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Political ec onomy has come to represent a lengthy and diverse body of theoretical work often grounded in the nexus of relationships involving governance (i.e., the state) and economic activity. The term was coined by classical economists during the 18th century, notably Adam Smith and David Ricardo, who began to examine the changing production and distribution patterns of the late mercantilist period. Karl Marx (1818-83) is the one most often associated with the idea of political economy, particularly in regards to his critique of work by Smith and Ricardo. Unlike his predecessors of the classical economic era, Marx argued that capitalism as an economic mode of production was an inherently doomed institution. Although Marx openly recognized the productive potential of capitalism, he believed the roots of capitalism’s demise lay in many of the same attributes that made it so productive (i.e., the falling rate of profit). He proposed that a new mode of production, heavily regulated by the state, was needed to guide humanity along the path to a communist utopia. The legacy of this line of thought has led many to question the perceived divide between political decision making and economic activity, reasoning that the two are so tightly bound they are theoretically indivisible.
Since Marx’s time, inquiries have continued into the theoretical understandings of political economy in both the social and scientific spheres. Questions regarding the relationship between political economic modes of production and environmental issues have been investigated by numerous scholars in a wide variety of academic disciplines. Even Marx himself considered such questions, often remarking upon capitalism’s tendency to degrade the natural environment. At a broad level, one could argue that issues of nature and the environment are always inherently bound within the realm of political economy; because modes of production are inevitably connected to environmental conditions in one form or another, a perceived division between political economic decision making and environmental decision making would be inaccurate. Every issue pertaining to the environmental landscape necessarily affects political economy, and consequently, the reverse is also true.
One of the more intriguing (and best-known) ideas within this topic is Neil Smith’s notion that nature is something that is “produced” in modern capitalist society. In his landmark publication Uneven Development (1984), Smith proposes that nature is not only being materially produced in today’s world (e.g., transgenic seeds), but that the idea of nature is also being produced for the benefit of capitalist accumulation.
According to this notion, the commonly accepted belief that nature and human society are two distinctly separate entities is one that exists for the benefit of some (i.e., capitalists), and that the way in which the idea of nature has been produced and what nature signifies and represents exemplifies capitalism’s influence over ideology. Thus, nature as both an object and an idea can be harnessed by those with power and influence to fortify their dominant position in society.
Regarding environmental and ecological activism, the study of political economy has led to a multitude of different viewpoints regarding the role of economics and state policy in environmental decision making. Whether implicitly or explicitly, most environmental or ecological movements engage in political economic discourses at one level or another. Some examples include, although are by no means limited to, authoritarianism, corporate and state managerialism, pluralistic liberalism, conservatism, moral community, ecosocialism, ecofeminism, and decentralized communitarianism. By appealing to the broad array of issues situated within political or economic practices, these movements are able to ground their concerns within a context to which everyone is linked.
The study of environmental issues from a political economic perspective continues along many fronts in today’s academic world. Recent work in political ecology, for example, shows the value in questioning the position of the state and economic modes of production in issues of nature and society. As a theoretical approach, political economy continues to offer fresh insights to researchers in the critical human and behavioral sciences.
- Noel Castree, Nature (Routledge, 2005);
- David Harvey, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference (Blackwell Publishing, 1996);
- Karl Marx, Capital-Volume I (Penguin Books, 1976);
- Paul Robbins, Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction (Blackwell Publishing, 2004);
- Neil Smith, Uneven Development (Blackwell Publishing, 1984).