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political ecology

  An approach to, but far from a coherent theory of, the complex metabolism between nature and society (see Blaikie, 1985; Blaikie and Brookfield, 1987). The expression itself emerged in the 1970s in a variety of intellectual contexts — employed by the journalist Alex Cockburn, the anthropologist Eric Wolf, and the environmental scientist Graheme Beakhurst — as a somewhat inchoate covering term for the panoply of ways in which environmental concerns were politicized in the wake of the environmentalist wave which broke in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In its academic, and specifically geographical, usage political ecology has a longer and more complex provenance — which both harkens back to human and cultural ecology and to an earlier history of relations between Anthropology and Geography in the 1940s and 1950s and incorporates a more recent synthetic and analytical deployment in the early 1980s associated with the work of Piers Blaikie (1985), Michael Watts (1983, 1986), and Suzanna Hecht (1985). In the 1990s the core empirical concerns of political ecology — largely rural, agrarian and Third World — were properly expanded, and the theoretical horizons have deepened the original concerns with the dynamics of resource management (see Peluso, 1992; Zimmerer, 1996; Neumann, 1999). Political ecology has also splintered into a more complex field of political ecologies which embraces environmental history (Grove, 1995), science studies (Demerit, 1998; see science, geography and), actor-network theory (Braun and Castree, 1998), gender theory (Aggarwal, 1998; cf. gender and geography), discourse analysis (Escobar, 1995) and a reinvigorated Marxism (O\'Connor, 1997; Leff, 1995; cf. Marxist geography).

Two geographical monographs — The political economy of soil erosion (1985) by Piers Blaikie and Land degradation and society (1987) edited by Harold Brookfield and Piers Blaikie — provided the intellectual and theoretical foundation stones for the formalization of political ecology as such. What Blaikie achieved in The political economy of soil erosion was to systematize the growing confluence between three theoretical approaches: cultural ecology (Nietschmann, 1973) in geography, rooted in ecosystems approaches to human behaviour; ecological anthropology, grounded in cybernetics and the adaptive qualities of living systems (see Rappaport, 1967); and the high tide of Marxist-inspired political economy, and peasant studies in particular, of the 1970s. A number of people contributed to this intersection of ideas — Richards\' (1985) work on peasant science, Hecht\'s (1985) analysis of rent seeking, inflation and deforestation in eastern Amazonia, Grossman (1984) on subsistence in Papua New Guinea, and Watts (1983) on the simple reproduction squeeze and drought in Nigeria — but Blaikie pulled a number of disparate themes and ideas together, drawing in large measure on his own South Asian experiences. In rejecting the colonial model of soil erosion which framed the problem around environmental constraints, mismanagement, overpopulation, and market failure, Blaikie started from the resource manager and specifically households from whom surpluses are extracted \'who then in turn are forced to extract “surpluses” from the environment … [leading] to degradation\' (1985, p. 124). The analytical scaffolding was provided by a number of key middle-range concepts — marginalization, proletarianization and incorporation — which permitted geographers to see the failure of soil conservation schemes in class or social terms, namely the power of classes affected by soil erosion in relation to state power, the class-specific perception of soil problems and solutions, and the class basis of soil erosion as a political issue. Blaikie was able to drive home the point that poverty could, in a dialectical way, cause degradation — \'peasants destroy their own environment in attempts to delay their own destruction\' (1985, p. 29) — and that poverty had to be understood not as a thing or a condition, but as the social relations of production which are realms of possibility and constraint.

In this work political ecology came to mean a combination of \'the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy\' (Blaikie and Brookfield, 1987, p. 17), the latter understood as a concern with effects \'on people, as well as on their productive activities, of on-going changes within society at local and global levels\' (1987, p. 21). This is a broad definition — an approach rather than a theory — which was adopted by the editors in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Political Ecology in 1995. Political ecology has three essential foci.

The first is interactive, contradictory and dialectical: society and land-based resources are mutually causal in such a way that poverty, via poor management, can induce environmental degradation which itself deepens poverty. Less a problem of poor management, inevitable natural decay or demographic growth, land degradation is seen as social in origin and definition. Analytically, the centrepoint of any nature-society study must be the \'land manager\' whose relationship to nature must be considered in a historical, political and economic context.

Second, political ecology argues for regional or spatial accounts of degradation which link, through \'chains of explanation\', local decision-makers to spatial variations in environmental structure (stability and resilience as traits of particular ecosystems in particular). locality studies are, thus, subsumed within multi-layered analyses pitched at a variety of regional scales.

Third, land management is framed by \'external structures\' which for Blaikie meant the role of the state and the core-periphery model.

If political ecology was not exactly clear what political economy implied, beyond a sort of 1970s dependency theory, it did provide a number of principles and mid-range concepts. The first is a refined concept of marginality in which its political, ecological and economic aspects may be mutually reinforcing: land degradation is both a result and a cause of social marginalization. Second, pressure of production on resources is transmitted through social relations which impose excessive demands on the environment (i.e. surplus extraction). And third, the inadequacy of environmental data of historical depth linked to a chain of explanation analysis compels a plural approach. Rather than unicausal theories one must, in short, accept \'plural perceptions, plural definitions … and plural rationalities\' (Blaikie and Brookfield, 1987, p. 16).

Political ecology had the advantage of seeing land management and environmental degradation (or sustainability) in terms of how political economy shapes the ability to manage resources (through forms of access and control, through forms of exclusion, and through forms of exploitation), and through the lens of cognition (one person\'s accumulation is another person\'s degradation). But in other respects political ecology was demonstrably weak: it often had an outdated notion of ecology and ecological dynamics (including an incomplete understanding of ecological agency: Zimmerer, 1994); it was often remarkably silent on the politics of political ecology; it had a somewhat voluntarist notion of human perception, and not least it did not provide a theoretically derived set of concepts to explore particular environmental outcomes or transformations. These weaknesses, coupled with the almost indeterminate and open-ended nature of political ecology, not unexpectedly produced both a deepening and a proliferation of political ecologies in the 1990s (see Hecht and Cockburn, 1989; Peet and Watts, 1996; Bryant and Bailey, 1997). A number of studies address the question of politics, focusing especially on patterns of resistance and struggles over access to and control over the environment, and how politics as policy is discursively constructed (Leach and Mearns, 1996; Moore, 1995; Pulido, 1996; Neumann, 1999; see environmental justice). Others have taken the political economy approach in somewhat differing directions: one takes the poverty-degradation connection and explores outcomes with the tools of institutional economics (Das Gupta, 1993) and entitlements, whereas another returns to Marx to derive concepts from the second contradiction of capitalism (O\'Connor, 1998). Much work has addressed the original silence of political ecology on questions of gender (Aggarwal, 1998). And still others, often drawing upon discourse theory and social studies of science (cf. science, geography and), examine environmental problems and policies — often outside the Third World — in terms of ecological modernization, risk, and governmentality (see Keil et al., 1998; Leach and Mearns, 1996; Braun and Castree, 1998).

Political ecology has in a sense almost dissolved itself over the last 15 years as scholars have sought to extend its reach. At the same time it has met up with the proliferations of forms of environmental study emerging from history, science studies, post-structuralism, and new social movements. Much of this work continues to struggle with the dialectical relations between nature and society that the early political ecology identified (see Harvey, 1996), however, and which continues to provide the central conundrum for what is now a hugely expanded and polyglot landscape of political ecology. (MW)

References Aggarwal, B. 1998: The gender and environment debate. In R. Keil et al., eds, Political ecology. London: Routledge, 193-220. Blaikie, P. 1985: The political economy of soil erosion. London: Longman. Blaikie, P. and Brookfield, H.C., eds, 1987: Land degradation and society. London: Methuen. Braun, B. and Castree, N., eds, 1998: Remaking reality. London: Routledge. Bryant, R. and Bailey, S. 1997: Third World political ecology. London: Routledge. Das Gupta, P. 1993: An inquiry into well being and destitution. Oxford: Clarendon. Demeritt, D. 1998: Science, Social Constructivism and Nature. In B. Brown and N. Castree, eds, Remaking reality: Nature at the millennium. London: Routledge, 173-93. Escobar, A. 1995: Encountering development. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Fairchild and Leach 1996: Misreading the African landscape. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Grossman, L. 1984: Peasants, subsistence ecology and development in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Grove, R. 1995: Green imperialism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Harvey, D. 1996: Justice, nature and the geography of difference. Oxford: Blackwell. Hecht, S. 1985: Environment, development and politics. World Development 13: 663-84. Hecht, S. and Cockburn, A. 1989: The fate of the forest. London: Verso. Keil, R. et al., eds, 1998: Political ecology. London: Routledge. Leach, M. and Mearns, M., eds, 1996: The lie of the land. London: Heinemann. Leff, E. 1995: Green production. New York: Guilford. Moore, D. 1995: Marxism, culture and political ecology. In R. Peet and M. Watts, eds, Liberation ecologies. London: Routledge, 125-47. Neumann, R. 1999: Imposing wilderness. Berkeley: University of California Press. Nietschmann, B. 1973: Between land and water. New York: Academic Press. O\'Connor, J. 1998: Natural causes. New York: Guilford. Peet, R. and Watts, M., eds, 1996: Liberation ecologies. London: Routledge. Peluso, N. 1992: Rich forests, poor people. Berkeley: University of California Press. Pulido, L. 1996: Environmentalism and economic justice. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. Rappaport, R. 1967: Pigs for the ancestors. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. Richards, P. 1985: Indigenous agricultural revolution. London: Hutchinson. Watts, M. 1983: Silent violence: food, famine and peasantry in Northern Nigeria. Berkeley: University of California Press. Watts, M. 1986: Drought, environment and food security. In M. Glantz, ed., Drought and hunger in Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 171-212. Zimmerer, K. 1994: Integrating the new ecology in human geography, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 84: 108-25. Zimmerer, K. 1996: Changing fortunes. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Suggested Reading Adam, B. 1998: Timescapes of modernity. London: Routledge. Faber, D., ed., 1998: The struggle for ecological democracy. New York: Guilford. Demeritt 1998. Fairhead, J. and Leach, M. 1998: Reframing deforestation. London: Routledge. Guha, R. and Martinez-Alier, J. 1997: Varieties of environmentalism. London: Earthscan. Hajer, M. 1995: The politics of environmental discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kuletz, V. 1998: The tainted desert. London: Routledge. Moore, D. 1996: Culture and Political Economy. In R. Peet and M. Watts, Liberation Ecologies. London: Routledge, 125-48.



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