Wallerstein’s World Systems Analysis: What it means for the Capitalocene, and the blame game.

I’d like to propose that Immanuel Wallerstein’s World System’s theory can deliver a framework suitable for evaluating the emergence of capitalism as an anthropogenic agent. It is World Systems Analysis that provides a global contextual perspective for understanding the causality of the capitalocene. The basic premise of Wallerstein’s theory is the existence of core, semi-periphery and periphery nations. The core countries are “mainly concerned with capital intensive production and higher level skills while the rest of the world mainly engages in extraction of raw materials with lower level skills and labour intensive production.”[1] The theory is unique in offering an “analytical scale, integrating global scope, broad historical perspective, and well developed empirical techniques”.[2] Theda Skocpol labels this global model as a “theoretical paradigm to guide our investigations of the emergence and development of capitalism, industrialisation and national states.”[3] Admittedly, Wallerstein also has his critics, those claiming his analysis is too dependent on a grand narrative and susceptible to overarching conclusions, divorced from the significance of micro-histories and peoples history. However I would attest to his theory as a useful instrument in the assessment of how integral the evolution of core and periphery nations are to the success of capitalism and in association, the core nations capitalist relation with nature; our friend the Capitalocene.

A rather convenient blog I found to guide my own investigations was Matteo Gagliardi’s (don’t gag saying that) aptly titled ‘A World System’s Analysis of Climate Change’. Allying with the sorry pessimisms I harboured in my previous blog, Gagliardi recognises that “international negotiations for a future agreement to deal with climate change are proving extremely difficult.”[4] This is because of the difference in the “climate change mitigation capabilities and responsibilities between developed countries and developing countries.” John Foster deduces from Wallerstein’s theory that the “affluent core nations of the global economy are primarily responsible for climate change, whether it is in regard to emissions, the quantity of carbon dioxide…or the hegemonic economic forces”[5] that inspire environmental degradation. Wallerstein’s theory compartmentalises the factions of our global community to better understand how the idealisation of capitalism, as the criteria for modernity and advancement to the ‘core club’, has catalysed a worldwide populace insistent on abstinence from blame for our current environmental crisis.

This encourages the blame game. Much like a cute, innocent younger brother pinning his own indiscretions on his elder, much less cute, spotty, adolescent teenage brother (definitely not referring to my own life experiences): nations generally harbour a propensity to advocate their own efforts to ease the threat of global warming whilst lamenting the lack of effort employed by other countries. However, at the UN Climate regime in 1992, it is prudent to notice that core nations “acknowledged that developed counties should do more to mitigate climate change because they were historically responsible for causing it and had better economic and technological capabilities to do so.”[6] However, did such protocol ensue post 1992, just take a wild guess? No it did not. Since then, developed nations have largely shirked the very responsibility they openly admitted to at the UN Climate regime. To add insult to injury, quite ironically these core nations now pin the blame and responsibility on developing nations, who not two decades ago were implored to develop economically through access to finance and technology supplied by core nations.[7] An example of such scapegoating is Germany’s Sigmar Gabriel who, in 2014, blamed “Europe’s periphery for dragging its feet on global warming and renewable energies” as nations such as Poland considered climate protection as too heavy a burden.[8] Indeed, from semi-peripheral obscurity in the World Systems Theory, China has now emerged as the world’s biggest emitter, from comparatively average greenhouse emissions in 1992, rising 257 per cent, and other transitioning economies such as India and Saudi Arabia have followed suit.[9] The obsession with promotion from periphery to core global status is consistent with an inclination to adopt capitalist approaches to governance and in turn, propagate the suggested existence of the Capitalocene.

Wallerstein’s theory allows us to look at “climate change as being related to global inequality and the global stratification of power and influence.”[10] Indeed, the predominance of capitalism that characterises the world system emerged alongside European imperial supremacy of the world. Capitalism was exported with European colonialism, using other nations to procure resources, raw materials and labour to magnify their own economies.[11] And arguably, despite the deconstruction of colonial rule, the peripheral countries in Wallerstein’s system are today still feeling the same exploitative conditions representative of colonialism. Furthermore, the utilisation of fossil fuels originated by core nation was followed by encouragement of peripheral nations to do the same. This is representative of the competitive nature of the world system, as nations adopt a policy of carboniferous capitalism which “produces the weapons and wealth that are the methods and objects of security, that has set climate change in motion.”[12]

Alongside this, transitioning economies looking to break through into the core are generally more autocratic and care less for environmental legislation/regulations and therefore are liable to further environmental degradation. The World systems Analysis conveys well how “the carbon guzzling world system was put in place and by whom”[13] as well as demonstrating how such environmental exploitation shows little sign of slowing, as competition for global positioning remains omnipresent.

The inextricable relation between capitalism, world systems analysis and our anthropogenic agency is well surmised by Andrew Jorgenson, who explains that the “expansion and intensification of the social and material relations of capitalism…have created and sustain the dynamic growth of the world system.”[14] This suggests that not only do we exist as a subsidiary to capitalist triumph, but as we continue to encourage, consciously or not, the capitalist system, we are in turn encouraging a world system that incessantly exploits our peripheral civilisations and incites systems of energy production that catalyse climate change.

Right. I feel this blog has got a bit essay-y. So perhaps it’s time for one of my analogical, working metaphors to bring this rant to its conclusion. Obviously, I’m convinced of the Capitalocene, if that has not been made clear by my first 2 blogs, I’m having some trouble conveying my argument. Wallerstein’s world systems theory is a superb framework to prove and explore the roots of the inherently capitalist nature of our anthropogenic agency. And now for the analogy. Say the Core nations are like Premiership football teams. And the peripheral nations are those teams in the Championship (league below the Premiership). Now championship teams are always striving to play with the big boys in the Premier League, and what motivates this desire? Money. Money talks. And once enough time, investment and hard work is put in by Championship teams they can be promoted to the big boys league, that’s where everyone wants to be, for money, profile and global appreciation. But unfortunately, this monetised obsession to be Premier League has made the simple game go mad. £94 million pounds for a footballer? I have no words to describe the absurdity of this. Much like there a few words to describe the absurdity of what capitalist triumph in our world system has done to our beautiful environment. But it’s time to accept how embedded the values and idealisation of capitalism is to the progression and logistical functioning of nations. The peripheral countries will always aspire to evolve and adopt capitalist approaches, whilst the core nations will always endeavour to endure as leaders of the globe, and find some form of stability through capitalistic policies. Sustainability is crucial, but not the environmental type, the global status type. The ‘core club’ is very much the Premiership of the global league. If you’re there, you endeavour to stay, if you’re not there, you endeavour to join, regardless of the unfortunate consequences this has for our environment.

Daniel Wilcoxclimate change tide


[1]Ray Kerkmez, World Systems Theory and Contempory Globalisation, p. 3. located at: https://www.academia.edu/1908557/World_Systems_Theory_and_Contemporary_Globalisation (last accessed 18th March 2015)

[2] J. Timmons Roberts, Peter E. Grimes, Jodie L. Manale, ‘Social Roots of Global Environmental Change: A World Systems Analysis of Carbon Dioxide Emissions’, Journal of World-Systems Research, Vol; IX, (Summer, 2003) p. 277

[3]Theda Skocpol, ‘Walletstein’s World Capitalist System’, American Journal of Sociology, Vol 82, (March, 1997), p. 1075

[4] Matteo Gagliardi, A World Systems Analysis of Cimate Change, blog, located at: http://matteogagliardi.com/2013/09/10/a-world-systems-analysis-of-climate-change/ (last accessed 18th March 2015)

[5] John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, (New York, 2011) p. 146.

[6] Matteo Gagliardi, A World Systems Analysis of Cimate Change, blog, located at: http://matteogagliardi.com/2013/09/10/a-world-systems-analysis-of-climate-change/ (last accessed 18th March 2015)

[7] http://unstats.un.org/unsd/climate_change/docs/Banuri%20CCSD-Building%20Consensus.pdf p. 4/5 (last accessed 18th March 2015)

[8] http://www.euractiv.com/sections/energy/german-energy-minister-eu-partners-think-we-are-crazy-301570

[9] Matteo Gagliardi, A World Systems Analysis of Cimate Change, blog, located at: http://matteogagliardi.com/2013/09/10/a-world-systems-analysis-of-climate-change/

[10] ibid

[11] ibid

[12] Interview by: Leonhardt van Efferink, Interviewee: Professor Simon Dalby, located at: http://www.exploringgeopolitics.org/interview_dalby_simon_climate_change_humanity_capitalism_modernity_geographers_agricultural_population_industrial_society_urban_ecologies_biosphere_diversity/ (Last accessed 18th March 2015)

[13] Matteo Gagliardi, A World Systems Analysis of Cimate Change, blog, located at: http://matteogagliardi.com/2013/09/10/a-world-systems-analysis-of-climate-change/

[14] Andrew K. Jorgenson, Edward L. Kick, ‘Globalisation and the Environment, Journal of World-Systems Research, Vol; IX, (Summer, 2003) p. 198

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