Raising Complexity Of Environmental Problems Criminology Essay

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Raising complexity of environmental problems demands for a wider understanding of the problems The fact that environmental issues are not only discussed on the scientific floor but also in the mass media, apparently in the world leading economic and political magazines, by a wide range of experts, implicitly shows us that environmental problems has become a crosscutting issue

Theoretical approaches of political ecology are marked by a plurality of disciplinary backgrounds. Nonetheless, some generalizations can be drawn about a number of approaches from which individual studies in political ecology have emerged. In this section of the paper, I examine the precursors or what Paulson et al. (2003) call 'the intellectual genealogy' of political ecology. Furthermore, the altercations that political ecology scholars had with other research traditions shall be briefly resumed since these discussions were hugely influential in shaping political ecology as a theoretical body. By retracing the intellectual origins of political ecology, I intend to demonstrate how and why political ecology has become what it is today.

2.1 Antecedents of Political Ecology

As conventional modernisation theories came to be increasingly regarded as outdated at

the end of the 1980s, political ecology started to emerge as a new approach to humanenvironment

interactions in development discourse in the 1990s. However, in actual

fact political ecology - without being defined and named as such - had its origins

already in the 1970s. On the one hand natural scientists such as agronomists,

geologists, etc., had begun to consider human actions as a factor when looking at

nature. On the other hand social scientists such as anthropologists, sociologists and

geographers started to look more closely at the political role of nature for societies. -

This interest was a reaction to what was perceived as a neglect of the political

dimensions in human-environment interaction. Historically, the role of nature itself had

been deemphasised in the constitution of the social sciences. When sociology emerged

as a scientific discipline at the beginning of the 20th century, nature was completely

blinded out, the focus being solely on society, i.e. human-human interactions. The

motivation for this was, of course, to distinguish the newly established social sciences

from the then dominant physical and natural sciences (Goldman and Schurman 2000,


Prior to the 1970s the term "political ecology" had appeared in a number of studies on

land use and political economy, but had not thus far engendered a 'new' discipline or

approach (Peet and Watts, 1996, 4). In the 1970s, the focus of development studies lay

mostly on modernization and dependency theories (Greenberg and Park 1994, 6).

Another school of thought that emerged earlier and which drew on anthropology was

"cultural ecology". Cultural ecology focused mostly on cultural adaptations to the

environment (Bryant and Bailey, 1997, 16f) including cultural practices (religious

rituals or similar), specific (subsistence) patterns of behaviour and social practises

either shaped by environmental circumstances or operating as regulators of

environmental stability (Forsyth 2003, 8). Furthermore, cultural ecology focussed on

so-called 'ethnoscientific knowledge', i.e. traditional, time-tested resource use

strategies of isolated, indigenous subsistence communities without agro-scientific

knowledge (Peet and Watts 1996, 4). This approach has encountered substantial

critique from social anthropologists who have dismissed cultural ecology as too

simplistic, technical, ahistorical and accused it of portraying societies as a product of

environmental circumstances rather than adopting a more sociological viewpoint.

Political Ecology in Development Research


However, in the wake of phenomena such as acid rains and famines and other manmade

environmental disasters perpetuated by the media, and the value change taking

place, the idea of sustainability resurged again. Preoccupation with environmental

issues could be found in many a discipline. There was the emergence of Green Politics

and the sustainable development discourse, perpetuated and popularised in the media

following the Brundtland Report in 1987 (Peet and Watts 1996, 3). On the other hand

an increasingly important body of work on environmental security dealing with

questions of conflict and resource scarcity appeared in the 1980s.But from the 1990s

onward, scholars started to frame environmental problems as a manifestation of broader

political and economic forces, positioning that the deep-rooted, complex sources of

these problems needed to be addressed by far-reaching changes in local, regional and

global political and economic processes (Bryant and Bailey 1997, 3).

In a first phase many scholars resorted to neo-Marxist theories to overcome the

perceived apoliticism of cultural ecology and its limitation to isolated rural

communities. To achieve this, they started to incorporate the impacts of international

markets, social inequalities, and larger-scale political conflicts into their analysis

(Paulson et al. 2003, 208). From the mid-1980s on, scholars started to broaden their

scope by allowing a wider range of theoretic influences to guide their observations of

specific environmental problems (Bryant and Bailey 1997, 13). This newly emerging

discipline of political ecology was marked off against cultural ecology, being less

functionalist and ahistorical and taking the existing, historically shaped social

structures as the starting point for analysis. It differed also from human behavioural

ecology (HBE), another then prevailing approach, insofar as HBE is strongly rooted in

economy and relied on simple formal models, game theory and a more qualitative

approach (Winterhalder 2002, 4). Most importantly, these new vague of research

dissociated itself from population pressure theories or neo-Malthusian approaches.

2.2. People and degradation - Neo-Malthusian narratives

By the end of the 1980s and even before, the conventional approach to looking at

environmental questions had its base in a neo-Malthusian framework. Therefore,

political ecology studies reflecting this research tradition are often coined as 'neo-

Malthusian'. The original theorem of Malthus stated that while food production levels

grow at a linear rate, human population grows at geometric rate if unchecked.

Therefore, Malthus predicted a decrease of available food per capita with ensuing

famines and the eventual extinction of the human race. This general idea of ecologic

determinism was taken up and broadened to include other resources than food, namely

arable land. The assumption was made that population pressure on resources (PPR)

leads to resource scarcity. As Ostrom (1990) explains, in classical models of common

resource theories much emphasis is placed on individual actions and egoisms, such as

in the old, well-known and often-cited political-economic parables of the 'tragedy of

the commons' or the 'prisoner's dilemma' game model. Within the mainstream

environmental conflict and security studies published since the beginning of the 1990s,

a great number of scholars analyse conflict or war as a result of resource scarcity.

One of the best-known neo-Malthusian scholars who links resource scarcity to conflict

is Homer-Dixon (1994; 1996; 1998). In his writings he holds up the hypothesis that

2. Foundations of political ecology


there are resource scarcity induced conflicts that are driven by political and economic

factors (Dalby, 2002a, 126). While scarcity of renewable resources does indeed lead to

violent conflicts, these are aid to be not inter-state wars, but take the form of 'subnational,

persistent and diffuse' violence (Homer-Dixon, 1994, 6). To explain why

some people can cope with environmental scarcity and will not engage in armed

conflict, Homer-Dixon then brings up the term social and technical 'ingenuity' (16).

Even though environmental scarcity 'by itself is neither a necessary nor a sufficient

cause' for violence (Homer-Dixon, 1999, 7), many violent conflicts must be explained

by considering resource scarcity as a decisive factor. He acknowledges that for a good

number of situations scarcity need not necessarily result in violent conflict, when

societies are more 'ingenuous' but somehow fails to further elucidate this mystery. This

rather unconvincing conclusion, his neo-Malthusian mindset, methodological

shortcomings, the simplicity of the models employed and various findings that indicate

contrary outcomes have led to widespread criticism of his work by scholars, making

Homer-Dixon one of the most-cited, but most-criticised scholars in the field of

environmental conflict research and subsequently, in political ecology (Tiffen et al.

1994, Barnett 2000, Wisborg 2002, Leach et al. 1999, Hagmann 2005).

As we shall also see in this paper the criticism of neo-Malthusian theories appears as a

decisive element in the shaping of today's political ecology. Works with telling titles

like 'More People, Less Erosion' (Tiffen et al. 1994) refuted the assumption that high

PPR will automatically lead to soil degradation and/or conflict. This disaccord with

Malthus' theorem, combined with a localised and contextualised approach to

environmental problems, was taken up and used in further studies by political

ecologists. Such approaches have often been coined as 'neo-Marxist' because they

stress social stratification and often focus on class and social movements as a unit of

analysis for analysing resource conflicts (Peet and Watts, 1996, 30f). Furthermore,

some of these scholars are in a sense precursors of today's critics of globalisation by

linking local and regional processes of environmental degradation and marginalisation

with global dynamics.

2.3 Regional Political Ecology - a neo-Marxist approach

One of the most influential studies and arguably one of the first to really work with,

and make use of, the term political ecology was the groundbreaking 'Land Degradation

and Society' by Blaikie and Brookfield (1987). The authors describe the intertwined

and reciprocal relations between land use and the environment in the case of soil

erosion not, as had often been the case previously, as just a result of human action, but

as caused by, and resulting in, very distinct forms of societal structure (Peet and Watts,

1996, 6).

Their theoretical approach to 'regional political ecology' is based on the concept of

'marginality' (Blaikie and Brookfield, 1987). Their analysis of soil degradation

amalgamates the following concepts of marginality: The idea of the marginal unit used

in land rent theory, the ecological concept of marginal zones where population pressure

on flora or fauna is high, and the concept of marginality where the population of raw

material producing zones do not get their due share of the revenues (19ff). Blaikie and

Brookfield originally had set out to write their study from a Marxist and a behavioural

Political Ecology in Development Research


perspective, but soon found out that their search for practical solutions required a

'plurality of purpose and flexibility of explanation' (25). Thus they developed a new

conceptual framework to analyse land degradation on the basis of causal chains

between the 'land managers' and their land, other land users, groups in the wider

society who affect them, the state and, ultimately, the global economy (27).

As mentioned before, the most widespread analytical frameworks examining

environmental change and its societal effects had their origins in evolutionist or

Malthusian conceptions. One of these - from the perspective of political ecologists -

simplifying, yet popular 'environmental orthodoxies' (Forsyth 2003, 36) known as the

IPAT equation became increasingly influential in development discourse: Impact

[human] = Population x Affluence x Technology (44). Political ecologists like Blaikie

and Brookfield (1987) questioned and refuted most of the neo-Malthusians

assumptions, asserting that there cannot be such a thing as a 'critical population

density' for a certain strip of land, if at the same time the carrying capacity of the land

changes whenever new technology is introduced or even within a year, for instance

when a especially rich harvest occurs (29). As Painter and Durham (1995) put it, the

IPAT concept suggests that:

'[O]ne need not bother with the internal structure of human populations

(including ethnicity, gender, class, power relations, etc.), with internal cultural

differences in resource use and technology, or with the surrounding world

system of interpopulational relations. In effect, the message is that

anthropological concerns - not to mention those of other social sciences - can

be left out of the analysis. Not surprisingly, this is precisely what happens'.

(Painter and Durham 1995, 251)

Blaikie and Brookfield underpin their approach with an important body of research,

mainly analysing different forms of land use in various countries in a historical

perspective. They then illustrate their theories with an in-depth case study of land

degradation and soil erosion in Nepal.

The study of local environmental problems in their social context, often drawing on

participant observation, arguably represents the foundation of today's political ecology.

Another early example of this kind of 'local political ecology' is Bassett's (1988) case

study on farmer-herder conflicts in northern Ivory Coast He identifies the key factors

that determine a political ecology approach: the contextualisation of humanenvironment

interaction, a historical analysis, the examining of state interventions that

determine land-use at local rural level and the sensitivity to regional variability (454).

With an almost classical anthropological approach, Mortimore (1989) observes local

practices of land use in Nigeria's Hausaland and questions the technology-focused

analyses of the causes of famine by experts that are often contemptuous of traditional

land use patterns. Subsequently, this local focus of analysis has been taken up by a

multitude of scholars as, for instance, Peters on Botswana (1987), Park on the Senegal

and Nile River basins (1992) or Sheridan on Arizona (1995).

As already shown in the preceding texts, the use of term political ecology has been varied greatly from time to time, across the relevance of the specifically-discussed issue, the context, region, and the scale. Yet we can be sure that this variety will keep increasing because the concept and an interdisciplinary approach in explaining human-environment relationship, and at the same time, applied will always be in its formative phase.

is an interdisciplinary approach that is still in its formative phase. The

concepts of scholars vary greatly and their respective perspectives on political ecology

are often subject to harsh criticism by their peers. To this day the majority of political

ecology research consists of analyses of local environmental changes, which are related

to broader social and political structures. For policy-orientated political ecologists the

challenge is to circumvent the 'ideographic trap' - i.e. to avoid research findings valid

only for a specific and spatially limited area. There is a need to elevate research results

from their original unit of analysis onto a more general level if one seeks to contribute

to the mitigation of syndromes of global environmental change. But more often, and

arguably rightly so, the goal of regional political ecology is to explicitly avoid

generalisations and to do justice to local realities.

Whereas political ecology continues to be under-theorized, it has proven to provide a

conceptual lens for describing and analysing environmental change. One type of these

local level studies relate to protected areas such as national parks, world heritage sites,

etc. where restrictions of land use ('coercive conservation') and the conflicts of interest

of the various stakeholders produce specific pattern of resource management

(Zimmerer and Bassett 2003, 5; Twyman 2000, Kaltenborn et al. 2002). The sheer

number of case studies that have - or at least claim to have - a political ecology focus

on land degradation, resource use or resource conflict are proof of the fact that political

ecology thinking provides the necessary tools for thorough, differentiated and

comprehensive research.

Central to political ecology is the in-depth examination of social structures in their

global and historical contexts to explain environmental change and the analysis of the

various involved actors, their interests, actions and discourses. Two main branches of

research stand out in this regard. There is the more conflict-orientated approach that

looks at environmentally induced conflicts, political conflicts between stakeholders at

different levels of administration as well as violent conflicts. As previously alluded to

the environmental conflict literature focusing on inter-group violence has been

subjected to much criticism and has been denounced as deterministic, ethnocentric and

neither environmentalist nor open-minded enough (Barnett 2000). The other influential

line of argument concerns the reflection on resource access and use and power - mainly

viewed through the lens of gender. Many of these analyses continue to be influenced by

a neo-Marxist framework that has lastingly shaped political ecology. This critical

approach to widespread 'orthodoxies' (Forsyth 2003) and the sustainability policies

resulting from them is, in my opinion, one of the strongest arguments for a

deconstructivist political ecology. The different theoretical approaches, which can

never be clearly separated one from another need not necessarily be viewed as a

problem but rather make for a rich pool of ideas where further research can draw from.

Besides theory-building another task that remains is the reconciliation between the

more ecocentric and positivist with the more anthropocentric and post-positivist views.

Moreover, political ecology scholars now face the dilemma of defining the social

relevance and policy implications of their research. On the one hand there is, due to the

Political Ecology in Development Research


discipline's concern with equality and social justice, a 'call for action', i.e. finding the

practical implications of political ecology research results. On the other hand political

ecology scholars need to situate themselves in the field of research by questioning their

own role in the production of specific scientific discourses (Paulson et al. 2003, 215).

Future analyses must take into account the North-South dimensions and disparities of

environmental discourse and problems and, ultimately, come up with a more

differentiated approach. Neither are local rural land users intrinsically good and

governmental (NGO/supranational) actors per se evil as the many case studies on local

struggles and resistance towards international and state sponsored environmental uses

and their rhetoric seem to suggest. Nor are local communities inherently nonsustainable

resources users and automatically a threat to global environmental security

and welfare- To conclude, in both cases the motivations, agendas and legitimacy of

different actors - as well as of scholars and thus oneself - must be scrutinised.

The theoretical base of political ecology remains facetted and multi-angular. The most

important stream of scholarly theorising in this field stems from constructivists'

discourse analysis. They provide a fruitful way of analysing the construction of conflict

objectives, relations between conflict parties and environmental hazards. The most

important critique levelled against constructivism concerns the fact that environmental

realities and the role of nature are neglected or at least understated. This is apoint that

can not completely be dismissed. Nonetheless, a few promising attempts to shape a

theory of political ecology have been made lately (Peet and Watts 1996, Bryant and

Bailey 1997, Forsyth 2003). Nonetheless, scholars obviously and in accordance with

their disciplinary background and theoretical orientation favour one approach over the

other. The formulation of an overarching theory of political ecology remains an

outstanding and ambitious challenge to be tackled by future scholars.

At the same time the apparent 'diversity of approach' (as postulated by Blaikie and

Brookfield 1987) of different theoretical backgrounds need not necessarily be seen as a

problem. Far from it, this flexibility makes the strength of political ecology. The

combination of the more ecological, eco-centric, positivist ideas, with the risk/costs

assessments of political economists and the permanent questioning of generally

accepted truths by post-positivist discourse analysts improves our understanding of the

interaction of natural and social realities. To conclude, one might argue that the lack of

a coherent theoretical base of political ecology is its major weakness, the diversity of

theoretical backgrounds, though, its greatest strength. As the editors of the 'Journal of

Political Ecology' have put it in their foreword to the first edition: '…we feel it would

be ill-advised to define 'political ecology' and maintain rather that all forms of political

ecology will have some family resemblances but need not share a common core'

(Greenberg and Park 1994, 8).