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Political ecology is the study of the relationships between political, economic and social factors with environmental issues and changes. Political ecology differs from apolitical ecological studies by politicizing environmental issues and phenomena.
The academic discipline offers wide-ranging studies integrating ecological social sciences with political economy in topics such as degradation and marginalization, environmental conflict, conservation and control, and environmental identities and social movements.
The term "political ecology" was first coined by Frank Thone in an article published in 1935. It has been widely used since then in the context of human geography and human ecology, but with no systematic definition. Anthropologist Eric R. Wolf gave it a second life in 1972 in an article entitled "Ownership and Political Ecology", in which he discusses how local rules of ownership and inheritance "mediate between the pressures emanating from the larger society and the exigencies of the local ecosystem", but did not develop the concept further Other origins include other early works of Eric R. Wolf, Michael J. Watts, Susanna Hecht, and others in the 1970s and 1980s.
The origins of the field in the 1970s and 1980s were a result of the development of development geography and cultural ecology., particularly the work of Piers Blaikie on the sociopolitical origins of soil erosion. Historically, political ecology has focused on phenomena in and affecting the developing world; since the field's inception, "research has sought primarily to understand the political dynamics surrounding material and discursive struggles over the environment in the third world".
Scholars in political ecology are drawn from a variety of academic disciplines, including geography, anthropology, development studies, political science, economics, sociology, forestry, and environmental history.
Political ecology's broad scope and interdisciplinary nature lends itself to multiple definitions and understandings. However, common assumptions across the field give the term relevance. Raymond L. Bryant and Sinéad Bailey developed three fundamental assumptions in practising political ecology:
In addition, political ecology attempts to provide critiques and alternatives in the interplay of the environment and political, economic and social factors. Paul Robbins asserts that the discipline has a "normative understanding that there are very likely better, less coercive, less exploitative, and more sustainable ways of doing things".
From these assumptions, political ecology can be used to:
Political ecology's movement as a field since its inception in the 1970s has complicated its scope and goals. Through the discipline's history, certain influences have grown more and less influential in determining the focus of study. Peter A. Walker traces the importance of the ecological sciences in political ecology. He points to the transition, for many critics, from a ‘structuralist’ approach through the 1970s and 1980s, in which ecology maintains a key position in the discipline, to a 'poststructuralist' approach with an emphasis on the 'politics' in political ecology. This turn has raised questions as to the differentiation with environmental politics as well as the field's use of the term of 'ecology'. Political ecological research has shifted from investigating political influence on the earth's surface to the focus on spatial-ecological influences on politics and power—a scope reminiscent of environmental politics.
Much has been drawn from cultural ecology, a form of analysis that showed how culture depends upon, and is influenced by, the material conditions of society (political ecology has largely eclipsed cultural ecology as a form of analysis according to Walker.) As Walker states, "whereas cultural ecology and systems theory emphasize[s] adaptation and homeostasis, political ecology emphasize[s] the role of political economy as a force of maladaptation and instability".
Political ecologists often use political economy frameworks to analyze environmental issues. Early and prominent examples of this were Silent Violence: Food, Famine and Peasantry in Northern Nigeria by Michael Watts in 1983, which traced the famine in northern Nigeria during the 1970s to the effects of colonialism, rather than an inevitable consequence of the drought in the Sahel, and The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries by Piers Blaikie in 1985, which traced land degradation in Africa to colonial policies of land appropriation, rather than over-exploitation by African farmers.
Originating in the 18th and 19th centuries with philosophers such as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, and Thomas Malthus, political economy attempted to explain the relationships between economic production and political processes. It tended toward overly structuralist explanations, focusing on the role of individual economic relationships in the maintenance of social order. Eric Wolf used political economy in a neo-Marxist framework which began addressing the role of local cultures as a part of the world capitalist system, refusing to see those cultures as "primitive isolates". But environmental effects on political and economic processes were under-emphasised.
Conversely, Julian Steward and Roy Rappaport's theories of cultural ecology are sometimes credited with shifting the functionalist-oriented anthropology of the 1950s and 1960s and incorporating ecology and environment into ethnographic study.
Geographers and anthropologists worked with the strengths of both to form the basis of political ecology. PE focuses on issues of power, recognizing the importance of explaining environmental impacts on cultural processes without separating out political and economic contexts.
The application of political ecology in the work of anthropologists and geographers differs. While any approach will take both the political/economic and the ecological into account, the emphasis can be unequal. Some, such as geographer Michael Watts, focus on how the assertion of power impacts on access to environmental resources. His approach tends to see environmental harm as both a cause and an effect of “social marginalization”.
Political ecology has strengths and weaknesses. At its core, it contextualizes political and ecological explanations of human behavior. But as Walker points out, it has failed to offer “compelling counter-narratives” to “widely influential and popular yet deeply flawed and unapologetic neo-Malthusian rants such as Robert Kaplan's (1994) 'The coming anarchy' and Jared Diamond's (2005) Collapse (385). Ultimately, applying political ecology to policy decisions – especially in the US and Western Europe – will remain problematic as long as there is a resistance to Marxist and neo-Marxist theory.
Andrew Vayda and Bradley Walters (1999) criticize political ecologists for pre-supposing “the importance ... of certain kinds of political factors in the explanation of environmental changes” (167). Vayda and Walter's response to overly political approaches in political ecology is to encourage what they call “event ecology”, focusing on human responses to environmental events without presupposing the impact of political processes on environmental events. The critique has not been taken up widely. One example of work that builds on event ecology, in order to add a more explicit focus on the role of power dynamics and the need for including local peoples's voices is Penna-Firme (2013) "Political and Event Ecology: critiques and opportunities for collaboration".
There is a divergence of ideas between conservation science and political ecology. With conservationists establishing protected areas to conserve biodiversity, "political ecologists have devoted some energy to the study of protected areas, which is unsurprising given political ecology's overall interest in forms of access to, and control over resources". The arguments against enclosure of land for conservation is that it harms local people and their livelihood systems, by denying them access. As Dove and Carpenter state, "indigenous people have important environmental knowledge which could contribute to conservation". The objection by political ecologists is that land use regulations are made by NGOs and the government, denying access, denying the ability of local people to conserve species and areas themselves, and rendering them more vulnerable through dispossession.
In a few cases, perhaps especially tragic local groups have been displaced to create national parks and reserves to ‘conserve’ the forest. Fortunately, most conservation bodies are now aware that, if a group has been using and managing a forest for several thousand years, throwing it off the land is more apt to destroy the forest ecosystem than to preserve it. (Sutton 2004: 302)
Some prominent contemporary scholars include:
Scholarly journals that have been key to the development (and critique) of this field include: