In order to curb environmental impact, absolute resource use reductions are urgently needed. To reach this goal, multi-scalar synergies and trade-offs in global resource use must be effectively addressed. We propose that better understanding the role of extractive economies—economies that extract raw material for export—in global resource use patterns is a prerequisite to identifying such synergies and trade-offs. By combining a system-wide environmental accounting perspective with insights from political ecology and political economy research, we demonstrate that (1) the extractivist expansion may be the corollary of reduced immediate environmental impact in the industrialized countries; and (2) the material flow patterns on which this result is based do not suffice to identify the mechanisms underlying extractivist development and its role in global resource use. Our work on extractive economies illustrates that, in order to supply transformative knowledge for sustainability transformation, biophysical and socio-political conceptualizations of society-nature relations must be more strongly integrated within the interdisciplinary sustainability sciences in general and social ecology in particular.
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