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Energy and the Evolution of World-Systems: Fueling Power and Environmental Degradation, 1800-2008

  • Author(s): Lawrence, Kirk Steven
  • Advisor(s): Chase-Dunn, Christopher
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation addresses an important question in the evolution of world-systems of human societies: how does energy use shape the dynamics that occur, in particular intersocietal differences in geopolitical and economic power and also in environmental degradation? A general theory is developed that predicts the existence of a positive feedback loop between levels of energy use and intersocietal power that can be constrained by resource shortages and other negative environmental effects, the growth of environmental ideologies, and competition between societies. In addition, the theory predicts that more powerful societies have the ability to generate ecological rent by locating their degradation outside their borders. This can create a power-reducing effect as the energy-related degradation is experienced more by less powerful societies.

Empirical analyses on a dataset of countries with available data since the early nineteenth century and an additional dataset for those from 1973-2008 were conducted. Results indicate that there has been a decoupling of economic growth from energy consumption within more developed countries. Growth rates for energy consumption per capita and geopolitical and economic power are strong predictors of each other, and both predict environmental degradation per capita, but with different effect sizes and contributing variables that vary by the type of world-system ranking used, and the location in the world-system. Specifically, the semiperiphery and periphery are the locations of the strongest growth rates while the core has the highest levels.

The results demonstrate the need for rethinking the theoretical model and the use of complexity theory and thermodynamics in research such as this. Future research on dynamism of the periphery, the effects and location of environmental degradation, and the possibility of historical and contemporary country-level studies would enhance this research. As we face enormous challenges due to constraints on energy supplies and the impacts of energy production and consumption on the biosphere, continued research in this area is an important endeavour.

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