What is Political Ecology? | Culture, Power, and Global Environment


>>Hello and thanks for
tuning in for the first unit of Culture, Power and Global Environment. If you haven’t already watched the videos welcoming you to the class, and explaining the
academic integrity policy, I encourage you to press pause now and go back to those
videos before proceeding. With that said, I’m excited to officially begin our exploration
of how social, cultural and political differences shape environmental
problems around the world. Our first step in this journey is to develop a solid
understanding of political ecology. Political ecology is a
transdisciplinary field that includes scholars from across the humanities and social sciences, but particularly from the disciplines of geography, anthropology and history. Though the term has a longer history, the field we now know as political ecology first emerged in the 1970’s and 80’s as part of an effort by anthropologists and geographers to incorporate political economic forces into their studies of environmental change and vice versa. This was, in part, a
response to the neglect of the environment among
political economists and in part a response to the neglect of political economy
among human ecologists. Despite criticism from those
who see it as unscientific, political ecology has grown
steadily since the 1970’s and is today widely accepted
as a worthwhile contributor to our understanding of human
environment interactions. The data sources and methods
used by political ecologists vary widely, from the sort
of ethnographic research that I conduct, to
archival research common among historians to spatial analysis used in satellite images. Likewise, the theoretical orientations of political ecologists
range from those who work within Marxist historical materialism to those who mainly
employ post-structuralist discourse analysis to those who, like me, take a more eclectic approach. In this course, we won’t
dwell on the disciplinary, methodological or theoretical distinctions among political ecologist, though these matters are
certainly open to discussion, should they interest you. Rather, we’re interested in what political ecologists have in common. So, what are the characteristics that unite political ecologists? The first, obviously, in an
interest in the environment and more specifically, in how politics shape environmental problems. What this means in practice
varies tremendously. Political ecologists study, for example, how shifts in global commodity markets affect the livelihoods of farmers, how biologists relate to
the animals they study, and how certain voices
take precedence over others in determining whether a given environmental problem even exists. Amid all this topical variety, a few principles stand out. One is that political ecologists look to human cultural behaviors as adaptations to the environment. This means that human societies, even and perhaps especially those often disregarded as primitive, often have highly sophisticated ways of interacting with and
managing their environments. As we know however, human adaptations are not always in sync with the environment can sustain and so another principle
of political ecology is that degradation of local environments is often driven by forces that
transcend the local level. Against the tendency to
blame local peoples for environmental degradation,
political ecologists draw attention to how
local land and resource use decisions are shaped by
political economic forces that operate at the regional,
national and global scales. Clearly then, another common concern among political ecologists is power and how differences in power shape all aspects of people’s
relations with the environment. In part, this is about
how the costs and benefits of environmental
relations are distributed. We study who has control over particular landscapes and resources, and who suffers the negative consequences of particular activities, but it’s also about who has the power to institutionalize their
vision of the environment and of the human role therein. Many studies by political ecologists show how dispossession of resources by powerful actors goes hand in hand with imposition of those
actor’s assumptions about what the environment is and how human’s should relate to it. Finally, political ecologist’s
are very often heard arguing that the
participants in human affairs are not, in fact, exclusively human. Whether it’s mosquitoes
and the diseases they carry or trees and the fires they create. Humans must always
contend with the organisms and biophysical processes’
that surround them. In this sense, studying politics means more than understanding how humans struggle with one another for resources or cultural hegemony, it also means understanding how a wide
variety of different organisms interact to shape
the world in particular ways. Finally, although there is
no common political ideology among political ecologists, there is a definite tendency to seek greater social equity
and to see social equity as an important factor in
environmental sustainability. As we move through the course, you can decide for
yourself whether you agree with the types of social changes that political ecologists often call for implicitly or explicitly. Now, when you read the
chapters from Paul Robbins’ introduction to political ecology, pay attention to the distinction he draws between political ecology
and apolitical ecology, how, according to Robbins,
does a political ecology approach differ from
one that is apolitical or that attempts to
focus only on technical or biophysical aspects of the environment. (uplifting sound)

Comments 3

  • Howdy! Great video. Very concise but deep enough to get a clear picture of the field. A question: you mentioned you take an eclectic approach in your work. By this are you saying that you draw/formulate academic ideas from disparate but connected fields? With the value of trans/multi/interdisciplinary becoming more (and rightly) recognised for its value, is there a formalisation of "an eclectic approach" out there? Perhaps nested within the broad "pandisciplinary" literature?

  • wow! This is an excellent video that gives a concise account of political ecology.

  • Hi i tried to find this course on your website but i didnt find it, it doesnt exist anymore ?

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