Political Ecology, II

Watts, Michael J. 2000. “Political Ecology.” In A Companion to Economic Geography edited by Eric Sheppard and Trevor J. Barnes. Oxford: Blackwell.

Michael Watts says that political ecology “seeks to understand the complex relations between nature and society through a careful analysis of what one might call the forms of access and control over resources and their implications for environmental health and sustainable livelihoods” (257). The examples Watts uses to introduce political ecology include biotech/GMO soy, pollution-linked cancer rates, seizure of oil platforms by ethnic minorities, and a UN report on the growing instabilities caused by haves and have nots, raising questions of a UN agency to manage environmental commons. He says that these problems are geographical because they’re encompassed by the concerns of political ecology as defined above. The other reason the environmental problems are geographical is because they all involve the politics of scale.

He briefly lays out the novelties of the conjuncture to which political ecology is being asked to speak to and highlights the proliferation of a massive transnational environmental tech industry, which he adds is matched by “a proliferation of social movements which typically link economic and ecological justice (the politics of distribution) with human rights and cultural identity (the politics of recognition)” (258). These movements are trying to control and curb the activities of these corporations and states.  In light of this, the chapter aims to show a history of political ecology that demonstrates how “political ecology has been challenged – and deepened – both by ‘internal’ theoretical debates and by the ‘external’ environmental and political economic realities it seeks to explain” (259). He also highlights how the new political ecology also influenced by the critical importance of processes of cultural mobilization—knowledges “scientific” and otherwise—and cultural practices.

Like Paul Robbins, Watts situates the origins of within the scope and limits of political economy, noting that the coupling of “political” and “ecology” centered on

questions of access and control over resources (that is to say the toolkit of political economy) were indispensable for understandmg both the forms and geography of environmental disturbance and degradation, and the prospects for green and sustainable alternatives. The fact that such writers were concerned to highlight politics and political economy – that is to say a sensitivity to the dynamics of differing forms of, and conflicts over, accumulation, property rights, and disposition of surplus – reflects a concern to distance themselves from other accounts of the environmental crisis which sought to locate the driving forces in technology, or population growth, or culture, or poor land use practice.

Watts mentions the importance of post-war cybernetics and systems-theory/thinking as a formative ingredient in sowing the grounds that produced political ecology. Also important was the cultural ecology adaptability work being done by Peter Vayda and Roy Rappaport, pioneers of ecological anthropology. A third component was the hazards and disaster research that was also influenced by the post-war nuclear age. These fields, however, were challenged by peasant studies (also a Cold War byproduct) and the related consolidation of Marxism in the social sciences (261). After briefly outlining what political ecology means as a perspective and the “toolkit” it implies (261-262), Watts delves into two areas—a shorthand for discussing contributions—that have “deepened” political ecology in recent decades: 1) knowledge, power, practice; 2) politics, justice, governance (263).

Foreshadowing a later article about the antinomies of “community,” Watts writes:

The community looms large in the new political ecology of the 1990s. But the community turns out to be –along with its lexical affines, namely tradition, custom, and indigenous – a sort of keyword whose meanings (always unstable and contested) are wrapped up in complex ways with the problems it is used to discuss. The community is important because it is typically seen as: a locus of knowledge, a site of regulation and management, a source of identity  (a repository of “tradition”), an institutional nexus of power, authority, governance, and accountability, an object of state control, and a theater of resistance and struggle (of social movement, and potentially of alternate visions of development). It is often invoked as a unity, as an undifferentiated entity with intrinsic powers, which speaks with a single voice…. Communities, of course, are nothing of the sort. (266-267)

Watts adds, “This is why communities have to be understood in terms of hegemonies: not everyone participates or benefits equally in the construction and reproduction of communities, or from the claims made in the name  of community interest” (267).

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