Why Are Environmental Problems Also Political? Insights From Political Ecology

The question of depletion of natural resources is one that has vexed many generations of scholars since the inception of modern scientific institutions. Some of the earliest contributions in ecological sciences were made by scientists employed under the European East India Companies, who were concerned over large-scale deforestation in tropical countries and linked it to the degradation of soil and water resources and climate change. These scientists were successful in advocating for the need for forest conservation and the establishment of forest management institutions in the colonial governments and back home in their countries, by arguing that the loss of forests could threaten the economic interests of the state. The term ‘sustainability’ was first used in German forestry circles to refer to the idea of maintaining a balance between harvesting old trees and ensuring that there were enough young trees to replace them.

The practices of the early institutions of scientific forestry made illegal any unauthorized removal of natural resources from the forests. Human activities were seen to be contradictory to the goals of conservation. Forest dwellers were prohibited from entering and extracting resources from forests set aside for the cultivation of timber under working plans of scientific forestry and national parks were established removing people from the indigenous lands that they had occupied for centuries. Thus, early conservation plans were based on the exclusion of people from the natural resources that were meant to be conserved. This narrow formulation of scientific forestry not only disregarded the human and social dimensions of the natural world but was also predisposed towards the economic interests of the state that sought to maintain timber supply for industries.

Source: https://www.reddit.com/r/comics/comments/c09z4s/complex_problem_simple_solution_oc/

This principle of sustainability, centered on the belief that human activities are the cause of environmental degradation, has guided the scientific attempts at addressing the ecological crisis till the late 20th century. A distinction needs to be made here between the activities of the poor, who lived in the vicinity of natural resources, and the activities of the rich. Much of the environmental theories and policies conceived till the 1980s disproportionately sought to ‘correct’ the environmentally damaging activities of the poor, especially in the developing countries. For example, Malthus’s theory (1) that population growth is unsustainable for the environment was used to introduce population control programs in what was perceived as the ‘less civilized’ and over-populated countries of South Asia, and Hardin’s theory of the Tragedy of the Commons (2) is still used today to justify state control or establishment of private property rights over natural resources commonly used by the poor.

The activities of the rich only came into forefront with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (3) with the result that several policies were made to curb pollution and environmental degradation at the national and international level, but correcting the activities of the rich, powerful governments and businesses still remains a challenge.

What can we learn from Political Ecology?

Since the 1980s, social scientists have raised concerns over these forms of ecological solutions to environmental problems, drawing attention to the social and political hierarchies that come into play in human interactions with the environment, and arguing that environmental problems are also deeply political. Scholarship in Political Ecology largely deals with the question of power in relation to human-environment interactions. Political Ecology has contributed to enhancing our understanding of how power disparities lead to injustices in the distribution of communities affected by environmental problems, inequalities in control over the production and consumption of commodities of nature, shaping the forms of knowledge used in the understanding of environmental issues, and determining how people respond to the environmental policies of the state.

a. Understanding Environmental Justice:

Resistance against state and corporate control over environmental resources and management in the form of social movements in different parts of the world has led to the development of scholarship around, what is called, the ‘environmentalism of the poor’. The thesis of the environmentalism of the poor encapsulates the idea that “in many resource extraction and waste disposal conflicts in history and today, the poor are often on the side of the preservation of nature against business firms and the state”. It recognizes that, in situations where people are dependent on the environment for their livelihood, environmental challenges cannot be separated from the concerns of social justice and human rights violations.

Local environmental movements in the Global South have also had an impact at the global level, as is evident in the worldwide movement for sustainable farming supported by local struggles and in the creation of new forms of networks linking local and global organizations (such as Greenpeace, WWF) to mobilize action against biodiversity loss, pollution, and protection of indigenous territorial rights and global climate change. In the United States, environmental justice movements have identified the disproportionate burdens of pollution and lack of voice in environmental policy among the minority populations or people of color, a phenomenon that has since been termed ‘environmental racism’.

b. Understanding the Power embedded in Market Institutions:

Political Ecology recognizes that analyzing the nexus of production and consumption of material goods is an indispensable starting point for understanding the basic causes of the destruction of nature. Nature is seen in capitalist societies merely as a resource from which material goods are to be extracted for the purpose of accumulating wealth. Owners of capital control the conditions under which labor produces goods, which are to be sold at a price determined by the forces of the market (competition, collusion, or monopoly). This pattern of incessant extraction of resources, coupled with the economic policies of the state and the advancement in technologies and infrastructure of extraction, has led to extensive destruction of natural resources since the industrial revolution.

Source: https://blog.cartoonmovement.com/2012/08/campaign-for-code-green-cartoon.html

Powerful institutions of the state and big businesses have also majorly controlled the decision making and strategies to address these environmental issues. A new form of environmentalism called the ‘market environmentalism’ has emerged in the last few decades, largely backed by these powerful actors. Market environmentalism incorporates the idea that the operation of market forces alone can lead to better management of the environment, through strategies like enforcement of private property rights, deregulation of the state, certification of environmental goods, market-based trading mechanisms, and institutionalization of market incentives.

However, works of critical geographers have shown that market-based environmental solutions tend to disproportionately disadvantage the poor and minority groups. In her study on the water privatization initiatives in England and Wales, Karen Bakker (4) argues that some resources, such as water, are difficult to commodify due to their vast spatial and geographical extent and the differences in cultural meanings and values that different communities attach to it. Another study on urban forestry in Milwaukee in Wisconsin, US argued that private investments in urban forests have been more beneficial to the wealthy residential areas as they are able to afford the high cost of maintenance of urban trees as opposed to the poor, and racial and ethnic minorities (5). In synthesizing the works of these geographers, another scholar Noel Castree argues that while significant contributions have been made in theory, in practice, market environmentalism remains a powerful and much-sought idea in policy circles (6). He contends that geographers need to get better in evaluating when these policies do and don’t work in the real world.

c. Understanding Power in Shaping Discourses of Nature:

Political Ecologists have for a long time recognized that the scientific management of environmental problems has created and reinforced power disparities in society. Science is fundamental to political ecology as the dominant narratives in science determine the dominant strategies used for addressing environmental problems. The environmentalist, Vandana Shiva, has shown how modern science, based on reductionist understandings of nature and disregard of alternative modes of knowledge, has not only led to an ecological crisis but also perpetuated violence against the people it deems as ‘non-experts’. She argues that products of modern science, such as genetically modified crops introduced during the Green Revolution, have led to the destruction of genetic diversity in indigenous rice crops in India, and also resulted in severe social and political conflicts which continue till today in northern India (7).

Political Ecology also concerns how the different understandings of nature between local communities and the global environmental discourse lead to different imaginaries around development, property, and biodiversity conservation. Escobar argues that social and environmental movements from the Global South have shown that there are striking differences in the construction of nature - while modern constructions have a strict separation between biophysical, human, and supernatural worlds, local models of nature in many non-Western contexts are often based on links of continuity between the three spheres. Similarly, the concept of territory and intellectual property rights have alternate imaginaries in these communities as resources are generally collectively owned.

Source: http://www.nativeamericanscience.org/courses/native-and-western-views-of-nature/the-3rd-alternative/3rd-alternative-notes

d. Understanding Power in the Making of Environmental Subjects:

Political Ecology has also enhanced our understanding of how ‘environmental citizens’ (or the subjects of environmental policies of the state) respond to the environmental management practices of the state. The geographer, Piers Blaikie explores why farmers, in areas where land degradation is occurring, have not incorporated soil and water conservation techniques as mandated by the state. Classical approaches to land management blame the ignorance of land-users for not following conservation plans. Blaikie instead argues that the behavior of farmers is also influenced by social and political factors such as the distribution of land rights, availability of alternate job opportunities, and the changes in agricultural prices, which determine the capability of farmers to respond to land degradation (8).

In India, political scientist Arun Agarwal extends this concept of environmental citizenship to what he calls ‘environmentality’, to show how people’s attitudes towards government policies of environmental control change over time9. His work shows that in the case of forest governance in the Kumaon hills of India, villagers had over the course of a century shifted their attitude from violently opposing scientific forest management (by repeatedly setting the forests on fire) to subsequently internalizing the responsibility of protecting the forests on the state’s behalf.

I hope this essay helped in providing an overview of the field of Political Ecology. Keep in mind that I said ‘field’, not ‘discipline’, because researchers from a variety of different disciplines have contributed to the knowledge realm of political ecology. While it originated from research in Political Science and Critical Geography, more recently, it has forayed into the domain of Science and Technology Studies, Science Policy, and Complexity Sciences. If you are interested in ideas of political ecology, I recommend following the blog Undisciplined Environments.


  1. Malthus theory of population growth

  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons

  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silent_Spring

  4. Bakker, K. (2005). Neoliberalizing nature? Market environmentalism in water supply in England and Wales. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95(3), 542-565.

  5. Heynen, N., Perkins, H. A., & Roy, P. (2006). The political ecology of uneven urban green space: The impact of political economy on race and ethnicity in producing environmental inequality in Milwaukee. Urban Affairs Review, 42(1), 3-25.

  6. Castree, N. (2011). Neoliberalism and the biophysical environment 3: putting theory into practice. Geography Compass, 5(1), 35-49.

  7. Shiva, V. (1987). The violence of reductionist science. Alternatives, 12(2), 243-261.

  8. Blaikie, P. (1989). Explanation and policy in land degradation and rehabilitation for developing countries. Land Degradation & Development, 1(1), 23-37.

  9. Agrawal, A. (2005). Environmentality: Community, intimate government, and the making of environmental subjects in Kumaon, India. Current Anthropology, 46(2), 161-190

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