What is the future of political ecology? Highlights from a Roundtable

28 October 2019

What is the future of political ecology? Reflections from our roundtable held in Sheffield on 22 October.

A panel of speakers sat together

by Laure Joanny, Hannah Dickinson and George Iordachescu.

Last week we had the pleasure of hosting a group of esteemed political ecologists and were delighted to have the opportunity to ask them for their thoughts on the future of the discipline of Political Ecology. Dr Nitin Rai (ATREE), Professor Hanne Svarstad (Oslo Metropolitan University), Professor Tor Benjaminsen (Norwegian University of Life Sciences), Dr Connor Cavanagh (Norwegian University of Life Sciences) and Professor Catherine Corson (Mount Holyoke College) took us back to the foundations of political ecology before outlining the challenges the discipline faces as we look to the future.

Back to Basics

Since Political Ecology emerged in the 1980s, political ecologists have attempted to highlight the uneven power relations surrounding access to natural resources and ways of responding to environmental change. Political ecologists have teased out the historical processes that have conditioned people’s relationship with their environment. They have been interested in how political dynamics play out across multiple scales: ranging from villages and neighbourhoods to nation-states and international policy-making institutions. For the past 30 years, scholars have continued to ask whose views and knowledge counts, and who wins and who loses from particular environmental interventions. Speaking truth to power about the inequalities that emerge from different ways of regulating access to natural resources has been political ecology’s chief mission.

But, we appear to be living in a moment of increased eco-consciousness, whereby citizens – particularly in the Global North – are increasingly attuned to the environmental crises and inequalities that are produced by the global capitalist system. This is typified by the #FridaysForFuture school-strike movement spearheaded by 16 year-old Greta Thunberg, that urges the masses to consider the links between climate crisis and social injustice. Thus, one speaker suggested we are in a context where ‘we are all becoming political ecologists to a degree’, and this therefore begs the question: is there still a role for political ecology? And if so, what should it be?

Political ecology’s role in a world of post-truth and environmental activism

Political ecology’s bread and butter has been to point out inequalities linked to natural resource management and to question the interests and methodologies that underpin environmental science.

Yet, the links between environmental change and inequalities have become common knowledge as movements such as environmental justice campaigns, climate youth strikes and extinction rebellion gain traction. And in the era of post-truth, questioning the relevance or adequacy of scientific studies measuring environmental degradation could even give ammunition to climate change deniers and fuel anxieties related to ‘fake news’.

However, our speakers were keen to point out that the opposition between scepticism and science is a fallacy. All good science requires a dose of scepticism and there has always been resistance and challenges in scientific debates. Our role is to hold the two sides together: show that scientific methodologies are valid but that scientific results might only represent part of a problem. One telling example brought to the discussion was the belief that Arctic pastures are overgrazed within Sami pastoralist practices, a dominant narrative not taking into consideration indigenous knowledge (Benjaminsen et al, 2015).

A view of a conference discussion from the back of the room

The hatchet and the seed: finding a new balance

Political Ecology is also facing its own political and economic constraints. What is the future of the field if early career scholars are not able to get permanent positions to continue their research? Will universities and funding bodies consider political ecology worth supporting in a competitive global research market?

We as political ecologists need to become more relevant and directly involved in policymaking. Political ecology needs to be prepared to go beyond itself and strike new partnerships and alliances with social movements, civil society and governmental organisations. We need to find ways to make our largely case study-based expertise available and accessible to those who have a stake in the issues we study.

Part of the answer lies in finding the right balance between the hatchet; the critical side of the discipline, and the seed; proposals for action and improvement. This is a conundrum political ecologists have had for 20 years but which is now more relevant than ever.

Another aspect of making political ecology relevant and timely is to decolonise it. Scholars need to broaden and diversify the works they cite, embrace different knowledges and go beyond research practices and paradigms that have been developed in the West. Upon further reflection on the panel and the Q&A that followed, we have noted that despite being more than a year on from the impassioned call Paige West made during her keynote at the POLLEN 2018 Conference in Oslo, to diversify our citation practices and pedagogical approaches in political ecology, our discussions continued to valorize the ‘Political Ecology Canon’: Bryant, Brookfield, Blaikie, Robbins, Büscher, Adams – to name but a few. We should all keep in mind Paige’s words, and consider how we could do better, and should do better:

“I want us to think about the genealogies of knowledge that we produce and replicate in Political Ecology and while I love you all and I love this field, we are a field that valorizes and draws on the scholarship of white male scholars over that of other kinds of scholars and that draws on European philosophical traditions to the exclusion of other philosophical traditions… So here is my second conceptual thread – I ask, how do we as a field value and produce knowledge through our reading, citing, AND teaching of some scholars and not others? Who do we give primacy in our construction of the genealogy of the field and why? What are the politics of relegating women’s scholarship to the realm of the case study? Why do, predominantly, white male scholars become the theoretical stars of the field? And what does this foreclose? What kinds of epistemic advances don’t happen because we fail to expand our ideas of whose work matters and what kinds of work count as theory and what kinds don’t?”

This push to decolonize political ecology is precisely the theme of the Conservation, Climate Change and Decolonisation Workshop taking place this week (29 & 30 Oct) at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB). So if you are interested in these discussions, feel free to tune in on Twitter through the hashtag #ConSocSci-ICTA or watch the plenaries live here.

‘What is the Future of Political Ecology?’ was a roundtable of the Political Ecology reading group. Have a look at our upcoming events on youtube.

For details of the roundtable, see the event listing.