Ecological Economics

Merchant, Carolyn. Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

Almost thirty years ago, Carolyn Merchant demonstrated how a confluence of social and ecological pressures triggered a shift from predominantly subsistence-based agriculture to a surplus-oriented agricultural structure in eighteenth-century New England. She argued that the increased demographic pressure caused by colonization coupled with new demands on the regional ecology to push farmers toward a capitalist mode of food production with massive ramifications not only for soil fertility, but for the gendering of social relations, as many “farm women were not only wives, mothers and grandmothers, but also vegetable and poultry producers, food processors, cheese and butter makers, spinners, carders, weavers, sewers, herbalists, healers, and sometimes teachers or midwives, as well”.[1] The concomitant exhaustion of soils and feminization of commerce was something that Merchant also attributed to the system of patriarchal inheritance and its effect of reducing farm sizes over generations and exacerbating their dependence on dwindling ecological reserves. Merchant’s insights are invaluable, for they demonstrate the complex socio-ecological tensions between production and reproduction that push settler societies toward destructive, export-oriented agriculture. Moreover, the analytical nexus she draws between ecology, economy and gender offers a useful paradigm for understanding those tensions.[2] However, her analysis neglected the important realm of representation, especially the gendered representation of space.

[1] Carolyn Merchant, Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 150–53.

[2] I am drawing especially from Part Two: “The Capitalist Ecological Revolution” Merchant, Ecological Revolutions.


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]

Martínez-Alier, Joan

Martínez-Alier, Joan. The Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation. Northhampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2002.

For Martínez-Alier it all seems to boil down to a kind of economic determinism. That is, for him the incommensurability of natural capital seems to be at the end of his chain of analysis. He draws a lot from Otto Neurath’s theory of incommensurability to fuel ecological economics (this echoes the view already established in "From Political Economy to Political Ecology," and explains the notion that the environmentalism of the poor may be considered a new form of class struggle in Guha). Ecological economics focuses on problems of ‘taking Nature into account,’ (i.e. the valuation of natural capital). Given the incommensurability of resources, monetization (or valuation in general) of natural capital inevitably leaves externalities. It is in the space of externalities, the question of who pays those costs, where political ecology emerges to study ecological distribution conflicts.
The way Martínez-Alier ties political ecology to ecological economics has its worth in that it foregrounds the question of “who has the power to impose particular languages of valuation.” However, I do not see much emphasis on the process by which that power is constituted.

Guha, Ramachandra, and Joan Martínez-Alier.

Guha, Ramachandra, and Joan Martínez-Alier. Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South. London: Earthscan Publications, 1997.

The introduction frames the essays to come in reference to post-materialism. Guha and Martínez-Alier juxtapose some of Aldous Huxley’s observations of tropical nature with the theories of his fellow privileged British intellectual, G.M. Trevelyan, to illustrate the core notions of the post-materialist view of nature. While Huxley could never see the tropics appealing to the British leisure travellers, Trevelyan was convinced that it was precisely the condition of affluence and so-called modernity enjoyed by Londoners that fomented a kind of reverence for nature, that with all material needs met by industrialization and urbanization (as Ronald Inglehart’s post-materialist theory goes), people pined for a clean, pristine environment. What Guha and Martínez-Alier argue here is that this view of the “full-stomach” environmentalism (calling on Nash) of the North neglects the possibility of the South’s “empty-belly” environmentalism. What I wonder is how firmly they will hold on to this North-South confrontation and whether it will get in the way of their analyses.

To close the introduction, they offer two groupings of sample cases: one shows Southern moments of opposition to northern forms of conservation (resistance to tiger protection by the Chenchus of Andhra Pradesh, India and by Siberians, also resistance by fisher folk in the Galapagos); while the other gives account of various forms of Southern environmentalism (Reaction to Eucalyptus farming in Thailand, the Ogoni struggle and a case of Southern experts doing an inspection of Dutch environmental policy and conditions).  

I've done seperate posts for the individual essays from this volume that I chose to focus on:

Martínez-Alier, Joan

Martínez-Alier, Joan. "From Political Economy to Political Ecology." In Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martínez-Alier. Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South. London: Earthscan Publications, 1997.

Martínez-Alier’s explanation of political ecology and its relation to political economy begins by addressing the long-time reluctance of Marxists to take on questions of ecology. From Marx and Engels’ initial rejection of Podolinsky’s ideas, to the New Left’s failure to see environmentalism as more than just the ICUN, WWF and the Sierra club, Marxist critiques until the 1970s and 80s failed to acknowledge the “effluents of affluence” and resource distribution for fear of naturalizing human history. Martinez-Alier remarks on the myopia of such rejection, considering how social Darwinists, Neo-Malthusians (not sure how this jives with his positive treatment of feminist Neo-Malthusians in The Environmentalism of the Poor?) and in particular Garret Hardin have been using ecology “with criminal intent and to devastating effect against fellow human beings” (26) for some time. (Though indirect, I read this as a response to the way early political ecology was initially associated with Ehrlich, Harding, etc. (Bryant and Bailey, Chapter 1).)

Contrary to naturalizing history, Martinez-Alier argues, examining the effluents of affluence and ecological distribution conflicts historicizes ecology. As myriad examples from Ecuador to Chile demonstrate, while most anti-industrial struggles may resist characterization as “environmentalist,” they are nonetheless deeply rooted in ecology (as shown in Hugo Blanco’s quote and the case of La Oroya, which Mallon historicizes in detail).