Making Political Ecology
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Making Political Ecology

Rod Neumann

  1. 224 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Making Political Ecology

Rod Neumann

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About This Book

Making Political Ecology presents a comprehensive view of an important new field in human geography and interdisciplinary studies of nature-society relations. Tracing the development of political ecology from its origins in geography and ecological anthropology in the 1970s, to its current status as an established field, the book investigates how late twentieth-century developments in social and ecological theories are brought together to create a powerful framework for comprehending environmental problems.Making Political Ecology argues for an inclusionary conceptualization of the field, which absorbs empirical studies from urban, rural, First World and Third World contexts and the theoretical insights of feminism, poststructuralism, neo-Marxism and non-equilibrium ecology. Throughout the book, excerpts from the writings of key figures in political ecology provide an empirical grounding for abstract theoretical concepts.Making Political Ecology will convince readers of political ecology's particular suitability for grappling with the most difficult questions concerning social justice, environmental change and human relationships with nature.

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The constitution of political ecology
The structure of the book
Approaching political ecology
The environment and how we acquire, disseminate, and legitimate knowledge about it are highly politicized, reflective of relations of power, and contested. Any doubts that this is so can be dispelled quickly by a survey of recent headlines. The debate on the science of climate change conducted in the US news media in 2003–2004 — replete with accusations of government censorship and attacks on the personal integrity of scientists — provides a compelling illustration. A good place to enter the debate is in June 2003 when an official of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) anonymously leaked to the New York Times a copy of the agency’s draft report on the state of the environment that had been heavily edited by White House officials. ‘Among the deletions were conclusions about the likely human contribution to [global] warming … [and] a reference to a 1999 study showing that global temperatures had risen sharply in the previous decade’ (Revkin and Seeyle, 2003: AI). The deletions were so numerous and so muddled the report’s discussion on climate change that ultimately the EPA deleted the entire section, leaving a puzzling gap in its assessment of environmental trends. Responding to what they perceived as an overt effort to shape and direct scientific information for political ends, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report in 2004 claiming that the ‘manipulation, suppression and misrepresentation of science by the Bush administration is unprecedented’ (quoted in Revkin, 2004a: A9). A Harvard University-based psychologist concluded in a National Public Radio interview that US President George W. Bush’s science advisor ‘basically has become a prostitute’ (quoted in Glanz, 2004: DI).
Interestingly, while one arm of the US government was suggesting that scientific findings about the existence and causes of global warming were at best inconclusive, another was contemplating the consequences of a rapid, near-term shift in climate conditions. As reported in detail in the pages of Fortune magazine, the US Department of Defense issued an unclassified report towards the end of 2003 that explored the effects of a rapid change in global temperatures by 2020 on food production, geopolitical conflict, human migration and natural resources availability. Sponsored by 82-year-old defense planner Andrew Marshall, ‘known as the Defense Department’s “Yoda’” (Stipp, 2004: 104), the report’s findings led even Fortune to suggest that government regulation of industry and reduced oil consumption might be a wise move.
Stranger still is the most recent political flap over climate change science. Once again the story begins with an anonymous leak to the New York Times, this one from a senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. In a peculiar confluence of partisan political interests, environmental policy, science fiction and big budget movie promotion, the newspaper reported that NASA scientists had been banned from commenting on The Day After Tomorrow, a futuristic Hollywood disaster film on the havoc wreaked by human-induced climate change. The NASA headquarters directive states, ‘No one from NASA is to do interviews or otherwise comment on anything having to do with’ the film (quoted in Revkin, 2004b: 14). The film, which includes a fictional US Vice-President resembling then current Vice- President Dick Cheney ridiculing climate change science as disaster unfolds, presents a sort of instant-Ice-Age scenario induced by fossil fuel emissions. NASA headquarters subsequently relaxed their stand somewhat, allowing selected scientists to answer questions from the news media.
These news items highlight what this book, in broadest terms, is about. It is about a field of human geography that explores the relationship between politics and ecology. These articles indicate a number of ways in which this relationship is manifested, such as the exercise of political power to control who has access to environmental scientific knowledge and under what circumstances. They suggest that the environment is increasingly being framed as a security issue to be addressed through military institutions, in addition to or rather than political and scientific institutions. They also suggest that our knowledge of the environment is culturally mediated and that this mediation is infused in political struggles over the environment in complex ways. Visual imagery, stories, myths, ideology and so forth operate to position us — as individuals, as congeries of institutions, and as a species — in relation to the non-human world. The book, of course, plumbs the depths of the relationship of politics and ecology far below the surface of newspaper headlines and popular films. Among other ideas, it explores the ways that political and economic interests are reflected in the very questions that science asks about the direction and causes of environmental change. It asks how struggles over human rights, social justice and poverty are linked to the politics of environ mental conservation and degradation. These and other paths of inquiry pursued within raise fundamental and challenging questions regarding the nature of human-environment relations, questions that collectively constitute the focus of political ecology.

The constitution of political ecology

Journal articles, edited volumes and books carrying the phrase ‘political ecology’ in their titles have been appearing in recent years at an accelerating pace across several academic disciplines. Even a cursory search of academic databases and library catalogues reveals an impressive number of political ecology studies on a fascinating, if puzzling, array of topics. To illustrate with just a few examples, we find a large collection of works with the phrase ‘political ecology of’ followed by: biodiversity (Brown, 1998); picking (Hansis, 1998); Agave (Burwell, 1995); the British Conservative Party (Turner, 1995); representation in English Canada (Eagles, 1998); the modern peasant (Anderson, 1994); flood hazard (Pelling, 1999); trans-boundary development (Dedina, 1995); bananas (Grossman, 1998); biogeography (Kirkpatrick, 2000); coastal planning (Lee, 1993); and tourism (Stonich, 1998). Can we locate a common theme, or read any sense of coherence in these titles? Would a political ecology of ‘Agave’ (an economically important plant) resemble in any way a political ecology of ‘the British Conservative Party’? In their use of the term, political ecology, can all of these authors possibly be referring to the same thing?
The answer to these questions, at least for several of the examples provided above, is, no. There are significant differences in the way the term is used, some so significant that there is little overlap in meaning. For the sake of clarifying what this book is and is not about, it is important to briefly discuss the various uses of the term, some of which have little relation to the project at hand, while others share certain interests. We can begin by first eliminating those uses that have the least relevance here. One meaning for political ecology builds on the emphasis of place in political geography (Agnew, 1987), exploring how local ecology might influence the structure and conduct of politics. Specifically, the objective of this approach is ‘to identify if there really is a local ecology of political life in Canada’ (Carty and Eagles, 1998: 591). Another, slightly related, meaning is to apply the principles of ecology to politics, either metaphorically or in the sense that ecology provides ‘a foundation of and restriction on political possibilities, even determines appropriate forms of politics’ (Hayward, 1994: I I). Neither of these uses, though interesting and important in their own right, is of interest to us for the purposes of this book.
A more common and prominent usage of the term is in reference to environmentalism as a political movement, particularly as it has manifested in continental Europe in the form of ‘Green’ parties. Atkinson has provided a thorough review of this idea, defining political ecology as ‘both a set of theoretical propositions and ideas on the one hand and on the other a social movement referred to as the “ecology movement” or, latterly, the Green movement’ (1991: 18–19). Atkinson located the origins of the greens in the 1960s’ Zeitgeist. Health threats from nuclear fallout, concerns over industrial pollution, new awareness about the ecological damage from pesticide use, and alarm over the rapid rate of population growth combined with the social and political activism of the 1960s to produce the environmental movement. Political ecology, in this sense, is a liberal political movement anchored in a reaction against industrialization and modernity. It is this conceptualization of the term that was the target of Enzensberger’s (1974) ‘critique of political ecology’. Enzensberger proposed that the core thinking of the movement could be summarized by the hypothesis: ‘the industrial societies of the earth are producing ecological contradictions, which must in the foreseeable future lead to their collapse’ (ibid.: 4). According to Enzensberger, the proposals for action to avoid this future — based as they are on a technological and scientific understanding of society — are a fatal flaw in the political logic of the movement. That is, in the absence of a critical understanding of social and economic life, the mainstream Green movement could not address the fundamental causes of the environmental crisis.
While the conceptualization of political ecology as a green movement is different from the meaning used in this book, it does include overlapping theoretical and conceptual elements. The career of René Dumont and the key role he played in the history of the Greens in France demonstrate this point. In 1974, Dumont was the first in France to run for presidential office on an ecology platform. Whiteside (1997) argues that Dumont had a pivotal influence on French political ecology, which has stood out among European Green movements for its relatively strong currents of social justice, concern for poverty and attention to unequal North-South power relations. Dumont was an agronomist by trade who had done much of his research and advising in colonial and postcolonial territories where he came to question the suitability of French agricultural advice for local conditions. His political ecology was sensitive to relations of dependency between the South and North, the vulnerability of the world’s poorest countries to environmental hazards, and the social and ecological damage resulting from the accumulation of wealth. He was as convinced as anyone in the environmental movement of the ecological limits of the modern industrial economy, but thought that it ‘failed to communicate how the effects of those limits would be felt unequally’ (Whiteside, 1997: 7).
Dumont’s socialist leanings, his ideas for a green political movement, and his professional experience as an agricultural advisor working in the Third World bring us in closer proximity to the meaning of political ecology as it is used here. In this book, political ecology refers to a scholarly field that emerged in the 1980s among a group of primarily geographers and anthropologists based in the United States, Great Britain, and Australia. In Chapter 2 we will treat the origins and central concerns of the field at length. Suffice it for now to say that the progenitors of political ecology were specialists in rural development, cultural ecology, and ecological anthropology, many of whom were, like Dumont, conducting research in postcolonial territories and drawing similar conclusions about the relationship between poverty and environmental degradation, questioning the suitability of Northern technologies, and critiquing the purported benefits of deepening market relations. Their initial focus was on probing how the politics of access to and control over land and resources were related to environmental change. The main premise was that ecological problems were at their core social and political problems, not technical or managerial, and therefore demanded a theoretical foundation to analyze the complex social, economic, and political relations in which environmental change is embedded.
Two geographers, Harold Brookfield and Piers Blaikie, put a name to this field and defined it as follows. ‘The phrase “political ecology” combines the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy. Together this encompasses the constantly shifting dialectic between society and land-based resources, and also within classes and groups within society itself’ (Blaikie and Brookfield, 1987: 17). This definition, however succinct, still leaves much room for discussion over what exactly political ecology entails. Scholars have referred to political ecology as a ‘research agenda’ (Bryant, 1992), an ‘approach’ (Warren et al., 2001; Zimmerer and Bassett, 2003a), and a ‘perspective’ (Rocheleau et al., 1996a; Kalipeni and Feder, 1999). There is also a proliferation of new modifiers attached to the term, which appear to be multiplying at an increasing rate. These include proposals for a political ecology that is ‘poststructuralist’ (Escobar, 1996),’feminist’ (Rocheleau et al., 1996b), ‘Third World’ (Bryant and Bailey, 1997), ‘antiessentialist’ (Escobar, 1999), ‘critical’ (Sayre, 1999; Forsyth, 2003), ‘First World’ (McCarthy, 2002), ‘geographical’ (Zimmerer and Bassett, 2003b), and ‘urban’ (Swyngedouw and Heynen, 2003). There is even the suggestion that ‘liberation ecology’ (Peet and Watts, 1996a) might be a more apt term, better reflecting a growing interest in the relationship of the environment to new social movements for entitlements, livelihoods, and social justice. Is this ongoing proliferation of new modifiers a sign of a maturing field developing internal specializations, an expansion in the breadth of its practitioners’ interests, or a process of academic Balkanization? The answer suggested in this book is that it reflects a healthy mix of the expansion of and specialization within political ecology’s boundaries.
While the various approaches to political ecology will be discussed at length in the chapters that follow, it would be useful at this point to elaborate somewhat on the scholarly practices that collectively constitute this field of research. What do political ecologists do when they practise their trade? As we shall see, there is no single methodology for political ecology research, though multiscaler analysis has been a hallmark of political ecology, making it distinguishable from other approaches to human-environment relations. Other common methodological patterns can be discerned by evaluating key writings in the field. Among the most important are political-economic analysis, historical analysis, ethnography, discourse analysis and ecological field studies. Few political ecology studies incorporate all of these methodologies, or do so in the same relative proportions. Furthermore, the geographic scales at which each methodology is engaged may vary greatly within and among studies. Ultimately, an engagement with a combination of several of these methodologies is an important and distinctive characteristic of research in the field. Moreover, virtually by definition, political ecology research includes historical and political-economic analyses. Although this assertion will be elaborated throughout subsequent chapters, a brief discussion is warranted here.
If we start from the basic definition of political ecology as ecology plus political economy, certain concepts and analytics become central to explaining human-environment relations. Specifically, a focus on the respective roles and interactions of the state and the market and the influences on environmental outcomes is critical. In addition, some level of historical analysis has been integral to the conduct of political ecology research. In particular, political ecologists have been concerned with historical processes of formal colonialism and their influence in shaping contemporary structural relations between the state, civil society and the market. Historical analyses have also been important for uncovering land and resource management practices embedded in non-capitalist or pre-colonial indigenous socio-political systems.
Apropos of this last point, ethnography has played a crucial role in approaches to political ecology that are concerned with highlighting the differing and sometimes conflicting perspectives on the environment and environmental problems held among various actors operating at local, regional and global scales. In particular, much attention has been given to exploring the symbolic meanings ascribed to lands and environments and how these imbricate with struggles over control and access to material resources. Ethnographic analysis in political ecology is not simply a matter of interpreting the ‘native’ view of the world, but also of interrogating the role of ideology and the importance of cultural context in shaping the perceptions of scientists, policy makers and bureaucrats. As Moore explained, ‘Ethnography provides a critical medium for exploring the dynamics of cultural politics which animate environmental conflicts’ (1996: 126). From this perspective on political ecology, symbolic struggles over the meaning, definition and categorization of rights, responsibilities and benefits are at the core of material struggles over the environment (Carney, 1993). Much of this interest in cultural politics and symbolic meaning in political ecology can be traced to the emergence of poststructuralism. An exploration of poststructuralism will be conducted in later chapters, but it is important to briefly identify here the ways that it has shaped political ecology research.
Poststructuralism has introduced to political ecology an emphasis on new social movements based on socially constructed identities of race, gender and ethnicity and hence a conceptualization of politics that is much broader than a focus on elections and state offices. In particular, it has introduced the idea of discourse analysis in political ecology research and the importance of exploring and revealing the ways in which the environment and environmental problems are discursively constructed. While a great deal of debate about the precise role of discourse analysis in the field continues, over the past decade or so it has become widely recognized that material analyses in political ecology cannot be conducted in the absence of or separately from discursive analyses. In political ecology’s engagement with discourse analysis, emphasis is placed on a critical perspective toward modernist notions of objectivity and rationality, on interrogating the relationship between power and scientific knowledge, and the recognition of the existence of multiple, culturally constructed ideas of the environment and environmental problems.
Finally, political ecology incorporates, albeit critically, theoretical perspectives and empirical findings from ecological science. Many political ecologists conduct field studies that typically include vegetation transects, plot sampling, soil tests, analysis of remotely sensed imagery, or the use of computerized geographic information systems (GIS). The use of remotely sensed imagery, including satellite images and aerial photographs, has played a particularly important role in studies that seek to...

Table of contents

  1. Cover
  2. Half Title
  3. Title Page
  4. Series Preface
  5. Titles in the Series
  6. Copyright Page
  7. Table of Contents
  8. Acknowledgements
  9. Chapter 1 Introduction
  10. Chapter 2 Roots and Branches
  11. Chapter 3 Nature and Society
  12. Chapter 4 Environment and Development
  13. Chapter 5 Biodiversity Conservation
  14. Chapter 6 Future Directions
  15. References
  16. Index