Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Eco-Scalar Fix: Rescaling Environmental Governance and the Politics of Ecological Boundaries in Alberta, Canada

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Eco-Scalar Fix: Rescaling Environmental Governance and the Politics of Ecological Boundaries in Alberta, Canada

Article excerpt

Abstract. This paper engages with recent work in political ecology that explores the ways in which scale is imbricated in environmental governance. Specifically, we analyze the deployment of specific ecological scales as putatively 'natural' governance units in rescaling processes. To undertake this analysis, the paper brings two sets of literature into dialogue: (1) political ecology of scale and (2) political economy of rescaling, drawing on theories of uneven development. Building on this literature, we develop the concept of an ecoscalar fix and explore its analytical potential through a case study of the rescaling of water governance in Alberta, Canada. We argue that although the 'eco-scalar fix' is usually framed as an apolitical governance change--particularly through the framing of particular scales (ie, the watershed) as 'natural'--it is often, in fact, a deeply political move that reconfigures power structures and prioritizes some resource uses over others in ways that can entrench, rather than resolve, the crises it was designed to address. Moreover, we suggest that, although watershed governance is often discursively depicted as an environmental strategy (eg, internalizing environmental externalities by aligning decision making with ecological boundaries), it is often articulated with--and undertaken to address challenges that arise through--processes of uneven development.

Keywords: 'eco-scalar fix', political economy, political ecology, scale, boundaries, watersheds, environmental policy

1 Introduction

The issue of scale has recently been the subject of scrutiny and debate within political ecology. Robbins, for example, suggests political ecological research might usefully "proceed as a kind of study of scalar politics, exploring how various political boxes get stacked the way they do in scalar hierarchy through historical and economic processes" (2008, page 216); Zimmerer and Bassett (2003) call on political ecologies to "consider how ecological scale interacts with socially constructed scales to produce distinctive environmental geographies"; and Neumann (2008) explores the degree to which a political ecology of scale might be theorized. These debates have intersected with broader debates in geography (and beyond) on issues of scale and scalar politics (Cox, 1996; 1998; Delaney and Leitner, 1997; Smith, 1992; Swyngedouw, 1997; 2004a). A key question posed by political ecologists working on these issues is the question of how ecology becomes political. Here, we respond to this question by asking how particular ecological configurations can be simultaneously depoliticized and repoliticized through rescaling processes.

This paper engages with the recent trend of rescaling environmental governance to enable decision making at ecological scales (eg, the watershed, or the bioregion). The use of ecosystem scales for governance and decision making is frequently justified by the need to address environmental issues at ecologically relevant scales, and by the desirability of 'depoliticizing' decision making through alignment with ecological (rather than jurisdictional or geopolitical) boundaries (Conca, 2006; Molle, 2009; Parkes et al, 2010; Sabatier et al, 2005; Slocombe, 1993; Warner, 2007; Warner et al, 2008).

This paper builds on these critiques of rescaling, parses the scalar and ecological politics behind the trend to rescale environmental governance, and applies these findings to the case of rescaled governance in Alberta, Canada. Specifically, we interrogate the social construction of ecological scales--in our case, watersheds--which are deployed in rescaling processes. We interrogate the construction of two different sets of watershed boundaries, each as part of broader governance structures created in order to address a suite of ecological and social issues. We argue that, although rescaling often seeks to depoliticize environmental governance, it may (often inadvertently) repoliticize environmental issues. …

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