Melbourne Human Geography Reading Group

Seminar room, basement, 221 Bouverie St, 8th October, 3.30pm


Human environment relations and political ecology

Simon Batterbury


If we treat the academic discipline of geography like a tree, for much of the 20th century we might argue that for the first six decades, there was a solid 'trunk' made up of just a handful of common approaches that were passed on to successive cohorts of postgraduate students, and reproduced in books and articles. [apologies to those of you who know all this - just skip it].


WM Davis's geomorphological inquiries, and subsequent work in the physical sciences and geology, was one strand of the tree trunk that endured and refined itself over several decades. Regional geography was another, and it dominated the still-emerging discipline in the anglophone and francophone worlds,  influenced by German scholarship. Shelves of descriptive regional geography monographs were produced in the early to mid 20th century, categorizing places (including cities and rural) in terms of their physical geography, economic activities, settlement structures, and so-on. Richard Hartshorne tried, unsuccessfully, to make a refined systematic version the core of the discipline.


Only since the late 1960s did a series of paradigm shifts occur that were sufficient to bifurcate the trunk of the geographic tree. First,  a more analytical approach to regions and spatial questions emerged. It used the quantitative techniques of  the day to make the claim that social and economic change could be predicted, rather than merely 'described'. There were laws to city size, location, and so forth. The University of Washington 'space cadets' were at the forefront, with early computers and the development of spatial statistics. Although this approach lives on, there was then a vigorous rejection of this still-youthful scientific approach by people skilled in it themselves - Bill Bunge, David Harvey, Dick Peet, and others who laid the foundations for  radical approaches inspired by Marxist theories of social and economic change. Not all the debates were healthy - character assassinations abounded, with spats between Brian Berry (quantitative, conservative) and David Harvey (radical, Marxist) being emblematic of the time.  By the 1970s the 'tree' was already growing many branches as sub-disciplines developed.  Some of the new branches we have covered already in our readings - new developments occurred rapidly in cultural geography, the geography of gender, historical approaches, the new economic geography and community planning, a greater concern with international development, and so-on.


Human-environment relationships were always a core interest of geographers and helped to make up the 'trunk' for most of the century -  through the pre-1920s work of environmental determinists like Huntingdon and Semple, through to Carl Sauer in middle century, whose approach led his acolytes to the study of landscapes as products of material transformations and the cultural attributes of their peoples (not too much politics, though). Sauer's 'Berkeley School', and other 'schools', particularly work on natural hazard mitigation led by the brilliant pragmatists Gilbert White and Bob Kates identified with the U of Chicago, contributed to the pre-1960s top end of the 'trunk' of the geographical tree - a solid body of empirically grounded work. But the study of human-environment relationships were subjected to the same wrenching paradigmatic shifts of the 1960s-70s as in other parts of geography and following trends in the social sciences. Practitioners like Harold Brookfield at ANU began to experiment  with more 'scientific' approaches to understanding the logics of semi-subsistence societies- his and other types of human ecology focused on food production and demographic variables, and the means by which groups organized themselves socially. Societies reliant on their own labour constantly innovated as population pressure, environmental change, and other measurable variables changed the context.  A greater volume of this 'cultural ecology' work was actually done by anthropologists -  and plenty of it in this hemisphere.


The radical backlash to human and cultural ecology was multi-layered. Aside from the obvious point that there are aspects of 'feeling and meaning' about  nature and resources that cannot be measured by positivist methods, Marxists pointed towards very different explanations of observed human-environment relationships - Capital ($$) 'transforms'; and degrades 'nature' to nourish itself. Natural environments become commoditised (the second contradiction of capitalism - the first is labour exploitation) and  poor or exploited people are often the victims of a combination of repressive states, colonialism, elite capture, and so-on that adversely affects their vulnerability and access to resources. To ignore these realities by doing micro-studies in distant places, shorn of political content, seemed analytically narrow. Piers Blaikie was highly influential in developing a social approach to environmental degradation in his 'Political Economy of Soil Erosion' in 1985. Michael Watts, who had spent years locating the plight of poor farming communities on N Nigeria in a nexus of colonial predation and later the corrupt, oil rich independent nation state, was a big  influence on my generation of travel-hungry geographers trained in the 1980s. he was also instrumental in launching an attach on existing human-environment research which he deemed  to be shorn of broader political economic analysis.  Clark University was central to this more radical take on the world- Ben Wisner, Phil O'Keefe, Jim Blaut and  Richard Peet, founded Antipode at Clark in the late 1960s and nature-society questions emerge in some some, but not all, of their radical agenda.


Today, human-environment geography has fissured of into many branches. I think (unless you can convince me otherwise) that it forms a linked, but separate body of work to both human and physical geography - it sits in the middle, and many of its practitioners trained in both at  some point in their careers or are at least interested in other parts of the discipline.  It is therefore one of the obvious places to keep the link between physical and human geography vibrant as they continue to pass each other in the academic shipping lanes.  


There is no contemporary 'core' approach to H-E debates that we can dissect in a single Reading Group session. Topics in the subfield include:

In terms of what geographers are doing practically with all this knowledge: Environmentalists are prominent in the anti-globalization movement, and work at a number of levels to influence policy. But geographers are sparsely represented in the left-green alliances of the last few years, although they are clearly there (university administrators don't much like their staff being involved in protest perhaps, or challenging links to corporate sponsors).*  Those studying the human dimensions of environmental change with great commitment- like  Billie Lee Turner, Eric Lambin  and Diana Liverman for example - tend to work with  international and national bodies and to direct large research projects on environmental transformations. Turner terms his approach 'post-positivist'. Research methods are carefully chosen and integrated  -and  some of the work is done with internationally recognised scientists. Scientists do need reminding that the landscape is 'peopled', and that climate change creates and is created by human impacts/vulnerabilities,  not captured by global environmental modelling on supercomputers. There are also a range of moderately progressive think tanks like IIED and WRI that involve  geographers in  their work.


One of  the most strident debates is about 'loss' of environments (species and habitat)  under corporate greed, urban growth, mega-projects,  and so-on. Asisde from the obvious question of impacts, the more  reflective of analysts, ask how environmental change matters in a philosophical as well as a practical sense (Margaret Fitzsimmons says it does matter, while David Demeritt, Sarah Whatmore and Steve Hinchcliffe are more circumspect about 'protectionism' of wilderness and nature). Some argue the natural world is constantly changing anyway, so that the commitment of environmentalists is misplaced and regressive.  Phil Stott , a former geography professor, argues in op-ed pieces and in websites that we should encourage GM crops, relex about global warming,  and allow markets to be the arbiter of environmental quality. his views are not widely shared, at least in teh circles I move in. 


These fiels of endeavour in geography have been analytically  linked by the term political ecology, a subfield that is equally shared with anthropologists interested in nature-society questions. The emergence of texts in recent years by Karl Zimmerer, Tom Bassett, Paul Robbins, Ray Bryant, Tim Forsyth, Mike Watts and Dick Peet, Dianne Rocheleau, Piers Blaikie & Harold Brookfield and a few others has helped to cement a diffuse field. The fundamental premise is that access to environmental resources is always socially mediated or constrained, usually involving  multiple processes acting at different scales. A phenomena like an environmental hazard, therefore, needs to be analyzed both 'naturally' and socially. And what goes on in a farmer's field can be influenced by a flood or by pest infestation, but also by national policies on commercial agriculture, global commodity prices, and so on. Field-level soil erosion, thought to be 'natural', may have its roots in these multi-scaled, cascading 'social' processes. This is a fundamental geographical observation. 


Lots of viable research topics and questions fit under the political ecology umbrella, as you can imagine.  Personally, I believe an ecocentric worldview can be combined with analytically  rich and careful work in political ecology - if we do this, our activities are both intellectually interesting  and practically relevant. But other geographers, more 'critical' in orientation than me,  believe ecocentric environmentalism is outdated, superseded by technological developments and by the fast pace of social, economic, and environmental change. The socionatures debate is now raging. Geographers Noel Castree, Bruce Braun, David Demeritt and to some extent Eric Swyngedouw are part of  a group that has challenged some of the values of ecocentrism , which also means questioning campaigns to salvage  'pristine' natural systems. Although their arguments are carefully worded so as not to disturb the work of scientists and environmental managers too much, they actually argue in books like Remaking Reality (1998) and Social Nature ( 2001) that 'nature' and 'society' are terms that reflect a dualism that no longer holds - nature/society has been hybridized, partly by our own efforts to control and manufacture it, generically modify it, and so forth. 'Socionatures' therefore prevail. In the last analysis then, we need new tools to study this 'modern' and hybrid world, and to influence the form that networks of living and non-living things take. For some, Bruno Latour's actor-network theory is a helpful device to understand socionatural phenomena. (see this week's reading).


I thought it would be helpful to read something that:

So let's have a look at :-


Robbins. 2001. "Tracking Invasive Land Covers in India or Why Our Landscapes Have Never Been Modern." Annals of the Association of American Geographers . 2001. 91(4): 637-654 (pdf)


Paul  has been working in the political ecology field for some years, mainly in Indian grasslands and forests - his other main body of work is on lawns and use of lawn chemicals in US cities - and he recently produced a textbook on political ecology.  He is just taking up a new job at University of Arizona, where a group of people (recently including me) are working on political ecology and environmental change. I find the methods, and the clever framing of the debate, interesting in this article.


That is it. ....


But for those with more time or  interest or wanting to know the history of all of this and the thoughts of one of the key thinkers:


Turner, BL II.  2002. Contested Identities: Human-Environment Geography and Disciplinary Implications in a Restructuring Academy Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 92(1), 2002, pp. 5274  [pdf]


For those more interested in environmental  policy debates, a paper by Ian Scoones and   James Keeley summarizes current thinking on the genesis of environmental policy quite well. Ian is an interdisciplinary schlar at IDS, Sussex University. The Environment Group at IDS produce more papers than seems humanly possible, and are at the forefront of environment-development research and policy analysis.


James Keeley and Ian Scoones 1999 Understanding Environmental Policy Processes: A Review. IDS Working Papers - 89



*Nonetheless our own Peter Christoff's critique of Australian environmental policy made world headlines in 2002!