SOME GRUMPY THOUGHTS ON POLITICAL ECOLOGY & BIOPHYSICAL SCIENCE

Last year our geography department underwent an external review, as we do every five years or so. One of the recommendations was that we seek to integrate our Earth surface systems and physical geography program with political ecology. We happen to have a couple of political ecologists who understand and appreciate physical geography, and vice-versa. But I wonder what, at the subdisciplinary rather than the individual level,  we really have to offer each other.

Despite the word "ecology" and a tradition early on in political ecology (PE) of careful analysis of environmental change, contemporary PE appears to have very little general concern with ecology as a science (as opposed to ecology as a general reference to the environment, nature, or natural resources) or to other Earth and environmental sciences. This is not true of all PE or political ecologists, of course, and to the extent it is true, is not meant as a criticism of the field. Political ecologists are free to define and practice their field as they see fit, and it is not up to a geomorphologist to decide how central biophysical sciences should be.

But, to those of us on the geoscience, ecosystem science, and physical geography side, biophysical science is what we do. If it is not crucial or significant for PE, then I'm not sure how we are meant to integrate, as political analysis is not significant for our work.

My understanding and interpretation of this eastern North Carolina soil stratigraphy provides no help whatsoever to political ecologists. 

I do not intend to revisit debates within PE on the role of biophysical science, but with a few exceptions (e.g., Karl Zimmerer), definitions of PE do not include or imply inclusion of ecological or geoscience. Piers Blaikie, a godfather of PE (and, by the way, well versed in physical geography and ecology) defined the field this way: ‘The phrase “political ecology” combines the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy. Together this encompasses the constantly shifting dialectic between society and land-based resources, and also within classes and groups within society itself ’ (Blaikie and Brookfield, 1987, Land Degradation and Society, p. 17).

The abstract for the political ecology chapter in the International Encyclopedia of Human Geography (Elsevier, 2009) by R.P. Neumann reads:

Political ecology emerged in the 1980s as an interdisciplinary field that analyzed environmental problems using the concepts and methods of political economy. A central premise of the field is that ecological change cannot be understood without consideration of the political and economic structures and institutions within which it is embedded. The nature–society dialectic is the fundamental focus of analysis. Marxian political economy provided the initial primary theoretical influence, while the development of post-structural social theory and nonequilibrium ecology infused new ideas and concepts in subsequent years. A range of methodological approaches characterize political ecology research, including multiscalar analysis, political-economic analysis, historical analysis, ethnography, discourse analysis, and ecological field studies. Political ecology’s approach to nature–society relations has explicitly linked capitalist development with ecological change across multiple temporal and spatial scales. The field has been an important source of critical analyses of the social and ecological effects of economic development and conservation initiatives, focusing particularly on the material and discursive aspects of property rights. Recent trends and future directions for research include an expanding urban political ecology theme, critical responses to environmental security theory, an engagement with the philosophies of ethics, and a focus on environment and identity.

And, in a keynote address at the 2016 Dimensions of Political Ecology (DOPE) conference (held annually here at the University of Kentucky), Tracey Osborne, Director of the Public PE Lab at the University of Arizona, defined PE as "a highly flexible approach for addressing diverse, shifting and interconnected environmental problems that emphasizes political economy and power relations as causal factors."

Not much call for coastal geomorphology, ecoystem modeling, or bioclimatology there. 

A look at the table of contents of the major texts in PE shows little or no evidence of ecological science. If you look at past programs of the DOPE conference (politicalecology.org) or the contents of the Journal of Political Ecology you see no indication that a biophysical scientist--unless they are deliberately stepping out of their normal activities to address some political economic ramification of their work--has a place there. Again, that's OK--there's not much room for politics in Earth Surface Processes and Landforms or Ecological Modelling either. It just calls into question whether PE is a reasonable venue for physical geographers (and, again, vice-versa).

As a closing caveat, these musings relate to academic and disciplinary matters. In terms of actually addressing environmental and natural resource issues, in my views, it's all hands on deck. Biophysical sciences, social sciences, humanities, engineering--we all have important work to do, together or separately. Sometimes geomorphology or biogeochemistry is the right tool for the job; sometimes political economy or sociology. 

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