[Notes on ‘political ecology’ submitted as an invited Contributing Author for the forthcoming Transformative Change assessment being developed by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).]
The distinctive field of study that has become known as ‘Political Ecology’ seeks not only understand socio-ecological concerns, but also to conceptualise alternatives for transforming the world in ways that may better sustain flourishing and diverse socio-ecologies into the future. Critical to this effort is understanding relationships between environmental damage and inequality; as well as understanding how environmental degradation – and also discourses of degradation – may exacerbate inequality.
An arguably defining feature of political ecology is thus the desire of its protagonists to not only understand and interpret the world, but also to act in the hope of changing things such that societal and environmental ‘health’ are improved, simultaneously. This is an orientation summed up by Marx (1845) in the dictum, ‘the point is to change it’. The consolidation of political ecology as both a field of study that has increasingly embraced and contributed to forms of decolonisation, and a mode of political engagement concerned with procedural, distributive and recognition justice1, can be seen in a series of initiatives established under the political ecology umbrella. These include: the global Political Ecology Network (POLLEN); the open access Journal of Political Ecology; and the Environmental Justice Atlas (also https://ejatlas.org/). As these initiatives demonstrate, a concern has been to decolonise and democratise the field of study through diversifying scholarship, leadership and research, as well as placing emphasis on wide-ranging societal responses and resistances to environmental justice issues.
Political ecologists consider how ecological phenomena become part of political discourse and action, as well as how politics and power shape and cause environmental change. Some decades ago, concerns with how political economy structures causes and experiences of environmental degradation prompted a consolidated use of the term ‘political ecology’2. Marxist political ecologists understood that intensified and expanding production and consumption have environmental consequences whose effects tend to be experienced disproportionately by those impoverished through this expansionary momentum3. From a Marxist political ecology perspective, transforming both the social and environmental consequences of a consolidating and globalising techno-industrial, and variously capitalist, complex would require firm alliances between worker and green interests – as argued by German green politician Rudolf Bahro4. This position is echoed in environmental and climate justice movements seeking reparation for historical damage caused by capitalist-fuelled colonial enterprise and expansion5, and in concerns for how climate change and other mitigation exchanges tend to deepen rather than redress inequalities6.
As a distinct field of study seeking to understand environmental issues and their political economic causes and consequences, political ecology began gathering pace in the 1990s amidst the context of the so-called ‘science wars’ of that decade7. Detailed research in the interconnected domains of environmental anthropology and critical geography – the disciplinary homes for many who might describe themselves as ‘political ecologists’ – demonstrated that diverse ‘received wisdoms’ about environmental phenomena, in response to which economic and development policies were being designed, could be understood instead as knowledge constructions built discursively with significant power-effects in terms of access to land and ‘resources’8.
An example that is both current and recurring might be African pastoralists blamed for causing ‘desertification’ or impacting negatively on valued animal wildlife; these accusations justifying constraint on local uses of land whilst simultaneously facilitating capture of these same lands by lodge developers or hunting professionals seeking to attract foreign tourism business onto the thus ‘conserved’ lands. Indeed, as I write such cases are unfolding in Loliondo and Lake Natron areas of Tanzania, where actions to ‘upgrade’ village land to Game Reserves for trophy hunting and elite tourism mean that evicted Maasai pastoralists will no longer be able to utilise these lands (considered their lands) for livestock herding9.
This Foucaultian-inspired orientation towards empirical understanding of the constructed nature of dominant environmental knowledges and discourses has been key to the progressive emergence of the field of ‘political ecology’10. It has been accompanied by a parallel focus on environmental and social movements seeking to transform the unequal causes and impacts of environmental concerns11; as well as on protest against the transmutation of these concerns into ‘top-down’ donor-funded responses claiming to be led from the grass-roots12.
In showing that knowledges and certainties concerning the ‘natural world’ are socially, politically and historically particular, political ecologists have worked to ‘unpack’, ‘deconstruct’ and ‘problematise’ understandings of environmental phenomena so as to illuminate their power-effects and justice implications13. This emphasis on diversity in affirmed and assumed knowledges regarding ‘the natural world’, has led political ecology scholars and activists to increasingly acknowledge that totalising signifiers such as ‘nature’, ‘the environment’, and ‘degradation’ of these, denote things that ‘in [both] discourse and practice [are] socially made, not ontologically given’14. Indeed, a move towards critical ontological considerations has intensified as researchers have dug more deeply into divergences regarding the assumed nature of nature, as indicated by culturally-inflected understandings of socioecologies15, as well as in relation to other and intersecting axes of difference16.
Ontology as a way of ‘worlding’ – i.e. ‘of enacting a reality’17 – suggests parallel existences of different ways of understanding how reality is constructed (ontology), how the world and its entities can be known (epistemology), and what constitutes appropriate and ethical praxes in relation to these entities and their capacities (ethics). This triad might be seen as both significantly mutually-reinforcing for groups of people in specific historical moments, whilst simultaneously offering ambiguity, ambivalence, internal difference and ‘gaps’ making creativity, contestation and transformation possible18.
From anthropological as well as postcolonial perspectives, modern and post-Cartesian assumptions regarding how nature is constituted and can be known, whilst universalising, may thus be understood to be highly particular19. Post-structuralist and post-colonial approaches to political ecology tend instead to increasingly break-down nature/society dichotomies, embracing cultural and other differences in how ‘nature’ becomes known, and acknowledging multiple and entangled agencies at play in socioecological relationships and communities20. These perspectives have been especially influenced through research with, and learning from, Indigenous peoples, whose contributions to diversity in political ecology understanding cannot be over-estimated; but whose livelihoods and lifeworlds are often particularly undermined by the expansionary political economy forces mentioned above.
Amidst this enlivened world of vibrant matters21 and entangled agentic beings, however, structural power relations remain critical. As South African political ecologist Maano Ramutsindela and colleagues clarify, political and structural violence continue to discipline access and exclusion in relation to land and environmental resources, with, for example, neocolonial and dehumanising framings of Indigenous and local land-users frequently used to consolidate dispossession22. Despite desperation around the world as greenhouse gas emissions concentrate, temperatures rise, and species populations are damaged – and as floods, droughts and wildfires intensify with devastating effects on human and other lives – ‘extractivism’ is also intensifying23. The paradox here is that mining, including of fossil fuels, is increasingly framed as ‘green’ through various offsetting and mitigation discourses and technologies. This ‘green extractivism’ is itself prompting proliferating political ecology engagements and critical analysis24.
In terms of political ecology’s contribution to transformative change, then, we might venture that this field of study has much to offer to critical understanding of environmental concerns, as well as political will towards constructive engagement and intervention. But political ecology also does not exist outside the structural juggernaut of economic, extractive and populist expansion contributing to the global environmental concerns that are the purview of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). It seems we are inhabiting a world of growing knowledge and epistemological complexity, simultaneously compounded by cynical propagation of disinformation and science denialism. This context poses a critical invitation to political ecologists to continue to challenge ‘the propagation of alternative facts in service of populist authoritarian agendas, while also embracing multiple knowledges and realities associated with cultural and linguistic diversity’25.
In summary, political ecology proposes a critical praxis of understanding with an ethos of action towards societal transformation; albeit within the structural political constraints and historical path dependencies posing limits to possibility. As an orientation towards understanding how ecology threads through political organisation, as well as how political economy – increasingly urgently – shapes socio-ecological realities, political ecology has much to contribute in terms of envisioning versions of societal organisation and governance that foster societal sharing as well as socio-ecological flourishing.
Connected peer reviewed publications
Böhm, S. and Sullivan, S. 2021 (eds.) Negotiating Climate Change in Crisis. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers (open access).
Hewitson, L. and Sullivan, S. 2021 Producing elephant commodities for ‘conservation hunting’ in Namibian communal-area conservancies. Journal of Political Ecology 28: 1-24.
Martin, A., S. McGuire and S. Sullivan 2013 Global environmental justice and biodiversity conservation. The Geographical Journal 179(2): 122-131.
Neimark, B., Childs, J., Nightingale, A., Cavanagh, C., Sullivan, S., Benjaminsen, T.A., Batterbury, S., Koot, S. and Harcourt, W. 2019 Speaking power to ‘post-truth’: critical political ecology and the new authoritarianism. Annals of the American Association of Geographers 109(2): 613-623.
Stott, P. and Sullivan, S. (eds.) 2000 Political Ecology: Science, Myth and Power. London: Edward Arnold.
Sullivan, S. 2000 Getting the science right, or introducing science in the first place? Local ‘facts’, global discourse – ‘desertification’ in north-west Namibia, pp. 15-44 in Stott, P. and S. Sullivan (eds.) Political Scology: Science, Myth and Power. London: Edward Arnold.
Sullivan, S. 2003 Protest, conflict and litigation: dissent or libel in resistance to a conservancy in north-west Namibia, pp. 69-86 in Berglund, E. and D. Anderson (eds.) Ethnographies of Conservation: Environmentalism and the Distribution of Privilege. Oxford: Berghahn Press.
Sullivan, S. 2010 ‘Ecosystem service commodities’ – a new imperial ecology? Implications for animist immanent ecologies, with Deleuze and Guattari. New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics 69: 111-128.
Sullivan, S. 2013 After the green rush? Biodiversity offsets, uranium power and the ‘calculus of casualties’ in greening growth. Human Geography 6(1): 80-101.
Sullivan, S. 2017 What’s ontology got to do with it? On nature and knowledge in a political ecology of ‘the green economy’. Journal of Political Ecology 24: 217-242.
Sullivan, S. 2022 ‘Hunting Africa’: trophy hunting, neocolonialism and land. The Land Magazine 31: 22-27, 58. [not peer reviewed]
- Martin, A., S. McGuire and S. Sullivan 2013 Global environmental justice and biodiversity conservation. The Geographical Journal 179(2): 122-131; Svarstad, H. and Benjaminsen, T.A. 2020 Reading radical environmental justice through a political ecology lens. Geoforum 108: 1-11; Siamanta, C.Z. 2021 Conceptualizing alternatives to contemporary renewable energy development: Community Renewable Energy Ecologies (CREE). Journal of Political Ecology 28: 47-69.
- Cockburn, A. and Ridgeway, J. 1979 Political Ecology. New York: Times Books; Blaikie, P.M. and Brookfield, H.C. 1987 Land Degradation and Society. London: Methuen.
- Atkinson, A. 1991 Principles of Political Ecology. UK: Belhaven Press.
- Bahro, R. 1994 Avoiding Social and Ecological Disaster: The Politics of World Transformation. Bath: Gateway.
- Bracking, S. 2021 Climate finance and the promise of fake solutions to climate change, pp. 255-276 in Böhm, S. and Sullivan, S (eds.) Negotiating Climate Change in Crisis. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers.
- Santos Rocha da Silva, M. and Correia, J.E. 2022 A political ecology of jurisdictional REDD+: investigating social-environmentalism, climate change mitigation, and environmental (in)justice in the Brazilian Amazon. Journal of Political Ecology 29(1): 123-142.
- Sokal, A. and J. Bricmont 1998 Intellectual Impostures. London: Profile Books.
- For African contexts see, for example, Richards, P. 1985 Indigenous Agricultural Revolution. London: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd; Homewood, K. and A. Rodgers 1987 Pastoralism, conservation and the overgrazing controversy, pp. 111-128 in Anderson, D. and R. Grove (eds.) Conservation in Africa: People, Policies and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Benjaminsen, T.A. 1993 Fuelwood and desertification: Sahel orthodoxies discussed on the basis of field data from the Gourma region in Mali. Geoforum 24(4): 397-409; Fairhead, J. and Leach, M. 1996 Misreading the African Landscape: Society and Ecology in a Forest-savanna Mosaic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Leach, M. and R. Mearns (eds.) 1996 The Lie of the Land: Challenging Received Wisdom on the African Environment. Oxford: James Currey; Sullivan, S. 2000 Getting the science right, or introducing science in the first place? Local ‘facts’, global discourse – ‘desertification’ in north-west Namibia, pp. 15-44 in Stott, P. and S. Sullivan (eds.) Political Scology: Science, Myth and Power. London: Edward Arnold; Batterbury, S.P.J. 2001 Landscapes of diversity: a local political ecology of livelihood diversification in southwestern Niger. Ecumene 8(4): 437-464; Muboko, N. 2021 The political ecology of wildlife conservation and trophy hunting in human-dominated landscapes of southern Africa: a review. Journal of Political Ecology 28(1): 629-645.
- Sutherland, L. 2022 Tanzania, siding with UAE firm, plans to evict Maasai from ancestral lands. Mongabay 18 February 2022; Sullivan, S. 2022 ‘Hunting Africa’: trophy hunting, neocolonialism and land. The Land Magazine 31: 22-27, 58.
- See, for example, Bryant, R.L. and S. Bailey 1997 Third World Political Ecology. London: Routledge; Stott, P. and Sullivan, S. (eds.) 2000 Political Ecology: Science, Myth and Power. London: Edward Arnold; Adger, N., Benjaminsen, T.A., Brown, K. and Svarstad, H. 2001 Advancing a political ecology of global environmental discourses. Development and Change 32 (4): 681-715; Forsyth, T.J. 2003 Critical Political Ecology: The Politics of Environmental Science. London: Routledge; Robbins, P., Hintz, J. and Moore, S.A. 2010 Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Peet, R. and Watts, M. 1996 Liberation Ecologies: Environment, Development, Social Movements. Routledge, London.
- Sullivan, S. 2003 Protest, conflict and litigation: dissent or libel in resistance to a conservancy in north-west Namibia, pp. 69-86 in Berglund, E. and D. Anderson (eds.) Ethnographies of Conservation: Environmentalism and the Distribution of Privilege. Oxford: Berghahn Press.
- Chakrabarty, D. 2000 Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press; Martin et al. 2013 op cit.
- Castree, N. 2003 Environmental issues: relational ontologies and hybrid politics. Progress in Human Geography 27(2): 203-211, p. 205
- Viveiros de Castro, E. 2004 Exchanging perspectives: the transformation of objects into subjects in Amerindian ontologies. Common Knowledge 10(3): 463-484; Blaser, M. 2013 Notes towards a political ontology of ‘environmental’ conflicts, pp. 13-27 in Green, L. (ed.) Contested Ecologies: Dialogues in the South on Nature and Knowledge. Cape Town: Human Sciences Research Council Press; Burman, A. 2017 The political ontology of climate change: moral meteorology, climate justice, and the coloniality of reality in the Bolivian Andes. Journal of Political Ecology 24: 921-938.
- Sato, C. and Soto Alarcón, J. M. 2019 Toward a postcapitalist feminist political ecology approach to the commons and commoning. International Journal of the Commons 13(1): 36-61.
- Blaser 2013 op cit., p. 23
- Foucault, M. 1980 Power/knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 edited by C. Gordon. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
- Chakrabarty 2000 op cit.; Descola, P. 2013 Beyond Nature and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Green, L. (ed.) 2013 Contested Ecologies: Dialogues in the South on Nature and Knowledge. Cape Town: Human Sciences Research Council Press; Kohn, E. 2013 How Forests Think: Towards an Anthropology of Nature Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Latour, B. 2007 Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Haraway, D. 2008 When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; Sullivan, S. 2010 ‘Ecosystem service commodities’ – a new imperial ecology? Implications for animist immanent ecologies, with Deleuze and Guattari. New Formations: A Journal of Culture/Theory/Politics 69: 111-128; Sullivan, S. 2017 What’s ontology got to do with it? On nature and knowledge in a political ecology of ‘the green economy’. Journal of Political Ecology 24: 217-242; de la Cadena, M. 2015 Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice across Andean Worlds. Durham N.C.: Duke University Press; Burman 2017, op cit.; Hewitson, L. and Sullivan, S. 2021 Producing elephant commodities for ‘conservation hunting’ in Namibian communal-area conservancies. Journal of Political Ecology 28: 1-24)
- Bennett, J. 2010 Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.
- Ramutsindela, M., Matose, F. and Mushonga, T. (eds.) The Violence of Conservation in Africa: State, Militarization and Alternatives. Cheltenham: Edward Edgar Publishing.
- See chapters in the recent open access volume Negotiating Climate Change in Crisis, co-edited by Böhm and Sullivan)
- Sullivan, S. 2013 After the green rush? Biodiversity offsets, uranium power and the ‘calculus of casualties’ in greening growth. Human Geography 6(1): 80-101; Dunlap, A. and Brock, A. (eds.) 2022 Enforcing Ecocide: Power, Policing & Planetary Militarization. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Neimark, B., Childs, J., Nightingale, A., Cavanagh, C., Sullivan, S., Benjaminsen, T.A., Batterbury, S., Koot, S. and Harcourt, W. 2019 Speaking power to ‘post-truth’: critical political ecology and the new authoritarianism. Annals of the American Association of Geographers 109(2): 613-623, p. 614.