Political ecology and the epistemology of social justice (2023)

Table of Contents
Geoforum Abstract Introduction Section snippets A new paradigm? Alternatives to structuralism Questions and challenges Conclusion: on being political in political ecology Acknowledgement References (53) World Development World Development Geoforum World Development Global Environmental Change Rationalization and conservation: Ecology and the management of nature in the United Kingdom Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers NS Environmentality: Technologies of government and the making of subjects Material Worlds? Resource geographies and the matter of nature Progress in Human Geography The Peasant Cotton Revolution in West Africa: Côte d’Ivoire 1880–1995 Environmental Discourses and the Ivorian Savanna Annals of the Association of American Geographers Telling environmental change like it is? Reflections on a study in Sub-Saharan Africa Journal of Agrarian Change Understanding environmental issues Classics in human geography revisited: The political economy of soil erosion in developing countries Progress in Human Geography A review of political ecology: Issues, epistemology and analytical narratives Zeitschrift fur Wirtschaftsgeographie Upstream, downstream, China, India: the politics of environment in the Himalayan region Annals of the Association of American Geographers Nepal in Crisis: Growth and Stagnation at the Periphery At Risk: Natural Hazards Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century Third-World Political Ecology False antitheses: Marxism, nature and actor-networks Antipode In landscape or in interpretation? Reflections based on the environmental and socio-economic history of a village in northeast Botswana Environment and History Cited by (133) Deconstructing Ecosystem Service Conflicts through the Prisms of Political Ecology and Game Theory in a North-Western Mediterranean River Basin Recommended articles (6) FAQs Videos

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Volume 39, Issue 2,

March 2008

, Pages 756-764


Piers Blaikie’s writings on political ecology in the 1980s represented a turning point in the generation of environmental knowledge for social justice. His writings since the 1980s demonstrated a further transition in the identification of social justice by replacing a Marxist and eco-catastrophist epistemology with approaches influenced by critical realism, post-structuralism and participatory development. Together, these works demonstrated an important engagement with the politics of how environmental explanations are made, and the mutual dependency of social values and environmental knowledge. Yet, today, the lessons of Blaikie’s work are often missed by analysts who ask what is essentially political or ecological about political ecology, or by those who argue that a critical approach to environmental knowledge should mean deconstruction alone. This paper reviews Blaikie’s work since the 1980s and focuses especially on the meaning of ‘politics’ within his approach to political ecology. The paper argues that Blaikie’s key contribution is not just in linking environmental knowledge and politics, but also in showing ways that environmental analysis and policy can be reframed towards addressing the problems of socially vulnerable people. This pragmatic co-production of environmental knowledge and social values offers a more constructive means of building socially just environmental policy than insisting politics or ecology exist independently of each other, or believing environmental interventions are futile in a post-Latourian world.


One of the most distinctive themes in the writings of Piers Blaikie over the years is a strong political imperative and desire to correct social injustices. On the first page of The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries, Blaikie (1985, p. 1) wrote: ‘[this] is not a neutral book. It takes sides and argues a position because soil erosion is a political-economic issue, and even a position of so-called neutrality rests upon partisan assumptions’ (emphasis in original).

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Yet, despite such statements, it has become almost accepted wisdom that Blaikie’s early work was somehow underpoliticized. Reviewing this famous book in 1997, Michael Watts (1997, p. 77) wrote, ‘the distinctively political content of political ecology was (and is) sadly missing in much of Blaikie’s work…’

What does this statement mean about the application of ‘politics’ in political ecology? At one level, this comment refers to the generally uncomplicated analysis of political processes in Blaikie’s early work – a criticism Blaikie later acknowledged (Blaikie, 1997, p. 79). But at a wider level, this statement also indicates differences in opinion concerning the normative objectives of political ecology versus its analytical procedures. Blaikie clearly expressed political intentions in his work, but Watts believed his methods were insufficient.

This paper argues that Piers Blaikie’s writings on political ecology should not be dismissed as being underpoliticized, but instead be seen as important first steps for a new and engaged focus on the politics of environmental epistemology (or, what we know about environment, with whose inputs, and with what effects). Rather than seeking to demonstrate how a particular approach to ‘politics’ could be applied to predefined notions of ‘environment,’ Blaikie sought instead to demonstrate how social values and environmental knowledge are co-produced. Moreover, he tried to show that changing these values, or diversifying the social framings of environmental analysis, may result in more socially just environmental knowledge and policy.

But at the same time, Blaikie’s own approach to achieving these objectives changed over time. In the early 1980s, he and his collaborators relied upon a generally structuralist Marxian analysis of environmental and social change. After this period, Blaikie rejected structuralist analysis and instead sought more locally-determined, discursive and participatory approaches to environmental crisis and social vulnerability. These different approaches, and their implications for how environmental knowledge is made, have raised further challenges for providing a socially relevant direction to physical environmental science and policy.

This paper assesses Blaikie’s contributions to political ecology, and in particular his approach to the co-production of environmental knowledge and social values. The paper starts by reviewing Blaikie’s (and his collaborators) work during the early 1980s, and then moves on to summarise Blaikie’s proposed alternatives to structuralist analysis. After this, the paper considers the criticisms and dilemmas resulting from this and political analysis of environmental epistemology in general. The paper concludes by arguing that Blaikie’s approach to reframing environmental knowledge in the terms of social justice also offer insights for wider debates about the politicized collection and use of knowledge in environmental analysis. Insights from critical science and the sociology of scientific knowledge may provide useful ways to build on Blaikie’s work.

Section snippets

A new paradigm?

The writings of Piers Blaikie and his collaborators in the 1980s represented a significant turning point towards seeing environmental changes in social and political terms. My own experiences as an undergraduate offer one small example of how these were seen. Some fellow students and I were planning to undertake research in Nepal. When reading about the country, we came across Nepal in Crisis (1980), co-authored by Piers Blaikie, John Cameron and David Seddon.

Nepal in Crisis was different. Most

Alternatives to structuralism

If Blaikie’s work in the early 1980s linked structural Marxism with environmental crisis, his writings since have sought to replace Marxian political economy and eco-catastrophism with alternative means of defining environmental change and social justice. These new approaches asked two key questions: How do we understand environmental crisis? And how do we identify social vulnerability?

Concerning environmental explanation, some initial steps were achieved in the edited volume, Land Degradation

Questions and challenges

Both the post-structuralist trends in political ecology and Blaikie’s revisions to these have been criticized by observers who have seen either too little or too much structure or politics in explaining or addressing environmental degradation. Two common questions are: where is the politics, or where is the ecology, in political ecology? (e.g., Walker, 2005).

Initial responses to Blaikie’s writings on political ecology in the 1980s claimed that his political analysis was too shallow. In his

Conclusion: on being political in political ecology

This paper has reviewed the work of Piers Blaikie on political ecology to demonstrate his contribution to understanding the politics of environmental epistemology, and to highlight some important remaining challenges for environmental analysis. Much general debate about politics and ecology tries to identify a priori definitions of politics or ecology, which overlook how the two are linked. Yet, against this, too many academics argue that linking ecology and politics implies the disabling


The author would like to thank two anonymous referees for useful comments.

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    What is the concept of political ecology? ›

    Political ecology is a field that critically interrogates the nature–society relations, particularly looking at the power relations that intersect and affect access to natural resources, in order to reveal disparities and injustices in the distribution of costs and benefits (Robbins, 2012).

    What is socio/political ecology theory? ›

    Sociopolitical ecology is a perspective that seeks to understand the. interactions of human systems and non-systems within the framework of. their environment, the impact of human systems and non-systems upon. the environment and, in turn, the impact of the environment upon the.

    What is the importance of political ecology? ›

    A political ecology is useful in that it explains the social dynamics of what is wrong and why we have no control over our economic lives. It explains why in a competitive market economy the minority of people with the economic power must pollute in order to survive.

    What is political ecology in AP Human Geography? ›

    Political ecology is the study of the relationships between political, economic and social factors with environmental issues and changes.

    What are the 4 types of ecology? ›

    What are the different types of ecology? The different types of ecology include- molecular ecology, organismal ecology, population ecology, community ecology, global ecology, landscape ecology and ecosystem ecology.

    What are the 4 levels of the socio ecological model? ›

    The CDC's model is constructed with four levels: individual, relationship, community, and society.

    What are the four aspects of social ecology? ›

    Four Aspects of Social Ecology : 1. The four aspects of human ecology are : (i) population, (ii) environment, (iii) technology and (iv) social organisation.

    Who is the father of social ecology? ›

    Murray Bookchin
    SchoolContinental Philosophy, Anarchism, Libertarian Socialism, Hegelianism, Philosophy of ecology
    Main interestsSocial hierarchy, dialectics, post-scarcity, libertarian socialism, ethics, environmental sustainability, ecology, history of popular revolutionary movements
    Notable ideasSocial ecology
    9 more rows

    Who invented political ecology? ›

    The term 'political ecology' was coined in French (Écologie politique) by Bertrand de Jouvenel in 1957, and in English by anthropologist Eric R. Wolf in 1972. The origins of the field in the 1970s and 1980s were a result of the development of radical developments in geography and cultural ecology.

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    These five theses identified by Robbins also shed light on structures, institutions, actors/stakeholders, and politics.

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    Why is ecology important? Ecology enriches our world and is crucial for human wellbeing and prosperity. It provides new knowledge of the interdependence between people and nature that is vital for food production, maintaining clean air and water, and sustaining biodiversity in a changing climate.

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    Ecological concepts are general understandings (or facts) about ecosystems and ecosystem management. Ecological principles are basic assumptions (or beliefs) about ecosystems and how they function that are informed by the ecological concepts.

    What is the concept of political geography? ›

    Definition of political geography

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    Who defined the concept of ecology? ›

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