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Political Ecology and the Politics of Environmental Science (the introductory chapter from the book “Critical Political Ecology”) by Tim Forsyth

by on November 28, 2011


Tim Forsyth’s book, titled Critical Political Ecology: The Politics of Environmental Science, argues that environmental politics and sciences are mutually related in a effectual relationship. In other words, a productive discourse about environmental sciences should always include mention of environmental politics regarding that science. Forsyth disagrees with those environmentalists who argue that science can describe environmental issues in a way that is “politically neutral.” (2) Forsyth sees defining this connection between environmental science and politics important because it will prevent “the replication of inadequate science” and will enable “the production of more biophysically accurate, and socially relevant, science.” (2)

He also addresses the worries accompanying the under-realized connection between politics and environmental science in that if it isn’t understood how politics affect the science being done about certain environmental issues, then the science will not be appropriate and/or adequate.

In his introductory chapter, Forsyth compares various scholarly authors’ definitions of and approaches to ‘political ecology.’ He argues, with success in my opinion, that many authors have described what is meant by the word “political” in “political ecology,” but the definition of “ecology” has surprisingly varied between these authors. In his examples, Forsyth describes definitions of “ecology” used by various authors, some of which are geared more toward human interaction with their environment while others address interactions within non-human ecosystems. Forsyth disagrees with these definitions saying that they, “either adopt a priori concepts of environmental science and explanation; or take insufficient steps to avoid the separation of environmental explanation and politics in the analysis of environmental politics.” (4) Then Forsyth offers a preliminary definition of political ecology as, “… the politics of ecology as a scientific legitimization of environmental policy.” (4)

An overall theme of Forsyth’s book seems to be the interconnectedness of nature and human existence. This is evident even in his initial argument that science and politics should always involve one another with regard to environmental issues. Furthermore, Forsyth talks about the history of the term “political ecology” and that it first arose to address human impacts on the environment in the 1960s. He states the human-nature union ever so clearly, “…the new philosophical approach of looking and people-environment interactions as a whole.” (4)

Something that seems to be very important to Forsyth in his studies is giving the topic fair perspective. He disagrees with other scholars who are extreme in their beliefs on either end of the spectrum. For instance, in his section entitled “The Domination of Nature,” he refuses to say that all environmental degradation can be attributed to human negligence. However, he still points out the importance of considering human impact as a factor in the larger resulting environmental changes. Similarly, he admits to criticizing some assertions of environmentalists, saying that he is neither an extreme environmentalist nor is a supporter of “brown lash” (or the undermining of environmental concerns in order to continue damaging an environment). Forsyth seems to stay in the middle ground, where he sets up a realistic approach to the ongoing debates within political ecology.

Forsyth’s introductory chapter to his book lays the foreground for topics we’ve discussed in class. He at the very least mentions, and I assume goes into detail about later in his book, approaches to studying political ecology like indigenous narratives, the debate between “local” and “global,” comparison of “culture ecology” and “political ecology,” the subjectivity or objectivity of science, and so on. Forsyth also maps out the basic tensions within the study (i.e. perspectives of the separation or lack there of between humans and nature) which we’ve talked about in class.

Some questions I raise for the class are:

As most of us agreed, this chapter of Forsyth’s book was dense to say the least. What kinds of questions did you initially have when you read this chapter? What was confusing to you (if anything)?

Do you have a better understanding of those questions now that we’re at the end of the semester? Could you answer some of your initial questions?

Do you think Forsyth sufficiently describes what he means by political ecology?


The man himself.


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  1. Fred Reisen permalink

    Looking back I believe reading Forsyths article at the beginning of the class was both a blessing and a curse for the rest of the course. What the article seemed to do really well was introduce some of the current problems involving the discourse of environmental policy and the lack of congruent definitions for various terms including political ecology, cultural ecology, nature, environmental policy, environmental science. However, what Forsyth also did make us aware that a lack of universally agreed upon definitions as well as the lack of studies with a multi-faceted broad scope are not as useful as we might have previously hoped. He seemed to bring up a point that may have bogged down some of the class discussions in trying to decide what is nature and and what is culture. Although he may not have specifically referred to this issue his mentioning of the inextricable interplay between culture and nature made it hard to take a stance on what is right in terms of cultural and environmental justice.

  2. amygraceaustin permalink

    Re-reading this article with the context of the semester’s discussions in mind makes me realize how everything we’ve read about and talked about over the course of the semester has in some way corresponded to the framework of critical political ecology. Every time we’ve discussed something it has been with the motive of critiquing it.

    Forsyth writes, “the emphasis on science as both a means of explanation, but also rooted in politics reflects the concerns of so-called “critical science,” or the reflexive attention of science to the political uses to which it may be put. As noted above, the original movement to link ecology with politics was made by concerned scientists who sought a new methodology for dealing with humans as a ‘community'”.

    Everything we’ve talked about this semester has been with the goal of looking at it within a larger context. We’ve talked about what lies outside of the picture that the author or artist chooses not to portray, we’ve talked about the motives behind organizations such as National Geographic, we’ve talked about resource management and local agency, about development and stereotypical portrayals of the West. Everything we’ve discussed from linking national parks in Bhutan to fishing practices in the Amazon is inherently political in nature. Nature cannot be separated from culture and politics cannot be separated from culture, therefore critical political ecology is universally relevant. There will always be power dynamics in place and there will always be varying perspectives on how to address any situation.

    While I still don’t entirely understand everything Forsyth addresses in his article, I think I understand more of its significance.

  3. I really agree with what Forsyth wrote about how political ecology and environmental discussion are tied together. I know that combining politics with everything can often be a frustrating experience, but I agree with what Amy said above that ‘nature cannot be separated from culture and politics cannot be separated from culture.’ Political ecology plays a mighty role in understanding and working under environmental works, because politics will always play a part in who interacts with what part of nature and how they interact as well.

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