Robbins – Political Ecology

Chapters 1 – 4

Chapter One:  The Hatchet and the Seed

  • This chapter serves as a general introduction to the field of political ecology.  Recognizing that the nature-society divide is a Romantic mythologization of the West, the chapter introduced ontology as a complex web of environmental linkages between humans and the environment (5).
  • The difference between political and apolitical ecology is that political ecology views ecological systems as power-laden rather than politically inert (5).
  • A lot of definitions of the term.  My favorite is “Illustrating the political dimensions of environmental narratives and in deconstructing particular narratives to suggest that accepted ideas of degradation and deterioration may not be simple linear trends that tend to predominate” (7). 
  • Some apolitical ecological theories:
    • Ecoscarcity:  This holds that because human populations are exploding, environmental systems are incapable of supporting them.  This leads to starvation and disease. 
      • Arguments against:  Resources aren’t consumed equally based on population – note the Global south only consuming 20% of resources.
      • The environment isn’t a finite resource constantly depleting.  In fact, resources are constructed (8).
    • Modernization arguments – This holds that ecological crises are the result of native populations not adopting modern “Green” revolution agricultural practices.
      • This position reinscribes colonial practice by assuming Northern knowledge is more valuable than indigenous practice.
    • Both these theories (and other apolitical ecologies) ignore political factors.
  • 3 assumptions of political ecologists:
    • Costs and benefits associated with environmental change are distributed unequally
    • These unequal distributions of cost and benefit reinforce existing social and economic inequality
    • This also maintains political implications between actors on both sides of the coin (11).
  • Four primary concentrations of political ecology:
    • Degradation and marginalization:  land degradation is looked at in a political context – not blaming local people’s indigenous practices.
    • Environmental conflict:  conflicts about environment are raced, gendered, and classed.
    • Conservation and control:  what happens to local peoples when conservation is implemented?
    • Environmental identity and social movement:  political and social issues are linked to basic issues of livelihood and environmental protection (14).

Chapter Two – A Tree with Deep Roots

  • Political ecology has a long history and traces its roots through Kropotkin, early critical approaches of human-environment research (Humboldt) to hazards research and finally cultural ecology.
  • Environmental determinism – the idea that humans are a result of their environmental context.  This means that successful populations are found in particular environments and climates.
  • Kropotkin argued that the case “for competition as the central component of evolution was product less of empirical observations of natural phenomena than a reading of a social hierarchy into the natural world” (21).  WOW.
  • K. also notes that “left to their own devices, subsistence production systems are generally cooperative and sustainable.
  • Critical environmental pragmatism:  Posits that man effects the environment, not vice-versa.  Also recognizes the invisible bonds that create ecosystems.
  • Hazards research:  takes as its goal the management and amelioration of risk – defined as the calculable likelihood of problematic outcomes of human actions and decisions.
  • A flood is a social-natural event, a hybrid human-environmental artifact, no more an act of nature than one of planning (27).  This points to the subjective constructedness of what we often call natural disasters.
  • Cultural ecology:  academic exploration of the development and expression of culture, especially on and within the environment.  It approaches human environment issues ecosystematically; however, this approach often ignores the geopolitical reasons for human-environment issues.  By viewing humans as essentially the same as other plant and animal species, basic functional hypotheses could be proposed to explain complex cultural patterns.
  • Problems of cultural ecology:
    • Because of a logic of adaptation, reductionist conclusions about “if people do it, it must be adaptive” truncate agency and creative possibility.
    • Focuses almost exclusively on developing peoples or rural contexts.
    • It ignores political explanations about peripherization.
  • Scales are essential for understanding political ecology.  Scales seem to be the nesting of one system inside another to try and quantify the complexity of different systems.  Unfortunately, this also seems inadequate.  Consider how things actually happen associationally.  Does scaling make room for inter-scale movement (like D&G’s rhizome) or is it simply hierarchical up/down?

Chapter Three – The Critical Tools

  • This chapter serves as a theoretical grounding for the field of political ecology.
  • Common property theory – an understanding that all natural resources were managed as collective or common property before capitalist expansion into these areas.
  • Green materialism – A Marxist theory, this account understands that any social or cultural system is enmeshed in historical and material conditions and relations – real things.  This is in contradistinction to the idealism that ideas and consciousness are the engines of history.
  • Materialist history accepts that different modes of production (combinations of key social and material elements such as labor, technology, and capita) are in flux and create ways for us to make a living from nature.  These modes of production also explain the organization of society across space and time.
  • Contradictions in systems that extract surplus value from society and nature create ruptures wherein sustainability is impossible.  During these times, new articulations or hybrid structures take the place of the former modes of production to accommodate changing social conditions.
  • Oriental despotism was a classical materialist theory developed by Wittfogel in the height of the McCarthy era that claimed that political organization was a result of the environment.  Though attractive, it wasn’t tenable.  This theory is flawed because collectivities can and do perform the same function of bureaucracies and hence, because of multiplicity and different governmental forms, a direct causation relationship was flawed.
  • Dependency thesis:  the marginal status of developing nations was the result of trade terms established during the colonial period – a developed “harvesting” of the developing world – a dependence on them for natural resources.
  • Surplus can be derived – in a Marxian analysis – from both humans (labor) and nature (resources); therefore, a response to the unreasonable extraction of surplus deserves a political response.  This field is called the “political economy of nature.”  (51).
  • Lessons from materialism:
    • Social and cultural relationships are rooted in economic interactions amongst people and between people and non-human objects and systems
    • Exogenous imposition of unsustainable extractive regimes of accumulation result in environmental and social stress
    • Production for the global market leads to contradictions and dependencies (51).
  • Peasant studies refocuses the emphasis of Marxist critique away from the urban industrial masses to the peasant and is achieved in a constantly fluid system that embodies the “moral economy of the peasant” and “everyday resistance.”
    • Moral economy of the peasant – this states that peasants are faced with subsistence risks that create social systems of mutual assistance and tolerable exploitation.
    • Everyday resistance – because of subsistence risks, outright revolution is often not possible in peasant communities; hence, peasants resist capitalizations through small acts of everyday resistance.  This negotiation between the rural proletariat and the rural bourgeoisie is the basis of the peasant economy of the rational producer – a producer who will not attempt to accumulate capital but will allocate labor towards meeting household substinence needs.
  • Feminist Development Studies – argues that interactions with the environment are gendered. . . as a result, knowledges about how to cope with environmental concerns is decidedly female; however, the decisions made about these concerns are decidedly male.
  • Critical environmental history:  Looking at long views of history to try and counter quick development schemes and an emphasis on the rural aspects of ecological life.
    • A bit controversial because it relies on the sort of speculative history that feminist revisionist historiography in rhet/comp. has confronted concerning figures like Aspasia.
  • Knowledge/Power/Discourse – Grounded in poststructural critiques, this recognizes that “othering” of the global south is advantageous for Northern industrialists because discourses of control and authority are put into play in order to deauthorize indigenous knowledges.  Working through Foucault, this strand of political ecology allows ecologists to interrogate discourses to determine who is doing the defining for what reasons and why.  Truth is constructed and an effect of power relations.  Understanding implications of power/knowledge is essential for getting beyond mere scientific panaceas toward real change by manipulation of discourse authority and practice.

Chapter Four:  A Field Crystallizes

  • Chains of explanation – these are the threads with which political ecologists trace the development of ecological events across scales.  We might call them networks.  They are, however, constructed and recreated as best serves the needs of the researcher toward what they perceive as the correct social justice.  As Robbins notes, “The problem in assembling such explanations is that selecting the suite of variables and the appropriate scale is difficult and must be driven at least in part by theory.  The chain of explanation is as much art as science” (75).  Well, there’s your rhetoric at work.
  • Marginalization – the push of communities at the fringes of social power with little bargaining strength in the market and little force in political process.  These populations are usually pushed into ecologically marginal spaces and economically marginal social positions (77).
  • Conservation is on the fore of political ecology today.  There are numerous political implications of closing off areas from both indigenous and outside populations.

Peet and WattsLiberation Ecologies:  Environment, Development Social Movements

Chapter One:  Development, Sustainability, and Environment in an Age of Market Triumphalism

  • Sustainability has linked together a) global environmental crisis; 2) global demography (populations); and 3) global economic inequality.
  • The introduction is broken into three sections.  1) political ecology itself is considered in the contexts of postructrualism and discourse theory; 2) Development theory is considered in relation to poststructuralist philosophy; and 3) environmental politics are considered with an emphasis on environmental social movements.
  • Interestingly, P.E. seem to be related by shared sites of inquiry, not by a specific theory (6).  This has a lot of analogs in rhetoric and composition.
  • Some weaknesses from P.E. in the 70s and 80s:
    • Undue emphasis on poverty and poor peasants must also recognize that environmental degradation is also equally – if not more so – the result of capital/affluence (7).
    • An eye must be turned toward urban environments as well as rural.
    • In addition to land, other sites like worker environments, air, and other “resources” must be considered if P.E. is going to be a just and equal movement.
  • The political arenas of the household, workplace, and state must be considered in total – not on a basis of convenient volunteerism – if P.E. is going to be successful (8-9, top).
  • The 2nd contradiction of capitalism:  there are some production conditions (namely, nature, labor, power, and community) that cannot be produced in a capitalist system; therefore, the state mediates and politicizes conflicts around these conditions to try and maintain capitalist accumulation (9).
  • A nice observation on the attempt to incorporate politics into P.E.:  most Western efforts toward environmental health and sustainability are usually thinly veiled efforts to control global resources.
  • An interest in civil engagement with the environment is also the territory of P.E.
  • The fourth theme of the book – the discursive approaches that confront a plurality of approaches in environmental and resource problems – is where I want to focus! (11)  Specifically, this is concerned with “regulatory knowledge” and the institutionalization of particular forms of knowing.  These power/knowledge relations are important.
  • Aspects of an envirograted political ecology (7-12):
    • Definition of political ecology (making connections between capitalism and ecological degradation explicit).
    • Introduction of politics to political ecology
    • Association of political ecology and civil institutions
    • Discursive approaches to tackle plurality in political ecology
    • The creation of environmental histories
    • The interrogation of ecology as a term – is it dates and systems oriented?
  • Foucault:  Regimes of Truth – control the political economy of truth which constitutes part of the power of the great political and economic apparatuses:  these diffuse “truth,” particularly in the modern form of “scientific discourse,” through societies, in a process infused with social struggles” (13)
  • Working through Foucault, Derrida, and Adorno and Horkheimer, the author notes how “reason” is merely a ideology – a discourse of self-representation that uses European Enlightenment principles to claim global supremacy through military-industrial conquest.
  • The position of the subaltern is considered on 15.  For Spivak, the recovery of peasant consciousness – the subaltern – is a Western essentialist notion that privileges European subjectivity – still a dangerous subject-position.  This subject position waits on subjectivities to be assigned. . . in the case of the woman dominations systems of class, ethnicity and gender must be assigned; hence, once these subjectivities have been foisted on the female, she becomes unable to speak – rendered mute in a subjective experience of European subalternarity.
  • Regional discursive formations:  modes of thought, logics, themes, styles of expression and typical metaphors that run through the discursive history of a region (16).
  • Development strategies  in poststructural discourse analysis often are viewed as efficient colonizers on behalf of the central strategies of power (17).
  • Thesis:  Western modernist discursive formation formulated during momentous changes in global power relations, in control over nature, in science and technology, has as its dynamic theme the core concept of “development” (17).
  • Though development has been conceived as a relatively modern event tied to Keynesian economics, P&W argue that it is much older.  Here’s a genealogy:
    • The notion of development as an analogue to the unbridled lust for capital is noted in Victorian tracts from the mid 19th century.
  • Development is defined different ways based on the economic system that is dominant at the time be it market-based or state-based.
  • Development is currently couched in the context of populist movements against large-scale corporatization schemes. . . I think (26).  Luckily populism goes beyond democracy and politics toward simple consensus.
  • To amend classical notions of Marxism, Gramsci recommended two things: 1) cultural strife can be treated by cultural hegemony through tradition, myth, morality, and common sense rather than just state force (38); and 2) material conditions are important, but ideological and political practices are the real basis for change.
  • Habermas notes the differences between system (people operate under strategic rationalities and technical rules) with lifeworlds (communicative rationality oriented toward consensus, understanding and collective action (30).
  • I appreciate the importance of Scott’s formulation of everyday resistances as more effective than mass protest (34).
  • The purpose of “liberation ecologies”:  the intention is not simply to add politics to political ecology, but to raise the emancipatory potential of environmental ideas and to engage directly with larger landscapes of debates over modernity, its institutions, and its knowledges (37).

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