It is a formidable task to pinpoint what political ecology is. In Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction, Paul Robbins confesses that it is “impossible to survey the field in its entirety [with a single book]. The contributors are too many, the breadth of topics too vast, and the regional diversity too great” (2012:4). The few books dedicated to surveying and summarizing political ecology do an excellent job of identifying important foundational texts and explaining political ecology’s diverse origins from political economy, to cultural ecology and natural hazards research (Robbins 2004, 2012; Neumann 2005). However, these texts are not written to policing boundaries. Instead, the authors search for common questions, while celebrating the ways that political ecologists continue to branch out into unexpected topical, theoretical, and methodological territories. We too embrace this dialectical approach to political ecology by appreciating these expanding dimensions on the one hand, while emphasizing moments of unification on the other.
The realization of a dialectical political ecology is well documented by the summary texts mentioned above, and in several other printed formats. Political ecologists with diverse backgrounds publish in a wide variety of disciplinary and interdisciplinary journals. However, the breadth of this work is frequently brought together in review articles that identify emerging themes and pose reflexive questions for future scholarship (e.g. Robbins 2002; Walker 2005, 2006, 2007; Davis 2009; Neumann 2009, 2010, 2011). The diversity of political ecology is also captured in edited volumes and special issues in top-tier journals. General edited volumes do an excellent job of presenting the range of theoretical frameworks, scales of analysis, and methodologies used by scholars who self-identify as political ecologists, while delineating common questions and themes in their introductions (e.g. Peet and Watts 1996, 2004; Zimmerer and Bassett 2003; Paulson and Gezon 2004; Peet, Robbins, and Watts 2011). More specific edited volumes and special issues reveal a similar diversity, but focus on persistent and emerging themes such as feminism (Rocheleau, Thomas-Slayter, Wangari 1996; Elmhirst 2011), regional approaches (McCarthy and Guthman 1998; McCarthy 2005; Schroeder et al 2006), historical analysis (Offen 2004), ethnographic methods (Biersack and Greenberg 2006), and science studies (Goldman, Nadasdy, and Turner 2011). The dialectical process of doing and making political ecology, however, runs deeper than the printed page.
Political ecology also emerges in graduate seminars, working groups, specialty groups, and conferences where scholars exchange ideas, debate, and work together on pressing issues. As active participants and co-founders of the Dimensions of Political Ecology: Conference on Nature/Society (DOPE) and its organizing committee, the University of Kentucky Political Ecology Working Group (UK-PEWG), we reflect on how these efforts strive to celebrate the multiplicity of approaches in political ecology, while searching for common themes.
In 2008, the Department of Geography at the University of Kentucky reached a critical mass of six graduate students who self-identified as “political ecologists.” In the spring of 2009, Dr. Morgan Robertson’s geography seminar on political ecology offered us a chance to collectively explore this scholarly identity and to meet students from Anthropology and Sociology who shared our affinity for socio-natural issues. The reading list included foundational texts in political economy, cultural ecology, and natural hazards research, which allowed us to draw on and share our own diverse backgrounds. While we represented only three fields of PhD study, students had previously studied in programs as diverse as: biology, planning, environmental studies, religious studies, Latin American studies, and business administration. Drawing on our assorted expertise and a familiarity with common foundational readings, Dr. Robertson then guided us in discussions of review essays and research articles covering persistent and emerging themes in political ecology.
The seminar ended with two days of presentations, listed on the course syllabus as the Kentucky Conference on Political Ecology. While we suspect that the point of the exercise was geared toward professional development, it allowed some of us to present the preliminary results of our dissertation projects, while others thought through and reframed previous fieldwork. We critiqued and encouraged one another during those two days, and then took our presentations on the road, organizing two sessions at the Southeastern Division of the Association of American Geographers meetings with Dr. Ed Carr (University of South Carolina) and Dr. Brent McCusker (West Virginia University) serving as discussants.
In the semesters that followed, new graduate students and professors joined our group, which grew from an alliance of anthropologists-geographers-sociologists to include historians and philosophers. Dr. Robertson’s spring seminar on Nature-Society and Dr. Lisa Cliggett’s seminars on Ecological Anthropology and Environment & Development entrenched these interdisciplinary relationships. In May of 2010, we formed UK-PEWG to maintain and formalize these intellectual exchanges. After electing officials and approving a constitution we became an official student group, gaining access to university resources, and discussed the possibility of organizing a conference, something none of us had ever been involved in planning, but all felt would be a worthwhile experience. We also, somewhat ungraciously, if inadvertently, appropriated the name of the University of California, Santa Cruz Political Ecology Working Group.
Over the following year, UK-PEWG fostered on-campus relationships through a white paper session with Dr. Tad Mutersbaugh, graduate student led reading groups, and several guest speakers. Along with Jon Otto and Sarah Watson, we formed a preliminary conference planning committee. Much care was taken in deciding on the title of the conference, so that it would not be narrowly tailored to a single discipline or approach. We settled on “Dimensions of Political Ecology” emphasizing multiple perspectives, yet organized around a commonality. After several weeks of innocently drafting a call for papers that further defined our inclusive definition of political-ecological by including a long list of theoretical frameworks, methodologies, and possible topics, we released it in September of 2010, deciding that if we got 60 people to submit abstracts the conference would be a success. The conference that emerged in February of 2011 included 120 participants, representing 41 universities, and 17 different disciplinary affiliations. Our interdisciplinary organizing committee, which had grown to 12 people, selected Dr. Paul Robbins (Geography and Development, University of Arizona) to give the keynote and we found support from 6 different departments and 10 organizations on the University of Kentucky campus. We also organized a multi-disciplinary panel titled Methods in Political Ecology, which featured scholars deliberately selected for their dissimilar approaches including: collaborative mapping, archival analysis, ethnography, and quantitate sociology. The conference also featured an opportunity for people with experience in environmental justice and natural hazards research to take a trip through Eastern Kentucky to learn about the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.
While not without hitches, the conference came off better than we could have hoped for given our level of inexperience. This success, of course, meant that there had to be another conference in 2012. New students joined the organizing committee, the number of scholars attending increased, and the organizing committee did an excellent job of expanding on the successes of the previous year, while overcoming several problems. DOPE 2012 brought in two keynote speakers, Dr. Eric Swyngedouw (School of Environment and Development, University of Manchester) and Dr. Julie Guthman (Community Studies, UC Santa Cruz), and a pre-conference speaker, Dr. Danny Faber (Sociology, Environmental Justice Research Collaborative, Northeastern University). Following the first conference’s panel on methods, DOPE 2012 featured an interdisciplinary panel titled Teaching Political Ecology. These panels have proven to be particularly popular and useful because they were deliberately designed to offer a cross-section of perspectives on key issues. The conference, aided by beautiful weather, also offered excellent opportunities to bring people together each night for discussion and celebration. After meeting, networking, and seeing presentations with parallel themes during the day, the common message from keynote speaker and extended receptions in the evening offered space for intellectually meaningful exchanges.
Whether you consider it a sub-field, an epistemological approach, a community of practitioners, or merely a cluster of scholars utilizing a key word, there are moments were political ecology crystallizes. Some of the most impactful moments have occurred in print. These texts sit alongside one another, and occasionally a well-crafted introduction or reflective article brings them together, new points of continuity emerge or new concerns are raised. However, we should also not overlook the fact that political ecology also emerges through the efforts of specialty groups like the Anthropology and Environment Society section of the American Anthropological Association, the Cultural and Political Ecology specialty group of the Association of American Geographers, the Environment and Technology section of the American Sociological Association, and the Political Ecology Society, all of whom sponsored the DOPE paper competitions in 2012. Political ecology also emerges in smaller working groups like the UC Santa Cruz Political Ecology Working Group (which preceded ours), the Center for Political Ecology, the Center for Integrative Conservation Research at the University of Georgia, the Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative, and the University of New Mexico Economic and Environmental Justice Working Group, all of whom have been represented by presenters or speakers at DOPE conferences. It is our sincere hope that more groups will connect with us, to form a network for communication and collaboration across institutional settings and disciplinary boundaries under the umbrella of political ecology.
Our mission with UK-PEWG is to create spaces for interdisciplinary and collaborative exchanges, foster the formation of scholarly partnerships, and participate in the dialectical process of making political ecology. We invite you to join us at the Dimensions of Political Ecology conference in March 2013, contribute to one of our online writing projects, start your own working group, and by all means get in touch so we can continue to expand the space of exchange that is political ecology.
PhD Candidates, Department of Geography, University of Kentucky
We are proud to write this essay honoring the Dimensions of Political Ecology Conference, which is the result of hard work by graduate students on the conference organizing committee: Ryan Anderson, Lily Breslin, Tim Brock, Hugh Deaner, Alicia Fisher, Michelle Flippo-Bouldoc, Priyanka Ghosh, Allison Harnish, Megan Maurer, Nate Millington, Eric Nost, Jon Otto, Jairus Rossi, Julie Shepherd-Powell, and Sarah Watson. The following faculty members at the University of Kentucky have also provided much needed support and guidance for UK-PEWG: Dr. Lisa Cliggett, Dr. Tad Mutersbaugh, Dr. Chris Oliver, and Dr. Morgan Robertson.
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