Political Ecology Essay

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P olitical ecology is an academic field that seeks to understand human societies and their relationship to nature. Political ecology posits that environmental problems are intrinsically political and need to be understood in a broader framework that takes local as well as global actors into consideration. An important overarching goal of political ecology is to understand and participate in the forces linking social change, environment, and development. Academic studies using political ecology perspectives of analysis are appearing with greater frequency in contemporary environmental scholarship. While geographers and ecological economists have taken the lead in this endeavor, other fields, such as anthropology, history, and sociology, are joining in this collective effort. However, different shades of political ecology draw from a number of academic subdisciplines including: cultural and ecological anthropology, development theory, environmental economics, environmental studies, gender studies, environmental history, human geography, rural sociology, and postcolonial studies. The origin of political ecology was influenced by political economy, which has roots in Marxism, and has drawn on post-structuralism.

Given that an increasing number of academic disciplines are engaging in political ecology frameworks of analysis, explanations of society-nature relations have likewise become increasingly fragmented along disciplinary lines. These explanations are characterized by dualistic thinking that all too often analytically isolates physical and social phenomena. Political ecology is an interdisciplinary, nondualistic strategy that remains under development, and perhaps deliberately so, seeking to describe the dynamic ways in which, on the one hand, political and economic power can shape ecological futures and, on the other, how ecologies can shape political and economic possibilities.

Often identified with political economy, political ecology frequently takes political economy’s interest in the expression and influence of state and corporate power on environmental politics and combines this with insights derived from understanding and analyzing environmental influences on social activity. In this manner, political ecology extends theoretical inquiry beyond the insights of the conventional social and natural sciences. Political ecology’s ability to engage the philosophy and values of ecological justice has made it attractive to many who expect analysis to facilitate social change.

Political ecology is a fast-growing multidisciplinary field of research. It focuses on human to nature relationships and has a particular interest in connections between politics and environmental change. Human beings have evolved out of and as a part of nature, but with the increasing determinacy of human culture on landscapes, highly visible since the Neolithic period, it is hardly possible to speak of virgin natures. Even the Arctic Archipelago, far from human settlements, is exposed to radiation from the gap in the ozone layer caused by human livelihoods in other parts of the globe. The uneven vulnerability of humanity to environmental crises is increasingly being recognized, as global capitalism affects place-based peoples and transnational, mobile elites in extremely different ways.

Forms of Political Ecology

It is possible to recognize two primary forms of political ecology. The first represents a fusion of its predecessors: human ecology with political economy. The second form, in opposition to the previous form, is a political ecology informed by poststructuralist social theory and represented by the work of Watts, Rocheleau, and others. The first form of political ecology takes as its point of departure the existence of an unproblematic material/ecological base and a series of actors, differentially empowered but with clear interests, contesting the claims of others to resources in a particular ecological context. The second (or poststructuralist) form of political ecology is characterized by the perspective that it takes nature, as well as the identities and interests of various agents, to be both contingent and problematic.

Since the 1970s political ecology has advanced an interdisciplinary approach to complex human-environmental interactions, especially those related to economic development in the third world. A primary objective has been to understand the underlying causes of human and environmental crises and identify ways to ameliorate or eliminate them. Anthropologists, geographers, political scientists, and other scholars generally use the political ecology framework to understand how environmental and political forces interact to affect social and environmental changes through the actions of various social actors operating at different scales (levels of analysis).

Recently, political ecologists have expanded their domain to include considerations of history, gender, social movements, and discursive formations. Much of the analysis centers on the role of power in mediating the relations among diverse interest groups and/or social/cultural actors. Such power is manifest in the relative abilities of actors to control access to and use of environmental resources, to transfer environmental risk to other actors, and to affect certain policies and projects (often partly through the control of public discourse).

Political ecology also acknowledges the coproduction of environmental knowledge and politics and makes use of discourse analysis to explore constructions of nature and human interaction with nature. There are diverse socioecological processes that interact to create different scales of mutual relations, which subsequently result in varied political ecologies. One of the major attributes of political ecology is that it reveals the political aspects of environmental change. The political ecology framework developed by Raymond Bryant and Sinead Bailey is useful in this regard, as it identifies different actors vying for access to natural resources, and then interprets the political role that actors play in human-environment interactions in three ways: (1) it situates local-level findings into a larger body of theoretical and comparative perspectives; (2) it details the motivation, interests, and actions of different actor groups, focusing especially on the strengths, weaknesses, and relative power they possess in relation to other actors; and (3) it places politics at the center of political ecology, emphasizing that all humanenvironment interactions are mediated by politics, and that all actors, even weak ones, possess some level of agency with which they pursue their own interests.

Political ecologists critique biologists and other naturalists working for the conservation movement in that they have been unable to solve environmental problems because the nature of the problems themselves are not biological, but rather political, economic, social, and ethical. Political ecologists also note that environmental problems stem from political and economic influences that lead to an inappropriate or unjust allocation of benefits (as well as negative consequences) of natural resources and their use. They also note that policy and market failures concerning sustainable resource use are not accidental, but instead are the manifestation of laws, policies, and institutions that are the product of political, social, and economic forces that benefit powerful actors.

Development of the Field

Predecessors to political ecology include a variety of orientations in cultural and human ecology in vogue from the 1950s to the 1970s. The field of political ecology can be traced to Rappaport’s 1968 study of the role of ritual in human ecology among the Maori people of New Guinea. In this work, Rappaport established a new framework for examining human-environment interactions in that he examined “extralocal” (or external) linkages to regional systems.

Borne out of Rappaport’s examination of larger systems was the field of political ecology, which seeks to inform understanding of how people and their environment shape each other over time. Political ecology then emerged during the 1970s in conjunction with the growing environmental movement of the era. Eric Wolf was among the first to use the term political ecology in his 1972 critique of cultural ecology and ecological anthropology, in which he emphasized the need to contextualize local ecological realities within the broader political economy. The initial step was the infusion, in the 1970s, of cultural and human ecology with considerations of political economy.

Political ecology became more significant during the 1980s and into the early 1990s, as it was perceived to improve on the weaknesses in human ecology and ecological anthropology, as they were practiced during the 1960s and early 1970s. This improvement came via the incorporation of a more rigorous political-economic framework of analysis that was strongly influenced by political economy perspectives, including systems theory and Marxism.

By the mid-1990s however, political ecology began to absorb other elements, including poststructuralist analyses of knowledge, institutions, development, and social movements, and feminist insights into the gendered character of knowledge, environment, and organizations. This resulted in the emergence of a more nuanced account of nature-society relations and political ecology. It highlighted the interwoven character of the discursive, material, social, and cultural dimensions of the human-environment relation. While empirical studies based on these frameworks have been taking place for some years, the theoretical work of political ecology is still in its early stages.

Feminist Political Ecology

Political ecology approaches have been used as a method for analysis for other ecologies that include feminist, deep, and social ecologies. Feminist political ecology treats gender as a critical variable in shaping resource access and control, interacting with class, caste, race, culture, and ethnicity to shape processes of ecological change, the struggle of men and women to sustain ecologically viable livelihoods, and the prospects of community for sustainable development. Feminist political ecology provides an invitation to examine the power relationships that shape the environment through the insights of gender analysis, and a set of frameworks for doing so. In this way, it identifies new ways of examining gendered power relations in the shaping and use of the environment.

European Approaches

Political ecology also differs depending on whether it is being discussed within Anglo-American or European contexts. Anglo-American perspectives on political ecology tend to create a distinct dichotomy between people and the environment. European, and especially French, perspectives on political ecology instead tend to use more of a systems approach, which identifies a more holistic relationship between people and the environment. A critique that Europeans have of Anglo-American academicians is that by creating a people-environment dichotomy, they inhibit the expression of new ways of thinking about and framing environmental issues.

Given that the French arrived relatively late to the people versus environment debate, their more holistic perspectives on the environment have allowed them to pursue a variety of strategies that are grounded in systems theory and which are not centered on ecological arguments. From the French perspective, the division of environmental debates into two distinct ontological zones (human and nonhuman) is modern (as opposed to postmodern) behavior leading to purification (which sociologist Bruno Latour uses to define the total separation of nature and culture, which is a primary objective of the modern constitution), which prevents us from fully understanding hybrids of nature and culture.

For Latour, political ecology is a philosophical project with two broad aims. The first is to overcome the concept of nature as an asocial, objective source of truth. In this way, political ecology is a critique of existing environmental politics, which claim to speak for nature. The second aim of political ecology, according to Latour, is to recognize the complex relations between humans and nature and, from that recognition, produce new facts, values, and practices that will allow various actors to speak about common issues of concern. In this sense, political ecology is a critique of current environment politics. According to Latour, the aim of political ecology is not to bring science into nature, but instead to destroy the concept of nature.

Other Approaches

Anthropologist Arturo Escobar extends the poststructuralist form of political ecology. Escobar defines political ecology as the articulation of biology and history. This definition does not rely on the common categories of nature, environment, or culture (as in cultural ecology, ecological anthropology, and much of environmental thinking) or on the sociologically oriented nature and society (as in Marxist theories of the production of nature).

Equally significant, the form of political ecology Escobar articulates brings together several disparate domains of environmental scholarship, most notably the study of social movements and explorations of the emergence of technonature, and provides a basis for the development of an engaged critical environmental praxis. Examples of political ecology range from those that can be gleaned from the prehistoric past, to the most contemporary and futuristic, from ancient articulations through agriculture and forestry to molecular technologies and artificial life. Each articulation has its history and specificity and is related to modes of perception and experience, determined by social, political, economic, and knowledge relations, and characterized by modes of use of space, and ecological conditions. It is the task of political ecology to outline and characterize these processes of articulation and to suggest more just and sustainable social and ecological relations. Another way to state this goal is to say that political ecology is concerned with finding new ways of weaving together the biophysical, the cultural, and the techno-economic for the production of other types of social nature.

In his treatment of the idea of nature, Escobar transcends the theoretical impasse that has developed over our long-standing adherence to the nature/culture dichotomy. Escobar articulates an anti-essentialist theory of nature, where the view of nature goes beyond the truism that nature is constructed to theorize the manifold forms in which it is culturally constructed and socially produced, while fully acknowledging the biophysical basis of its constitution. In his advocating for an anti-essentialist theory of nature, Escobar notes that it is a necessary condition for understanding and radicalizing contemporary social struggles over the biological and the cultural.

From this perspective, culture and especially discourse are seen as active agents that create and produce nature as well as frame knowledge and related conflicts associated with nature. This constructivist approach, along with its emphasis on discursive formations, has added a significant critical dimension to the earlier work of political ecologists. Especially important have been constructivist examinations of the role of science in environmental campaigns and debates and the role of discourse in framing environmental conflicts related to development, especially in the developing world.


Some have critiqued the field of political ecology and many of its research practitioners for being biased and predisposed to finding specific, assumed answers (especially political drivers to environmental problems) before research begins. Vayda and Walters have suggested that the field, whatever its merits, might be more profitably replaced by “event ecology,” an empirical and inductive (or abductive) approach to explaining environmental problems.

While this debate continues, a large body of work continues to pursue political ecological research for the analysis of contested environmental issues, seeking deeper insights, avoiding superficial and erroneous conclusions, and challenging the unspoken assumptions, biases, and conventional wisdoms of powerful actors. This analytic lens acknowledges power differences among actor groups and tries to explore the degree to which actors (powerful or otherwise) exercise their agency in their day-to-day actions toward their environment as well as toward each other.


  1. T.J. Bassett, , Political Ecology: An Integrative Approach to Geography and Environment Development Studies (Guilford Press, 2003);
  2. Raymond Bryant and Sinead Bailey, Third World Political Ecology (Routledge, 1997);
  3. Arturo Escobar, “After Nature: Steps to an Anti-Essentialist Political Ecology,” Current Anthropology (v.40/1, 1999);
  4. Tim Forsyth, Critical Political Ecology: The Politics of Environmental Science (Routledge, 2003);
  5. Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2004);
  6. Nicholas Low and Brendan Gleeson, Justice, Society and Nature: An Exploration of Political Ecology (Routledge, 1998);
  7. Susan Paulson and L. Gezon, eds., Political Ecology Across Spaces, Scales, and Social Groups (Rutgers University Press, 2004);
  8. Richard Peet and Michael Watts, eds., Liberation Ecologies (Routledge, 1996);
  9. Paul Robbins, Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction (Blackwell Publishing, 2004);
  10. Dianne Rocheleau, Barbara Thomas-Slayter, and Esther Wangari, , Feminist Political Ecology: Global Issues and Local Experiences (Routledge, 1996);
  11. P. Vayda and B.B. Walters, “Against Political Ecology,” Human Ecology (v.27/1, 1999);
  12. K.H. Whiteside, Divided Natures: French Contributions to Political Ecology (MIT Press, 2002).

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