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Political ecology



Political ecology (PE) is concerned with how humans relate to the biophysical world. Political ecologists have investigated the many environmental challenges that vulnerable communities across the world must face. These include the unequal impacts of global warming on different societies, the health effects of environmental toxics in food, air and water, the environmental crimes of corporations and syndicates, tropical deforestation, wars over control of natural resources, land grabbing, and urban environmental injustices. Political ecology has been important in explaining such phenomena, and particularly the social and political inequities both causing them and mediating their impacts (Bryant, 2015).
Batterbury S.P.J. 2018. Political ecology. In Castree N., M. Hulme and J. Proctor (eds.) The
Companion to Environmental Studies. London: Routledge. 439-442.
Section 4.14 Political ecology Simon Batterbury
Political ecology (PE) is concerned with how humans relate to the biophysical world. Political
ecologists have investigated the many environmental challenges that vulnerable communities across
the world must face. These include the unequal impacts of global warming on different societies, the
health effects of environmental toxics in food, air and water, the environmental crimes of corporations
and syndicates, tropical deforestation, wars over control of natural resources, land grabbing, and
urban environmental injustices. Political ecology has been important in explaining such phenomena,
and particularly the social and political inequities both causing them and mediating their impacts
(Bryant, 2015)
. PE is interdisciplinary and most closely associated with the disciplines of geography, anthropology
and development studies. PE’s distinguishing feature is tracing environmental problems and human
vulnerabilities to inequalities in power, although many political ecologists also carry out analysis of
environmental processes. In general, political ecologists believe that the human struggle for resources
and healthy environments is strongly influenced by how much power societies, and individuals hold,
and how they use it.
Access to resources
Inequalities in ‘access to natural resources’ is a central theme of political ecology. Consider the widely
reported acquisition of African land by investors, foreign governments and corporations wanting to
grow biofuels and conduct agribusiness in the 2000s. This saga of ‘accumulation by dispossession’
(Harvey, 2004) peaked in 2011–2012, but has major effects on access to land and water. In SW
Cameroon in West Africa, deals were made with government that permitted vast tracts of land to be
occupied legally by offshore industrial corporations for palm oil plantations, including the US-based
Herakles Farms. Tens of thousands of hectares of gallery forests and farmland has been cleared and
replanted for palm and other monocrops. Political ecologists identify the process as political, since
although SW Cameroon has suitable environmental conditions for palm, that is not why companies
have gained a foothold in this particular place – rather, there is weak and sometimes corrupt
governance, outdated and undemocratic land tenure rules, as well as divided communities who are
poor and vulnerable to demands for land
Foreign investors have exploited these conditions at different scales. Worse affected are rural
women, who lack a political mandate to speak out collectively. A further inequality is that the loss of
land is not compensated by the few agro-plantation jobs and minor financial returns from palm oil
production. And, because this region is geopolitically marginalised and in conflict with the state, legal
challenges to land grabbing are going unanswered. The political ecology of land access remains
central to the region and its people (Batterbury & Ndi, 2017).
Hatchet and seed
So, a broad-ranging political ecology investigation is required to understand such complex
environmental issues, and particularly to reveal inequalities and injustices. For geographer Paul
Robbins, political ecology can be used as ‘hatchet’ and ‘seed’ (Robbins, 2004). In this case, the first is
an exposé of power inequities, and the effects of deforestation and palm cultivation. Empirical
research may be useful in defending the rights of local residents. Indeed in other locations, the ‘green
economy’ of conservation reserves, biofuel plantations or renewable energy installations also closes
down access to resources. Sometimes this pits political ecologists against conservation biologists and
large environmental NGOs (today, sometimes in partnership with business) anxious to preserve
habitat, at the expense of local livelihoods (Adams, 2017).
‘Seeding’ involves generating fresh and useful ideas that may find a home in direct advocacy, legal
challenges, or activism. PE has supported better environmental governance, and efforts to ‘fight back’
against injustice. Most directly, PE practitioners have not just researched the origins of injustice, but
tackled it, with constituencies including local scholars and community organisations. There is an
‘environmentalism of the poor’ involving political coalition-building, an Environmental Justice Atlas,
and concerted action against tough opponents, (Martinez-Alier et al., 2014). While some struggles are
international and combative, others are more localised community efforts to capture or sustain access
to resources.
Political ecologists note that persuasive narratives skew our judgements about human–environment
relationships. The ‘power to convince’ is important in explaining how land was ceded in Cameroon for
example; local chiefs were persuaded that benefits would result from palm oil plantations. This is a
common story; narratives embody power, and can have tangible effects on environments and people
(Adger et al., 2001; Escobar, 2008). The ‘post-truth’, pro-business, anti-environmentalist narratives
rolled out by the 2017 Donald Trump administration in the United States are not supported by
scientific analysis of climate change and other environmental phenomena. This is a struggle for truth,
which for political ecologists and their ilk involves “resisting truth claims that lead systematically to un-
freedoms and objectionable practices” (Sullivan, 2017: 234). There are potential alliances here
between the objectives of climate science, political ecology and global coalitions of activists and
affected communities – and of course, many questions to be resolved about the values and justice
claims that are adopted.
Methods and theories
Methodologically, political ecologists use a wide range of approaches, to illuminate exactly how
political and economic activities influence the fate of ecosystems and local cultures, and how
institutional arrangements and organisations are (or have been) responsible for these outcomes.
Geographer Piers Blaikie and colleagues were the originators of a distinctive ‘regional PE’ approach
which analyses processes that operate at different scales, but are interlinked. Blaikie identified a
“chain of explanation”, or a cascade of effects, linking soil erosion to changes in land use practices,
caused not by poor local land management but by poverty and denial of access, even arguing that
“soil erosion in lesser developed countries will not be substantially reduced unless it seriously
threatens the accumulation possibilities of the dominant classes” (Blaikie, 1985: 147).
This type of explanation has been applied in other contexts, including lifting the gaze to global issues
like carbon emissions and the new ‘green economy’ (Peet et al., 2011). PE draws upon a range of
theories to explain human–environment relationships (Bixler et al., 2015). Theorists including Karl
Marx and Michel Foucault, show how inequalities are embedded in capitalism, and in the subjugation
and control of entire populations through monitoring and categorising. There are rational
underpinnings to environmental struggles that create winners and losers (Bixler et al., 2015;
Hornborg, 2017). Bruno Latour’s work is rather different, used by some political ecologists to look
closely at relational networks or ‘assemblages’ involving objects (like trees, and genetically modified
seeds) as well as people (Latour, 1991). Feminist political ecology sees power as gendered, focusing
on the marginalisation of women but also their vital role in maintaining livelihoods and in struggling for
access to resources (Rocheleau et al., 1996). Anthropologist Arturo Escobar’s work, based on the
Pacific Coast of Colombia, develops unique theories of resistance to modernity and development
(Escobar, 2008).
Political ecology addresses political and economic agendas that have real effects on resources,
environments, and people. Its practitioners dig deep, exposing these agendas but also the practices
of those who survive in an unequal world. This work is important in the world of ‘post-truth’, in which
‘facts’ seem negotiable if they are unwelcome to powerful interests. ‘Received wisdoms’ can too easily
direct bad policy. In the current, desperate context where unscientific narratives are imperilling
everybody’s environmental future, political ecology has come of age as a necessary dimension of
environmental studies.
Learning resources
The following offer rich resources written by political ecologists:
Journal of Political Ecology (free access)
POLLEN (political ecology network)
ENTITLE – collaborative writing on PE
Environmental Justice Atlas
Adams, W.M. (2017) ‘Sleeping with the enemy? Biodiversity conservation, corporations and the green
economy’, Journal of Political Ecology, 24: 243–257.
Adger, N., Benjaminsen, T.A., Brown, K. & Svarstad. H. (2001) ‘Advancing a political ecology of global
environmental discourses’, Development and Change 32, 4: 681–715.
Batterbury, S.P.J. & Ndi, F. (2017) ‘Land grabbing in Africa’. In Binns J.A., K. Lynch and E. Nel (eds)
Handbook of African Development. New York: Routledge.
Bixler, R.P., Dell’Angelo, J., Mfune, O. & Roba, H. (2015) ‘The political ecology of participatory
conservation: institutions and discourse’, Journal of Political Ecology, 22: 164–182.
Blaikie P.M. (1985) The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries. London: Longman.
Bryant, R. (ed.) (2015) The International Handbook of Political Ecology. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Escobar, A. (2008) Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes. Durham, NC: Duke
University Press.
Harvey, D. (2004) ‘ The “new” imperialism: accumulation by dispossession’, Socialist Register, 40, 63–
Hornborg, A. (2017) ‘Artifacts have consequences, not agency: toward a critical theory of global
environmental history’, European Journal of Social Theory, 20(1): 95–110.
Latour, B. (1991) We Have Never Been Modern. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Martinez-Alier, J., Anguelovski, I., Bond, P., Del Bene, D., Demaria, F., Gerber, J-F., Greyl, L., Haas,
W., Healy, H., Marín-Burgos, V. et al. (2014) ‘Between activism and science: grassroots concepts for
sustainability coined by environmental justice organizations’, Journal of Political Ecology, 21: 19–60.
Peet, R., Robbins, P. & Watts, M.J. (2011) Global Political Ecology. London: Routledge.
Robbins, P. (2004) Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
Rocheleau D, Thomas-Slayter, B. & Wangari, E. (eds) (1996) Feminist Political Ecology: Global
Issues and Local Experiences. London: Routledge.
Sullivan, S. (2017). ‘What’s ontology got to do with it? On nature and knowledge in a political ecology
of the “green economy”’, Journal of Political Ecology, 24: 217–242.
The gap/lag in development in many African countries and the necessity to fill this gap have been the explanation for China’s enormous presence in many African countries. China’s engagement in the African continent includes foreign aid, grants, infrastructure development, and trade relationship. These engagements have deepened the impact/influence of China on the Continent, politically and economically. Various factors have alluded to the budding relationship between China and many African countries. One such is the shared economic and political history similar to many African countries. Although several investors are investing in development in Africa, China seems to have gained an unprecedented increased presence and partnership in the African continent consecutively in recent times. Diverse reactions trail the enormous presence of China in the African continent, especially the balance of benefits between China and African countries. Despite these various concerns and uncertainty, many African countries continue to encourage and promote relations with China. This work is set to assess the impact of China’s engagement in the Africa Continent, on whose side the balance of convenience tilts or otherwise. Lastly, this work will evaluate the sustainability of a long-term projection/relation between China and African countries.KeywordsAfricaChinaRelationsDevelopmentInfrastructure
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In this introduction to a Special Section, we outline three recent interrelated research tendencies with regard to how to understand the practices and politics of 'nature': 1) a major attention towards non-anthropocentric environmental ideologies; 2) more complex analyses of environmental movements; and finally, 3) attention to unconventional every-day practices of environmental justice. In all three tendencies, we argue, a renewed attention to socio-economic power relations of the wider context becomes crucial for a better understanding of environmental dynamics. Ethnographically engaged studies from the European context offer examples of how it becomes possible to assess the impact of new grass-root practices, to pay attention to good micropractices, and understand the unexpected outcomes of the engagement with nature. Key words: Environmentalism, social movements, power, conflict.
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This article reviews recent literature relevant to the ongoing shale gas boom and introduces the Journal of Political Ecology's Special Section on hydraulic fracking. We highlight the need for ethnographic studies of the tumultuous social and physical transformations resulting from, and produced by, an unfolding frontier of energy production that unsettles social, economic, and ecological landscapes. We examine how intercommunity connections are vital to recognizing the shared structural conditions produced by the oil and gas industry's expansion, through examining the roles played by the oil field services industry, the sequestration of information and agnotology (the deliberate production of ignorance), divide and conquer tactics, and shared experiences of risk and embodied effects. Summarizing the contributions of the five articles included in the Special Section, we offer recommendations for further inquiry. We examine how social science studies of hydraulic fracking are producing new and innovative methodologies for developing participatory academic and community research projects. Key words: digital media, embodiment, energy, hydraulic fracturing, oil field services industry, shale gas
Responding to the growing gap between the sociological ethos and the world we study, the challenge of public sociology is to engage multiple publics in multiple ways. These public sociologies should not be left out in the cold, but brought into the framework of our discipline. In this way we make public sociology a visible and legitimate enterprise, and, thereby, invigorate the discipline as a whole. Accordingly, if we map out the division of sociological labor, we discover antagonistic interdependence among four types of knowledge: professional, critical, policy, and public. In the best of all worlds the flourishing of each type of sociology is a condition for the flourishing of all, but they can just as easily assume pathological forms or become victims of exclusion and subordination. This field of power beckons us to explore the relations among the four types of sociology as they vary historically and nationally, and as they provide the template for divergent individual careers. Finally, comparing disciplines points to the umbilical chord that connects sociology to the world of publics, underlining sociology's particular investment in the defense of civil society, itself beleaguered by the encroachment of markets and states.