political ecology


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.

How to Get Scientists to Ignore You

OK, so I tried to read Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro’s 2014 book, Ecology, Soils, and the Left: An Ecosocial Approach. As a geomorphologist who studies soil erosion (among other things), and as an environmentalist/conservationist interested in the human dimensions of erosion, it seemed a worthwhile piece of work (and probably is).  Years ago I was greatly influenced by Piers Blaikie’s 1985 The Political Economy of Soil Erosion—it even inspired me to develop a (widely ignored and little used, but I tried) method for modeling/estimating soil erosion in less developed countries where technocentric North American and European approaches were unlikely to be applicable.

Blaikie critiqued—often strongly—geomorphologists, soil scientists, and engineers. But he did so without insults and putdowns of scientists and science.

Not so Engel-Di Mauro. A few samples:

Biophysical scientists have proven historically to be largely subservient to the ruling regime of the day (and sometimes emphatically aligned with the ruling classes).

Geography Guest Speaker: Sarah Whatmore

Sarah Whatmore is a Professor and Head of School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford in Oxford, United Kingdom. Her research is in the field of political ecology, examining policy and the actions of humans impact the environment. She is author of Hybrid Geographies: Nature Cultures Spaces (Sage London, 2002). She is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) and collaborates with researchers around the world.

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