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by Peter Senker and Erika Cudworth

This paper draws on:
Erika Cudworth, Peter Senker , and Kathy Walker,(editors) ( 2013) Technology, Society and Inequality: New Horizons and Contested Futures, New York, Peter Lang.


Dysfunctional innovation is increasingly pervasive worldwide . It sustains economic and social inequality rather than stimulating economic growth. For example, ICTs are pushed on developing countries by multinational corporations to improve education, but adapting education to the needs of each country would be better. ICT use is promoted as a stimulus to economic growth in developing countries, but most lack appropriate infrastructure and culture. Standardised biotechnology solutions are promoted worldwide to improve food security . But agricultural production and innovation require adaptation to the needs of local farmers, to the geographical, climatic and soil conditions in each region, and to sustain biodiversity.

We consider some societal, economic and technological developments in a broad historical, political, social and ideological perspective. The world capitalist system has been primarily responsible for rapid economic growth over the last two hundred and fifty years, and this has been closely related to the rapid technological change which the system has embodied. The resulting enormous increase in production of an ever changing and increasing range of products and services has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and deprivation; and in many respects, offered improved lifestyles to a large and growing minority of the world’s expanding population. As Schumpeter argued:

the capitalist engine is first and last an engine of mass production which unavoidably means also production for the masses… .It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars, and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production… The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort…the capitalist process…..by virtue of its mechanism, progressively raises the standard of life of the masses. (1954: 67-68)

Schumpeter also emphasized that the engine of economic growth is innovation in products and production processes, rather than price competition:

….markets reward mainly the large organisations which own and control massive agglomerations of land, capital, and resources devoted to innovation and product and service design. (1954: 81)

Since Schumpeter wrote, the long tradition of “worship” of economic growth has become even more dominant. The central tasks of national governments are often perceived as the promotion of economic efficiency and competitiveness designed to secure economic growth. Of course, economic growth is still extremely important for the welfare of the majority of people of the world – in particular it is very important to the people living in developing countries, and of crucial importance to those who live in the very poorest countries (Collier, 2008).
However, the worldwide focus on securing economic growth has been far from completely successful in terms of its contribution to the welfare of the majority of the world’s population, amongst whom poverty and deprivation are still prevalent. Moreover, as a consequence of economic growth’s enormous extravagance in terms of the use of resources and its neglect of environmental considerations, those  improvements in human welfare that have incurred excessive costs in terms of degradation of the environment of the small planet which we inhabit.
Everywhere in the world, inequality diminishes welfare. When analysts consider inequality, they often only consider differences in income between average living standards in various countries. This can be misleading. For example, while average living standards in rapidly developing countries such as India and China have increased very rapidly in recent years, there are still hundreds of millions of people in such countries living in poverty and suffering from deprivation. Indeed, it has been suggested that the current phase of capitalist development, which focuses almost exclusively on economic growth, is producing large swathes of disadvantaged populations across the globe, for whom there is no work in the new economy.
In the West, a new profit–orientated society of consumers is being created, and is generally regarded as a constituent in the inevitable progress of humankind. But the advent of this new economy has also resulted in the creation of large communities of ‘unemployable and invalid’ people who would previously have worked in heavy or manufacturing industries, but for whom there is now little or no work. People are no longer citizens but consumers. The ‘society of consumers’ creates a social arrangement in which the unemployed cannot participate fully, and their lack of economic participation is liable to involve a wider lack of social participation. As has been noted elsewhere, “the more choices the rich seem to have, the less bearable to all is a life without choosing” (Bauman, 2000: 88).

Whilst this state of affairs has been, as we have suggested, centuries in the making, the current era in the richer regions of the globe has been witness to over  thirty years of neo-liberal restructuring, together with attempts to introduce more ‘choice’ via market mechanisms and practices into various forms of social provision (such as healthcare and education).
Asbjørn Wahl (2011: 43-55) has argued that the ‘truisms’ of capitalist economics are currently rearticulated and strengthened in discourses of ‘globalization’ and in policies adopted by both nation states and international organisations (such as the European Union) which actively promote neo-liberal forms and practices. Even successful entrepreneur George Soros (2008: xxii) has suggested that increasingly globalised practices of neo-liberalism are “a greater threat to open society than any totalitarian ideology”. Wahl argues that this uncritical capitalist resurgence must be fought, its fundamentalisms  must be challenged, and alternative futures must be seen to be possible. He quotes the radical Swedish social democrat Ingmar Lindberg who has argued that whilst:

The present phase of globalised capitalism is characterized by a shift of power and a predominantly neoliberal conceptual model. It is not necessary to meet any of this with passive submissiveness. On the contrary, to be incensed at injustice is precisely the mobilizing force needed to turn developments in the opposite direction. (in Wahl, 2011: 210-11)

We raise several questions about the current social, political and economic trajectory of capitalist development, questions that are destabilizing, at least intellectually, for the current fundamentalisms of neo-liberal capitalism. This provides the rationale for our hope that it will make some contribution to answering Lindberg’s call. Our focus, however, is on  the system’s extensive failures in terms of directing technological change in appropriate directions. Just as it is often assumed that the new profit–orientated society of consumers is inevitable, it is also assumed that technological change is virtually autonomous and not subject to human, social or political control. Such assumptions are largely fallacious. The failure to direct technological change appropriately is a human failure –primarily the responsibility of those who direct societies’ political and economic activities.
In this paper, we try to identify the nature of some important failures to direct technology appropriately, and to outline some of the historical processes which have resulted in these failures. Most such failures can be classified under the broad general heading of “inequalities”. But inequalities of class, status and wealth are not the only sources of inequality. Inequalities between rich and poor regions and countries of the globe feature strongly, and these neeed to be considered in terms of (post)colonial relations. Inequalities of age, of geographic location and of ethnicity also make their presence felt. In addition, we look at some aspects of an important group of technologies on which a huge amount of attention has been lavished by those – including ourselves – concerned with the analysis of relationships between society and technology. These are the Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs). These technologies do not contribute principally or directly to meeting basic subsistence needs, but do provide a vast new range of products and services, and also offer ever more powerful potentials for increasing productivity. They also contribute to the fulfillment of needs for information, communications and entertainment. The huge attention that has been lavished on these technologies is a consequence of many factors, including sheer fascination with the activities they have made possible and the extraordinary opportunities that their exploitation has offered for making profits. This is well known, so we concentrate on the “hidden underside” of some of these activities in this paper.
The ICT industry relies heavily on rare minerals which have to be extracted from the earth. The supply chains involved in the production of commodities such as ICT devices are not apparent to the consumers of these items, and the price that manufacturers of electronic products pay for precious metals such as gold do not reflect the huge human costs paid by the miners –men women and children –who work in terrible and hazardous conditions for low pay to mine those metals. As the gold on the surface of the earth has been mined, so men, women and children have to go deeper into the earth to extract it. Much of this mining is in countries with loose health and safety regulations – a quarter of the gold is mined by poor migrant workers in small-scale mines. The majority of accidents go unrecorded because of the itinerant nature of the workforce and the often illegal areas in which they work. Buyers of ICT devices and services do not perceive the poor pay of the miners who extract these minerals, nor the terrible, dangerous conditions in which they work, nor the impact that mining has on these workers’ health and on the general environment. Some ICT device makers try to “ethically source” their precious metals – they buy from certified suppliers. However, there can be between four and eight levels in the supply chain of materials before they reach manufacturers. Manufacturers depend on the adherence of all levels in this supply chain to make claims that they buy ethically. But supply chains can never guarantee that they are extracted ethically. Much commercial activity now relies on networks, software and electronic transfer of capital. But this activity depends for its existence on mineral extraction and manufacturing processes previously associated with heavy industry and the repetitive work in arduous conditions which this involves.
In the light of the threat of terrorism and ever increasing demands for security, Closed Circuit TV (CCTV) monitoring, screening technologies, tracking devices and biometric tools are used ever more extensively. New technologies of surveillance often appear to be deployed as means of policing marginalized sections of society for whom there are few opportunities in the new global economy, in preference to supporting or investing in them. But security is by no means the only issue. Implications of these developments for citizenship, social justice and participatory democracy are important contexts in which recent rapid expansion of new surveillance technologies in the community need to be seen.
The contested relationship between technologies and ‘development’ is another theme of this paper. Organisations such as the World Bank try to persuade developing countries that they should invest heavily in ICTs as an engine of growth. Such propositions rely on the belief that ICTs can help developing countries to narrow the gaps in productivity and output that separate them from industrialised countries – and even that they can “leapfrog” stages of development into the information economy. But most developing countries are unable to cope with the new technological paradigm or to exploit its potential. They lack appropriate infrastructures and the capacity to adopt, adapt and to innovate in their own environment. A few countries such as South Korea and Singapore have used production of consumer electronics to transform the standard of living of a large proportion of their populations. But elsewhere, there is little evidence that ICTs can help those with no ownership and control of this technology and who do not possess the capability to innovate to achieve their development goals. Indeed, many ICT initiatives and projects in developing countries have failed to meet such objectives. Moreover, developing country consumers’ are influenced to deploy fashionable technologies without considering critical issues such as user capabilities and cultural feasibility. It is generally unrealistic to expect developing countries to achieve development through ICTs without policies and support in place to ensure equitable access and training, something which merely opening up markets does not necessarily ensure: in general, consuming ICTs reinforces existing social and economic inequalities.
ICT producers have promoted their products as means through which excellent education can be made available to diverse and widespread communities. The World Trade Organisation believes that public services should be opened up to international capital, and that this would benefit both globalization and education. However, opening up the markets of poor nations to transnational corporations further is liable to create greater inequalities between rich and poor nations. Education is increasingly treated as a tradable commodity as opposed to a public good in wealthier parts of the globe, with learners increasingly referred to as customers, clients or consumers. In the UK, the introduction of computers into all school classrooms as part of face-to-face teaching has been promoted as the way to educate children to be the knowledge workers of the future. Yet despite the widespread integration of ICTs at all levels of schooling and into all subjects, there are still large numbers of children leaving school with low levels of literacy and numeracy. Moreover, insufficient attention has been paid to the purposes for which communities need knowledge and what knowledge is appropriate for particular groups. The use of new technologies is by no means the right answer in all circumstances. It is essential to consider what education and training is needed for the population to achieve sustainable development before considering which technologies should be used to deliver them. Governments and policy makers need to look beyond the rhetoric of eLearning and to consider the best methods for educating their citizens, taking into account the local infrastructure and which modes of delivery would be most appropriate in any given situation.
The United States has had a strong influence on healthcare policies in developing countries, just as it has in relation to development and education. This influence has been transmitted and amplified through the Unites States’ strong influence on the policies of International Organisations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation. This influence has been exerted in favour of low priority for expenditure on healthcare in relation to expenditure on promoting economic growth based on stimulating international trade. Such policies have tended to restrain developing countries expenditure on the provision of clean water which is absolutely fundamental to improving health. In developed regions of the world, resources such as clean water and refrigeration which are also essential for conventional storage and delivery of some vital health supplies such as drugs, vaccines and injections, are readily available. In many areas of developing countries, clean water, refrigeration and other resources which are essential for safeguarding human health are scarce. The main causes of illness and death in developed countries are cancer and diseases of respiratory, cardiovascular and nervous systems. In the developing world, communicable diseases are the main health problem, and many fatal diseases could be prevented by public health measures, especially through the provision of clean water. Although some progress has been made, there is still an inbuilt tendency arising from market forces which ensures that pharmaceutical development is international and continues to concentrate on treating the diseases of the relatively affluent. Policies in developed countries, notably the United States, fail to contribute sufficiently to the promotion of technological innovation in relation to the diseases that affect developing countries disproportionately. Numerous technologies are available which could offer better, more effective treatment for diseases prevalent in developing countries, but, insufficient resources are devoted to development and exploitation of such technologies. United States expenditure on health care per capita is immense, but this has resulted in a population whose average levels of health are poor relative to several other countries in which health expenditure is far less, but where the distribution of both income and health care has been much less unequal. Our analysis leads to the conclusion that comprehensive healthcare provision should have greater priority and that it is best undertaken by public authorities rather than by private organisations.
Of course, human health and welfare are of paramount importance to human beings. But animal health and welfare are worthy goals in their own right. Just as important, threats to animal health and welfare resulting from intensive methods applied to animal agriculture can threaten both human welfare and  the welfare of the whole planet. After the Second World War, there was a drive to produce cheap meat and animal based food products as a means of reducing malnutrition and hunger in the US and Europe. In the 1960s and 1970s the United Nations emphasized the necessity of increasing production and increasing the availability of this food in poor countries. These initiatives were driven by the corporate interests of the multinational corporations based in the US and in Europe. They ignored the fact that pulses and grains are the most common sources of protein across the globe, and that the ability of developing countries to feed their own populations successfully was significantly compromised by the replacement of staples such as corn, millet and rice by monocultures to supply the livestock feed industry. Nevertheless the dysfunctional international system of animal agriculture seems set to expand. Western intensive models, promoted by the agribusiness giants are set to transform farming in some of the poorest countries in the world, just as they have transformed much of Latin America in the latter twentieth century. The increased deployment of Western intensive agriculture and the spread of Western food practices also have significant detrimental implications for the environment in terms of undermining bio-diversity, localised pollution, soil damage and rainforest depletion.
In relation specifically to human health and welfare, inequality is very harmful to those people whom it deprives of appropriate food – one of the most basic necessities for sustaining a healthy life. Prominent in this group of about a billion people currently in developing countries are those whom poverty and landlessness deprive of the basic necessities for pursuing a healthy life –those who lack sufficient food and clean water to eliminate hunger, starvation and disease. The world’s climatic conditions, soils, water availabilities are extremely diverse. It would surely be reasonable to expect that technological change would be developed, adapted and implemented so as to extract the most nutritious food from nature in the light of these diverse conditions. In practice, however, the prevailing vision is of a standardized worldwide ‘modern’ agriculture extending from the Green Revolution to the current Gene Revolution as a standard, preferred pathway to development. Key elements of the modern world agri-food ‘system’ involve a wide array of external expensive inputs such as Research and Development, fertilizers, seeds and irrigation. Centralized technology-driven economic growth through sustained innovation and trade is envisaged as providing pathways out of agriculture or a shift of subsistence-oriented ‘old’ agriculture to a modern, commercial, ‘new’ form of agriculture, with wider poverty reduction aims achieved through trickle-down and employment benefits from improved agriculture-led growth. This vision perceives the role of agriculture as an ‘engine of economic growth’ and looks forward to the economic and social transformation of the agrarian economy – from backward to modern, from subsistence to market-orientated, from the ‘old’ to ‘new’ agriculture.
Alternative visions of Food Sovereignty emphasize working locally with natural systems, generating improved livelihoods with local agricultural production attuned to local ecological conditions. As understood by La Via Campesina “food sovereignty “requires agrarian reform in favour of small producers and the landless, the reorganization of global food trade to prioritize local markets and self-sufficiency; much greater controls over corporations in the global food chain; and the democratization of international financial institutions” (Branford, 2011:28). Such alternatives perceive the empowerment of small farmers locally as central to achieving both economic and ecological sustainability. If the emphasis on world agricultural production were to shift to the preservation and technological development of low input systems, world food needs might be met more fully, and to the great advantage of billions of small farmers, and with far less environmental damage.
The world economic system is extraordinarily complicated, and we emphasize that it has only been possible to examine a few pertinent examples in a short paper such as this. Each issue looked at in this paper is highly controversial. Underpinning our perspective is a political commitment to greater equality and to revealing the way in which inequalities are embedded in everyday practices and objects. Rather than making any claims for impartiality, we wish to offer this paper as a serious contribution to important debates.
Bearing such qualifications in mind, this discussion  leads us inexorably towards the conclusion that the primary purpose of the current worldwide system of production and distribution is not to satisfy the most pressing human needs, but to create a never-ending stream of marketable commodities and the ever-increasing profits they generate for the owners of capital. Free competition between small scale suppliers operates on a relatively small scale and, therefore, only benefits consumers to a limited extent. In contrast, markets reward mainly the large organisations which own and control massive agglomerations of capital which they use to exert monopolistic control over markets; and which exert power over Governments and International Organisations to structure and regulate markets in their favour. Major corporations based in advanced countries typically enjoy worldwide oligopoly, and profit disproportionately from trade and technology transfer between advanced and developing countries.
In contrast, the World Trade Organisation believes that public services such as education should be opened up to international capital, and that this would benefit both globalisation and education. We suggest however, that opening up the markets of poor nations to transnational corporations further is liable to create greater inequalities between rich and poor nations. These inequalities do not only relate to wealth and cannot be understood through the lens of class relations. Rather, inequalities are complex and multifaceted, involving the distribution of and access to a variety of resources (such as knowledge and, nutritious food).They need to be considered in terms of relations of other social differences, gender, ethnicity, nation (for example in postcolonial contexts). Choices between private and public delivery systems are crucial determinants of the effectiveness of delivery of products and services to meet the needs of the whole population.In spheres such as healthcare, education and the communications sector. The United States and International Organisations have exerted strong influences in favour of private delivery, and this has generally been against the interests of poor people, and especially of those living in developing countries.
It is undeniable that capitalism has been responsible for extremely rapid technological change over the past two hundred and fifty years. There is substantial evidence that the pace and direction of innovation and technological change is fundamentally under human control and is not autonomous. Moreover, it is inevitable that any changes –whether technological or not – bring with them some benefits and some costs. Some of those costs are labeled by economists as “externalities” – for example costs and damage inflicted on the environment. It is beyond human powers to eliminate all the costs which technological change brings in its wake. But human intervention is capable of mitigating and reducing some such costs. It is also capable of modifying and adjusting the allocation of costs and benefits between the various groups of people involved. We contend that many such allocations are generally unfair to billions of people who suffer poverty and deprivation of numerous kinds. For example, we considered the mining of gold: just one amongst many rare minerals which form essential ingredients of PCs and numerous other sorts of ICT devices. Many millions of people draw valuable benefits from the use of those devices. But the pay received by the men, women and children who mine gold and other rare minerals is very low; and the conditions in which those people work are generally appalling. There is a need for determined measures to be taken to increase these people’s pay and to ameliorate the conditions they work in. This immediately raises the very difficult question: who is going to take the lead in taking such initiatives. It may be that the only people who can take the leading roles in driving such changes are the people who are most adversely affected. But in the case of gold miners, the people affected are poor and disadvantaged in numerous ways.
Nevertheless there are some indications of long-term solutions to this problem in other sectors of the world economy. Many millions of peasants and small farmers often work for small rewards in bad, sometimes appalling conditions in agriculture. Hundreds of millions of peasants and small farmers are organising themselves in, for example, La Via Campesina, to secure some amelioration in their opportunities to be more self-sufficient by producing a higher proportion of the foods that they and their families eat. We believe that it is conceivable that, when once such efforts achieve a measure of success, other grievously exploited workers such a gold miners might be encouraged to follow their example and organise themselves to press for the changes they need to make their lives bearable. The rewards received by peasants and small farmers are generally so poor that many millions of them have migrated to cities in the hope of finding much more remunerative work in manufacturing and other occupations. To a considerable extent, such migration may well be inevitable, but we think that some improvements of the pay and conditions experienced by peasants, small farmers and their families could be secured through feasible changes in the direction of technological change and agricultural production towards “Food Sovereignty”, and away from the use of intensive methods of food production; and this might secure some significant reductions in the rate of migration of people from the countryside to cities.

Thinking about mining and agriculture gives rise to the idea that, in the long run, the imposition of minimum standards of working conditions and remuneration, to be imposed on a sector by sector basis worldwide may be worth serious consideration. Clearly, the quantity of thought, research, and lobbying needed to put such a proposition on agendas would be very substantial: in particular, research on technology and inequality in manufacturing would provide essential background to the formulation and implementation of such a proposition.
There are also good reasons for people to aspire for radical changes in the direction of technological change in several other sectors. For example, multinational corporations are pushing developing countries to rely more on ICTs for development of their economies, and for improving education, when adapting development and education to specific national needs may well be better approaches, especially for contributing to the welfare of poor and disadvantaged people. In relation to health, despite some noticeable improvements in this respect in recent years, technological change still continues to benefit rich people more than poor and disadvantaged people in most countries.
In relation to most developed countries, it has been suggested by Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) and Jackson (2011) that economic growth should no longer be an overwhelming priority. Reductions in inequality would be far more valuable for the great majority of people living in these countries. But after the 2008 global financial crisis, there was practically universal consensus on the need to get consumption and the world economy growing again. There were also calls for a global Green New Deal. Public sector investment should be low carbon, targeted towards energy security and environmental protection. Investment in such areas as retrofitting buildings, mass transit, wind and solar power and low carbon vehicles could be designed to generate more jobs than stimuli to consumer spending. The payback from such investments would arise in the form of fuel savings, and also savings in public expenditure in such areas as savings in the health costs needed to combat the adverse effects of pollution.
But the assumption behind such measures was that they would also stimulate consumption growth. Jackson suggests that “Governments have systematically promoted materialistic individualism and encouraged the pursuit of consumer novelty…on the assumption that this form of consumerism serves economic growth, protects jobs and maintains stability.”(2011: 167). This, however, is unsatisfactory. The stimulation of consumption growth requires people to have aspirations to possess goods and services that they do not have at present, many of which they have no real need for. Growth of production and consumption in developed countries is reflected in material hungry growth in average GDP per head. This has been based mainly on product differentiation and market segmentation, and sustained internationally by enormous expenditures on advertising, marketing and promotion. Jackson maintains that investment is needed to achieve transition from a fossil fuel economy to a sustainable low-carbon economy based on renewable energy. However, he recognises that it is impossible for people to choose sustainable lifestyles. Such radical changes would require fundamental changes to the economy and to society.
Massive advertising and promotion, especially by major corporations and now augmented by extensive use of social media, serves to increase demand substantially. This expansion of demand helps to sustain and stimulate the drive for further increases in GDP in rich countries. The resulting continual increased sale of products to people who have no real need for them – especially sales of luxury products – results in ever increasing unnecessary damage to the environment, resulting both from the processes of producing the products, and also from disposing of them after use. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that, in the context of powerfully entrenched consumer culture, that as an eminent economist suggests: “the current environmental policies of many countries are expensive, inefficient, inhumane and in many cases entirely useless” (Sinn, 2012: 187). It is clearly important to further research the effects of massive advertising and promotion further as a first step in reducing them. Moreover, comprehensive analysis of issues relating to technology and inequality would include at least consideration of manufacturing, transport, energy, the environment, and also social care – an important area which is becoming even more important with the growing proportion of old people in the populations of many countries.
Moreover, there are serious questions about the policies of International Organisations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organisations. It appears often that those organisations’ policies are directed at meeting the needs of capitalism more than they are directed at meeting the needs of poor people in developing countries. This would seem to be an area in which far more research is needed.
It is also important to take account of arguments for the survival and continuation of 21st century capitalism more or less unchanged: these are that markets offer the best incentives for individuals, companies and corporations to maximize their contribution to human welfare. Nevertheless, it is argued in this paper that although there may have been some truth in this perspective in the past, there is very little truth remaining in it in the twenty first century. Indeed, we go so far as to suggest that the incentives offered by markets to individuals, companies and corporations are often perverse in relation to the behaviours which are needed to secure the principal objectives of economic activities.
Of course, the future is and must be, contested ground, and there will always be different visions and models about ‘progress’ and ‘development’. Nevertheless, this paper constitutes an argument for radical but peaceful transformations in the determination of the ways in which resources and rewards for economic activity are allocated, for significant changes in the constitutions of large enterprises; and in the legal frameworks and regulations which control their activities. Above all, there is an urgent need for growing decentralization of the control of the direction of technology from huge monopolistic corporations to smaller enterprises, whether publicly or privately controlled. This need is general, but perhaps most obvious in relation to agriculture and food, in which there is urgent need for far more local small-scale production and distribution to match better with the huge biological, geographical and climatic diversity of the earth’s surface. If the future is contested, it is also contestable. Whilst the institutions and practices of neo-liberal capitalism and its imperatives of profit seeking and increased consumption seem increasingly entrenched in our everyday lives and of global reach, they are not inevitable. An alternative future – of socially and culturally appropriate technologies harnessed for increasing equality and social justice – is possible.


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Jackson,T. (2011), Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, London and Washington DC. Earthscan.
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Extended Abstract: SPRU Seminar, 15 October 2012