Critical Political Ecology: The Politics of Environmental Science

By Tim Forsyth | Go to book overview
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3

Environmental “laws” and generalizations
The preceding chapter spelt out the main problem addressed by this book: many widely held principles and understandings of environmental degradation are commonly accepted as “fact” within popular and political debates. Yet an increasing amount of research has indicated that many of these explanations are biophysically inaccurate or lead to policies that are socially unjust. There is consequently a need to understand how explanations of environmental degradation evolve in order to make environmental science more meaningful to people who experience environmental problems, and to avoid the inaccuracies and injustices of many “orthodox” environmental explanations.This chapter starts the discussion by examining some of the underlying problems of making scientific statements about complex environmental processes and events, and how these relate to social and political debates.In particular, this chapter will:
introduce debates from the Philosophy of Science about the problems of so-called “laws of nature” and the social basis of generalized statements about environmental change under orthodox frameworks of science;
discuss the significance of “non-equilibrium ecology” as an alternative to historic approaches to environmental change based on equilibrium, evolution, and a “balance of nature”;
outline differences between “realist” and “constructivist” approaches to environmental explanation; and
suggest ways in which scientific inquiry can acknowledge diversity and non-equilibrium in ecology, yet still allow explanations about a “real” biophysical world.

This chapter sets the tone for much of the book. It describes how much environmental science has been based on historic practices of sampling and inference that may not fully acknowledge the social and political contexts in which environmental problems are experienced. Furthermore, the chapter discusses how many practices of regulating scientific findings-through peer review or “conjecture and refutation” of ideas-have been

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