[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]
World systems theory or world systems analysis is shorthand for a body of historical analysis, social science perspectives, and socially engaged research which takes capitalism as a centuries-long system. This system came to strength in Europe and then expanded to include much of the world under the European and then the American imperial ages, eventually evolving into our present interstate capitalist system, covering the entire planet. World systems theory presupposes the eventual emergence of a different system or systems.
Figure 1 puts the world systems theory topography of core and periphery into an environmental frame to diagram a kind of “Global Tribute System.” The system extracts energy from the natural environment through the labor of a social periphery to produce fuel, food, and order, concentrating the wealth of such expenditure in the relatively tiny core. The parasitic core exports waste and disorder into the periphery and the natural environment, perpetuating a one-way, unsustainable flow. It is not a cycle. Core and periphery overlap and often occupy the same or contiguous physical space. The boundaries between them are everywhere, securitized by technology, convention and force, constituting the control society.
Figures 2 and 3 are sketches for a different model in which there is no core/periphery divide; rather there are countless small-scale distributed and overlapping cycles of renewable resource generation, in which waste (organic material, methane, etc.) is taken up by the system and converted to energy (soil fertility, power, etc.). ◊