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Global Political Economy 101: The Mantra of Our Times – Sustainability

It is common to hear in public discourse that the world has never been as interconnected and interdependent as it is today. Technological progress in the fields of communication and transport has promoted giant leaps in the last 100 years in terms of the internationalisation of the economy. The term globalisation, in fact, has become of common use, and national economies can no longer be studied without facing their embeddedness in the world economy. The series of articles Global Political Economy 101 strives to address the complexity of the global economy by historicising the process that led to the present situation, providing an overview of the different academic approaches, and finally coming up with critical interpretations of the global economy and globalisation. The study of global political economy as a coherent subject of inquiry provides valuable insights into the big issues of our days, such as poverty, inequality, development, and sustainability. The pieces will maintain a humanities-based approach. Therefore, the economy will be seen as the intertwining between several factors like politics, society, culture, and human agency rather than the result of mathematical calculations. The set of articles will be divided into three blocks, each one composed of three articles. The first block will analyse the world economy from a historical perspective. The second one will provide an overview of the main theoretical interpretations of the world economy. The third one will address some of the main questions of today’s global political economy with the analytical tools previously provided.

Global Political Economy 101 is divided as follows:


The present article is the third of the last block of this series on Global Political economy. Previously, some of the main issues in the global economy have been addressed. Most of them encapsulated the way in which humans live and interact among themselves in an unequal, and often exploitative way. The scope of this piece will be broader and will include the problematic way in which human societies deal with natural resources and nature in general. It is not a mystery that environmental sustainability has been brought to the foreground, both in academia and in the realm of policymaking. This article will seek to analyze how different theoretical standpoints, within the Global Political Economy scholarship, address the way in which human societies deal with the environment. The environment here will be treated as the natural environment, in other words, the natural resources found on the earth. First, a historical account of the relationship between humans and the environment will be addressed. Secondly, this article will analyze how different schools of thought have conceptualized the problem of sustainability and the normative proposal that has been generated. In the third place, some conclusions based on the whole analysis will be drawn.

Sustainability: When and How Did It Become a Problem?

Sustainability is an inherently polysemic concept which refers to the capability of a certain entity to be sustainable, or to reproduce itself throughout time. Sustainability can, therefore, carry multiple meanings, being it social, economic, or environmental among others. As Goodland (1995) stated, the various aspects of sustainability are inherently intertwined and, in this piece, they cannot fully be disarticulated from one another. Especially, when it comes to sustainable development, the three main aspects of sustainability cannot be fully separated, as the achievement of one, for example, environmental goals, cannot be conditioned to an economically or socially unsustainable development, jeopardizing the whole premise of sustainability of the development model. This piece will focus particularly on the environmental aspect of sustainability; not because the others are deemed as less important, but simply because (I) the problems of economic and social sustainability were partially addressed by the two previous articles, and (II) because environmental sustainability has acquired paramount importance and relevance both in the academic and the public discourse. However, it will not embrace the prevention of analyzing environmental sustainability, but rather, in accordance with the scope of this whole series, will see environmental sustainability within the context of the Global Political Economy.

Image 1: Environmentalism. (Unknown, n.d.)

Nowadays, environmental sustainability and wider attention to “green” questions are at the fore, and it is embraced by most branches of society; from most business organizations to anti-capitalist social movements, passing through international (typically liberal-inspired) organizations such as the UN. The environmental question was already present in the work of Malthus and Mill, who claimed that “natural capital” should be preserved in order to maintain the system in place (Goodland, 1995). Such a claim, however, was often disregarded throughout the XIX and XX centuries, preferring a more optimistic Ricardian view that posited faith in the rationality of capitalist growth (Goodland, 1995). It was not until the ‘60s that environmental sustainability was regarded as a relevant issue by economists, and in turn by international organizations (Morelli, 2011).

Nevertheless, despite the actual growth of environmental consciousness, the history of capitalistic development is tightly related to natural resources. The colonization of the Americas was not so important to capitalist development per se but because it enabled colonial powers to access natural resources in a way that previously was not possible (Arrighi, 1994). The history of the global economy is one of exploitation of natural resources to be used as inputs into the production process. As Harvey (2003) argued, the process of accumulation by dispossession -i.e., the physical dispossession of land and material assets to fuel the accumulation of capital- is a fundamental aspect of the development of capitalism in the last 500 years. Therefore, it is crucial from a Global Political Economy perspective, to link the question of sustainability to the overarching mechanism of the development of capitalism throughout the world.

Image 2: Extractivism in Bolivia (Unknown, n.d.)

Since the industrial revolution in the 18th century, the consumption of inputs for production has grown tremendously; the expansion of industrial capitalism in the core countries of the world economy increased decisively the number of resources needed to carry out industrial production (Harvey, 2021), which in turn reflected in the increased exploitation of natural resources and general environmental disruption. The need for capital to continuously reproduce itself, and hence engage in continuous production and circulation of goods, which Harvey (2014) calls the need for “compound growth” of capital, unveiled the problematic relation it has with nature and its inherent finiteness. Furthermore, the wave of decolonization by the end of WWII, together with a new widespread willingness in the Global South to stimulate industrialization, made the problem of natural resources and pollution even more relevant (Arrighi, 1994). The rampant growth in the countries of the centre of the world system, stemming from the adoption of Keynesian models based upon expansive economic policies to stimulate mass consumption, together with the growth of an industrial model in the peripheries, made concerns about the environment grow throughout the ‘60s ( This led to mounting environmental awareness, especially in the US and Europe, as testified by the institution of “earth day” in 1970.

The role of the United Nations also started to be of particular interest in the ‘70s, with the institution of the UN Environmental Program. The prioritization of the concern towards the exploitation of the environment was not well received by industrializing, and generally by underdeveloped, countries (Ivanova, 2007). This opposition has a lot to do with the transformations in the structure of the global economy was undergoing in the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Global South, which had constituted itself into the third world movement, had shifted majorly towards policies of economic developmentalism, which reclaimed the right of underdeveloped countries to emancipate themselves from being producers of primary goods and become industrialized as well. The claim made by the UN that major attention should be attributed to the environmental question was interpreted by those countries as a limitation to what they perceived as the right of growing and developing (Ivanova, 2007).

Image 3: Earth Day (New York Times, 1970)

Therefore, it must be noted that there is a sharp contrast between the praxis of environmental sustainability which is underpinned by international organizations such as the UN, and the actual constraint to implementing it. The UN has repeatedly fostered initiatives in order to undertake climate change; from the UN framework convention on climate change (1994) to the Paris Agreement (2015) and the Global Sustainable Goals (2015), famously known as “Agenda 2030”. However, this top-down approach has been repeatedly confronted with the actual application of those goals. As Ivanova (2007) puts it, the adoption of common goals has been often questioned by developing countries, for they contest the fact that the same standards are being applied to a situation of uneven development. This occurrence demonstrates that environmental sustainability and climate change are exquisitely related to Global Political Economy, for it is not only a matter of complying with certain prescriptions, but also of dealing with the impact that sustainability has on the trajectories of development of each country.

As it has been explained, the problem of sustainability has long been conceptualized and demarcated, however, recent evidence has shown that no sufficient steps have been taken to address it (United Nations, 2022). Therefore, in the next section environmental sustainability will be considered from different Global Political Economy theoretical standpoints, which will shed light on the complicated nature of this issue, and on how this is inherently intertwined with the dynamics of the global economy.

Environmental Sustainability and Global Political Economy

Environmental sustainability is irremediably intertwined with the dynamics of the global economy. Early economists such as Malthus had already underlined the interconnection between the economic system and nature (Goodland, 1995). For this reason, it is extremely important to understand how the issue of environmental sustainability is addressed by different scholars in the field of global Political Economy.

It is possible to find two main strands of scholarship in addressing environmental sustainability: the liberal and the critical one. Nonetheless, liberal approaches vary greatly, especially concerning the extent to which the state should be involved in countering climate change. This piece will not discuss all those approaches -mainly political and thus, not academic- that refuse to acknowledge that global change is an issue (so-called negationists), not because they are not deemed to be deserving any attention, but as they do not contribute to the debate on environmental sustainability.

Liberal Environmentalism

The liberal approach to environmentalism is of great importance. As has been already shown, classical economists had already understood the importance of the relationship between nature and the productive process (Goodland, 1995). Liberal environmentalism is the main approach it has adopted these days in political practice, and it underpins most institutional initiatives, be they national or international. This encompasses a variety of views on how the issue of environmental sustainability should be faced, but from a Global Political Economy standpoint, it is important to recognize that the main tenet of this approach is the faith in capitalism as a system (Bernstein, 2002).

The overarching idea that climate change and more widely environmental sustainability should be tackled from within the global capitalist market has certainly facilitated the acceptance of those concepts within international organizations emerging from the liberal world order of the post-WWII (Bernstein, 2002). The most prominent initiatives in this field, stemming from international organizations such as the UN, have always provided a balance between environmental measures and free trade. Perhaps the most striking example of this strand in environmental policies is the Kyoto Protocol (1997). Besides setting some ground rules concerning greenhouse gas emissions, it leaves its implementation solely to market mechanisms. In other words, the emission of greenhouse gases is not directly limited by the protocol, but rather it establishes some mechanisms to incentivize a reduction throughout a free capitalist market, all responding to the logic of emission trade. The overarching logic of the Kyoto Protocol is that of establishing property rights upon emissions, a very much liberal way of proceeding (Bernstein, 2002). Therefore, roughly speaking, those actors that produce emissions, are bound to pay for those emissions in terms of “green” investments, and thus, in a way repay the damage that their emissions do.

Image 4: Agenda 2030 and Global Sustainable Goals (UN, n.d.)

The latest developments in environmental policy do not escape the liberal vision of environmental sustainability. The UN’s Agenda 2030 program encompasses a wide variety of goals to be achieved by nation-states, in various fields of sustainability. The environment is at the core of such a program, nevertheless, it is only one aspect of the many facets of sustainability, which have to be achieved within a capitalist framework. It is problematic how the various aspects of sustainability often impinge on each other, leaving consistent doubts on the way the “sustainable development goals” put out in the Agenda 2030 is to be achieved.

Doughnut economy

One theoretical expression of the political praxis that has been explored briefly in the previous section is Kate Raworth’s (2017) theory of the Doughnut Economy. Raworth argues that an economic model should have the aim of providing for everyone’s needs, without overdoing it and thus stimulating the destruction of the environment. As visible in figure 5, the author represents an economic system as a doughnut, within which the outcomes of such a system should remain. In the inner part of the doughnut, one can see social standards that must be provided (such as housing, access to water and food, healthcare, ad so on), whereas, in the outer part, there are outcomes that an economic system should avoid (such as climate change, land conversion, biodiversity loss, and so on). This theory postulates that there exists an equilibrium between providing social standards for all and the exploitation of natural resources to achieve them.

Image 5: Doughnut Economy (Unknown, n.d.)

Even though the doughnut economy theory might seem rather simplistic, it is quite straightforwardly a reflection of the sustainable development goals as postulated by the UN in the Agenda 2030. The common assumption is in fact that without changing radically how the global economy works, different goals can be achieved in different fields if the market is regulated sufficiently. It is, nonetheless, the market itself that, as one can retrieve from Raworth’s conceptualization (2017) allocates the resources that make possible such an equilibrium to be achieved. The Doughnut economy model has, however, faced criticism, as it pays insufficient attention to the interplay of the different factors that are involved, nor does it take into consideration the existence of uneven development and the unequal distribution of wealth and resources within the world system.

This model, as much as the one perpetrated by the UN and other international organizations, admits various degrees of state interventionism. The main actors of the international system as conceived from the liberal standpoint are states, which undertake the compromise of acting consequentially when they sign international treaties. The doughnut economy insofar as it seeks a balance between different goals of development -with a central role of environmental sustainability- admits the need for state intervention. Even though neither the UN nor the doughnut model prescribes the degree to which the state should intervene to lead the economy into a sustainable path, it is hard to imagine that economic actors would discipline themselves in a capitalist free market driven by profit. Nevertheless, none of the models reviewed until now postulates anything different from relying on the market to tackle the issue of environmental sustainability. The fact that an intervention of the state is not only possible but apparently necessary, doesn’t question the reliance on the market and its integrity. In the next section alternative, or critical, views will be explored, which postulate that the destruction of the environment is not an epiphenomenon due to the wrong use of the market, but rather it is the inherent product of capitalism.

Critical environmentalism

Until now, in a liberal fashion, the issue of environmental sustainability has been seen as one that has to be addressed through market mechanisms: however, what if the market logic itself is the problem?

Critical environmentalism, largely based upon Marxist scholarship (Henderson, 2009), argues that a relationship exists between the capitalist mode of production and the destruction of the environment. One should note the difference between the approaches present before and the critical one: it is not a malfunctioning of capitalism that leads to the environmental crisis, but rather it is the intrinsic nature of capitalism, its very logic of functioning. It is from the early stages of capitalism in its mercantilist form that countries of the centre of the world system started to exploit uncontrollably the resources of the peripheries (Arrighi, 1994). The industrial revolution certainly exacerbated such a process: to promote the accumulation of capital, the exploitation of men and nature intensified, relegating the countries of the periphery to the production of primary goods as the inputs to the industrial production process (Frank, 1969). The industrialization of the Global South after the 1929 crisis, put further stress upon the environmental question, for the fast development of industrial complexes in industrializing countries was bound to increase the emission of pernicious gases and the overexploitation of natural resources.

From a world system-theory approach to Global Political Economy (Wallerstein, 2000), the environmental question is directly related to the structure of the world economy. On the one hand, the core of the world system demands raw materials to be inputted into the productive cycle, or even primary goods (mainly agricultural to be consumed). This is visible nowadays in the free trade agreements that the USA and the EU try to establish with peripheral countries (Ghiotto & Echaide, 2019). In this way, the exploitation of nature is moved away from the central countries and outsourced to the periphery which is responsible for providing raw materials. The expansion of soy cultivation is a major example of that, as it is primarily demanded from the global north but produced in the Global South, with terrible consequences upon the environment, such as deforestation and water supply shortages (Fogel, 2008). At the same time, as Quijano (2014) argued, the possibility for peripheral countries to develop an industrial system which is modern, a prerequisite to environmental sustainability, is hindered by the dependent situation in which development happens in the periphery. This means very limited access to technology, which in turn results in less dynamism in promoting environmental-friendly ways of production.

Image 6: Ecosocialism (Wikimedia and Rafaelgr, n.d.)

It is noteworthy to see how the difference between the liberal approach and the world-system critical approach unfolds. Whereas the former postulates that an equilibrium can be found by acting on the outcomes of the productive system (i.e., limiting emissions, and adopting a more responsible attitude towards the environment), the latter takes the problem of sustainability as a systemic one. It is therefore the capitalist world system that is not sustainable and not the specific way in which it is organized.

In addition to the world-system approach, there are many Marxist and critical inclinations that point out the relation between capitalism and nature, however, they cannot be explored here for they outgrow the extent of this article. In the next paragraph some non-Marxist, but yet critical approaches to environmental sustainability will be explored briefly.

The ecological native and relational ontologies

Lately, a lot of attention has been attributed to the question of deforestation in Latin America for the aggressive attitude of some governments of the region and widespread deforestation. It is interesting to this regard to point out the struggles carried out by indigenous peoples and rural communities against the expansion of exploitation of the rural environment and the dispossession of their lands. In this regard, Astrid Ulloa (2001) argues that rural communities have lately adopted the role of defenders of the environment, as they are primarily and directly affected by the expansion of global capitalism into their ancestral lands. This perspective is noteworthy, as it pins together the systemic view that sees the territorial expansion of capitalism as an intrinsic tendency of the system itself, and the modes of resistance of rural communities based upon their attachment to the land. Arturo Escobar (2015) argued that those territorial disputes are not only for the possession of the lands, but a contrast between two ontologies -i.e., ways of understanding the world. The rural communities view the territory as something they are naturally attached to, and therefore must be defended. An attack against the territory is an attack against the very core of their way of living and their culture. Therefore, Ulloa (2001) brings to the fore the idea of “ecological native”, implying that rural communities, for the tight relation they have to nature, are inherently bound to defend the environment inasmuch as they are to defend their own way of living.

Image 6: Indigenous Environemntalism (Erik McGregor, 2019)

The concept of the ecological native is very important when it comes to furthering environmental struggles, for the overexploitation of the environment is seen by rural communities as a threat to their survival, something that is not as strongly perceived by the majority of the people.


Environmental sustainability is the mantra of our time. It has been shown to what extent environmental issues are also issues of Global Political Economy, for the exploitation of the natural environment is connected to the way in which capital is accumulated and reproduced. Different strands of Global Political Economy scholarship address environmental sustainability differently. Liberals tend to address it throughout the market, which normatively translates into programs such as the trade of emissions quotas. Different degrees of state intervention are admitted, however, with a reliance on the capitalist market. Corrective interventions have to be made to keep the balance of different aspects of sustainability, as in the doughnut economy model. Critical approaches, instead, argue that the cause of environmental destruction is capitalism itself, as specific to the interest of this series, the way in which capitalism unfolds globally and creates uneven patterns of development. In this context, the figure of the “ecological native” emerges, as an inherent defender of the rural environment inasmuch it is threatened by the territorial expansion of capitalism.


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Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut economics: seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist. Chelsea: Green Publishing.

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Image 1: Unknown (n.d.) Environmentalism. [Illustration]. Retrieved 08/05/2023 from:

Image 2: Unknown (n.d.) Extractivism in Bolivia. [Illustration]. Retrieved 08/05/2023 from:

Image 3: New York Times (1970). Earth Day. [Image]. Retrieved 08/05/2023 from:

Image 4: United Nations (n.d.) Agenda 2030 and Sustainable Development Goals. [Illustration]. retrieved 08/05/2023 from:

Image 5: Unknown (n.d.) Doughnut Economy. [Illustration]. Retrieved 08/05/2023 from:

Image 6: Wikimedia and Rafaelgr (n.d.). Ecosocialism. [Illustration]. Retrieved 08/05/2023 from:

Image 7: Erik McGregor (2019). Indigenous Development. [Picture]. retrieved 08/05/2023 from:


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Andrea Taborri

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