Political Ecology – Just What is it Good For?

I’ve managed to wrangle myself into a directed studies course in sociology with the ominous title ‘Studies in Political Ecology’ for this semester, which I hope will garner some interesting readings for myself and potentially a theoretical framework from which to view much of our current dilemmas in international politics and development.

So what is this very buzz-wordish thing called political ecology? From what I can gather it means different things in different disciplines. In geography it seems to refer to a framework used in evaluating the interplay between social statistics and environmental factors. In sociology it seems to refer largely to a critical response to political economy (essentially traditional capitalist theory) and also the environmental movement that emerged in the 1970’s. Outside of those two disciplines, I’d be hard pressed to prove that it means much to anyone or that they’d care to explore it.

So why should we care? Because in all likelihood humanity is entering a very sticky period in which environmental degradation threatens to surpass some scary tipping points, with wide ranging and difficult consequences for even the wealthiest and most anthropocentric of us all. Yes I’m clearly and finally naming that elephant in the room; climate change.

The post-modern worldview has been dominated by the idea of social construction; that meanings are always shared and only arise as such. If I scream ‘fuck off’ in an empty, sound-proof cell, will anyone get offended? Probably not.

In environmental sociology this idea has been extended to the extreme of considering nature itself as a construct. When I say ‘tree’ it doesn’t access some perfect image or idea of a tree (as it might in say, a platonic philosophy) but rather the subject recalls experiences of ‘tree’; from direct natural experiences of these objects, to their depiction in cultural products such as movies and books, to their place within dialogues with others and discourses such as those in the media. This is very well and true; what I (or anyone else) think when I hear ‘tree’ is a conditioned product of my experiences, many of which are directly social and all of which are framed by social conventions of some kind.

So why is this a problem? A favourite quip of those from the ‘realist’ school of thought is; ‘Go hit your head on that tree and tell me if it’s a social construct.’

This touches on what I believe is an emerging response to the post-moern worldview of the late twentieth century: Our framing of ‘problems’ such as environmental disasters, pollution, biodiversity loss and especially ‘cataclysmic’ climate change, are deeply influenced by social convention, social experience and perceived expectation. The problem is that behind all these coloured experiences there exists a true and changing empirical reality.

So why political ecology as I call it at this point in my thinking/doing? To try and reunite and explain the ways in which phenomena such as paradigms, worldviews, political views and personal beliefs are affecting and will continue to affect the physical environment we inhabit, as well as the under-recognized reciprocal relationship by which the natural influences human constructs. The give and take, continual interplay of the (simplistically put) society/nature relationship needs to be better elucidated if we are to guide are actions – from the personal to the international – in a way that is fully aware of their likely outcomes and consequences.

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