of a recent discussion between resilience theorist Garry Peterson and Alf Hornborg:

    1. dmfant says:

      thanks for this Hornborg’s sense of how the social/human differs from (while being interactive with) the non-social aspects of the world, and resists a move to ontology, cybernetics, or any such generalization/TOE to see how the actual differences/particularities at play is vital.

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