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Liberation Ecology: Development, Sustainability, and environment in an age of market triumphism

by on December 5, 2011

Chapter one of Liberation Ecologies, edited by Richard Peet and Michael Watts, begins by discussing the history and philosophy of political ecology and makes apparent the role of discourse, especially the western discourse of development, in our world. The authors agree that, “no discussion of ‘environment’ or ‘development’ can begin without interrogating the meanings of these key words and the various discourses and practices in which they are situated” (p. xi); they stress that the reformation of political ecology focuses on large-scale examination and cross-references with information from several fields of academia. The topic of environmental degradation is at center stage due to the current severe level of ecological destruction and environmentalism (truly a global issue) cannot be separated from politics or economics. The authors argue that western discursive regimes fuel poverty and environmental destruction. They state that in order for the environment to be protected, it is imperative that there be a new form of political philosophy, a bottom-up approach which incorporates the mobilization of “regular people” (p.27, which does not stem from discursive control.

Political ecology was a movement born in the 1960’s and has continued to be reformed throughout the decades. A Marxist-influenced field of study, political ecology was born from ecological anthropology and cultural ecology. Understanding people’s relationship to limited resources and obtaining traditional knowledge which existed in “closed-system” living studies was the focus of the field. This information, the authors argue, was based on an overly simplistic model. It was not recognized that these cultures were part of larger, more complicated political spheres.
The world today (vs. the 1960’s through the 1980’s) is fundamentally different. There are more destructive technologies, increased globalization, deregulation, and privatized economies. There is increased industrial growth in areas such as Brazil, Korea, and Taiwan and there is knowledge of global warming, ozone depletion, and biogenic hazards (p.4). Therefore, modern political ecology is fundamentally different. It’s now a combination of post-Marxist, neo-liberal, and post-structuralist fields that challenges notions of governance and discourse because it includes policy at its center. It also focuses on practical applications rather than simplistic ecological theory on its own. Additionally, this “action-research-oriented” (p.2) form of political ecology covers far more than social movements, it includes a discussion of the agendas of large organizations such as the World Bank and also covers small resistance conflicts that aren’t yet considered social movements.

The authors discuss some of the more influential texts in political ecology and discuss the “tension of heterogeneities” within the field simply because it’s so broad and includes work by a huge range of scholars, each with their own ideas. Collectively, these texts point toward the issue of poverty as a major cause of ecological degradation (p.5). The authors argue that poverty is no more of a cause of degradation than affluence/capital. Poverty is only part of the story and is a consequence of marginalization, absence of public control over resource and politics, and state-centralization (p.7). Certain top-down process that occur and discourses that are propagated aid the spread and reproduction of poverty. It needs to be known not only which political steps lead to both poverty and environmental catastrophe but why and how they transpire.

Before discourse is addressed, I’d like to mention an important fact that the authors brought up: political ecology doesn’t contain much in terms of actual politics (p.10). Personally, I think that this is a problem for the field as it seems to be mostly theory and very little action. However, a suggested political solution would be very hard for any government or persons in positions of power to swallow because the solution may have other negative implications such as the prevention of economic development, wealth obtainment (by the wealthy, of course), and prevent those who have power from retaining it. Actually, the solution may be ideological itself. Honestly, I believe that the implications of coming up with a bottom-up solution are so severe that it’s almost impossible for people in political ecology academia to present them because they would be challenging even the most libertarian governments, shareholders, and people who quite literally control the world. A social movement based on the findings of political ecology would be the most radical of all social movements because it would challenge the notion of development discourse—historically the most successful regime for obtaining power to ever exist.

This leads me to the final discussion of discourse. The authors state that political ecology must study not only how local environmental movements develop and what we can learn from locals about their environments, but what discourse does to a group and how scientific regimes of truth (the philosophy of truth must also be addressed first) and mythological discourses influence people. The most important discourse in political ecology is that of the western world: the discourse of development. This refers to things always getting “better”, forward movement, and economic expansion. Post-structuralists take a radical look at this discourse and explain that western governments, by spreading this discourse, ensure that not only are their own people are psychologically enslaved, but make certain that aspiring first world nations are conforming to the ideal (p.17). The authors see the solution to the environmental destruction caused by this discourse as being one that is bottom-up and incudes the public in its design and implementation (p.27). Instead, it seems that third-world countries have attempted to mimic or copy rather than adapt the western discourse and do so with top-down policies which demotivate ordinary people rather than make room for grassroots movements of positive, true “development” (p.17), which automatically incorporate more knowledge of local ecosystems.

1. The authors also mentions that political ecology does not contain much in terms of actual politics in it, and therefore, it doesn’t seem to have many large-scale solutions. Do you think that this is strength or a weakness of the field?
2. How far off do you think we are from suggesting ideological political solutions? Do you think that more significant research needs to be done in the field of political ecology for truly large-scale government-reformation style solutions to be suggested?
3. Is development a good thing? Is it sometimes good and sometimes bad? Can you think of examples or ways in which our current discourse should be tweaked and not completely replaced?
4. Do you think that, as the field of political ecology grows, it will create its own reformation movement? Would if it became widespread or die out? Could it even start with the way politics are currently? Why or why not?


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  1. It appeared that a majority of the class, including myself, struggled to discover what the author was shooting for in this article. The reader was overwhelmed with analytical comparisons and facts regarding historic and present theories. Simultaneously, it seems almost as if that was a purposeful aspect of the author’s argument. The author presented all of these theories possibly to highlight the confusion and subjectivity that can be incorporated from past theories. However, historic thoughts and ideas were created in that time, under a certain scenario with specific circumstances, a different context. Therefore, theorists must keep in mind the individuality present situations have and to organize and construct ideas and policies under this mindset.

  2. punam123 permalink

    Development is very important for a people, society and the country to developed. Globalization is one of the factor that brought the idea of development in many developing countries. We can see the progress in infrastructure for the development but we can also see the exploitation if the natural resources. Many cooperation goes to developing countries with the proposal to make the country develop but they exploit the resources and people with cheap labor. They also do not pay the tax which is more and more of a exploitation the development. Development is necessary but developed nation should stop using the resources from developing countries and selling them back at higher prices.

  3. I think that Punam makes some really good points about development. I also agree with Parker that the different aspects of the discourse seem extremely confusing. But, I think that Katie did a good job in explaining exactly what was going on, and I think that it is important to reiterate the fact that the discourse does, as Katie says, look at “a group and how scientific regimes of truth (the philosophy of truth must also be addressed first) and mythological discourses influence people.” I find this highly important to the overall subject of the article, which is the discussion of what a discourse means in regards to people and how it’s influential.

  4. A. L. Park permalink

    Reblogged this on jynnx. and commented:
    1. The authors also mentions that political ecology does not contain much in terms of actual politics in it, and therefore, it doesn’t seem to have many large-scale solutions. Do you think that this is strength or a weakness of the field?


    It’s a weakness in that context could be gained from understanding the broken system; how it attempts to function, and why, so that past mistakes can be memorialized in society as lessons learned.

    It’s also a strength, because it encourages more outside-the-box thinking in forming solutions to large-scale problems.

    I think that specialists who are fluent in policies and politics should work together with those more passionate about the ecological end of the equation, to learn from each other and strike a balance, through discourse, on how to solve large-scale problems.

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