I’m on the flight home reflecting on the ENTITLE “Undisciplined Environments” conference, a gathering of 500 (!) people, mostly academics, but also activists and artists, under the banner of political ecology. What is this ‘political ecology’ that brought so many people to Stockholm? Does it mean the same thing as when Land Degradation and Society was written some 30 years ago, a spirit of disciplinary crossing and plural epistemologies but rooted in a cross fertilization of cultural ecology and Marxist political economy? What I found was an open collective of intellectuals engaged in red-green issues of social justice and environment and keen to use social theory. The villain in the room was unhesitatingly ‘capitalism’. In that sense, the spirit of the conference reflected well the intent of foundational texts like Liberation Ecologies (with the addition of two decades of new social theories, not least the post-human turn). But this conference in Stockholm also reflected the much broader spread and resonance of political ecology across the social sciences and humanities, far beyond its roots in cultural ecology and development studies, with contributions calling on environmental humanities, indigenous and feminist studies, political economy, environmental justice, queer affect theory, and much more. Though natural science, or ecology sensu strictu, was less present.
There was a real sense of engagement with issues that matter – global ecological crisis, local cases of injustice and degradation – rather than just theoretical exegesis. The fact that organizers included presentations by activists (from Lappland, from Brazil), and showed movies (including a fantastic, if longish, account of resistance to Turkish hydropower projects called Akintiya Karsi (v.o. trailer full video English subtitles) contributed to this feeling.
The movie sessions, as well as artwork, post-lunch theatrical performances and dramatic readings, and other experimental sessions allowed for the communication of ideas through other means than linear text. This was also a point in Jim Wescoat’s presentation (in a series of sessions on “visualizing undisciplined environments”) where he disparaged reliance on just text, such as the 600 pages of the political ecology handbook with just 9 figures…
The conference gave a voice to continental European interpretations of the field, which have grown rapidly in the last few years (for instance in France since 2009, see my blog or this site). The conference represented the capstone of a four-year EU-funded training program in political ecology (called Entitle, based at Barcelona), and promoted a new academic network of political ecologists called POLLEN.
And of course there were numerous inspiring individual presentations. Some highlights of the conference for me, besides the engaged ethos, the hallway conversations, and connecting with friends old and new, were:
- World systems theory enthusiast Alf Hornborg’s passionate plea for a focus on money as the problematic artifact for a critique of the capitalist system (and his barbed insistence that eco-marxists need to stay away from post-human theories) (text here);
- French philosopher Catherine Larrère’s careful dissection of Anthropocene debates;
- Sami artist Katarina Pirak Sikku’s endearing account of practicing art – a white ground sheet recording police footsteps – at an anti-mining protest in the deep woods of beautifully pronounced Jokkmokk, Sweden
- Nancy Peluso’s thickly lustrous photos of smiling artisanal gold miners waving hydraulic hoses in a red mud wasteland of Kalimantan; followed by her surprising stories of how migrant housemaids in Hong Kong shape new elephant grass forest landscapes on the volcanic slopes of Java
- Gabrielle Bouleau’s story of how the farmed ‘natural’ iconic ‘native’ trout in French rivers are the legal canaries of river pollution, a circular situation where pollution offsets fund trout stocking, created by two centuries of politics.
- Panagiota Kotsila’s astute mix of empirics and theory in her investigation of outbreaks of malaria in austerity-crisis Greece and how that transformed migrant farm labourers from Homo sacer into biopolitical targets
- July Cole combined musical poetry and NASA imagery to help us imagine trashiness and waste as generosity, to question industrial ecology’s goal of zero waste as a death sentence for those things that rely on waste
- Beatriz Bustos’s clear-eye analysis of the intertwined economical-ecological contradictions in the salmon aquaculture industry that lead, for instance, to the recent ‘disposal’ of some 1,300,000 virus-infected salmon in Chile.
- Connor Joseph Cavanagh’s shocking documentation that dispossession of indigenous people from the forest is on-going in Kenya, “over determined” by capital, the state, and a biopolitical logic.
- The indefatigable Dianne Rocheleau’s ever-engaged documentation of how land grabbing in Chiapas has become ‘site and territory grabbing’ through complex networks.
- Session chair Erik Swyngedouw’s insistence that the only question worth asking is “is a post-capitalist ecology possible?”
These inspirations made synapses spark, gave new ideas, aroused new curiosities, made one care – all the more reason to be happy to have spent this cold week in Stockholm, where each day snowflakes floated from the gray, low sky onto gritty roads and muddy bare forests. Thanks to the organizers and participants!
Thanks for the overview of the conference. Sounds like things are changing in political ecology up North, but not all that much.