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Political ecology

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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).
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PART II
ISSUES AND APPROACHES
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3. Doing political ecology inside and outside the
academy
Simon Batterbury
This chapter reflects on some practical settings in which political ecology is practised
inside and beyond academia.
1
I survey political ecology scholarship, and the extent to
which it treads its own path as a way to explain complex socio-environmental
dynamics. Its particular type of interdisciplinary thinking continues to clash and merge
with other approaches to understanding nature–society interactions and relationships.
After defining the field, I examine the context for political ecology work in academic
institutions, including a fast-changing environment for critical scholarship. Publication
outlets include several dedicated journals, and in recent years an increase in the volume
of political ecology articles and other outputs. I then argue that teaching is usually an
essential component of being a political ecologist, noting that the number of political
ecology classes is growing. The presence of political ecology outside the academy is
gaining strength too (albeit slowly), and so is its potential for alliances and academic
engagement, notably with NGOs and social movements (who already have their own
analytical tools and strategies for engaging in environmental politics). A logical
outcome for scholars who interrogate causes of inequality and environmental injustice
is personal engagement – critically and on the ground – potentially involving advocacy
and activism.
DEFINING THE FIELD
The test of any framework for understanding nature–society interaction lies not in its
theoretical complexity or neatness, but in its ability to understand and explain events
past and present, as appraised through research, reflection and observation. Contempor-
ary political ecology passes this test, explaining how and why humans are transforming
nature. Peet and Watts (1996) traced the term back to the 1970s, when it largely
referred to the study of environmental or green politics (Enzenberger, 1974). Political
scientists employed it in this way, as an ‘inclusive term encompassing diverse research
into policy, politics and the environment Neither politics nor the environment
operates as a dependent or independent variable; they are interdependent’ (Somma,
1993: 372). Bryant (1992:13) defined political ecology as ‘the attempt to understand
the political sources, conditions and ramifications of environmental change’.
Meanwhile ‘regional political ecology’ developed in the 1980s as a multi-scale
research approach, with greater links to the environmental sciences and using a unique
methodology. It entered Anglo-American geography and development studies through
Piers Blaikie’s ground-breaking analyses of soil erosion (Blaikie, 1985) and land
degradation (Blaikie, 1989b, 1991; Blaikie and Brookfield, 1987). Rejecting apolitical
27
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(or non-political) explanations that tend to blame overpopulation or land-user practices
for land degradation, this approach uses nested analytical scales spanning ‘local-level
field studies and macro-level processes’ (Bassett, 1988:472), and combining a rigorous
political economy analysis of land degradation with social and environmental investi-
gation. The argument is that access to environmental resources is always socially
mediated or constrained, usually involving multiple processes acting at different scales.
It is not a theory; rather, as Blaikie (1989a: 27) points out, it is the ‘spine’ of an
approach to which theoretical and empirical material may be attached. Students of the
Blaikie and Brookfield model have refined it and attacked it, but applied it to
understanding social vulnerability to natural hazards, as well as to a loss of access to
natural resources more broadly. It has proven particularly effective in uncovering the
roots of environmental degradation and different forms of injustice.
Political ecology has proven to be a popular academic approach. Some of this has to
do with the growth of environmentalism since the 1960s, responding in particular to the
effects of environmental problems and injustices, many linked to globalization and
neoliberal regimes. The threats include the real and existential, particularly from
anthropogenic climate change, and a widespread failure by key actors (states, large
corporations) to recognize environmental and social justice as more important than
short-term profits and votes. For most political ecologists, a deep ethical commitment,
sometimes but not always tied to a radical personal politics, means that what really
matters to them are the constraints placed by an ‘unsympathetic socio-economic
milieu’ (Amanor, 1994: 222) on human agency and creativity, as well as on healthy
environments and biodiversity. Problems of differential and gendered resource access,
land rights and indeed the wider political economy conspire to leave some people more
vulnerable or ‘marginalized’ than others (Wisner, 1993; Wisner et al., 2004). Many
aspects of how contemporary economies, cultures and ways of life operate today pose
limitations on the adaptive capacities of human agents in specific localities, even as
these agents struggle and fight against these broader constraints (Davies, 1996: 57).
The best research in political ecology begins with the tactics and strategies of making
a living in a particular environment, while also interrogating the socio-economic milieu
and the dynamics of that environment (Perramond, 2007; Tschakert, 2013). There are
often complex geographical and historical dimensions to these livelihoods, prompting
scholars to develop a ‘chain of explanation’ to understand them. Key themes have
included:
(1) Access to resources. Rights to natural resources are vital for welfare and
livelihood. Gender, class, ethnicity, political status and other vectors of power
influence patterns of ownership and control. Resource access is a function of how
production and economic accumulation strategies occur, which in turn influences
differences in social relations. A large literature has formed around these ‘access
to resources’ questions (Bassett and Crummey, 1993; Bassett, 1988; Berry, 1993;
Gray and Dowd-Uribe, 2013; Rocheleau et al., 1996; Rocheleau and Edmunds,
1997; Schroeder, 1997).
(2) Struggle and resistance against forces that conspire to frustrate people’s attempts
to make a living, notably closure of resources access and environmental ‘bads’.
This may occur through open forms of political organizing and protest or less
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visible forms of ‘passive’ resistance that short-change the powerful in diverse
ways (Peluso, 1992; Scott, 1985). Activists and social movements have fought for
rights and justice, often ahead of the political ecologists that later adopt their
ideas and concepts (Escobar, 2008; Martinez-Alieret al., 2014).
(3) Profound upheaval in local people’s ways of life that involve social, economic
and environmental change, for example ‘the transformation of indigenous systems
of resource management in the process of incorporation into the global economy’
(Bassett, 1988:434). Scholars also assess the impact of international development
programmes and associated reconfigurations of state–society relations (van der
Ploeg and Long, 1994; Olivier de Sardan, 1984). The penetration of capitalist
relations in the non- or less-capitalist world, and the appropriation of land and
labour in this process through commodification, has been a major concern.
Political ecologists also examine ‘identity’ and the struggle between the different
worldviews and philosophies guiding humanity’s relationship to nature (Escobar,
2008).
Today, scholars are also engaging with an array of old and new topical areas, notably
extractive economies and the growth of mining (Adkin, forthcoming; Bebbington and
Bury, 2013), international land grabs for food security, biofuel or timber (McMichael,
2014), the impact of protected areas on livelihoods (Vaccaro et al., 2013), food politics
(Bryant and Goodman, 2004), and the possibilities for equitable economic de-growth
under capitalism (Schneider et al., 2010). There are, too, links to the international
climate change agenda, through studies of CO
2
-emitting culprits and local vulnerabil-
ities to changing climates (Tschakert, 2013). Then there is a strong political ecology of
urban environmental dynamics (Lawhonet al., 2014). These and other new research
areas benefit from, and contribute to, analytical and methodological pluralism in the
field and across the environmental social sciences (Doolittle, ch. 37 this volume;
Perramond, 2007; Turner, ch. 38 this volume).
ACADEMIC POLITICAL ECOLOGY
Who practises political ecology? Most of those who would classify themselves as
political ecologists are based in academia. Academic political ecology is largely
conducted in institutions that nowadays tolerate its radical aspirations. Toleration is
undoubtedly linked to the field’s popularity, as evinced by the sheer number of
academic job seekers, publications in diverse formats, conferences, and undergraduate
and postgraduate enrolments.
This growing popularity occurs in a broader context of increasing academic
insecurity. In the USA, permanent (or tenure track) teaching and research jobs are on
the decline. Meanwhile, where demand for teaching remains high, much more of it is
being done by adjunct staff – a temporary labour force paid per class and often without
satisfactory workspace, health cover or superannuation (Batterbury, 2008). This process
is all about saving costs during a period of unprecedented systemic stress, some of it
driven by the lingering effects of the global financial crisis that has hit universities in
Europe and North America especially hard. These pressures demand greater employee
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flexibility in response to the ebb and flow of student demand and funding. Critical
scholars, including many political ecologists, object to neoliberal thinking that seeks to
remove freedoms that interfere with the ‘smooth operation’ of the education market-
place (notably unions and tenure contracts). In Australia and the UK, years of
politically minded interventions have produced a more ‘competitive’ setting (designed
to emulate the private sector) in which universities fight each other for research funding
and ‘rankings’ – things that in turn directly influence which academics are hired or
fired. Although less the case in the USA, ‘restructuring’ processes alter departmental
names and disciplinary groupings. Intellectual logic has little to do with any of this.
Not surprisingly, most political ecologists find that restructuring and performance
metrics breach the basic principles of academic freedom. They hold to a tradition of
radical distrust of powerful institutions that lack transparency and fairness. And, while
many political ecologists are by nature somewhat flexible in the sense that they can
operate in or across different academic disciplines, student ‘access’ to radical, politic-
ally potent and establishment-threatening ideas may be shut down. Hence that
marketplace may serve as a de facto means of intellectual censorship, closing yet
another space in society for alternative thinking.
And yet, as I argue elsewhere, political economy (including radical political ecology)
is so entrenched in Western universities that it is apparently hard to dislodge it. Indeed,
some ‘productive’ radical scholars have even taken key institutional leadership posi-
tions (Batterbury, 2013). It is ironic that radical intellectual content is compatible with
performance metrics –this marks a change from the 1960s and 1970s when scholars
were fired and denied tenure in North America for espousing radical views.
How to ‘perform’ political ecology in such an environment? Scholars certainly need
to accommodate an increasingly difficult and fragile set of institutional constraints.
Most of them work in departments without many like-minded colleagues, where
students take their specialist classes as optional units, and activity is generally built
around disciplines. In some institutions there are clusters of individuals with similar
interests, often across disciplines or departments, albeit groupings that ebb and flow
over time with departures, arrivals and funding opportunities.
Key Clusters and Academic Centres
There is a discernible if ever-shifting geography to the worldwide political ecology
community.
2
In the USA, employment in a PhD-granting programme offers the
possibility of gaining academic tenure, and forming a political ecology ‘node’ or
‘cluster’ with students who then perpetuate the field. The University of California,
Berkeley and Clark University (in Massachusetts) have arguably produced the greatest
number of PhD students connected to political ecology, working with scholars
including Jake Kosek, Donald Moore, Nancy Peluso, Nathan Sayre and Michael Watts;
and Doug Johnson, Dick Peet, Dianne Rocheleau, Billie Lee Turner II, Tony Bebbing-
ton and James McCarthy. Indeed, Berkeley has its own Political Ecology Research
Group (https://plus.google.com/111554681451775708952). But Clark and Berkeley are
certainly not alone in teaching and granting PhDs, with significant groupings of faculty
and students at the public universities of Colorado (Mara Goldman, Emily Yeh),
Georgia (Peter Brosius, Nik Heynen, Jennifer Rice, Julie Velásquez Runk), Illinois
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(Tom Bassett, Trevor Birkenholtz, Jesse Ribot), Kentucky (Shannon Bell, Lisa Cliggett,
Tad Mutersbaugh, Sarah Lyon), Michigan (Arun Agrawal, Bilal Butt, Rebecca Hardin,
Paul Mohai, Ivette Perfecto, Dorceta Taylor), Ohio State (Kendra McSweeney, Becky
Mansfield, Joel Wainright, Anna Willow), Oregon (Derrick Hindery, Katie Meehan,
Peter Walker), Penn State (Brian King, Karl Zimmerer), Rutgers (Heidi Hausermann,
Rick Schroeder, Kevin StMartin), UC Santa Cruz (Jeff Bury, Julie Guthman, Margaret
Fitzsimmons, Ravi Rajan), Washington (Lucy Jarosz, and a Center for Environmental
Politics), Wisconsin–Madison (Ian Baird, Lisa Naughton, Paul Robbins, Morgan
Robertson, Matt Turner), and in the New York college system (e.g. Paige West at
Barnard). The University of Arizona has Tracey Osborne’s Public Political Ecology Lab
(http://ppel.arizona.edu), and it is where Diana Liverman also co-directs the Institute of
Environment, and anthropologists Jim Greenberg and Tad Park founded the Journal of
Political Ecology in 1993 (see below). There are political ecologists at Cornell (Ron
Herring, Phil McMichael, Wendy Wolford), Syracuse (Sharon Moran, Tom Perrault,
Farhana Sultana) and Yale (Michael Dove and several others working across environ-
mental studies, forestry and anthropology).
In Canada, the University of British Columbia (Philippe Le Billon, Karen Bakker,
Juanita Sundberg, Leila Harris), the University of Toronto (Michael Ekers, Tania Li,
Ken MacDonald, Sharlene Mollett, Scott Prudham) and McGill (Sarah Turner, John
Unruh, Ismael Vaccaro) have significant expertise. York University (Roger Keil, Robin
Roth, Peter Vandergeest) also hosts an international political economy and ecology
summer camp. In Mexico, Durand Smith et al.(2011) identify a node of researchers at
the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) led by Enrique Leff that
heralded the arrival of an ‘ecologíapolíticamexicana’.
The UK also has a longstanding and vibrant community. London is one centre, with
faculty notably at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Rosaleen Duffy), the
London School of Economics (Jennifer Baka, Tim Forsyth), King’s College London
(Raymond Bryant, Alex Loftus, Daanish Mustafa, Mark Pelling, Michael Redclift and
formerly Mike Goodman, now at Reading University) and University College London
(Matthew Gandy, Ilan Kelman, Ben Page, Graham Woodgate). But there are important
political ecology groupings elsewhere in the UK, notably at Cambridge (Bill Adams,
Ivan Scales, Bhaskar Vira), Manchester (Dan Brockington, Maria Kaika, John O’Neill,
Eric Swyngedouw, Phil Woodhouse), Durham (Gavin Bridge, Harriet Bulkeley),
University of East Anglia (Pier Blaikie, Jessica Budds, Thomas Sikor, Oliver Springate-
Baginski) and at Sussex, where the work of Terry Cannon, James Fairhead, Amber
Huff, Melissa Leach, Lyla Mehta, Peter Newell and Ian Scoones resonates with a
political ecology approach. Lancaster University is establishing its own research and
teaching, linked to an existing environmental institute.
Political ecology has also set down roots in a variety of other European countries,
reflecting a complex set of historical influences and tendencies. Research in northern
Europe encompasses faculty in Norway (Tor Benjaminsen), where there is a national
research network on Political Ecology and Environmental Policy (http://www.ntnu.edu/
political-ecology), Sweden (Henrik Ernstson, Alf Hornborg, Andrea Nightingale),
Denmark (Christian Lund, Jens Friis Lund), and Finland (Anja Nygren). The approach
is represented in universities in Austria (International Political Ecology research group,
University of Vienna), Switzerland (Benedikt Korf, Christian Kull, René Véron, Anna
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Zimmer) and Germany (Thomas Krings, Marcus Nüsserand the late Hans-Georg
Bohle). The Netherlands has at least one Chair in political ecology and scholars
working across several major universities and disciplines (e.g. Murat Arsel, Rutgerd
Boelens, Bram Büscher, Rob Fletcher, Kees Jansen, Esther Turnhout), while in
Belgium, there are scholars such as Anneleen Kenis and Johan Bastiaensen.
There is also growing interest in Italy (Koensler and Papa, 2013) and Portugal
(Stefania Barca; see also Freitas and Mozine, ch. 43 this volume), as well as in Spain,
especially at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (AUB), which is at the forefront
of work connecting political ecology to ecological economics (Joan Martinez-Alier,
Giorgos Kallis). In France, there is a longstanding and unique tradition of ‘écologie-
politique that has ‘Green’ activist political connotations, and some academic connec-
tions via the work of Alain Lipietz and René Dumont (Chartier and Rodary, ch. 39 this
volume). But a group of geographers has begun to use the label ‘political ecology’
(when writing in French) (Gautier and Hautdidier, ch. 5 this volume; Molleet al., 2009).
Benchmark books (e.g. Gautier and Benjaminsen, 2012) and conferences (http://
www.politicalecology.fr) have been the result.
Political ecology extends well beyond Europe and North America. In Australia, for
example, the Australian National University was the prime node for environment and
development research for many years, and has several faculty members while offering
postgraduate degree options (Matthew Allen, Keith Barney, Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, Sango
Mahanty, John McCarthy, Sarah Milne). Faculty members broadly interested in
political ecology work at universities in New South Wales (Noel Castree, John Connell,
Phil Hirsch, Fiona Miller, David Schlosberg), around Brisbane (Jason Byrne, Kristen
Lyons, Kim de Rijke), as well as through an informal network connecting Melbourne
and Monash universities (Hans Baer, Simon Batterbury, Adam Bumpus, Brian Cook,
Wolf Dressler, Lisa Palmer, Haripriya Rangan, Craig Thorburn).
In South Asia, a particular focus has been on the interconnections between
environmental history and political ecology, inspired in India by literary giants such as
Ramachandra Guha and Madhav Gadgil, who wrote expansively on the longue durée of
human–environment relationships (Gadgil and Guha, 1992), as well as Mahesh
Rangarajan (Director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library). Scholarship by
Bina Agarwal (Delhi and Manchester universities) has explored governance themes in
feminist political ecology. There is also a strong tradition of interrogating peasant
society, agrarian change and state–society relations, but largely from outside the
continent (e.g. Arun Agrawal, 2005). Meanwhile, the Ashoka Trust for Research in
Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), with its main base in Bangalore, is beginning
to act as a centre for Indian political ecology with Sharachchandra Lélé and others (and
now awards masters and PhDs through Manipal University). Scholars based in
Bangladesh (Tanzimuddin Khan), Pakistan and Nepal (Pandey, 2013) also conduct
research in the field. In South-East Asia, political ecology themes appear at the
National University of Singapore (Harvey Neo, C.P. Pow, Jonathan Rigg) and De La
Salle University, Manila (Antonio Contreras, Marvin Montefrio). South Korea and
Japan produce a literature that loosely connects to political ecology often linked to
water and conservation matters (e.g. Lee, ch. 14 this volume; Tuk-Po et al., 2003),
while, in China, most scholars are still based outside the country (Yeh, ch. 44 this
volume).
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In Latin America the international character of political ecology is clearly demon-
strated. Here, intellectual influences have come from inside and outside the region,
featuring writing in Spanish, English and French (Chartier and Löwy, 2013; Martin and
Larsimont, 2014; Leff, ch. 4 this volume; Freitas and Mozine, ch. 43 this volume).
Notable is the work linked to CLACSO in Argentina with a working group concerned
with power dynamics and nature–society relations (Hector Alimonda, 2002). Eduardo
Gudynas heads a social ecology research centre in Uruguay (CLAES). Often there is a
concern with past and present relations of coloniality (Alimonda, ch. 11 this volume;
research by Andréa Zhouri on Brazil), while in Colombia the Universidad de los Andes
has a group working on development and environment with connections to other
regional universities. Serving as a ‘bridge’ between this variegated scholarship and the
Anglo-American literature is the Colombian-born anthropologist Arturo Escobar (Uni-
versity of North Carolina) (e.g. 2008) and other western-trained political ecologists,
including Diana Ojeda.
African universities have so far largely bypassed the approach, with the exception of
South Africa (Patrick Bond, David Fig, Mary Lawhon, MaanoRamutsindela) (Bond,
2012; Lawhonet al., 2014; Wynberg and Fig, 2014), although scholars draw on it in
Ghana (KojoAmanor), Nigeria (Godwin Ojo) and Tanzania (Christine Noe). As this
International Handbook highlights and as Kim et al. (2012) note, ‘other’ political
ecologies signal an expansion and a shift in scholarly activity as work in the global
South is expanding – driven in part by returnees from European and North American
doctoral programmes.
Networks
The hallmarks of a strong academic field include being open and supportive, and
building bridges across academia, non profits and implementing agencies. Political
ecologists, scattered around the world, operate through a multifaceted set of academic
networks. Long before social media, the Cultural and Political Ecology Speciality
Group of the Association of American Geographers played a role in hosting a
newsletter, annual awards and conference sessions, and then a listserv from the early
1990s. The Santa Cruz based Center for Political Ecology dates to 1989, and was
established by the Marxist academic, James O’Connor. It describes itself as a ‘flexible,
resilient cyber-based organization’ (http://www.centerforpoliticalecology.org). It also
established the journal Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, and features the work of several
scholars with strong activist links, including Barbara Rose Johnson. American anthro-
pologists have the Political Ecology Society (PESO) and its listserv, as part of the
Society for Applied Anthropology. Other networks include the interdisciplinary Polit-
ical Ecology Working Group, established at the University of Kentucky in 2010, which
organizes an annual Dimensions of Political Ecology Conference (DOPE). Its listserv,
the International Political Ecology Collaboratory (IPEC), has rapidly internationalized,
showing the power of new media (www.politicalecology.org). In Europe, the European
Union has funded political ecology networks and doctoral student activities. These
include a Political Ecology training network, largely for PhD students, called ENTITLE
(http://www.politicalecology.eu), coordinated by the Autonomous University of Barce-
lona (AUB). It involves eight universities, NGOs and an environmental consultancy.
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PhD students can undertake secondments to EJOs (environmental justice organ-
izations). Meanwhile, Environmental Justice Organisations, Liabilites and Trade
(EJOLT), which is also based at the AUB, is a global research project cataloguing,
mapping and analysing ‘ecological distribution conflicts’ and environmental injustice
(http://www.ejolt.org). In Latin America, scholars have built on CLACSO while linking
to ENTITLE; the first Latin American Conference on Political Ecology was held at the
University of Santiago in Chile in October 2014.
This growth of innovative scholarship, centres and networks in political ecology is
encouraging, even though it has occurred against the backdrop of the broader academic
changes noted above. It is indeed somewhat ironic that the rapid growth of the field has
occurred in the context of the increasingly market-driven forces in academic insti-
tutions that I have described. Whether this trend can continue, or will sooner or later hit
a ‘market saturation’ point, is unclear, but the demand from students reflecting political
ecology concerns will surely shape how and where the academic field develops in the
years ahead.
PUBLISHING OUTLETS
A publishing frenzy in the field has been driven by growth in the political ecology
community, technological advances enabling faster writing, graphics, mapping and
publication, as well as university ‘publish or perish’ drivers that measure and compare
scholars in terms of quality and quantity of outputs. Books have regularly appeared in
university presses and the major commercial publishers since the 1990s. This suggests
that there is a market, whether through print or e-book media.
Similarly, academic journals have been a fertile ground for scholars. Of particular
importance are three dedicated journals: the Journal of Political Ecology (JPE),
Écologieet Politique and Ecología Politíca. Broad-based journals where significant
work in the field is published have included: Capitalism, Nature, Socialism;Conserva-
tion & Society;Economic Geography;Human Organization;Society and Natural
Resources;Progress in Human Geography; and Geoforum; occasionally too in Annals
of the AAG;Antipode;Development and Change;Human Geography;Political Geog-
raphy and several other, mainly US-based, anthropology and international studies
journals. Figure 3.1 gives some sense of this publication process in that it calculates the
number of articles published each year between 1999 and late 2014 in which ‘political
ecology’ appears in the title, keywords and abstract. This is an underestimation of
actual journal article output, because the database used does not include all journals.
My own involvement has been as co-editor of Journal of Political Ecology since
2003, processing almost 100 articles in this period. The case of JPE is illustrative of
authorship trends in the field. Back in the early 1990s, two anthropologists at the
University of Arizona, Jim Greenberg and Tad Park, obtained some funding to establish
JPE as an online entity, soon after internet connections began to appear on American
campuses. As one of the oldest open-access journals in the social sciences, and
operating in three languages (English, Spanish, French), JPE now publishes over 30
papers a year and is cited thousands of times. It remains free online, has no commercial
publisher, and relies on volunteer labour. Since almost all political ecology research,
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including that which is opposed to injustice, is published by major corporate publish-
ers, the JPE is unusual.
The Journal is useful for charting trends in political ecology. Initially there was an
attachment to the ideas of the American anthropologist Eric Wolf, who offered a Marxist
account of the transition from feudalism to industrial capitalism (Wolf, 1982). Scholars
such as Greenberg and Park were inspired by this, feeling that political ecology ought to
amalgamate two important bodies of knowledge in relation to exploitation of the natural
world – political economy, with ‘its insistence on the need to link the distribution of
power with productive activity’ and ‘ecological analysis with its broader vision of
bio-environmental relationships’ (Greenberg and Park, 1994: 1). They argued in JPE’s
opening paper that ‘political ecology must begin not with abstract premises or
dogmas, but with the productive activities of real individuals’ (ibid.).
Robert Netting is cited as another important forebear. Netting’s work (labelled cultural
ecology) included deep historical analysis when examining agricultural societies in West
Africa and Switzerland. Other influences included Meredeth Turshen’s The Political
Ecology of Disease (1984), which showed how health status connects to the division of
labour and certain forms of class struggle. Work by dependency theorists, including
Andre Gunder Frank (1966) and Immanuel Wallerstein (1974) also appealed to the
Arizona political ecologists. But as Wolf (1982) observed, dependency theory could
efface important differences between mercantile trade, capitalist modes of production,
and the assimilation of other forms of production into capitalism. On the ecological side,
meanwhile, the challenge was to link new developments in ecological theory to political
economy and historically based materialist analysis. Nonetheless, the aim was not to be
dogmatic: ‘we feel it would be ill advised to define “political ecology”, and maintain
rather that all legitimate forms of political ecology will have some family resemblances
but need not share a common core’ (Greenberg and Park, 1994:8).
Note: Many journals are not yet included in Scopus, and the Journal of Political Ecology was counted
only after 2011.
Source: Scopus.
Figure 3.1 Growth in political ecology articles referenced in Scopus, 1999–October
2014
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This was quite fortunate, since in the 147 articles published in the journal to October
2014, the one thing that is lacking is a common definition of political ecology, let alone
a standardized methodology. Instead, authors have searched far and wide to find
inspiration in different intellectual traditions ranging from the materialist work of Piers
Blaikie to post-structural approaches focusing on discourses, identities and cultures
(Escobar, 2008; Robbins, 2004). The current editors (Casey Walsh and I) insist on
situating articles in some variant of political ecology, to impart intellectual coherence to
the Journal.
Let me turn briefly to the sorts of topics that have featured over the years. The
number of submissions has climbed, especially since the late 2000s, reflective of a
wider scholarly interest in the field. Dominant themes have been the political ecology
of agrarian change/agricultural issues, conservation, fishing and aquaculture, and
mining (Figure 3.2). There is still a prevalence of papers dealing with North, Central
and South America (reflecting the longstanding Arizona base of JPE), although this is
weakening as more is published (Figure 3.3). Recent special sections have included
Note:N= 145.
Figure 3.2 Articles published in the Journal of Political Ecology 1994–October 2014,
by main theme
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‘Non-capitalist political ecologies’, edited by Brian Burke and Boone Shear; ‘Energy,
environment, engagement: encounters with hydraulic fracking’, edited by Anna Willow
and Sara Wylie, and ‘Ecologies of hope’, edited by Ravi Rajan and Colin Duncan.
PEDAGOGY
Since most political ecology activity remains centred in universities, teaching is vital to
its perpetuation. There is a paradox here. The same cost-cutting exercises in universities
described above have led to a downturn or cancellation of some critical classes in
favour of those ‘more useful’ to students seeking practical skills necessary for work
opportunities.
3
But at the same time, the sheer popularity of critical environmental
perspectives (including political ecology) with students has meant that university
leaders and managers see the financial bottom line – they support some teaching in this
field for its much-needed student numbers and, in some cases, fee income.
Political ecology now features in an array of undergraduate and postgraduate classes
taught in diverse disciplinary and interdisciplinary homes, including geography, anthro-
pology, sociology, politics, development studies and environmental studies. In the
undergraduate curriculum, classes commonly include ‘political ecology’, ‘environment
and development’ or ‘environmental politics’ in the title, with most of them assuming a
basic understanding of natural resource access and international development questions.
A quick internet search reveals many such classes with a heavy concentration in the
Note: N = 137.
Figure 3.3 Regional focus of articles published in the Journal of Political Ecology
1994–October 2014
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USA, Canada, the UK and the Antipodes, but with English and foreign-language
versions in Europe and beyond (e.g. Brazil, Chile, Singapore). These classes are usually
optional. This situation underscores the marginal status of political ecology in the
modern (Western) academy insofar as the field is not deemed to be essential. But it also
means that students enrol in political ecology classes voluntarily (which may some-
times relate to their subsequent career choices). While detailed surveys have not been
done, my own experience is that political ecology students aspire to change and/or to
be changed; they are dissatisfied with the predominant politico-economic and environ-
mental management narratives of the day, and want to understand different resource
struggles and potential responses to them, perhaps with an eye to allying with or
joining campaigns or movements (Kepeet al., 2008). Mainstream academic fields do
not fill this gap in the university ‘market’ quite so readily.
It is at the postgraduate level that political ecology thrives. This has certainly been
my experience. I started teaching political ecology in 1997 with Tony Bebbington in a
Masters class at the University of Colorado. Initial numbers were very small (four
students, three of whom went on to become academics: Jeffrey Bury, Brian King and
Elizabeth Olsen). Subsequently, I have taught the subject at diverse universities in
Europe and the USA (e.g. the London School of Economics, Oxford, Arizona,
Roskilde), where the desire of the students to learn about political ecology was usually
matched by a wish to continue this type of work after graduation, in the workplace or
through some form of advocacy or activism. Students I have taught have found work in
diverse areas, including the United Nations and international development, human-
itarian and environmental NGOs, in publishing firms, local government, as well as in
the social responsibility and environmental appraisal units of large corporations, and in
start-up companies concerned with such things as carbon management, the green
economy, ecotourism and eco-planning. Based in Australia today, I regularly teach over
60 students in a postgraduate political ecology class, with several later embarking on
PhDs around the world. Given its interdisciplinary appeal, my class draws in students
majoring in such fields as Urban Planning, Development Studies and Public Policy,
where career paths may be more obvious, but still the students are attracted to more
critical perspectives. International students often return to their home countries dis-
mayed, but more knowledgeable, about the political and ecological implications of the
neoliberal situations they find there – and they are keen to find a way to promote
change conducive to social and environmental justice.
The pedagogy of political ecology is also shaped by the complex career paths and
life-stages of those who teach. The chance to teach in this field is relatively rare,
despite the popularity of political ecology among students. Hence only a few academic
job advertisements specify the ability to teach it, and this may come only with greater
seniority. Mid-to-late-career academics may be more knowledgeable than junior
colleagues, but they can be just as angry about injustice as the students they teach.
Others are just keen to pass on their research techniques and findings.
Perhaps the greatest constraint to good teaching is that, except if tenured, an
individual (however senior and respected) can lose their job by failing to simul-
taneously produce research inputs and outputs such as grants, publications and research
students. This situation again reflects market forces; ‘scholarship’, for the purposes of
rankings and excellence, is largely about research and far less about teaching or
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‘practically focused’ work. Concurrently, it creates a tension within the university world
(less so in colleges that have a teaching mission) in which ritualistic extolling of the
value that institutions place on the student, and teaching, is offset by the de facto
privileging of a research-led agenda for its academic staff.
ENGAGEMENT
While centred on the world of higher education and the university, political ecology has
never been reducible to it. There are myriad networks and institutions in civil society
that encompass such things as the everyday actions of social and environmental
movements (including more radical NGOs, such as Global Witness and La Via
Campesina), as well as campaigns for environmental justice. There has been an
elaboration of key ideas outside the university (Martinez-Alieret al., 2014). There are
also activist-writers whose activity is mostly or entirely beyond the academy, and
whose publications are de facto political ecology. These include the investigative
journalists and authors – George Monbiot (UK), Ann Danaiya-Usher (Norway/
Thailand), Marites Dañguilan Vitug (Philippines), Naomi Klein (Canada) and Larry
Lohmann (UK).
The work of a wider community keeps academic political ecologists on their toes.
Already impelled forward by their students, as well as by personal conscience,
academics feel acutely the need to ‘be useful’, whether or not their institutional home
promotes an applied ‘engagement’ mission or is even accepting of radical voices.
‘Explanation’ is a necessary, but not sufficient, component of academic work (Batter-
bury and Horowitz, forthcoming). The role of the ‘analytical critic’, which many of us
adopt, works best when it at least provides some tractable alternative proposals to the
environmental and social problems that our research uncovers. Yet the problem for
academics is finding ways to move forward – from complex explanations towards
solving complex problems, be it through advocacy, applied research or policy advice
(Bryant and Bailey, 1997; Blaikie and Muldavin, ch. 30 this volume). Burawoy (2005)
for instance argues that academic labour places discovery and experimentation above
utility or social relevance; he recommends four paths to making social science relevant,
termed professional, critical, policy and public. The latter two elude many scholars.
Robbins (2004) makes another distinction: political ecology can be used as ‘hatchet’
and as ‘seed’: the ‘hatchet’ is incisive critique and a search for causation, and the ‘seed’
offers fresh and useful ideas, also including critique, that can feed through into direct
advocacy and activism (see also Batterbury and Horowitz, forthcoming).
Debate over ‘relevance’ is fierce. Noteworthy here is the question of what kind of
engagement to pursue (to seed or to plant?). For some, cooperating with powerful
institutions through policy advice or advocacy is off the agenda; engagement should be
with ‘alternative’ movements that seek to assert their rights and thereby subvert the
powerful. For example, Arturo Escobar is renowned for critiquing mainstream develop-
ment thinking and the international development sector. He has nurtured a longstanding
research and activist connection to Afro-Colombian movements battling to establish an
alternative way of life and territoriality beyond capitalism (Escobar, 2008). Meanwhile,
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Lucy Jarosz (2011), based at the University of Washington, has long promoted a local
activist agenda based on a feminist care ethic and alternative agricultural production.
Other scholars believe that strategic cooperation with selected development insti-
tutions is required in order to sway their path. For example, Ed Carr (2011) pursues
research in West Africa that is partly linked to USAID programmes, while long ago
Tony Bebbington and Judith Carney (1990) advocated working with international
agricultural research centres, and Bebbington worked at the World Bank on several
projects. Indeed, political ecologists have been employed in such agencies as the UK’s
Department for International Development, and diverse Scandinavian aid agencies
(Bebbington and Carney, 1990; Batterbury and Horowitz, forthcoming). Piers Blaikie,
based at the University of East Anglia, held an academic post where a percentage of his
work was conducted as a consultant, mostly with development agencies. He combined
being a political ecologist with a clear bent towards policy advice (Blaikie and
Muldavin, ch. 30 this volume). Policy think-tanks have hosted political ecologists: the
World Resources Institute (Jesse Ribot), the UK-based International Institute for
Environment and Development (where John Thompson, Jules Pretty, Tony Bebbington
and Ian Scoones worked; see Batterbury, 2004) and the Overseas Development Institute
(Tony Bebbington). Also in the UK, Larry Lohmann, Nicholas Hildyard and Sarah
Sexton are based at the not-for-profit company The Corner House (www.thecorner
house.org.uk), while the Transnational Institute (TNI,http://www.tni.org), formed in the
USA, is an important network of activist-scholars spanning the globe. The Centre for
Science and Environment in Delhi, directed by Sunita Narain, has undertaken applied
varieties of political ecology work. Finally, many scholars will use opportunities that
present themselves to share research findings with relevant official bodies or pro-
grammes (as I did with one German-funded development project in Burkina Faso in the
1990s; see Batterbury, 1998). In short, political ecology can be policy-relevant, helping
to detour and shape the agendas of powerful institutions.
In diverse ways, therefore, political ecologists can often demonstrate the feasibility
of engagement. The point in doing so is not to abandon one’s critical faculties, but to
deploy them (Olivier de Sardan, 1995). All manner of involvement is possible, notably
in organizations that are conserving natural resources, tackling persistent poverty, and
fighting for environmental justice (Martinez-Alieret al., 2014).
CONCLUSION
I have argued that political ecology is a research field with many personal and political
dimensions. Deliberately conceived as a multidisciplinary enterprise, it is found in the
scholarship of individuals who often transgress the quotidian hierarchies and structures
of universities and academic disciplines. Its key findings transcend the social and
natural sciences, while zeroing in on social and ecological injustices: for example,
evictions resulting from protected area management and land grabbing.
Political ecology is broad in scope. There are no university departments of political
ecology with core funding and a legacy of staff and PhD students to sustain them;
instead there are clusters and individuals scattered across the world. Research output is
plentiful, widely read and published in a range of outlets, but so far it has lacked a
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natural centre of gravity (although the non-commercial Journal of Political Ecology
may be starting to fill this gap). It has not always directly penetrated mainstream
thinking on environmental issues, including the ‘human dimensions of global environ-
mental change’, despite the complex and cutting explanations offered by its prac-
titioners (Castree et al., 2014: 763). Teaching is largely conducted as ‘bolt-on’ classes
in existing programmes, with ‘optional’ status in courses. But these classes are proving
increasingly popular with students and contribute to a burning sense of injustice, as
well as a desire to right at least some of the wrongs of untrammelled greed and
inequality in the world.
Given that it is a field fighting against the very strong neoliberal current of our times,
it is only to be expected that political ecology will remain a marginal part of the
academy in the short and medium term (despite its increasing prominence in human
geography and anthropology). This is also true outside Western academic institutions.
While it might be rooted in different national and regional academic cultures (as this
International Handbook explores), the general consensus is that political ecology must
address and fight political, economic, social and ecological inequities. This means that
it will never be popular with universities that are fully beholden to political and
economic power-brokers. Indeed, and as scholars join forces with political ecologists
‘out there’ in civil society, the stage is set for an even greater oppositional politics both
inside and beyond the academy (e.g. Willow and Wylie, 2014). Political ecologists will
not shy away from such confrontation as they join wider struggles that seek to ‘speak
truth to power’, attempting thereby to influence policies, organizations and practices.
This task will not be easy, but then they have known that all along.
NOTES
1. I wish to thank Bram Büscher, Wolf Dressler, Christian Kull, Eric Perramond and Priya Rangan for
helpful suggestions.
2. This is not an exclusive list of key individuals and institutions, and it is a snapshot as of late 2014. Of
course, many political ecologists work outside such groupings.
3. I will not list these, but there are also newly established ones, for example at SOAS (School of Oriental
and African Studies), University of London.
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Songhay-Zarma
Societies (your
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spaces)
Article
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