Intersecting processes, illustrated and analyzed II

The following discussion illustrates how socio-environmental studies, such as the case of soil erosion from the previous post and those of political ecology more generally (Peet and Watts 1996), provide rich material for exploring the problematic boundedness of ecological complexity (one of the shifts of emphasis mentioned at the end of Chapter 4 in Taylor 2005), and for amplifying themes introduced in earlier chapters of that book.
1. Intersecting processes involve inseparable dynamics. Processes of different kinds and scales, involving heterogeneous elements, are interlinked in the production of any outcome and in their own on-going transformation. Each is implicated in the others (even by exclusion, such as when caciques kept maize production during the nineteenth century insulated from external markets). Notice especially the relationship between environmental degradation and the population decline shown in the top strand. This association can be used to grab the attention of environmentalists who identify population growth as a major environmental issue. However, it is neither population decline nor growth, but labor that was important in this case. Labor is something defined by the technologies of production (the second strand) and the social institutions that govern it. Such institutions operate both locally (the third strand) and at places distant from where the erosion occurs (the fourth strand). In short, the relationship between population and environmental change was highly mediated, depending on the technologies used and the local and national social and economic institutions through which labor and production were organized. No one kind of thing, no single strand on its own, is sufficient to explain the currently eroded hillsides. (This theme can be extended to call into question other explanations for environmental degradation that center on a single dynamic or process, e.g., climate change in erosive landscapes; increasing capitalist exploitation of natural resources; or modernization of production methods.)

The theme of inseparable dynamics can be teased out into four aspects:
2. In intersecting social-environmental processes, differentiation among unequal agents is implicated. Sustainable maize production depended on a moral economy of cacique and peasants, and the inequality among these agents resulted from a long process of social and economic differentiation. Similarly, the demise of this agro-ecology involved the unequal power of the State over local caciques, of urban industrialists over rural interests, and of workers who remitted cash to their communities over those who continued agricultural labor.
3. Heterogeneous elements and scales are involved. The situation has involved processes operating at different spatial and temporal scales, involving elements as diverse as the local climate and geo-morphology, social norms, work relations, and national political economic policy;
4. Historical contingency is significant. The role of the Mexican revolution in the collapse of nineteenth-century agro-ecology reveals the contingency that is characteristic of history. The significance of such contingency rests not on the event of the revolution itself, but on the different processes, each having a history, with which the revolution intersected; and
5. Structuredness is not reducible to micro- or macro-determinations. Although there is no reduction to macro- or structural determination in the account of soil erosion, the focus is neither on local, individual-individual transactions nor on the complex patterns produced by multiple simple transactions. Regularities, e.g., the terraces and the moral economy, persist long enough for agents to recognize or abide by them. That is, structuredness is discernable in the intersecting processes.

Continued in a final post in this series

Extracted from Taylor, Peter J. 2005. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement. U. Chicago Press.


Peet, R. and M. Watts (Eds.) (1996). Liberation Ecologies: Environment, Development, Social Movements. London: Routledge.


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