The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology
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The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology

Tom Perreault, Gavin Bridge, James McCarthy, Tom Perreault, Gavin Bridge, James McCarthy

  1. 646 pages
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eBook - ePub

The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology

Tom Perreault, Gavin Bridge, James McCarthy, Tom Perreault, Gavin Bridge, James McCarthy

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About This Book

The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology presents a comprehensive and authoritative examination of the rapidly growing field of political ecology. Located at the intersection of geography, anthropology, sociology, and environmental history, political ecology is one of the most vibrant and conceptually diverse fields of inquiry into nature-society relations within the social sciences. The Handbook serves as an essential guide to this rapidly evolving intellectual landscape. With contributions from over 50 leading authors, the Handbook presents a systematic overview of political ecology's origins, practices and core concerns, and aims to advance both ongoing and emerging debates. While there are numerous edited volumes, textbooks, and monographs under the heading 'political ecology, ' these have tended to be relatively narrow in scope, either as collections of empirically based (mostly case study) research on a given theme, or broad overviews of the field aimed at undergraduate audiences. The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology is the first systematic, comprehensive overview of the field. With authors from North and South America, Europe, Australia and elsewhere, the Handbook of Political Ecology provides a state of the art examination of political ecology; addresses ongoing and emerging debates in this rapidly evolving field; and charts new agendas for research, policy, and activism.

The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology introduces political ecology as an interdisciplinary academic field. By presenting a 'state of the art' examination of the field, it will serve as an invaluable resource for students and scholars. It not only critically reviews the key debates in the field, but develops them. The Handbook will serve as an excellent resource for graduate and advanced undergraduate teaching, and is a key reference text for geographers, anthropologists, sociologists, environmental historians, and others working in and around political ecology.

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Part I

Editors’ Introduction

Gavin Bridge, James McCarthy, and Tom Perreault
Developed through academic inquiry and engaged political practice, political ecology has experienced a meteoric rise. Its growth as an academic field is perhaps most evident in Anglophone geography in North America, where political ecology constitutes one of the largest and fastest growing specialty groups of the Association of American Geographers. Growth has been both rapid and uneven, and at times contested by longer-established fields. Matching political ecology’s rise in popularity has been its diversification, such that the term is now applied to a very broad set of concerns that revolve around societies’ relationships with the non-human environment. Even a cursory look at journal titles and conference presentations shows that the label “political ecology” is applied to research topics as seemingly disparate as water access in India, land grabs in the Amazon, Sahelian pastoralism, lawn care in the United States, fisheries management, wetland markets, indoor air quality, AIDS, and obesity. And of course the Anglophone tradition is but one stream of political ecological thought, which has barely engaged with the Francophone, Spanish, and other literatures, particularly as developed in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere in the global South. Political ecology also extends beyond academic enquiry to the knowledge claims and political practices advanced by people, many of them poor, who are subject to rationalities of resource management, environmental projects and/or pollution to which they do not consent. When viewed from this broad perspective, then, political ecology is a riotously diverse field, with origins and trajectories resembling more closely a tangled evolutionary lineage than a neat family tree.
The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology attempts to make sense of this growing body of research and practice. The chapters we have assembled provide a critical overview of political ecology’s geneaologies, some of its most important research foci, and emerging research agendas. Taken as a whole the volume provides a critical assessment of political ecology as a field, although we make no claim to be either comprehensive or definitive. Its chapters should be read as focused assessments of specific strands and conversations in political ecology – more field reports than final results. This introductory chapter probes the intellectual trajectory, current status, and possible future directions of political ecology. In the next section, we revisit the intellectual and political origins of the field, in an attempt to broaden – both historically and conceptually – our understanding of the various influences that have shaped it. We argue that the stereotypical “origin myth” of political ecology (as least as it exists in Anglophone geography), as emerging in the early 1980s from cultural ecology, the hazards tradition, and agrarian political ecology, and given form by Piers Blaikie, Harold Brookfield, and Michael Watts in a handful of books, is too narrow in its scope, and excludes a diversity of influences both within and beyond the academy. To be sure, these works were paramount in the development of political ecology, and remain vital texts today. However, we argue that political ecology’s roots are both deeper and broader than commonly acknowledged, and that the field is but one manifestation of a critical re-thinking of nature and nature–society relations that also took expression elsewhere (notably in the work of David Harvey and Neil Smith, but also in the environmental movements of North America and Western Europe), and which finds its roots in the intellectual and political Zeitgeist of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
This discussion is followed by an effort to situate political ecology relative to allied fields in nature–society studies. These include other fields within the discipline of geography, such as land use/land cover change, environmental history, cultural ecology, and hazards and vulnerability studies, as well as other fields such as ecological anthropology, environmental sociology, sustainability studies, and ecological economics. Crucially, this effort requires a consideration of the geographies of political ecology, that is, the various theoretical and empirical directions the field has taken in different places and institutional settings. Whereas political ecology is arguably the dominant form of nature–society geography in the North American Anglophone academy, it remains at the radical margins in the UK and especially in continental Europe. More than a mere observation about academic fashion, this reality demands that we consider the implications of this differential status for radical scholarship in different locations. Whereas political ecologists in, say, Germany, Spain, or the UK may reasonably consider themselves at the vanguard of nature–society scholarship, political ecologists in the United States and Canada occupy a very different position. Such scholars may find themselves asking what is at stake, intellectually and politically, if we are all political ecologists now. Following this discussion, we outline the structure of the volume and its principal themes, and briefly introduce the chapters.

Revisiting the origins of political ecology

What, then, is political ecology? Most academic treatments of the concept – at least those in the Anglophone tradition of North America, the UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand – trace the concept primarily to the 1980s and the seminal works of Watts (1983a, 1983b), Blaikie (1985), and Blaikie and Brookfield (1987). These authors were at once influenced by, and reacting against, an array of intellectual traditions, including the environmentalism of the 1960s and 1970s and its obsession with “over-population” and the depletion of (supposedly) finite resources, an intellectual current that was exemplified by the influential work of biologists Garret Hardin (1968) and Paul Ehrlich (1968), and the publication in 1972 of The Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972). It was precisely this supposedly apolitical ecology, whose class commitments are concealed beneath a veil of techno-scientific “objectivism,” that Enzensberger (1974) critiqued in his early use of the term “political ecology.” Somewhat confusingly, however, while Enzensberger’s radical critique – rooted in historical materialist analysis of demography, social relations, and nature – aligns politically with contemporary political ecological thought, he uses the term “political ecology” to refer to that which he critiques: the political nature of ecological science and the ecology movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, what he labels the “eco-industrial complex” (Enzensberger 1974: 10).
In the Anglophone academy, in which Watts, Blaikie, Brookfield, and other early political ecologists worked and published (for instance, see work by Susanna Hecht [Hecht and Cockburn 1989], Tom Bassett [1988], and Ben Wisner [1978]), political ecology also emerged as a reaction to the apolitical nature of the fields of cultural ecology and hazards studies (Watts 1983b). Trained in these fields, with their commitment to intensive field-based research and rigorous empiricism, these authors were similarly influenced by the resurgent Marxism of 1960s agrarian political economy and peasant studies, as well as the dependency and world systems thinking of, inter alia, Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin, and Immanuel Wallerstein. Perhaps more than anything else, political ecology was (and is) an epistemological project, which set out to shatter comfortable and simplistic “truths” about the relationship between society and its natural environment. Thus, early academic work in political ecology sought to deconstruct the dominant explanations of famine in Nigeria, soil erosion in Nepal, and deforestation in Brazil as rooted in over-population, improper land management, and brute ignorance. In their place, these authors erected alternative explanations for these phenomena, rooted in political economy, marginalization, colonial capitalism, and the abuses of predatory states. Political ecology thus grew to be distinctly catholic in both theory and method. Theoretically, the field was arguably oriented more towards understanding particular sets of dynamics in specific places than towards generating and answering the “next” question in a discipline-oriented epistemological framework; it thus drew from multiple theoretical frameworks from multiple fields that seemed to speak to those dynamics. Methodologically, the commitment to understanding dynamics in particular locations, combined with deep roots in cultural ecology and hazards studies, meant that political ecologists drew from a wide range of primarily field-based research methods, particularly ethnographic ones, usually supplemented with in-depth archival analysis.
These intellectual currents developed in relation to, and against a backdrop of, widespread social tumult during the 1960s and early 1970s (Watts 2001). This was a period characterized by widespread anti-authoritarianism and restless activism (the ten-month period from October 1967 to July 1968 witnessed over 2,000 recorded student protests worldwide). Violence in the streets of Mexico City, Paris, and Los Angeles, political assassinations and the anti-war, civil rights, women’s rights and environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s together shaped the individual experiences of academics and their research programs (see, for example, Chapter 3, this volume), and formed the social and political contexts from which political ecology emerged. The Catholic Church’s opening to the left, and especially the emergence of Liberation Theology from the 1968 Medellín conference, had particular influence on scholars and activists working in Latin America. War in Southeast Asia and the 1959 Cuban Revolution spurred a resurgence in peasant studies and interest in the so-called “agrarian question,” which in turn inspired a wave of radical political and academic activity (Wolf 1969). Meanwhile, many of the places political ecologists studied were profoundly transformed by the wave of decolonization that transformed the map of the world between the 1950s and the 1970s. The combination of formal decolonization (whether peacefully or by revolution), and the Cold War emphasis on proxy wars and spheres of influence in the formerly colonized world, led to the rise of “area studies” and intense academic and policy interest in peasant studies and agrarian political economy. It was in this context that state-funded research initiatives, such as the US government’s Fulbright programs, both encouraged and facilitated international research. It is worth noting that the US Department of Education’s area studies programs (known as “National Resource Centers,” or “Title VI” programs) were initially established by Title VI of the National Defense Education Act of 1958, and were thus closely aligned with US foreign policy objectives. Political ecology – both its major early topics of concern and its radical political orientation towards them – emerged directly from this milieu (e.g. Blaikie 1985; Scott 1976; Watts 1983b). The restive period of the late 1960s gave way to political and economic convulsion and conservative retrenchment in the early 1970s. This period witnessed US defeat in Viet Nam, the OPEC oil embargo and ensuing “oil shock,” Pinochet’s CIA-backed coup in Chile, and the implosion of the Nixon presidency. The 1970s also saw broad-based environmental mobilization and landmark environmental legislation, much of it in direct reaction to deteriorating environmental conditions of North American and European cities. The pioneering work of Rachel Carson figures prominently in this regard, as did the burning of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, the Santa Barbara oil spill, the declared “death” of Lake Erie, and the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979.
It was from this intellectual and political ferment that political ecology, in its various guises, emerged. Although differing somewhat from its contemporary valence, the term “political ecology” was already in use by the early 1970s. Eric Wolf (1972) used it (in his title, although curiously not in the body of his paper) to refer to landed property relations and the politics of resource management. Enzensberger (1974) used the term (and the shorthand “ecology”) to refer to the bourgeois European and North American environmental movements of the 1960s and early 1970s, which he saw as fundamentally rooted in capitalist techno-science and therefore incapable of addressing the structural causes of environmental crises. In a similar vein, Walker (1973, 1974) critiqued the role of science in environmental policy, arguing that wetlands management cannot be separated from the political economic context and power relations within which such management takes place. Similar and simultaneous arguments were made by Harvey (1974) in his critique of the dominant neo-Malthusianism of the liberal environmental movement. Harvey’s analysis extended to a discussion of the capitalist production of natural resources, which, he points out, cannot be understood apart from the social relations of production through which they are given meaning and value. The core principles of contemporary political ecology were thus already in place nearly a decade before the publication of Silent Violence. Harvey further developed his Marxist view of nature as produced by capitalist relations of production in The Limits to Capital (Harvey 1982), a thesis also at the core of Neil Smith’s treatise Uneven Development, a work of enormous (though often unacknowledged) influence in political ecology (Smith 1984). Political ecology represents, in many regards, precisely the sorts of efforts on the part of radical geography to come to grips with the “matter of nature,” as called for by Margaret FitzSimmons (1989). Our argument here – and as we further develop in the Handbook’s concluding chapter – is that the intellectual roots of political ecology are both older and more diverse than is commonly acknowledged in the literature, and stem from a general turn toward Marxist scholarship, post-positivist approaches to nature–society relations, and a broad and growing acceptance of the central elements of feminist and postcolonial scholarship and politics. This chronology also places the origins of political ecology upstream from Uneven Development and The Limits to Capital. The seeds of political ecology and those of Marxist geography took root in the same fertile soil and were watered by the same social and political currents.
The Anglophone academy holds no patent on political ecology, however, and the term has also been used to describe the European green parties (Lipietz 1999) and the liberal environmental movement in Europe and North America more generally (Enzensberger 1974). And whereas much political ecology emerging from the global North (albeit largely about the global South) has been concerned with agrarian political economy, indigenous livelihoods and resource governance, political ecology in the global South has developed in response to colonial histories, largely as a politics of difference rooted in ecological and cultural conditions (Leff 2014). In this sense, then, the political ecology of the South moves beyond the academic to comprise a political program rooted in decolonization, emancipation, cultural reinvention, and the re-appropriation of nature. There are also growing bodies of scholarship regarding human– environment relations in other linguistic and national academic trad...

Table of contents

  1. Cover Page
  2. Half-Title Page
  3. Epigraph
  4. Title Page
  5. Copyright Page
  6. Dedication
  7. Table of Contents
  8. List of figures
  9. List of tables
  10. Notes on contributors
  11. Acknowledgements
  12. PART I Introduction
  13. PART II Origins, trajectories, and futures
  14. PART III Doing political ecology
  15. PART IV Core questions in political ecology
  16. Index