What is “political ecology” these days?

This Figure describes three main poles in political ecology, distinguished by a focus on 'hatchet' versus 'seed' and whether
Three poles in political ecology, as proposed in Desvallées et al. (2022)

In a recent doctoral reading group here at the University of Lausanne, we discussed the 1987 text by Blaikie and Brookfield titled Land Degradation and Society, which is often cited as the foundational text for the field of political ecology. Comparing that groundbreaking work with current discussions under the political ecology label shows both continuities and new trends. Continuities include concern over environmental change and a ‘double posture’ of engaging with science on the issue at hand as well as a critical perspective with that science (for instance measuring soil degradation as well as asking what that concept means); concerns with the impacts of capitalism and colonialism; attention to property systems etc etc. Newer trends include the full-blown arrival of various approaches steeped in continental philosophy (poststructuralism, actor networks, assemblages, hegemony, bare life, governmentality….) and in diverse intersectional and decolonial postures. But where is the field now?

A new article I contributed to, freshly published in the Journal of Political Ecology, tries to put its finger on what political ecology has become. It does so empirically, using bibliometric and lexicometric techniques applied to four different databases of literature produced under the label ‘political ecology’ over the past decades. What motivated Lise Desvallées, Xavier Arnauld de Sartre, and me to undertake this investigation was a sense – when attending pre-Covid political ecology conferences here in Europe (POLLEN and Entitle) – that there was a growing split between radical activist, normative postures (‘degrowth’ and more) versus the ‘older’ critical deconstruction postures. We also speculated that there was a geography to these patterns, with different epistemic communities.

In the article, we identify ‘clusters’ of similar articles in different databases (articles catalogued by Scopus with political ecology in the title, abstract, or keywords; Journal of Political Ecology articles; and abstracts for the POLLEN and DOPE conference series). We also trace networks of universities and collaborations. The results (read the article for details!) are richly illuminating, highlighting different sub-communities over time and space. I reprint our conclusion (slightly shortened and paraphrased) here:

Our analyses show that the impressions we had at the European political ecology conferences have an empirical basis. Some political ecology is taking a turn towards radical advocacy, advocating for social movements that contribute to public debates, and is theoretical in vocation in its attack on capitalism. On the other hand, a ‘North American’ (not just Canada and USA) political ecology embraces a more policy-oriented form of action. It emphasizes questions about science and public policies more than it does the processes of capital accumulation, and engages in dialogue with the world of international development through its anchorage in fieldwork. The ‘North American’ approach is, however, also hybrid, with radical approaches targeting extractivism, race and gender inequalities. In the Global South, approaches taken are more diverse, even if they are more empirical. The differences we have analyzed between the stances of European advocacy, hybrid North American, and political ecology as practiced across the Global South (to generalize starkly) reflect differences in epistemological and practical commitments. Some want to challenge science, others capitalism; some want to question development actions, others to question major state and commercial projects. In the end, some want to criticize a dominant system to improve it, while others want to change it.

These differences are sufficiently strong and structured that we suggest that political ecology is split between two epistemic communities. One engages in critical dialogue, the other in opposition. These differences can be placed into perspective by recognizing context. Political ecology is a dominant approach in English-speaking geography and related disciplines, particularly in North America and Britain, while it is more marginal in continental Europe. The European marginality of political ecology is undoubtedly part of the explanation for the trends identified here: more radical researchers are investing in this field, since it is indeed a position of marginality that they aim to occupy. On the other hand, when the field is dominant, it is influenced by a more diverse pool of researchers.

The paper is published here in the open-access Journal of Political Ecology; also accessible here via its DOI and here on Unil’s institutional repository.

The database and code we used are published on the Zenodo data repository here.

One Response to What is “political ecology” these days?

  1. Dr. Joy says:

    I first “met” you through your ideas about ecosystems in 2017. I knew then that you had much to say about our social-political landscape. Thank you for writing this and doing this work.

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