Political ecology–a fertile site for development of social theory

(an unfinished paper from 1998, drafted with Derek Hall)

The term political ecology has been used in a variety ways, from Cockburn (1979), Gorz (1980), and Escobar (1996) arguing that environmental struggles are also struggles over the political, economic, and discursive orders of late twentieth century capitalism, to Somma (1993) proposing that political structures can be analyzed in the terms of ecological theory (see reviews by Bryant 1992, Hayward 1995, Peet and Watts 1996).  In this essay we consider a particular political ecology that emerged during the 1980s.  On one hand this variant follows human ecology in allowing for dynamic interactions between people, organisms, and their environment.  At the same time, it follows political economy by including social inequality as a key source of crisis, whether disease, drought, or other “natural” causes are the nominal form of the crisis.

This combination of locally-centered human ecology and political-economic relations that extend beyond the local site was well illustrated in Michael Watts’ early analysis of the vulnerability to drought of poor Hausa farmers in Northern Nigeria (Watts 1983, 1984).  Their vulnerability had increased decisively in the twentieth century when the British colonists undermined the previous Islamic “moral economy” through their policies of inflexible taxation, encouragement of export crops, monetarization of the economy, and with the economic differentiation that then resulted.  In the period of his own field work in the 1970s, Watts observed that the responses to a dry season extending into a drought were graduated, but decreasingly reversible–borrowing grain, buying grain, selling labor, selling livestock, selling assets, etc.–and were employed first by the poor, often to the benefit of the rich fueling further differentiation.  “Natural hazards” were thus mediated through the unequal social relations of production, which cannot be understood without examining the historical background.  Watts criticized as unhelpful ideas characteristic of systems approaches in human ecology, such as adapatation (or maladaptation), and evolutionary replacement of traditional by modern agricultural systems.

Locally-centered, trans-local political ecology (hereafter, simply political ecology) has been advanced, in particular, by efforts to integrate economic and ecological dynamics at agricultural/forest frontiers in Latin America.  Collins (1986) and Hecht (1985) showed how the structural conditions of indebtedness and access to credit induce further social differentiation and short-term income production at the expense of long-term ecological sustainability.  Hecht emphasized the way the Brazilian military government responded to international and national pressures in forming its national policies that favoured cattle industry in the Amazon.  Collins, an anthropologist working at a more micro level, identified the role of seasonal labor shortages in producing poor management and subsequent land degradation.  García-Barrios et al. (1990) identified effective labor shortages as a cause also of soil erosion in Mexico.  The labor shortages, brought about by migration to industrial areas and semi-proletarianization of the rural population, built upon and added to the undermining of traditional political authority after the Mexican revolution, and resulted in the breakdown of the collective institutions that had maintained terraces and reduced soil erosion in mountainous agricultural areas.  Contrary to the neo-Malthusian view of the direct relation between population and resources, effective population reduction, when associated with the loss of ability to sustain or regenerate social organization, could be a significant cause of environmental degradation (Taylor and García-Barrios 1997).

During the 1990s political ecology has become an active field of inquiry into environmental degradation and, sometimes, environmental restoration.  Its characteristics as social theory have not, however, been well articulated (but see Peet and Watts 1996).  The contribution we believe political ecology can make to social theory–or, more precisely, to the process of social theorizing—stems from two key features–”intersecting processes” and “heuristics.”  The first term signifies that political ecological analyses attempt to make sense of dynamics produced by intersecting economic, social and ecological processes operating at different scales (Taylor and García-Barrios 1995).  Environmental conditions may be grounded in the local climate, geo-morphology, and topography of a community’s landscape, but the local institutions of production and their associated agro-ecologies are also implicated.  These are bound up with differentiation in any community, the social psychology of norms and reciprocal expectations, and disputes over roles and responsibilities.  Local changes and conflict are, in turn, implicated in changes in national political economies and international debt relations.

This essay explores some implications of an intersecting processes picture for theorizing the complexity of social-environmental situations.[1]   Not surprisingly given the complexity of intersecting processes, political ecology has generated its own variants of the on-going debates in the social sciences about how to overcome the macro-micro and structure-agent splits, to span multiple levels of analysis, and to balance generality and particularity (Knorr-Cetina and Cicourel 1981, Sewell 1992, Blaikie 1985).  By sketching one such debate, between Watts and Piers Blaikie, two central figures in political ecology, the significance of the other key feature, heuristics, will emerge.

In his key 1985 text The Political Economy of Soil Erosion, Blaikie laid out an ambitious framework that combines proximate and background conditions, physical and socio-economic, local and “non-place based” in accounting for soil erosion.  Such analyses would center on the decisions of the land manager in a particular place, but relate the constraints on their activities to more distant influences.  That is, the analyses are not local, but, in our terms, locally centered and trans-local.  Watts (1990a,b), however, criticized Blaikie for lacking any theory either to explain the choices available to the land manager or to guide us in selecting among the multitude of possible factors when we construct an explanation of a specific phenomenon.  In particular, Watts noted, Blaikie did not present a theory of political economy and, as a consequence, tended to leave out the dimensions of conflict and struggle.

This response of Watts to Blaikie raises the issue of the proper role of theory in analysing social and environmental complexity.  Blaikie seems to want to include everything, while Watts wants to build upon a theoretical tradition to formulate expectations or “realms of necessity.”  For Watts, anomalies relative to these expectations provide puzzles–situations that should be interesting to investigate.  Understanding of those anomalies adds incremently to the research in the given theoretical tradition (in Watts’ case, a Marxist tradition).  Watts would not, however, want political ecological theory to be based on some single underlying dynamic, say, population growth or modernization, nor want to invoke the economists’ axiom of egocentric self-interest and thereby discount the complex histories of social institutions.  The challenge he sets is to address complexity and historical contingencies, while not navigating not too far away from explicit theoretical foundations.

Nevertheless, in Watts’ own work at the intersection of peasant studies and environmental studies, he rarely articulates a distinct theory of political economy, let alone a theory of how to analyse multiple levels or intersecting processes simultaneously (see, e.g., Carney and Watts 1990).  It is, moreover, difficult to assimilate the heterogeneous developments in either of those fields to any one theoretical tradition.  It seems to us that, in giving due respect to diverse intersecting processes, the typologies and underlying dynamics needed to derive “realms of necessity” become difficult to theorize (McLaughlin 1993).  Indeed, on one hand Watts still identifies with a Marxist tradition (Watts 1990b, Peet and Watts 1996).  Yet, on the other hand, the last two decades have seen his theory change shape and style in response to the challenges of Chayanovian peasant studies, feminism, resurgent environmentalism, and “poststructural” discourse theory.  Not surprisingly, the theoretical sources of his expectations and anomalies are now difficult to disentangle.

Our assessment is that theoretical propositions in political ecology take the form of heuristics–propositions that stimulate, orient, or guide our inquiries, yet break down when applied too widely.  The different heuristics need somehow to be interwoven with each other.  Far from regarding heuristics as soft theory, we argue that valuable perspectives follow from focusing on identifying the heuristics used for negotiating complexity, and how they are employed jointly with other heuristics.  Moreover, the complexity involved goes beyond the social-environmental situations studied in political ecology, to include also the situation of the analyst as a theorist and as an agent in the wider social world.

(continued in next post)


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[1]  We use the term process in the sense of sequences of events that persist or are repeated for sufficiently long for us to notice them and need to explain them.  As will become clear, this contrasts with a sense of process as a basic underlying causal structure that allows people to explain events as instances of the process or as noisy deviations from it.