Roots of Political Ecology

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Political ecology rests upon many previous ideas. Many writers have developed parts of it as they sought answers to how people should interact with the natural world. Most explored the relationships among (1) the numbers of people and their consumption habits, (2) forms of knowledge and social organization, and (3) natural functions and processes. Since the mid-1960s, an especially large literature has developed, motivated largely by a sense of impending crisis from environmental deterioration. Almost all of these recent studies have related environmental impacts to one or more of the factors: technology, population levels, and consumption levels. Unfortunately, the frameworks developed in this literature were usually inadequate to answer a crucial question: How can and should people collectively manipulate the biosphere in order to satisfy the material needs for food for all people?

A few examples will illustrate the variety of themes in this literature. Some writers, such as biologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich, focused on the sheer number of people and the resulting intolerable burdens placed on nature and food supply systems.2 Others, such as biologist and political activist Barry Commoner, downplayed the role of population and laid more responsibility for environmental crisis on the kinds of technology adopted.3 A third variant focused on the high material consumption patterns of the industrialized nations as the source of excessive resource exploitation and environmental exhaustion.4 Against the symphony of doom from those who saw impending environmental collapse was a counterchorus, usually economists, who believed that modern technology enabled a sustainable consumption of high levels of material goods, including food, for a growing proportion of a growing global population.5

Other literature explored related subthemes. For example, philosopher William Leiss explored the concept of "domination of nature" and its relationship to technology, emphasizing that those who sought technology for the control of nature often found it necessary or desirable to control their fellow human beings as well.6 Historian Carolyn Merchant delved into the origins of modern science and the resultant loss of belief in the vitality and female gender of nature, a change that made exploitation of the earth more feasible.7

Environmental historians have made major contributions to the understanding of the interactions between people and the natural world. Richard White, for example, studied the different ways in which Native American and Euro-American settlers both changed the ecology of Island County, Washington, in order to satisfy their respective needs for material resources.8 Fundamental to White's argument is the notion that all people modify the ecosystems they live in as they become integral to those ecosystems. Similarly, in New England Carolyn Merchant studied the integration over time of changes in land-use practices, ideas about nature, and cultural patterns by which people supplied their needs and reproduced.9 Merchant's emphasis on reproduction was a vital addition to understanding the importance of interactions between humans and nature.

More recently, biologist David Ehrenfeld and philosopher Luc Ferry explored, in different ways, the importance of values in human interactions with the environment.10 In a different vein, political analyst Norman Myers and others have raised the issue of how environmental problems are major sources of conflict between nation-states.11 Jonathon Porritt provided a comprehensive articulation of an environmentally based political platform, based on his experiences in the United Kingdom.12

Asubtheme explored extensively in the early 1970s was a mass-balance approach to the relationship between people and food. Several bouts of famine or near famine between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s stimulated a vigorous debate about whether technology was available to produce enough food to supply all people with an adequate diet. One school of thought, exemplified by Georg Borgstrom's Harvesting the Earth (1973),B was heavily influenced by the Malthusian image of unending human misery due to the postulated inevitability of reproduction to exceed the powers of food production. Greater optimism for human ingenuity was voiced by such writers as Colin Clark in his Starvation or Plenty? (1970).14 These latter two studies, despite their different conclusions, came close to the approach endorsed here because they emphasized two critical ideas: the role of photosynthesis in the human food supply and the role of agricultural technology as a factor in the levels of the harvest.

A study that uses a framework analysis very similar to the one adopted here was So Shall You Reap by Otto and Dorothy Solbrig. They understood that farming was a massive transformation of the environment and argued that life for over 5 billion people was simply not possible without agriculture. They correctly saw that anticipated population growth in the next few decades necessitates increased production. If those increases come through further environmental destruction from agriculture, however, the ultimate hopes for human security and prosperity will be dashed.1'

Despite the enormous literature on the environment, technology, and agricultural production, the questions asked and the frameworks developed to provide answers have generally not yet integrated all the salient features of political ecology. Specific problems include:

• Too tight a focus on population as the cause of environmental problems has tended to ignore human ingenuity in problem solving and to slide past a critical moral question: What do we do about all the people who currently exist and are very likely to be born soon?

• An emphasis on technology choice as the major source of environmental problems avoids blaming population but runs the risk of downplaying the role of population or ignoring levels of consumption. Focus on technology also may ignore factors, arising from competition between companies and between nations, which push technological change whether or not the individuals who innovate want to change.

• Identification of overconsumption as a source of environmental problems is useful. Unfortunately, this approach tends to ignore the extensive development of infrastructure and ideology in modern society, which do not adjust easily, if at all, to voluntarily reduced rates of consumption.

• A further problem with most of the existing literature that treats the interaction among people, nature, and food is a lack of broad historical sensibilities.

Lack of historical insight is particularly troublesome in critiques of current agricultural practices as environmentally destructive and socially inequitable. Although both criticisms may be well founded, they avoid a crucial question: How and why did countries and farmers adopt the practices now said to be destructive? Were people coerced into doing something unwise? Were they venal or intellectually deficient? Or did they act in ways that were necessary and honorable at the time, even if the changes ultimately proved to be detrimental?

The latter questions are vital for what the political ecological framework seeks to explore. In order to understand the significance of modern agriculture, it is not enough to know that technical change occurred and that the economy of individuals and nations was thereby shifted. In addition, it is not enough to know that the changes led to more food production and thus the ability to support more people on earth. Likewise, it is not enough to know that modern production practices may be associated with significant social inequalities and that they may destroy the ability of agriculture to produce in the future. All of these issues may be necessary to understand modern agriculture but they are not sufficient, either to understand the past or to guide the process of reform in the future. It is also essential to understand why the changes occurred, and political ecology can help with this question.

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