UKPEWG is pleased to present the first round of essays in an ongoing series on key ideas in political ecology. Below, you will find ten responses to the prompt, 'What is political ecology?' The responses range from broad overviews to project-specific answers. The final entry is a document prepared by the original Political Ecology Working Group at UC-Santa Cruz in 2002.
Political Ecology is a kind of text
Political Ecology represents neither a theory nor a method, but instead reflects a global community of practice, convened around a certain kind of text.
As a community of practice, political ecology has formed a general constituency: a global conversation revolving around a set of themes, which adopts a specific sort of critical attitude. It is drawn from a large group of people who write professionally (like university academics) as well as those in international agencies (e.g. FAO), NGOs (e.g. WWF), state bureaucracies (e.g. USEPA), and local organizations. Typically, its constituency operates in the borderlands between analysis and action and between social practice and environmental change. It is, however, a community that holds a deep skepticism precisely of the institutions within which it operates. Its members, prodded by a sense that something has gone profoundly wrong:
- participate in institutions that manage the environment but are skeptical of the implications of environmental management
- teach courses on development but are woefully concerned that development has been environmentally destructive and ethically problematic
- work in applied circumstances to establish community-based solutions to problems, but are cognizant that “communities” are rife with internal conflict, domination, and exploitation
This community is held together by an ever-changing canon of arguments, which include not only written and printed articles, but all forms of symbolic content that tell stories: maps, videos, conference presentations, on-line powerpoint slides, audiologs, blogs, and other artifacts of communication. These texts share qualities that them a unique form of environmental literature: like noir is a form of film.
Political ecology texts:
- Track environmental winners and losers to understand the persistent structures of winning and losing
- Are narrated using human-non-human dialectics
- Start from, or end in, a contradiction
- Simultaneously make claims about the state of nature and claims about claims about the state of nature
University of Arizona
Robbins, P. 2012. Political Ecology: A critical introduction. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, chapter 4.
Political ecology is a stack of books. Political ecology is a string of words. It’s an academic debate between Peet & Watts and Vayda. It’s an approach, a way of thinking. An agenda. A challenge to standard ways of thinking. It’s an academic conference, and a phrase in paper title after paper title. Maybe everyone should be a political ecologist. It’s not a theory—but a collection of ideas and perspectives. But it’s something more. It’s about the environment, yes, but with the crucial addition of power. The environment isn’t simply the result of biophysical, mechanistic processes. The only way to think about nature as some pure, unadulterated entity is to ignore the depths of human history. Environments are human creations, inevitably shaped by uneven human politics. This is what political ecology is all about for me. It is a realization that the places and spaces in which we live are formed and transformed through something more than just “natural” processes. The landscapes in which we live, the social worlds through which we weave our lives—they are anything but inevitable, anything but idealistically democratic. Rivers are laced with toxic runoff and landscapes are littered with the detritus of the 21st century economy not because this is the natural course of history, but because someone, somewhere, made a particular choice. Humans make places what they are—and they often do this to the detriment of others. For me, golf courses are tremendously poignant examples of political ecologies, since they represent a concerted effort to demarcate and utilize a landscape for very limited—and not necessarily democratic—purposes. Think about all of the water, all of the space, all of the resources that are dedicated to the activity of hitting a small, white ball into a hole. Such spaces are culminations of political machinations and philosophical battles about development, community, and nature. We make our own environments within the constraints of powerful biophysical processes. Clearly. Political ecologists seek to account for these processes while paying close attention to the deep, brutal human politics that play an equally influential role in shaping our social and geographic worlds.
Department of Anthropology, University of Kentucky
What is political ecology?
I use e-waste governance as a proxy for understanding the conflicts and power struggles that constitute environmental policy making that is geared towards 'sustainable' ends. Over the past decade, NGO’s have followed the trail of e-waste (discarded electronics) collected for recycling in the U.S. that is subsequently sent to informal recycling operations abroad, where we’ve seen images of men and women without health protections smashing leaded glass, burning wire, and soaking circuit boards in acid baths in places like Guiyu, China and Agbogbloshie, Ghana. In light of these environmental justice issues, third-party voluntary certification and labeling schemes for electronic waste recyclers (similar to ‘fair trade’) have emerged as a key mechanism of governance. These labels are intended to bestow market value on agencies and firms that choose to engage in recycling practices deemed ‘green’ or ‘responsible’. These ideal practices are then communicated through a label, whose visibility allows consumers (in this case producers of e-waste) to effect the problem through market choices i.e. choose to send their e-waste to a certified processor who safely manages the material. The governing of e-waste through labeling, however, relies upon a political process of deciding on which types of practices should be valorized.
I use a political ecology approach to peel back the social relations embedded within this labeling scheme. This means that as a researcher, I understand labels to be terrains of struggle as opposed to technocratic mechanisms. What are the limitations and opportunities of building a sustainable world through consumer choice? For me, political ecology is an epistemology that builds on the environmental justice focus on the relationship between social inequality and environmental harm, but broadens that focus to examine environmental injustices not as discrete events, but as historical and geographical processes shaped by asymmetrical relationships of power. From this perspective, building a better e-waste management system is not merely a bureaucratic question of applying technological solutions but also involves “fundamental issues of political power and democratic decision-making” (Faber and McCarthy 2003, 57).
University of Georgia, Department of Geography.
There is no need to reiterate that Political Ecology (PE) embraces diverse range of topics in geography concerning human-environment relationships. And it is kind of cliché to state that PE examines both the political and ecological dimensions of a particular phenomena. For me, PE is beyond the dimensions of ecology and politics. For me, PE is a story (could be coherent or could be fragmented) which should be talked by maintaining the words or voices of people on whom we researchers are largely dependent for our writing. As I am currently working on the impacts of biodiversity conservation on local people’s livelihoods in a protected area in the Sundarban region of West Bengal, India, I strongly feel that the ongoing resource-access struggles of local people, conflicts with Bengal tigers, and the seeking for alternative livelihood provisions in the Sundarban should be talked through people’s voices who live in the region. Although I constantly cross-check the data I am currently gathering from the local population living in the villages adjoining the Sundarban Tiger Reserve (STR) to make my research more acceptable and reliable among scholarly community, I think that one of the goals of PE should be constantly telling the stories of disadvantaged and impoverished people of the society maintaining their words, their voices and their interpretations. I believe that people (here I want to mean “subjects”) on whom at least I, a novice political ecologist, am largely dependent, should share my power (if any!) with them. Because, I believe I not only provide voices to my “subjects”, but also my “subjects” are willing to provide their voices to me (in the classroom, in the conferences and in any setting where I talk about them). In the end, in my view, all political ecologists are story tellers and we should try to tell the stories as best as we can.
Department of Geography, University of Kentucky
300+ Ways of Seeing Snow
“People who only know one language think that in another language the words are only replaced with equivalent ones. It probably never even occurs to them that the whole way of thinking may be different and that things may be seen in a different way. Language is not just a means of communicating information, it also contains the central cultural elements of a people.”
- Sámi writer, artist, and activist Nils-Aslak Valkeäpää
To me, the real potential of political ecology lies not only in critically engaging with the many unequal power relations in this world, but also in actively helping to give voice to those who have previously been left unheard. But, the crucial question remains: in whose language, on whose terms?
I have been undertaking my doctoral fieldwork in Utsjoki, the northernmost municipality of Finland and the only municipality where the Sámi indigenous people still constitute the majority of the population. It did not take me long to realize that, in order to do justice to my research, I would need to learn the Sámi language and to learn it well. They say the boundaries of your language are the boundaries of your world, and I quickly came to realize that my perception and understanding would remain limited without a solid grasp of the local language.
Language is more than just communication: it shapes our perception, the very way we think about the world. The Sámi have more than 300 individual terms to describe different types of snow, as well as over 1,000 terms to describe reindeer, according to age, colour, and body size, shape and composition (e.g. Magga 2005). There are certain concepts in Sámi, such as láhi and attáldat, which cannot be directly translated and serve as a reminder of the core importance of land-community relationships – relationships that remain central to the land-based Sámi worldview (Kuokkanen 2005). This is not to even mention the more implicit meanings – the sound of words, which words sound similar and which do not, which are used regularly and which only seldom, and how messages may be communicated beyond words, through gestures, silence, song…
“Can you hear the sound of life
in the roaring of the creek
in the blowing of the wind
That is all I want to say
that is all.”
- Nils-Aslak Valkeäpää
Lisa Marika Jokivirta
University of Jyväskylä, Finland
Kuokkanen, Rauna (2005). “Láhi and Attáldat: the Philosophy of the Gift and Sami Education” in Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, vol. 35, 20-32.
Ole Henrik Magga (2005). Diversity in Saami Terminology for Reindeer and Snow. Paper presented at the UNESCO International Conference on Biodiversity: Science and Governance, Paris, 25 January 2005.
Political ecology is the gadfly of environmental studies. According to Wikipedia, that contemporary font of knowledge we urge undergraduates not to use, “a gadfly is a person who upsets the status quo by posing upsetting or novel questions, or just being an irritant.” Political ecologists are best known for asking uncomfortable questions, often of well-meaning, well-intentioned folks. One of the earliest and most notorious examples of the political-ecologist-as-gadfly is in the 1983 edited volume Interpretations of Calamity: from the Viewpoint of Human Ecology. Much of this text positions itself as a response to the overly technocratic hazards literature by developing a stronger social approach. Then, insert Michael Watts’ chapter, “On the Poverty of Theory: Natural Hazards Research in Context”, which as the title suggests rips into the core of the field by chastising work for its apolitical portrayal (un)natural hazards. The role of upsetting questions - upsetting assumptions and creating a space for constructive engagement and change- is central to political ecology. Political ecological research has done much to shift debates within environmental studies, although inarguably there is a long way to go before mainstream environmental studies deeply engages with key concerns of political ecology such as power and justice. The extent to which political ecologists serve simply as an irritant is also a useful question for us to consider, particularly when “going too far” results in our- as scholars and a subdiscipline- dismissal. But importantly, some political ecological work is moving away from engagement-as-gadfly and towards developing its own niche community of scholars. Essential as this is for enhancing insights and the tools of critique, political ecology must also continue playing the role of the gadfly in upsetting, asking novel questions of and even occasionally irritating the status quo of environmental studies.
African Centre for Cities
University of Cape Town
Political ecology as a corrective to environmental common sense
While political ecology is polyvalent and seems to squirm out of every parameter we place it in, one of the strongest themes in the 25 year history of contemporary political ecology (PE) is the propensity to confront taken-for-granted aspects of socio-natural processes and problems. Starting with Blakie and Brookfield’s challenge to colonial interpretations of soil degradation as result of farmers’ ignorance of soil properties, political ecologists have been at the forefront of problematizing dominant, often myopic, interpretations of environmental problems and practices. These challenges have now been leveled in a number of contexts that span far beyond critique of development projects, though this objective remains important. The disruption of dominant narratives touches on the most important components of political-economic action on the environment, including ideologies that feminize nature to the detriment of women and the environment, popular Neo-Malthusianism that often serves as a convenient surrogate for more blatant racism, and capitalism’s attempt to claim an environmentalist mantle that conceals the root of most contemporary environmental degradation. One particularly powerful and sustained disruption of contemporary common sense is political ecologists’ challenges to the efficiency, efficacy, and equity of commodifying non-human nature. In this era of market-ascendency and the foreclosure of political possibility for coping with environmental problems outside of market orthodoxy, political ecologists have taken the lead in demonstrating the myriad troubles that accompany the commodification of everything and the attendant results that push the physical world into the world of speculative capital. Another disruption happens in the academy itself, brought on simply by PE’s existence. Through interdisciplinary engagement and refusal to reside comfortably in any single department, PE confronts the new realities of the academy, and ultimately what academic knowledge is for. While other critical social-sciences also seek to disrupt dominant interpretations of their field of study, it is political ecology’s purchase on social/environmental nexuses that, for me, makes PE so exciting.
Department of Geography, University of Kentucky
What is political ecology?
Political ecology is a lot like King Kong (1933). Bear with me for a moment. UKPEWG just watched the movie as part of our bimonthly film series and I think there's a good reason for it.
Consider first that PE and King Kong the thing are both quite elusive. Our first glimpse of the legend comes at its adherents' tribute-paying ritual. Here we start understanding what exactly it is we're after. Yet it seems even when we do see it in action, its motivations still shirk us. It's out there, in an island jungle one moment, in the city the next. Are we dealing with demanding nature or an anthropomorphized being in love?
PE's also a beast and I mean this in two ways. First, it's rather unmanageable as it romps across a wide swath of academic territory, from Sociology to Meterological Science. As beast, PE also has its "enemies" and methods of dealing with them, namely, critique. If Kong can slay a T. Rex, can't PE take on neo-Malthusianism?
So PE and King Kong are both elusive beasts. But if we thematize PE along the lines of King Kong the movie, I think we develop a better picture of PE's project. Like the movie, PE's quite concerned with the nature of nature, the naturalization of Others, and nature's commodification. Whether we see Kong as just hungry or as beauty's beast says a lot about how we conceptualize environmental problems (as separate from society or as human-induced). The last theme is why we encounter Kong and PE both in the city and in the jungle; we find nature in the city only after we redefine nature and how it got there (by motivated humans).
In short, how we do PE has to be how we watch King Kong: as the critique of the ideology of nature.
University of Kentucky, Department of Geography
An Introduction to Political Ecology
Alexander Cockburn, Eric Wolf and Grahame Beakhurst are given credit for providing foundational political ecological tenets in the 1970s. In the 1980s, Piers Blaikie, Hal Brookfield, and Michael Watts led further development of these perspectives into what is now regarded as ‘political ecology’. Michael Watts claims that political ecological perspectives were inspired particularly by (1) peasant studies of exploitation, social differentiation, and the role of the market among the Third World rural poor; and (2) the growth of Marxian development studies (world systems theory, dependency, structural Marxism etc.).
In 1987, Blaikie and Brookfield defined political ecology as an approach that “can encompass interactive effects, the contribution of different geographical scales and hierarchies of socioeconomic organizations (e.g. person, household, village, region, state, world) and the contradictions between social and environmental changes through time” (1987:17). This approach emphasized contestations across these multiple scales in regards to resource access and use.
These ideas built from Blaikie’s 1985 book The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries. Blaikie’s work focused on the various perspectives through which one could view soil erosion, and environmental degradation. He wrote, “inequalities between the majority of the rural populations affected by soil erosion and other more powerful groups in access to adequate economic opportunities are both a result and a cause of soil erosion. In this sense soil erosion is a symptom of underdevelopment, and it reinforces that condition” (1985:3). Therefore, soil erosion could be seen as an indicator of livelihood stresses due to social and political inequalities. Furthermore, Blaikie asserted that, “environmental degradation is seen as a result of underdevelopment (of poverty, inequality and exploitation), a symptom of underdevelopment, and a cause of underdevelopment (contributing to a failure to produce, invest and improve productivity)” (1985:9).
Michael Watts defined political ecology as an effort to understand multi-scale and complex nature-society relations through an analysis of access, control over resources, and implications for environmental health and sustainable livelihoods. Watts focused on “the ways in which such cultural practices –whether science, or ‘traditional’ knowledge, or discourses, or risk, or property rights – are contested, fought over, and negotiated” (2000:259).
In accordance with the above, Stott and Sullivan defined political ecology as “a concern with tracing the genealogy of narratives concerning ‘the environment’, with identifying power relationships supported by such narratives, and with asserting the consequences of hegemony over, and within, these narratives for economic and social development, and particularly for constraining possibilities for self-determination” (2000:2). Adger et al. concurred as well, by linking “the underlying discourses of environmental change to policies and institutions engaged in implementing environment and development…this area of political ecology includes research on the sociology of science and knowledge, on the history of institutions and policy on environment and development and, most importantly, on the globalization of environmental discourses in relation to new languages and institutional relations of global environmental governance and management” (2001:682).
Other definitions of political ecology follow from the recent work of Blaikie and Raymond Bryant. Blaikie (1999) puts it this way: political ecology explores "the interaction between changing environments and the socio-economy, in which landscapes and the physiographic processes acting upon them, are seen to have dialectical, historically derived and iterative relations with resource use and the socio-economic and political sets of relations that shape them" (132). Bryant (1998), in the most succinct definition to date, puts it thus: political ecology is a critical recognition and exploration of the dynamics, properties, and meanings of 'politicized environments'.
Ultimately, political ecology like crème broulé. Initially, it is challenging to break the shell of it, but once you do, it is filled with rich possibilities (and a wonderful, powerful, and calorie-filled taste!; this is a bit of a joke, amigos!) and a growing tool-kit from which to exegetically explore and conceptualize the human-nature nexus.
UC Santa Cruz PEWG (2002)