What is Political Ecology?

Recently, the field of study known as “Political Ecology” has caught my attention. Have I found the perfect hybrid of a field for my line of inquiry? I can’t help but wonder who are these thinkers, why and how are they interested in ecology, and how do they define themselves? This blog post documents my process of learning about political ecology. I’ve tried to link my inquiry to the other studies I’ve made relating to the general history and development of the field of ecology. Certainly, I do believe the environment, specifically its biodiversity, should be placed at the center of political thought.


The Ins and Outs of Political Ecology

I found a working definition of “Political Ecology” here:

Political ecology is the study of the relationships between political, economic and social factors with environmental issues and changes. Political ecology differs from apolitical ecological studies by politicizing environmental issues and phenomena.

Drawing scholars from diverse fields including forestry, anthropology, geography, political science, etc, political ecology places an emphasis on the social impacts of environmental changes. Likewise the field generates critique of the socio-economic status quo in search of more “sustainable” and less “coercive” developmental means. An emphasis on how unequal distribution of the costs and benefits associated with environmental change across political, social, and economic spectra of differences lies at the heart of political ecology. Likewise, it seeks to politicize the field of science, through an implicit critique of “apolitical” scientific practitioners.

However, the problem with the above definition, for me, is it conflates “ecology” with “all environmental issues and phenomena” whereas my understanding of “ecology” depends on the long standing lineage of thought that is traced in David Worster’s book, Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas which I’ve previously written about here. In my post, I wrote:

In 1919, Victor Shelford defined ecology as “the science of communities” and for Worster, a more precise definition is, “the science of the development of communities.”

But let’s step back even further. What I’d gathered from Worster’s book is that the word “ecology” refers to how biological communities interact and develop according to their geological and climatic regions in what is known as an “ecosystem.” The field of ecology merges models of temporal change (i.e., evolution) and models of interaction between animals and plants, as well as between living entities and their non-living surroundings (i.e., symbiotic relationships or seres) into holistic frames of environmental analysis. The field of ecology is important for biodiversity, because it can account for biologically diverse regions in one frame of reference without merely accounting for species in isolation.

This leads me to the question: Do my aforementioned definition of ecology and that of political ecology have any point of intersection? Peter A. Walker addresses this question in an article he wrote entitled, “Political Ecology: Where is the Ecology?”  He states that there is much debate as to the extent that the field even engages with the scientific definition of ecology and that some feel the more general term “environmental politics” would suffice as a descriptor.

Initially, several fields were brought into a merging area of research including studies of how flows of “matter, energy, and information” operated within “human-environmental systems” along with the awareness and management of environmental hazards, postcolonial global market economies, and the role of global capitalism and its power relations as destabilizing factors influencing human-environment interactions. A specific emphasis on rapid environmental degradation and diminished environmental knowledge in the third world attributed to the effects of global markets and their unequal distribution of power led political ecologists to research what changes took place from a biophysical perspective.

The field is generally divided according a brief history of structuralist (1970s-1980s) and post-structuralist (1990s-2000s) work with the former era defined by a stronger, more rigorous emphasis on “ecology” and the collection of biophysical data, and the latter era defined more by an emphasis on the political and social impacts. This emphasis has grown so much so that some political ecologists have come to see the ecological emphasis as a “marginalized” part of the field. Furthermore, the diminished application of stringent definitions of terms such as “ecology” and “environment” within the post-structural phase has led the work of political ecologists to have less influence on the field of environmental science as a whole.

This lack of influence depends in part on the post-structural emphasis on nonequilibrium ecology. The long-standing theory of the ecologist Clements that ecosystems can reach a state of equilibrium known as the climax stage in which the interactions of the species and their environment remain in relative self-sustaining equilibrium in terms of the flow of energy along the biomass-chain. Nonequilibrium ecology posits that such an ideal does not account for ongoing disturbances such as forest fires or other natural disasters. However, critics of political ecologists who depend on the rhetoric of nonequilibrium ecology maintain that they have distorted useful models for political opportunism in favor of disturbances caused by human activities.


Therefore, the field itself has recognizable conflicting tendencies even among its practitioners. However, Matter also states that some of the most successful works (those of Melissa Leach) have “critically but directly engage[d] theories of biophysical ecology” because they have “crossed over into mainstream environmental science (for example, as required reading in some graduate programs).” He remarks that this success depended on “engaging studies of the natural environment that are of great public concern” (79). In other words, an ecological perspective on areas of public concern remains relevant. Matter is also forthright that the hybrid foundations of political ecology itself give it a tendency towards dialectical shifts of emphasis according to the historical moment. Finally, Matter’s article provides a useful set of references for further study.

How does political ecology relate to biodiversity? In some cases, political ecologists study interactions between indigenous people and the protected lands they live in or near to determine whether or not conservation and human habitation are potentially compatible.

For further reading check these useful book summaries of some of the foundational texts of Political Ecology:

Political Ecology I: on Political Ecology by Paul Robbins

Political Ecology II: on Political Ecology by Michael J. Watts

French Political Ecologists vis-a-vis the English-speakers

To complicate this topic further, I recently finished reading a book on French political ecology entitled Divided Natures: French Contributions to Political Ecology by Kerry H. Whiteside. 9780262731478The book draws distinctions between the English and French speaking world in terms of their emphasis and philosophical underpinnings. Whiteside defines the central concern of the English-speaking field as the question between anthropocentrism and ecocentrism, but in the French-speaking field of Poltical Ecology, a “natural” environment is not presupposed, but instead an emphasis on how humans relate to their surroundings and how this has changed over time forms the central rooting it more in a humanistic philosophical tradition. As a result, French-speaking thinkers such as Michel Serres have contemplated the philosophical question of how humans relate to the world as a whole and what must change in order for us to restructure an environmentally sustainable political model. Unlike many English-speaking practitioners, these thinkers tend to question the scientific rationalist framework from the outset as one that produces abstract models for something that requires a humanistic approach. Such differences described by Whiteside made me wonder how this divide relates more generally to the Analytical philosophy/Continental philosophy divide. For further reading, I’ve found a few full book pdfs of thinkers discussed in this collection:

The Natural Contract by Michel Serres  


Ecology as Politics by Andre Gorz


A Few Missing Pieces to the Puzzle: Third World Thinkers and Scientists

Both the previously mentioned debates, though they tend to consider third world politics within their theories, do not actually include many references to thinkers who have cultural identities linked to the third world. Though Whiteside defines the realm of political ecology that the French thinkers may be contrasted with as “Anglophone,” I’d argue that her scope does not include the Anglophone voices of the third world such as Vandana Shiva, a hugely influential thinker in her own right. Likewise, the same can be said for the Francophone third world. I recently found this fascinating interview between a Turkish scholar, Ethemcan Turhan and Vandana Shiva. It was particularly fascinating for me, as I’m currently living in Turkey and previously had not known of Turhan’s work, yet I’m aware of the huge political challenges faced by Turkish environmentalists.


Likewise, the field of political ecology tends to marginalize ecologists engaging in traditional field work and research whose work is not overtly political with the label “apolitical,” though such thinkers have much to contribute if not directly, than through citation and collaboration. Here are some recommended texts on ecology in general from one such “apolitical” ecologist (but not self-proclaimed as such), Jeremy Fox.

For further reading on political ecology, try the Journal of Political Ecology, which contains many articles accessible for free.

For further involvement in political ecology, try the Political Ecology Network, POLLEN 






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