Political Ecology as an Analytical Framework

Understanding the political ecological framework begins with a few fundamental principles. The key concepts are (1) that humans are components of ecosystems, (2) that of the necessity born of hunger, humans modify and harvest the productivity of the biosphere with agricultural technology in order to obtain food and other materials, (3) that humans create political economic structures to control the production and distribution of materials from the biosphere, and (4) that both the modifications of the biosphere and the political economic structures have a history that affects subsequent efforts to change either the technology or the social structure of agriculture.

Political ecology's roots lie in both ecology and political economy. From ecology comes the concept of biological productivity or the production of biomass on the earth. More specifically, ecology seeks to understand the distribution and abundance of organisms across the face of the earth. It seeks explanation for the common observation that organisms of a specific kind are abundant in some places, scarce in others. In addition, population sizes can fluctuate, up and down, over time. Invariably, the distribution and abundance of organisms, including people, depend upon the biological productivity of photosynthesis and how a particular species is involved with photosynthetic organisms.

Ecologists seek to understand the significance of relationships among different species that live together in the same place. The term ecosystem designates the collection of species in an area and their associated physical surroundings. Central to the study of ecosystems are the mutual interactions and linkages among species and between organisms and the surroundings.

Food webs are a major but not the only important interactions among species. Food webs link organisms of different sorts: primary producers (green plants) fix solar energy; herbivores feed directly on green plants; carnivores feed on herbivores or other carnivores; omnivores (such as people) feed on both plants and animals; and decomposers feed on all dead organisms. In these terms, agriculture is the way people generate a food web and thus tap the primary production from solar energy fixed by green plants. The food web supporting people is the key objective of agricultural ecosystems.

In physical terms, ecologists seek to understand food webs through the flow of solar energy into the earth, its fixation in photosynthesis and subsequent flow into animals and decomposers, and its ultimate dissipation as heat into space. Associated with the flow of energy are biogeochemical cycles that circulate chemicals within the biosphere, from living creatures to the physical environment and back again to living organisms. In these terms, agriculture is the way people tap the energy flows from the sun and the associated biogeochemical cycles. Food is merely trapped solar energy and associated minerals, needed for human survival.

Each species in the ecosystem has a population level that usually fluctuates up and down through time. Ecologists seek to understand what determines the population size and its rate of change over time. For many species, ecologists are also interested in carrying capacity, or the maximum number of individuals that can be supported for an indefinite period in a particular area. Estimations of carrying capacity are an important component of ecological inquiry, particularly for species of high interest to people. In these terms, agriculture is the way people have increased the carrying capacity of the earth for humans. Agriculture permits people to capture a larger amount of solar energy than they could through hunting and gathering, which in turn permits a larger human population.

Ecology, and its concepts of ecosystems, populations, carrying capacities, communities, food webs, energy flows, and biogeochemical cycles, has increasingly become a part of everyday language. Much of the modern environmental movement rests upon the idea that industrial civilization can wreck the very ecosystems upon which people depend and in which they must live. Apocalyptic visions predict the collapse of existing ecosystems and the attendant misery of those people who survive. Such visions often lead to condemnation of lifestyles held not to be in compliance with the dictates of ecological laws.

As powerful as the metaphors and concepts of ecology have been, ecology as a science has generally been rather unhelpful in providing general laws about how to delineate and manage whole ecosystems.16 Rather, the importance of ecology has been in the vision of coexistence and codependency among the species in a community. Detailed natural histories of particular species or small groups of interacting species have also been extremely useful in understanding a limited range of interactions that go on in ecosystems.

Ecology has proven particularly unhelpful at providing insights or guidance into the dimensions of human life that most distinguish us from other species. Human beings over time have developed elaborate institutions that govern the production and distribution of biological productivity and wealth. Congruent with the institutions controlling the production and distribution of wealth are those that focus political power. Political economy is concerned with how human cultures intertwine the production and distribution of wealth with the exercise of power, or the right to make decisions that matter. Classical political economy presumed a social order composed of three classes —labor, landowners, and capitalists—and sought explanations about how these classes could and should organize and share economic production.17

In the twentieth century, academic institutions tended to separate political economy into two different areas of study, political science and economic science. In the former, the central concerns are the emergence and spread of philosophies and ideologies about the meaning and autonomy of an individual within the larger state or collective society. In addition, political science is concerned with the organizational structure and operation of governments, states, and political parties.

Economics, in contrast, seeks to understand how resources can be used efficiently. Typically, economists are concerned that resources such as land, water, minerals, energy, and people are deployed to produce maximum wealth or utility. Economists believe they have solved resource allocation problems when they have identified a scheme such that no other scheme exists that can enhance one person's utility without decreasing another person's. Modern economics often divides its attention between the problems individuals have in resource deployment (microeconomics) and the problems of the collective or the state (macroeconomics).

Political science and economic science had common origins in the eighteenth-century studies of philosophers like Adam Smith, who intended to forge an inquiry into the laws of political economy that would be the intellectual equivalent of Newton's studies of the universe. By the early twentieth century, the rise of democratic culture and an embrace of mathematical modeling had obscured the political dimensions of political economy to create economic science. Some scholars, such as Marx and Veblen, continued to promote the integrated study of wealth and power, but the preponderance of professional economic interest gravitated to abstract arguments, often devoid of linkages to peoples' ordinary lives.18 Thus our language and frameworks of analysis acquired a mythology that led us to view the production and distribution of wealth as separate from the creation and exercise of authority.

Not only did the dismemberment of political economy leave us unprepared to deal with intertwined questions of wealth and power, but also both political science and economic science tended to ignore the idea that the generation of wealth depends in part upon the productivity of ecosystems. For example, agriculture allows people to channel the productivity of photosynthesis into such products as grain, which is a basis of wealth and power in virtually all human societies.

Political ecology synthesizes the concerns of ecology and political economy. Its central mission is to understand historically how people modified ecosystems and intertwined ecosystem productivities with the production and distribution of wealth and the exercise of power. Political ecology absorbs the concept of the ecosystem and emphasizes that it is the only practical source of primary production or photosynthesis. People are absolutely tied to the amount of primary production in the biosphere (the global ecosystem) because that is the sole basis of the food supply. Agriculture is one of the key concerns of political ecology because it is the most important technology with which people channel the primary productivity of ecosystems into food for survival and into the wealth and power central to human societies.

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