Locating the Political in Political Ecology: An Introduction

Article excerpt

Recent debates within political ecology have motivated serious reflection about key concepts and methods in this relatively new field. In the introduction to this special issue, we briefly chart the intellectual genealogy of political ecology, identify vital challenges faced today, and present a new set of studies that respond to these concerns. We conceptualize power as a social relation built on the asymmetrical distribution of resources and risks and locate power in the interactions among, and the processes that constitute, people, places, and resources. Politics, then, are found in the practices and mechanisms through which such power is circulated. The focus here is on politics related to the environment, understood as biophysical phenomena, together with human knowledge and practice. To apply these concepts, we promote multiscale research models that articulate selected ecological phenomena and local social processes, together with regional and global forces and ideas. We also advocate methods for research and practice that are sensitive to relations of difference and power among and within social groups. Rather than dilute ecological dimensions of study, this approach aims to strengthen our ability to account for the dialectical processes through which humans appropriate, contest, and manipulate the world around them.

Key words: political ecology, politics, power, methodology, environment, practice

Recent debates within political ecology, as well as critiques of the approach as a whole, have motivated serious reflection about the methods, concepts, and studies that make up this relatively new field. As environmental issues become increasingly prominent in local struggles, national debates, and international policies and programs, scholars are paying more attention to conventional politics, as well as to more broadly defined relations of power and difference in the interactions between human groups and their biophysical environments. This move has generated questions about the role of politics in environmental scholarship, as well as concerns that ardent efforts to illuminate political phenomena may leave ecological detail in the shadows. A new wave of research highly conscious of these debates is manifest in the studies collected here, at a crossroads in the tradition.

In their foundational text, Blaikie and Brookfield (1987: 17) define the field in the following way: "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." During the past two decades, a basic notion of political ecology as the coming together of political economy and cultural ecology has been applied and developed through research, analysis, and practice across disciplines including anthropology, biology, geography, and political science. The analytic focus on factors that shape relations of power among human groups, and that influence relations between these and diverse aspects of their environments, has led to results that challenge dominant interpretations of the causes of environmental degradation and contest prevalent prescriptions for solving such problems.

A variety of political ecology approaches has developed around a shared set of concepts. The first is a refined concept of marginality, in which political, economic, and ecological expressions may be mutually reinforcing: "land degradation is both a result and a cause of social marginalization"(Blaikie and Brookfield 1987:23). Second is the idea that pressure of production on resources is transmitted through social relations that result in the imposition of excessive demands on the environment (Watts 1983b). And third is the recognition of a plurality of positions, perceptions, interests, and rationalities in relation to the environment (Blaikie 1985:16)-an awareness that one person's profit may be another's toxic dump. …