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Introduction to the Environmental Offshoring Symposium

Updated: Mar 29, 2022

Environmental Offshoring: Implications for East Asia's Regionalization and Sustainable Development (March, 2020)

This is an introduction to the symposium “Environmental Offshoring: Implications for East Asia’s Regionalization and Sustainable Development” held on March 15, 2022 at Sophia University and online.

Before diving into the talks, I would like to talk a little about the background and why we are holding this symposium.

Political economy and political ecology are critical studies of complex and dynamic relations between nature and society. With a sharp focus on power, they provide critical tools to understand that costs and benefits of decisions and actions are for the most part distributed among actors unequally, which reinforces or reduces existing social and economic inequalities (Robbins 2012). Building on this critical perspective, our panels explore interdependent relationships between communities and their environments, countries of production and countries of consumption, capital accumulation, and environmental degradation.

More importantly, the purpose of this symposium is to examine how critical research in political economy and political ecology can transcend the original focus on the dichotomy between accumulation and dispossession. That is, we are interested in understanding how nature and society interact with each other, how their world-making rework landscapes and waterscapes at multiple scales—local, national, international, and global—and make actors—humans and nonhumans—interdependent, and how the epistemology of nature and society shapes decisions and actions of various actors.

The term “environmental offshoring” is less familiar to us than economic offshoring.

Economic offshoring is understood as an integral part of capital accumulation by appropriating labor and land from offshore places.

My colleague Carl Middleton and I have been working on how seemingly distant places are economically and ecologically connected, and our work has been informed by various scholars from different fields of study. Some of them are here at the symposium. For us, one of the inspiring works is John Urry’s Offshoring (2014). In the book, he lists three “replacing” functions of offshoring:

  1. direct substitution: Of jobs, especially those in manufacturing, rather than those of management or research that may remain at home in the developed world

  2. indirect substitution: This occurs through the growth of factories or service centers elsewhere that are broadly part of the same industry but which over time successfully compete against those more expensive factories or centers left in the developed world.

  3. system substitution: Of digital music and books, replacing traditional mediums such as records, CDs, and paper. The use of email for communications threatens postal systems.

He continues to write:

Offshoring especially transforms often peripheral or marginal places. The rise of offshore is not contingent or opportunistic but central to the internationalizing global economy and its neoliberal restructuring (2014: 27).

Building on Urry’s offshoring, we seek to make environmental aspects of exchange more explicit and relational.

Environmental offshoring is a way of appropriating and securing environmental resources, that is co-produced with economic offshoring.

Environmental offshoring is an emerging pattern of environmental security, a product of bolded/deepened connectivity between seemingly distant places whose economic and ecological relations have increasingly been rendered visible through transboundary processes of trade, investment, and aid.

This symposium brings together leading researchers to talk about such bolded/deepened connectivity between places of production and consumption. The empirical case studies come from investment and international cooperation between Thailand and Japan in the Ito and Middleton paper, trade of oil palm kernel waste between Indonesia and New Zealand in the Gellert paper, organic rice trade between Laos-Thailand and China-North America in the Baird paper, trade of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants between India and the Global North in the Nishi paper, and a more general assessment of environmental offshoring on the SDGs in the Olsen paper.


Robbins, P. (2012). Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Urry, J. (2014). Offshoring. Cambridge: Polity.

For further information, please visit the Environmental Offshoring Symposium webpage

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