Why Political Ecology? A Brief Overview of the Field


In his 1925 essay “The Morphology of Landscape,” Carl Sauer launched an impassioned appeal for geographers to return to a classical phenomenological approach to areal study. In the wake of nineteenth-century positivist specialization, in which the natural sciences became a stand-in for chorology and geography, and causality was reduced to a simplistic environmental determinism, Sauer questioned the very essence of his field. Arguing for more integrated, social science-based approaches to geography, he stressed that landscape be treated as both a natural and cultural phenomenon. He lamented the degree to which the natural sciences of geomorphology and physiography had penetrated his field and in response he advocated a static treatment of landscape. For Sauer, landscape was seen as defining the range of possibilities for historical succession, but as far as he was concerned causality and change with time came from cultural processes, not natural ones.[1]

With this unique brand of cultural determinism, Sauer inspired a generation of geographers. The relationship between cultural systems and the environments in which they functioned thus served as the foundation of what latter became cultural geography. Rooted in extensive observation in the field, geographers raised in the Sauerian tradition examined cultural connections to environment through subsistence production and work.[2] Later cultural ecology, reflected in the work of Roy Rappaport,[3] drew from the systems theory popular among ecologists to question how human behaviors and practices situated them as actors in their ecosystem’s march toward homeostatic equilibrium.[4] The cultural ecological approach thus became most notable for underlining people’s practices of adapting to landscapes as well as paying close attention to local peoples’ ecological knowledge.[5] Yet much of the work done in cultural ecology remained limited to what were perceived as closed, rural and often indigenous communities. Moreover, by limiting studies to the level the community, cultural ecology overlooked the complicated ways that local production and practice articulated with larger regional and global economic and political networks.[6]

By the mid 1970s, however, developments in peasant and agrarian studies, as well as Marxian analyses of the articulation of modes of production[7] had posited the questions of how communities participated in economic and political processes with a reach beyond the landscapes that informed adaptation and ecological knowledge. Thus, whereas culture had been the cornerstone of the study of human-environment relations since Sauer’s impassioned 1925 plea, by the 1980s political ecology had emerged as a field that took on the political dimensions of those relations as its primary focus.   

So what are the contributions of political ecology? What new questions and methodological approaches does political ecology bring to the study of human-environment relations? In this essay I will explore three areas of political ecology that represent significant contributions that are also relevant to my own work. First, while restating the importance of the social sciences in landscape studies, Sauer’s morphology of landscape rendered environment static. In foregrounding the cultural processes by which landscape was forged, he neglected (or negated) the dynamic and interrelated processes of human-environment relations. Political ecology, by examining the differential impact of environmental transformation, reconsiders environment as a dynamic actor in historical processes. Moreover, political ecology as a field stresses the historical nature of human-environment relations. Second, in placing emphasis on the differential impacts of human-environmental processes, political ecology raises questions of marginality, distributional conflict and decision-making. As later developments in political ecology can attest, the field’s interdisciplinary origins—with many political ecologists hailing not just from geography, but anthropology, sociology and history, as well—have allowed for the “political” to be liberally interpreted. Finally, as Paul Robbins has put it, political ecologists tend to adopt a “hatchet and seed” approach, deconstructing and discarding dominant narratives in search of new alternatives. This has been particularly fruitful impetus for identifying alternative practices and knowledges, as scholars practicing political ecology have sought positive examples, and theoretical innovations through engagement with social movements.


Dynamic Environments, Historical Depth

In Land Degradation and Society, Piers Blakie and Harold Brookfield asserted that no economic system (i.e. capitalism, feudalism, colonialism, etc.) is inherently prone to causing degradation.[8] In fact, they maintained that degradation is in essence a culturally constructed phenomenon in that the baseline for judgment is the utility of land to the land manager. That said, they did assess the materiality of land as a spatially and temporally dynamic entity. Three aspects of what constitutes that dynamism, and what they call regional political ecology, are relevant to this discussion: 1) the interplay of sensitivity and resilience; 2) the emphasis placed on historicizing degradation and transformation; and 3) marginality. In this section I will discuss the first two, leaving marginality for the following section.

While not negating the cultural structures that transform land, Blakie and Brookfield reintroduced two concepts to account for its dynamism. The first, sensitivity, refers to the point at which the ecological make up of land responds to disturbance. And the second, resilience, refers to the capacity of that ecology to withstand disturbance without changing its fundamental constitution. In addition to underlining the relationship of resilience and sensitivity, Blakie and Brookfield restated the significance of historically situating land transformations and the cultural, political and economic structures with which they interact.

In Judith Carney’s Black Rice, the utility of these ideas was exemplified. Carney’s argument was that African knowledge of irrigated rice cultivation crossed the Middle Passage in tact and was utilized to the benefit of Carolina rice plantations, constituting a significant asset to the antebellum economy. This process also introduced methods of landscape transformation as gendered knowledge that came from Africa.

Carney convincingly debunked the myth that irrigated rice cultivation was introduced in Upper Guinea by the Portuguese, and she demonstrated how an indigenous species of rice—Oryza glaberrima—was domesticated independently of the more widely studied Asian species, O. sativa. She did this in two ways: first she offered a rereading of Portuguese chronicles; then she used the concept of landscape gradient to illustrate a major fissure in the Portuguese-origin argument. In historicizing O. glaberrima cultivation in Upper Guinea, she convincingly marshaled historical documents to prove a Eurocentric bias in the historiography that attributes Carolina cultivation techniques to the Portuguese. To prove the knowledge of irrigated cultivation was African and not Portuguese she also resorted to fieldwork in which she uncovered the delicate ways women had of working the land’s sensitivity and resilience to create a landscape gradient (or a patchwork of several modes of cultivation that takes advantage of microenvironmental variation). Moreover, she demonstrated that rice historians had previously only prioritized one of those microenvironments—the freshwater floodplain—in their analyses of African cultivation methods. Thus, while they concluded that African cultivation bore little resemblance to what was happening in South Carolina in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Carney’s work showed that production was divided into a complex system utilizing rain-fed uplands, inland swamps, and tidal flood plains—riverine, brackish and marine; freshwater, seasonally saline; and Mangrove.[9] This patchwork, or landscape gradient, had borne a resemblance to South Carolinian methods.

She then demonstrated how early colonial export economics and master-slave social relations forged a Creole ecology of rice in South Carolina, in which cultivation knowledge could be used as an instrument of negotiation. This Creole ecology would consist of the same type of transformed three-tiered landscape gradient that Carney saw in Africa and would evolve along with the colonial economy, the early eighteenth-century spike in slave imports and the negotiation of the “task” labor system. Slaves’ knowledge of rice cultivation, she argued, “represented a rare opportunity to negotiate the terms of their bondage to a form resembling the indigenous servitude they knew in Africa.”[10] With an analysis of rice culture (the technology, ecological knowledge and power relations) and plantation labor (especially the process of milling, essential for export prep and the way South Carolina plantation labor differed from other plantation labor systems), Carney situated the female knowledge system as the “linchpin for the entire development of the Carolina rice economy.”[11] Thus in her examination of how African women read and manipulated the land’s sensitivity and resilience, as well as her detailed rereading of Portuguese chronicles, Carney managed to undo a Eurocentric narrative that had mistakenly given credit for fueling one of the most significant economies of the eighteenth century to slavers.


Marginality, Distributional Conflict and Decision-Making

In their focus on soil erosion, Blakie and Brookfield showed how costs and benefits are spatialized by way of a tripartite conception of marginality. They argued that economic, ecological and political economic marginality all work in conjunction to determine the uneven distribution of impacts from land degradation. As Susanna Hecht and Alexander Cockburn would soon show, the confluence of these three marginalities would also condition to whom and how the right of decision-making would extend.[12]

Hecht and Cockburn took on the four reigning theories about why deforestation spiked in the Brazilian Amazon since the 1960s. The first theory was based on a Malthusian approach, whereby population booms and peasant farming wreak ecological havoc. The second was Garret Hardin’s—very quickly discounted—‘tragedy of the commons’ theory.[13] The third explanation held that deforestation was the result of a shift to capitalist markets and social structures. The final claim argued that the region lacked “appropriate technology”. Hecht and Cockburn acknowledged that each position—excepting Hardin’s—has some truth to it, but what they emphasized throughout their analysis was the significance of land—its uses, its definitions, its value, how it is titled and legalized, how it is fought over—in ecological degradation and forest peoples’ ways of life. Specifically they pointed to a bipartite model of land tenure as a major determining factor in conflict and deforestation.

The tenure system they looked at confused squatters’ rights and “regularized” ownership, both of which were predicated on Roman law. To gain squatters’ rights one had to demonstrate that the land wasn’t being “effectively” utilized (i.e. planted, cleared for grazing, etc.). By this standard, anyone who could demonstrate having “improved” the land, could claim squatters' rights. Yet with increased flows of migrant smallholders coming from Brazil’s northeast, and the speculation boom that accompanied those flows, a bifurcation of land tenure emerged: one in which rights were dependent on the notion of uti possedetis—whoever holds it, possesses it, where possession is manifest in “improving” the land—but that actual title is only “regularized” through sale. Hecht and Cockburn showed how squatters’ rights were often circumvented by latifundistas who illegally expropriated land from forest peoples by clearing it, claiming uti possedetis, and then selling it to generate a “regularized” title. Deforestation and clearing land of its inhabitants was thus seen as a way of delineating properties in preparation for sale. But, deforestation was also the surest way of marking clear ownership to deter expropriation.

 Thus by untangling the complexities of a convoluted tenure regime, Hecht and Cockburn demonstrated how land that was already ecologically marginal (i.e. highly sensitive and minimally resilient) as well as economically marginal (i.e. prone to speculation) was made politically economically marginal as smallholders, indigenous peoples and petty extractors were alienated from the institution of ownership and everyone cleared land thinking it was in their best interest.[14]


The Hatchet and the Seed

Political ecologists have proven adept at disassembling dominant narratives of environmental change. Hecht and Cockburn showed that deforestation was not an issue of the “tragedy of the commons”, but one of a fundamentally flawed decision-making process, particularly as regarded tenure regimes. Carney debunked the myth that held the Portuguese up as the bringers of irrigated rice cultivation to the Carolinas. Bryant and Bailey implicated multilateral lending agencies, environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs) and trans-national corporations by conceiving of the local “Third World” context as a politicized environment in which these actors—together with the state—impact the episodic and everyday experience of the poor.[15]

Likewise, political ecologists have taken on development discourse, for instance identifying the “lie of the land” in hasty assessments made by international experts in complete disregard of local ecological knowledges.[16] In this endeavor poststructural political ecology has been especially potent.[17] In Encountering Development, Arturo Escobar resorted to Foucaultian discourse analysis to argue that development brought the Third World into being. Deconstructing post-war economic discourse—championed by Arthur Lewis and his dual economy model—Escobar showed how “development economics constructed its object, ‘the underdeveloped economy,’”[18] based on a fundamental tenet of modernity: the binary separation of modern and traditional. For Escobar, however, development is about more than economics, it is about the exercise of power and the establishment of hegemony. For instance, in his discussion of the World Bank’s food policy in Colombia, he showed—echoing Leach and Mearns—how technocrats (mis/)reinterpreted peasant society and stressed the maintenance of surplus-oriented commercial agriculture over subsistence production.[19] But Escobar did not see local communities as the passive recipients of development policy. Instead he saw the potential for alternatives to development in the cultural politics of social movements.

Indeed, that social movements are a ripe source of alternatives is a common theme in political ecology. If the critique of development signifies political ecology’s “hatchet,” then surely the “seeds”—to parrot Robbins’ analogy—come from social movements. Hecht and Cockburn found tentative seeds of hope in the “socialist ecology” of the Forest Peoples’ Alliance, a confederation of smallholders, indigenous peoples and petty extractors.[20] Bryant and Bailey note the increasing importance of “grassroots actors” in general as they contend with, and sometimes rely on, the interests of multilaterals, ENGOs and business.

However, the “environmentalism of the poor” current of political ecology relies heavily on social movements for its material. Pioneered by Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martínez-Alier, the environmentalism of the poor analyzes the livelihood struggles of peoples who depend on their ecological surroundings as part of their everyday existence. Sometimes referred to as “empty-belly” environmentalism—as opposed to the post-materialist variant of Northern environmentalism—the environmentalism of the poor was presented by Guha and Martínez-Alier as a new form of class struggle, stressing what they call ecological distribution conflicts, or the “effluents of affluence.”[21] While this contention, and Martínez-Alier’s heavy reliance on ecological economics,[22] point to a certain degree of economic determinism in their postulates, the work of these two scholars can seen as beginning to explore the enunciative capacity of social movements[23] and particularly the discursive potential of action. In Guha’s discussion of the Chipko movement, in which peasants in Garhwal Himalaya resisted logging between 1973 and 1980, the poster struggle of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA); and the resistance against Karnataka Pulpwoods Limited (KPL), a joint-sector company (owned by the state and Harihar Polyfibres) monocropping eucalyptus in Karnataka, he identified what—echoing Tilly—he called “the vocabulary of protest.” Treating actions like roadblocks, sit-ins and hunger strikes as enunciations, he argued that “[i]n the act of doing, protesters are saying something too.”[24] In this way, Guha, like Escobar, Blaser and Peet and Watts et al,[25] look outside the theoretical innovations of—often insular—academic discourse in search of alternatives.



In this essay I have discussed the important ways that political ecology has contributed to the study of human-environment relations by reconsidering the dynamics of non-human nature and the socio-political dimensions of changes in environment. While recognizing the that the regional political ecology model of Blakie and Brookfield may have its shortcomings,[26] I have tried to emphasize the three aspects of it that I find useful: 1) the interplay of sensitivity and resilience; 2) the emphasis placed on historicizing degradation and transformation; and 3) the tripartite conception of marginality. Furthermore I have tried to demonstrate how scholars such as Hecht and Cockburn, and Carney have taken up those concepts in fruitful ways. Lastly, I looked briefly at some of the innovations presented by poststructural political ecology and the environmentalism of the poor. In particular, I find these two methodologies complementary in that they offer insight into how to take Robbins’ hatchet to development discourse, while seeking out seeds in social movements.    


[1] Carl Ortwin Sauer, Land and Life; a Selection from the Writings of Carl Ortwin Sauer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963).

[2] Julian Haynes Steward, Theory of Culture Change; the Methodology of Multilinear Evolution (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1955).

[3] Roy A Rappaport, Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People, A new enl. ed. -- (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).

[4] Paul Robbins, Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2004); Peet and Watts, Liberation Ecologies Environment, Development, Social Movements; Worster, The Ends of the Earth; Marie Price and Martin Lewis, “The Reinvention of Cultural Geography.,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 83, no. 1 (March 1993): 1.

[5] Robbins, Political Ecology, 33.

[6] Robbins, Political Ecology; Peet and Watts, Liberation Ecologies Environment, Development, Social Movements.

[7] See James C Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant: Rebellion and Subsistence in Southeast Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976); Eric R Wolf, Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

[8] Piers M Blaikie and H. C Brookfield, eds., Land Degradation and Society (London: Methuen, 1987), 102.

[9] Carney, Black Rice, 57–63.

[10] Ibid., 105.

[11] Ibid., 117.

[12] Susanna B Hecht and Alexander Cockburn, The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon (London: Verso, 1989).

[13] For a good critique of Hardin’s theory see Melville, A Plague of Sheep.

[14] For similar discussions of overlapping land tenure see Alberto Chirif and Pedro García, Marcando Territorio: Progresos Y Limitaciones de La Titulación de Territorios Indígenas En La Amazonía (Copenhague: IWGIA Grupo Internacional de Trabajo sobre Asuntos Indígenas, 2007); Charles Zerner, ed., People, Plants, and Justice: The Politics of Nature Conservation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); Escobar, Territories of Difference Place, Movements, Life, Redes.

[15] Raymond L Bryant and Sinéad Bailey, Third World Political Ecology (London: Routledge, 1997).

[16] See in particular the discussions of African desertification and the so-called woodfuel crisis in Melissa Leach and Robin Mearns, eds., The Lie of the Land: Challenging Received Wisdom on the African Environment (Oxford: International African Institute in association with James Currey, 1996).

[17] For examples see Arturo Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1995); Peet and Watts, Liberation Ecologies Environment, Development, Social Movements. For a concise synthesis of poststructural political ecology see Escobar’s contribution in Peet and Watts, Liberation Ecologies.

[18] Escobar, Encountering Development, 73.

[19] He returns to this issue in his discussion of Traditional Production Systems in Escobar, Territories of Difference Place, Movements, Life, Redes.

[20] Hecht and Cockburn, The Fate of the Forest, 187, 207.

[21] Guha and Martínez Alier, Varieties of Environmentalism.

[22] Martínez Alier, The Environmentalism of the Poor.

[23] It should be recognized that Guha and Martínez-Alier lie open to the critique formulated by the modernity / coloniality and decolonial thinking (MCD) group. Whereas MCD looks to social movements for examples of “other knowledges and knowledge otherwise,” trying to find alternatives to modernity and development, the environmentalism of the poor remains within modern ontology by merely searching out alternative environmentalisms. See Blaser, Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond; Escobar, Territories of Difference Place, Movements, Life, Redes; Escobar, Encountering Development.

[24] Guha and Martínez Alier, Varieties of Environmentalism, 13.

[25] Escobar, Territories of Difference Place, Movements, Life, Redes; Escobar, Encountering Development; Blaser, Storytelling Globalization from the Chaco and Beyond; Peet and Watts, Liberation Ecologies Environment, Development, Social Movements.

[26] Especially regarding the structural rigidity of the “chain of explanation,” the emphasis placed on the land manager and poverty.