Unequal exchange

by Rikard Warlenius

The global exchange of commodities and money through trade appear as balanced when we measure it in money, but this conceals very unequal exchanges of labour time, raw materials, and energy and an unequal distribution of Earth’s capacity to absorb environmental waste such as carbon dioxide. These uneven net flows of labour and natural resources and appropriation of sink capacities are what the notion of Ecologically unequal exchange (EUE) conceptualizes, and a common assumption is that they contribute to ecological and human exploitation in peripheral areas as well as to the maintaining of an unjust world order.

Unequal exchange: an academic theory with deep rootlets

The concept has deep rootlets in political economy and ecology. Unequal exchange—basically the notion that more labour is exchanged for less labour through international trade—was discussed by for instance the political economists David Ricardo and Karl Marx in the 19th century, and was later further developed by the Austro-Marxist Otto Bauer, the dependency theorist Arghiri Emmanuel, world system analyst Samir Amin, and neo-Marxist Ernest Mandel, to mention some of the more important contributors. Explanations for why unequal exchange happen vary, from viewing different levels of productivity or wages as the cause to associating unequal exchange with—in more Marxist phrasing—the organic composition of capital. This has to do with the distribution of capital, divided into two categories, in an economy: on the one hand constant capital—investments such as machinery and buildings—and on the other hand variable capital—mainly paid as wages for labour. In advanced, highly industrialized economies, the share of constant capital is normally higher than in ‘developing’ economies. Investments in machines, for instance, substitute for labour and thus less labour is needed to create a certain amount of value. In other words, if a lot of labour time goes into commodity production in one area, like Africa, and much less goes into production in another area, like Western Europe, an exchange of commodities from those two areas is likely give rise to unequal net flows of labour time. The commodity produced in Africa is likely to embody more labour time per unit of value (e.g. dollar) than the European.

Biophysical resources with high exergy (energy with high ability to perform work) are extracted in the peripheries of the world system and exported to the cores, where they are dissipated/consumed.

Ecologically unequal exchange: theoretical developments and critical discussions

Starting in the 1980s, the concept of unequal exchange was further broadened to include not only unequal exchange of labour but also of natural resources—matter and energy. A pioneering study was Stephen Bunker’s (1985) Underdeveloping the Amazon, in which theories of unequal exchange were first applied to ecological extraction. Alf Hornborg (1998) coined the concept ecologically unequal exchange and in a series of articles and books gave it theoretical depth by combining world system analysis with thermodynamic concepts from physics. Biophysical resources with high exergy (energy with high ability to perform work) are extracted in the peripheries of the world system and exported to the cores, where they are dissipated/consumed either directly or as inputs to industrial products. From an economic point of view, these final products (cars, cell phones, washing machines …) are considered as more valuable than the input, but from a thermodynamic perspective they are actually of less value. The raw materials have high exergy, with great potentials, that becomes dissipated as it is turned into finished products. The deterioration will then continue as the product is used, worn and finally thrown away. What is more, the low exergy final products are often returned to the peripheries together with waste. According to Hornborg, industrial production is nothing but a displacement of labour, matter, and environmental loads: he regards technology as a mystification of appropriation. The world-economic cores extract labour and high-exergy matter from the peripheries, and spit back waste.

Hornborg has developed a way of assessing and measuring EUE: time-space appropriation (Hornborg 2006). To understand the industrial revolution in England, he quantified the unequal exchange of labour time and hectare yields in the trade exchange of raw cotton and manufactured garments between England and its former North-American slave colonies in the mid 19th century. The result strengthened the idea that England’s superiority was not mainly technological, but rather an effect of its ability to appropriate land and labour from its (former) colonies. Another study has used the same methodological approach to test the global-historical theory that the early modern world system was Sinocentric or polycentric, rather than Eurocentric, and the results seemed to confirm this (Warlenius 2016a). EUE has also been operationalized and applied on more recent statistical data, mainly by the American sociologists Andrew Jorgensen (e.g. 2009) and James Rice, strengthening hypotheses that unequal exchanges maintain a world divided in cores and peripheries.

More recently, attempts have been made to widen the concept to not only encompass the effects of international trade, but of the entire global social metabolism—that is, of societies’ use of natural resources and ecosystems as both source and sink—of which the latter is seldom formally traded. Warlenius (2016b) launched the concept of unequal sink appropriation as a part of the wider notion of EUE and measured how unequally the global carbon sinks, which should be regarded as a ‘common good’, have been distributed historically. In the same article, EUE is linked to another important concept used by the environmental justice movement: ecological debt. Net flows of e.g. natural resources and other commodities, as well as waste and sink appropriation, are referred to as ecologically unequal exchange, while the cumulative stock resulting from these flows are ecological debt. In a similar way, continuous carbon sink appropriation builds up climate debt.

The often quantitative and methodological focus of the concept—its emphasis on the practice of measuring flows of resources—has provoked a critique about EUE being under-theorized. Brolin (2007) advocates a stronger connection to Emmanuel’s theory on unequal exchange, Warlenius (2017) has suggested to employ the Marxist economic geographer David Harvey’s historical-geographical materialism and the concept of uneven development, while Holleman and Foster (2014) suggest a footing on the ecologist Howard Odum’s emergy approach (which basically means to translate all productive inputs—labour, matter and energy—into a unit used to measure energy (e.g. kWh), and use this total “emergy” as a measure of value of a product). Hornborg (2015) has, on the other hand, criticized this latter approach for mixing apples and pears in its attempt to define an objective measure of value: value is culturally produced—people hold different things to be valuable depending on their shared cultural believes—while emergy (as well as land or labour that are the foundation of other materialist theories of value) is physics.

Several of the demands of the environmental justice movements that are related to ecological or climate debt are also relevant to address ecologically unequal exchange.

From academia to political movements

While it was the environmental/climate justice movement that developed the concepts of ecological debt and climate debt and these concepts have generated several policy proposals, the background of (ecologically) unequal exchange is academic and used for analysis rather than politics. Yet, linking these concepts together is also a way of building a bridge between environmental justice as academic tradition and as political praxis. Several of the demands of the environmental justice movements that are related to ecological or climate debt, such as the famous outcomes from the 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, are also relevant to address EUE. These include ways of acknowledging the debt as well as repaying it: by reversing unequal net flows through radical emission cuts in high-emitting advanced economies; by compensating peripheral countries in the global South for adaptation costs; through sharing of technologies; and through reparations—concrete transfer of financial resources. Although such global redistribution would mainly be the result of changing balances of power, solid theories and data on past inequalities could encourage struggles for environmental justice.

Further resources

As previously discussed, central texts in the development of theories on ecologically unequal exchange include Bunker (1985), Hornborg (1998 & 2006), Holleman & Foster (2014), and Warlenius (2016b). Brolin (2007) is an encompassing history over the development of the concept unequal exchange, including EUE. Other—much briefer—introductions to the concept are Hornborg’s (2017) chapter in The Routledge handbook of ecological economics and an entry in the online EJOLT glossary. For the latest empirical support for EUE, see this article by Christian Dorninger and colleagues (2021).


Brolin, J (2007): The bias of the world. Theories of unequal exchange. Diss. Lund: Human Ecology Division. Online at: https://lup.lub.lu.se/search/ws/files/4378178/26725.pdf

Bunker, S (1985): Underdeveloping the Amazon: Extraction, unequal exchange, and the failure of the modern state. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dorninger, C et al (2021): “Global patterns of ecologically unequal exchange: Implications for sustainability in the 21st century”. Ecological Economics 179 (pre-print).

Holleman, H & Foster, J (2014): “The theory of unequal ecological exchange: a Marx-Odum dialectic”. Journal of Peasant Studies 41(2) 199-233.

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 (2006): “Footprints in the cotton fields: The industrial revolution as time-space appropriation and environmental load displacement”. Ecological Economics 59: 74-81.

Hornborg, A (2015): “Why economics needs to be distinguished from physics, and why economists need to talk to physicists: a response to Foster and Holleman”. Journal of Peasant Studies 42(1) 187-192.

Hornborg, A (2017): “Political ecology and unequal exchange”. Routledge handbook of ecological economics. Ed: CL Spash. Abingdon and New York: Routledge. 39-47.

Jorgensen, AK (2009) “The sociology of unequal exchange in ecological context: a panel study of lower‐income countries, 1975–2000”, Sociological Forum 24(1) 22-46.

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.

Warlenius, R (2016a): “Core and periphery in the early modern world system: A time-space appropriation assessment”. In Jarrick, A, Myrdal, J, & Wallenberg Bondesson, M (eds.): Methods in world history: A critical approach. Lund: Nordic Academic Press.

Warlenius, R (2016b): “Linking ecological debt and ecologically unequal exchange: Stocks, flows, and unequal sink appropriation”. Journal of Political Ecology 23: 364-380

Warlenius, R (2017): Asymmetries. Conceptualizing environmental inequalities as ecological debt and ecologically unequal exchange. Diss. Lund: Human Ecology Divison. Online at: https://lup.lub.lu.se/search/ws/files/19721188/Asymmetries_Introductory_chapter.pdf

Rikard Warlenius is a senior lecturer in Human Ecology at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg. His PhD dissertation (2017) focused on concepts such as Ecologically unequal exchange and Ecological debt. Currently, he is doing research on urban grassroots initiatives for climate transition in Gothenburg and Berlin.

“Where you least expect it”

Photo by Alexander Panez
Photo by Alexander Panez

by Diana Aguiar, Alessandra Cardoso, and Marcela Vecchione


In the airport of Belém in the Amazonian state of Pará, Brazil, an advertisement of the French company Imerys states, “Where you least expect it. Kaolin is a mineral that is part of your day.” The ad tries to tell the story of the positive widespread presence of the mineral in our daily lives. Kaolin is a mineral used in the production of paper, toothpaste, cosmetics and other daily use products.

The sad irony is what the ad hides: how little the communities surrounded by kaolin’s presence in their rivers and soil feel positive about it.

Barcarena is a city close to Belém and is home to the biggest aluminum-industrial center in Latin America. The first industry established in the area was Albras-Alunorte (at the time a project of Japanese capital and of state-owned, now Brazilian-headquartered private corporation Vale) in 1984. The project was part of the global process of relocating polluting and energy-intensive industries to the South. More specifically, it was part of Japan’s decision–in the context of the 1970s oil crisis–to outsource the production of aluminum needed to feed its post-War industrial boom.

The Brazilian military regime embraced the opportunity to host aluminum processing in the Amazon, signing up to huge debts denominated in Japanese yen. It then took on the task of building the energy infrastructure needed for the industry to flourish. The Tucuruí megadam, built in the late 1970s in the Tocantins River, was inaugurated in 1984 and resulted in social and environmental disasters of great proportions. Since then, Tucuruí megadam has been providing energy to the aluminum industry at subsidized rates, below production costs.

Currently, the refinery Alunorte (Alumina do Norte S.A.) transforms a mineral abundant in the Amazon, bauxite, into alumina. The refinery’s owners are Norsk Hydro, whose main shareholders are the Norwegian state (34,3%), the Norwegian Government Pension Fund (6,81%), and several transnational financial corporations. The factory Albras (Alumínio Brasileiro S.A.) transforms Alunorte’s alumina into aluminum and is owned by Norsk Hydro (51%) and the Japanese consortium NAAC (Nippon Amazon Aluminum Co. Ltd) (49%). Industries in the region also include, amongst others, steel plant Usipar and kaolin processing Imerys Rio Capim Caulim S.A. and PPSA (Pará Pigmentos S.A.).

The high concentration of these industries has turned the area into a “sacrifice zone” for local populations. As is widely known, the whole process of producing aluminum is water-and energy-intensive and is highly air-polluting. While the aluminum makes its way through global value chains, the devastation of the environment—which is the basis of the lives of the surrounding poor communities—remains. Three decades with the industrial center in Barcarena has meant a rampant population surge in the city due to labour-seeking migration and intense dislocation of traditional peoples and rural populations toward poor slum-like urban areas.

The high concentration of these industries has turned the area into a “sacrifice zone” for local populations

The process of turning Barcarena into an industrial center started during the time of the military dictatorship but continued unabated in the era of post-democratization government planning. It turned the area into an important vector of several trade corridors (Trombetas-Baixo Amazonas, Carajás-Tocantins, Capim river valey, etc. with hydroways and pipelines transporting kaolin and bauxite). In recent years, continued industrialization has become part of the economic policy of ensuring continuous trade surplus through the exportation of commodities.

Social movements have continuously criticized the financial imperatives justifying this “development” model, its environmental devastation, and the role it plays in the increasing dispossession of communities. It was exactly this interconnection between the financialization of the global economy, the “development” policies it entails and its consequent territorial impacts that the Latin American “Financialization of Nature” workshop debated from 26 to 27 August 2015 in Belém do Pará, Brazil.

As part of the workshop process, two days before the meeting, groups of social activists, researchers and popular educators took part in caravans that visited communities in the region of Northeast Pará. The caravan we took part in was confronted with a reality of devastation and despair. We visited communities Acuí, Curuperé and Dom Manuel, all of which are facing disintegration of social ties and the never-ending expectation of compensation that could allow them to relocate to a healthy place.

The Acui community, living in a permanent transitory state.  Photos by Cíntia Barenho

The Acuí community saw its population decrease from 160 to 70 families due to the hardship of living on their land. During our visit, they claimed to be expecting a solution to their situation for the past 12 years, living in a permanent transitory state, including not seeing reasons to make efforts to improve their houses or vegetable gardens due to constant promises that relocation is soon to come. According to them, their soil and bodies are contaminated with heavy metals and their health is jeopardized. They cannot drink water from streams or wells and are dependent on the delivery of water by trucks. Disbelief in any promise and feeling of abandonment by the state were common. We left the community with a deep sense of impotence, hoping to at least express our solidarity to their struggle.

The Curuperé community. the living expression of living with kaolin, “where you least expect it.” Photos by Cíntia Barenho

The second visited community, Curuperé, was the living expression of the tragedy of having kaolin as part of your day “where you least expect it”. The stream that served the community was constantly contaminated by infiltrations of kaolin – and heavy metals associated with its industrial processing – from Imerys tailings dams for the past ten years. Where 60 families lived, only 3 remain, now dependent on trucks to deliver water and facing corporate allegations that the land belongs to the corporation. As stories of dispossession usually go, those people saw their territories invaded by the industrial dump of a production process that has nothing to do with their needs and ways of living.

Dom Manoel, almost a ghost town. Photos by Cíntia Barenho


The situation is similar in Dom Manoel, almost a ghost town that saw its population decrease from 164 to 8 families. The families that left before compensation did so due to the impossibility of living in such an environment. The ones that stayed say they have nowhere to go while they await compensation. Imerys claims it has bought the land where these people have been living for decades—taking advantage of the irregularity of land access and ownership—and hence refuses to pay compensation. The community is landlocked by industrial plants in one side and an Imerys tailings dam on the other. Piles of coke used in aluminum processing could be seen meters away from the houses. Even during our short stay, breathing the air caused discomfort.

The three communities, along with several others in the region, have been facing the huge impacts of mineral processing industries with little support from the state. The first serious kaolin leak happened in June 2007. 200,000 m2 of white material discolored 19 km of the river, compromising its use and affecting the water wells. At the time, the factory was fined with 2,6 million Brazilian reals and shut down for a month. According to studies made of the soil, the leaked material had high concentration of iron, aluminum, zinc and cadmium—these accumulate in the body and may cause degenerative diseases, hepatic dysfunctions, immunological deficiencies, and dementia.

Later that year the Prosecutors Office of the state of Pará and Imerys signed an extrajudicial memorandum of understanding. The TAC (Termo de Ajustamento de Conduta) included commitments to not throw any more toxic substance in the environment, to build up a plan for reparation of the area (including repopulation of native fauna) and restructuring the tailings dams. The financial compensation included 463,000 Brazilian reals in collective moral damage to be given to local associations and 4 million for the state as compensation for environmental damages and to finance projects to improve peoples lives. However, since then, leaks have continued to happen and communities claim that no reparation of their situation or the environment has occurred.

Photo by Cíntia Barenho

Meanwhile, just outside of the Imerys factory, a big sign affirms proudly that the “company benefited from tax incentives to production” by the Superitendência para o Desenvolvimento da Amazônia (SUDAM) linked to the National Integration Ministry. Tax incentives in the Amazon, especially in its Eastern portion, have, for a long time, been a factor of social and territorial disruption. In the state of Pará, incentives at times included 100% tax exemption on the circulation of goods and services that are part of the value chain, such as electricity and fuel.

This has happened in conjunction with an increase of state debt at the provincial level, deepening of ecological debt (disproportionately concentrated upon affected communities), and inadequate distribution of wealth in the affected municipalities.

The Federal government helps to aggravate the problem by stimulating the so-called “tax war” among states that want to attract companies to their territories allegedly to create jobs and improve their revenue. In this way, it is not just a problem of development pushed by the capital, but also a matter of the way the contested regional and sustainable development model is being driven by sub-national units over and against community development. In Barcarena, for example, the provincial government has played a central role in promoting and reproducing a “development” model that jeopardizes the lives and cultures of local communities.

Shortly after the caravan left Pará, Norsk Hydro announced it is bringing Norwegian pop band A-ha to play in Barcarena. This type of propaganda, as much as the Imerys advertisement is part of a set of corporate tactics designed to build a narrative that disguises the crude reality lived by the communities we visited.

This set of tactics includes the criminalization of those who dare to protest: many people we met are facing criminal charges for fighting for their rights. No wonder there was so much disillusionment.

This set of tactics includes the criminalization of those who dare to protest: many people we met are facing criminal charges for fighting for their rights. No wonder there was so much disillusionment. Many of them asked for our help to disseminate the struggles they are going through and the systematic impunity these corporations enjoy. This article is our modest attempt to do so.

Diana Aguiar is part of the National Advisory Group of Brazilian social organization FASE. She has a M.A. in International Relations from PUC-Rio and is currently pursuing her Ph.D. degree at the IPPUR/UFRJ (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro). Her research is on the role of transnational capital and the state in accumulation by dispossession processes related to megadams projects in the Amazon basin. 

Marcela Vecchione is Adjunct Professor at the High Level Amazonian Studies Center at the Federal University of Pará, Brazil. She holds a PhD in Political Science/International Relations from McMaster University where she completed her studies on Indigenous Peoples political and historical articulations across borders within the Pan-Amazon region. Marcela`s current research focuses on land use and changes in land use in the Amazon basin and how this affects life projects by shaping resistance within and beyond the rain forest.

Alessandra Cardoso is Policy Advisor at INESC. She holds a Masters Degree in Economic Development from the Federal University of Uberlandia, and is pursuing her PhD in Applied Economics – Development and Environment, at Unicamp. Alessandra is responsible for developing the “Investments and rights in the Amazon” initiative.