Political Ecology: resources, power and justice

With conceptual roots in political economy and cultural ecology, as well as close relationships with development studies and science and technology studies, the multidisciplinary field of political ecology shares a number of theoretical and methodological complementarities with the STEPS Centre’s pathways approach.

In early September 2014, the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University hosted an exciting workshop that brought together leading political ecologists from throughout the UK and Europe to discuss the state of the field of political ecology and explore promising new directions in field research and in conceptualising environment-society relations in a dynamic world.

The workshop, Political Ecology: Resources, Power, and Justice, featured a full day of doctoral research presentations followed by a second day of research talks by senior scholars in the field.

New questions and directions

The event addressed issues of longstanding significance in political ecology related to resource extraction, conservation, neoliberal natures, and social justice. New and renewed questions and directions emerged as well, for example around development-environment relationships and engagement.

Using research spanning the globe, key themes that emerged over the two-day event included securitisation and militarisation of conservation; the financialisation of nature, including the role of the state in securing control and brokering; ethics; land and resources; the politics of dispossession, belonging, and exclusion; labor and the production of environmental knowledge and value; conflicts, contradictions, and paradoxes in the politics of natural resources; and the role of technology in visualisation and value creation around resources and landscapes.

The PhD sessions engaged a number of topics ranging from the transformation of natural landscapes, livelihoods, and ecological imaginaries through processes of resource expropriation, visualisation, valuation, and marketisation, to conflicts and contradictions between goals of human development and biodiversity conservation, to the discursive space created through the politics of indigeneity.

Conservation and the War on Terror

In her keynote address, ’Environmental governance: from global markets to global security’, Professor Rosaleen Duffy (SOAS, University of London) used conservation as an example to make the case that we have entered a new phase of environmental governance characterised by the intersection of neoliberal environmental governance and securitisation/militarisation, specifically linked to the imagery, crisis messages, and technology of the War on Terror.

The keynote was thematically complemented by Dr. Bram Büscher’s presentation, which linked the historical intersectionality of race and landscape in South Africa with the contemporary “politics of hysteria” and role of social media in conservation related to the creation of a “space of exception” justifying green militarisation around rhino poaching in Kruger National Park.

Using the case of bioprospecting in Madagascar, conference co-organiser Dr. Ben Neimark discussed the role of scientific labor in producing commodities for green economic development. Neimark particularly highlighted the inequitable and subordinate role of Malagasy scientific labourers in the green economy that they help to produce.

One hallmark of an excellent conference is that attendees come away, not only with answered questions, enhanced knowledge, and clarified concepts, but invigorated by new questions and excitement about the future of the field and its engagements with important contemporary problems that will shape our shared social and environmental futures. In that sense, Political Ecology: Resources, Power, and Justice was thoroughly excellent.

Questions raised

Reflecting on two very busy days, some of the broad questions raised by the event include:

  • How do the themes, issues, methods and orientations represented at link up with and diverge from broader global trends in political ecology?
  • How do we best conceptualise and research environmental struggles and transformations in a world in which environmental governance is increasingly inscribed with market logic, bringing together global discourses around crisis, scarcity, and the market on one hand and place-based narratives of value and crisis on the other in processes of value-laden abstraction?
  • What are the implications possibilities of these processes for lived experience, for social justice, and for environmental futures?

Many thanks to the co-organizers Dr. John Childs and Dr. Ben Neimark, the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University, and the STEPS Centre.

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