World Systems Theory (Global Warming)

An under examined aspect of global warming is the geographic separation between the people who generate greenhouse gases and the people who are most likely to be hurt by global warming. This article explains how World Systems Theory (WST) can help us understand how climate change is both a cause and a consequence of existing social and regional inequalities. This essay begins by explaining the basic concepts of WST. It then uses WST to explain how geopolitical structures in the global economy ensure that the benefits and costs of burning fossil fuels are not shared equally.

WST evolved to counter free-market economists such as Walter Rostow, who argued that countries were poor because of deficiencies within those countries. Less developed countries could advance by emulating wealthy countries, which had moved through several stages of development.


A chorus of critics challenged this view because, from their perspective, adherents to the stages of development view blamed the poor countries for their poverty. In response, critics argued that the lack of development in places such as South America was a result of the economic and political structures imposed by wealthy countries through colonial and lingering postcolonial relationships. Foremost among these scholars was Andre Gunder Frank.

His dependency theory argued that as capitalism diffused outward from the economic core of Western Europe over the past 500 years, it transformed the places at the periphery that were drawn into the growing capitalist world system. These new territories in Africa and Latin America were thrust into a subordinate role, and their economies were restructured to suit the needs of the colonial powers in Europe. Frank summarized this subordination as the "development of underdevelopment." Capitalist penetration into new regions underdevelops or undermines the economic potential of these places. Frank wanted to shift the blame for poverty away from the processes within poor countries and to place responsibility for poverty on the structural relationships imposed by colonial, and later, neocolonial, core powers.

Building on dependency theory, scholars such as Immanuel Wallerstein proposed WST to provide more historical context into the processes leading to the development of inequality. WST sorts the countries of the world into three broad categories according to the type of economic processes that predominate in those countries. Countries in the periphery are largely dependent on agriculture and other forms of natural resource extraction. Social inequality is high because most jobs are typically low skill and low wage. Core countries have diverse economies based on manufacturing, services, and information technology. An intermediate category called the semipe-riphery includes countries that are more economically diverse than peripheral countries but that have invested less in manufacturing and other tertiary sectors. Hence the level of development is less than that of core countries.

WST improves on the rigid core-periphery dichotomy of dependency theory by adding the semiperipheral category. This modification helps to explain the historical reality of peripheral countries such as Korea ascending to core status, or how the global economy can relegate former colonial powers such as Portugal to semiperipheral status. WST tells us that the international division of labor creates a system of unequal exchange and income inequality between core, semiperipheral and peripheral countries. Peripheral countries extract raw materials and ship them largely unprocessed to the semiperipheral and core countries for processing. The finished goods are then shipped back to the peripheral countries at much higher prices. This system of unequal exchange is perpetuated by protectionist international trade agreements; copyright and patent laws, which limit the diffusion of processing technology to the periphery; the role of multinational corporations, which repatriate profits to the core that were earned by extracting resources in the periphery; and the role of wealthy local elites in poor countries, who benefit from the status quo relationships between the core and periphery.

The creation and perpetuation of global economic and political inequality has direct implications for understanding the effects of global climate change. As noted above, countries in the periphery are far more reliant on agriculture than are countries in the core. Countries in the core are much more invested in manufacturing. As a consequence, they produce disproportionately large amounts of greenhouse gases. That means that there is a geographic separation between the largest producers of greenhouse gases and the regions that will suffer the most harm from global warming. In short, climate changes will have a disproportionately negative impact on the economies and communities in the periphery. The fact that countries at the periphery have the fewest resources to adapt to climate change makes matters even worse. WST is a useful counterbalance to traditional neoclassical discussions of market-based solutions to greenhouse gas reductions because it brings a geopolitical perspective to our understanding of climate change.

Next post:

Previous post: