What is political ecology? Anyone who has read about the formation of this thing we call “political ecology” has undoubtedly seen more than one reference to Blaikie and Brookfield’s oft-cited passage on the seventeenth page of the groundbreaking text Land Degradation and Society. They write: “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” (1987:17).
That passage captures some of the key components of political ecology research: the attempt to merge ecological and political-economic concerns, along with a focus on the dialectical tensions between nature and society. It’s a pretty good place to begin the search for understanding what political ecology is all about. But where to continue? Where to go from here?
In November 2011, the University of Kentucky Political Ecology Working Group posed the question I ask above on their website: What is political ecology? They received a number of answers. I want to share a couple of examples here, just to get the definitional ball rolling. Graham Pickren (University of Georgia Department of Geography) writes:
For me, political ecology is an epistemology that builds on the environmental justice focus on the relationship between social inequality and environmental harm, but broadens that focus to examine environmental injustices not as discrete events, but as historical and geographical processes shaped by asymmetrical relationships of power.
Pryanka Ghosh from the University of Kentucky writes that political ecology “is a story (could be coherent or could be fragmented) which should be talked by maintaining the words or voices of people on whom we researchers are largely dependent for our writing.” Lisa Marika Jokivirta, from the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, makes a similar case, with a critical addendum. “[T]he real potential of political ecology” she writes, “ lies not only in critically engaging with the many unequal power relations in this world, but also in actively helping to give voice to those who have previously been left unheard. But, the crucial question remains: in whose language, on whose terms?”
Eric Nost (U of Kentucky, geography) compares political ecology to “King Kong” - romping, as it does, through the halls of academia to take on enemies such as neo-Malthusianism. The UC Santa Cruz Political Ecology Working Group compares PE to crème broulé, of all things: “Initially, it is challenging to break the shell of it, but once you do, it is filled with rich possibilities…and a growing tool-kit from which to exegetically explore and conceptualize the human-nature nexus.”
I really like this tool analogy. For me, political ecology is not some movement, theory, or “camp” to follow. I personally don’t “believe” in political ecology any more than I do political economy, actor network theory, or a hammer for that matter. As the UC Santa Cruz folks argue, it is indeed a took-kit: something to be put to use. Political ecology is not a church, or a club, or some group that meets every Wednesday night to talk about “the environment” and then goes home to regularly scheduled programming. It’s not a slogan, that’s what I’m saying. It is a set of ideas, practices, methods and, yes, tools that can be brought to bear upon serious contemporary issues.
We need tools, ideas, and frameworks for addressing complex, if not ridiculously recurrent, human-environment problems and conflicts. For me, at least, it’s a tool that has been forged, refined, and employed by various craftspeople that have come before us—from Wolf and the late Alexander Cockburn to more recent smiths such as Lisa Gezon and Paul Robbins. It’s a tool that I want to pick up and use to smash some things (like certain arguments about “objective” views of nature or development). So I see where Nost was going with the whole King Kong thing. But it’s also tool for tuning up, for adjustments, recalibrations. Political ecology is good for smashing, but yes, also for building, documenting, collaborating, and moving forward. This is what Paul Robbins called the “Hatchet and the seed” approach to political ecology (see Robbins 2004:1-16). The question, in the end is this: What we are going to do with these tools we have at hand? When do we swing the hatchet, and when do we sow some seeds?
This collection of essays is yet another foray into the world of political ecology: what it means to different practitioners, where it has been, and where they want to take it. We have contributions from Brian Grabbatin & Patrick Bigger, Cat Nelson, Thomas Loder, Douglas Larose, Janna Lafferty, Jerry Zee, and finally Jairus Rossi. Thanks to all of the editors for helping to put this issue together—and welcome Lydia Roll and Jeremy Trombley as the newest members of the anthropologies editorial team. Thanks everyone for all of your editing, suggestions, and ideas for this issue! We also have some scheduling announcements for the anthropologies project: Starting with this issue, we have decided to publish issues bi-monthly, which will give us a chance to devote more time to each issue. We think this change will help us to push this little project in some new--and better--directions. I hope you enjoy these essays, and as always: don’t be shy about posting your comments, thoughts, reflections, disagreements, and opinions. Feedback and dialogue are what this is all about, so don’t hesitate to join in the fray. Thanks for checking out anthropologies.*
*Updated on 9/10/12 to add Jairus Rossi's essay, which was omitted due to an editorial error.
Blaikie, Piers, and Harold Brookfield. 1987. Land Degradation and Society. London: Methuen.
Robbins, Paul. 2004. Political Ecology. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.