Political ecology

Political ecology emerged as a critical social science lens to better understand the drivers of the ecological crisis in the 1970s. While it may have different precedents and antecedents, my introduction to it has taken place within the fields of environmental studies and geography. With a nascent ecological crisis heralded by peak oil narratives, a cause for growing concern in the Western world about limits to growth, and the corresponding power and interest of the West in the resources and affairs of a newly postcolonial Third World, many environmental experts and technocrats were in the Third World trying to help solve ‘land degradation’ problems ranging from desertification in Africa to deforestation in South Asia (Robbins 2004). Problematically, many so-called environmental experts espoused neo-Malthusian assumptions about the reasons for these environmental changes - typically blaming the overbreeding tendencies of rural resource users in the Third World. Both the overbreeding andthe overuse of natural resources were attributed to ignorance and selfishness (Blaikie 1985; Hardin 1968). Eco-managerialism aided by Western expertise was deemed the solution, corresponding to crisis narratives originating from a Western gaze. Eckholm (1975) exemplifies this in the context of Nepal, where his take on ‘The Deterioration of Mountain Environments’published in Science contributed to the much-hyped Theory of Himalayan Degradation, which was later debunked, but not before making a mark on the country’s environmental policies and legislation (Guthman 1997; Ives 1987). A number of factors enabled casual observations leading to a theory of ecological crisis where it was not warranted, such as extrapolating findings deduced from one geographical context indiscriminately to a broader geographical context or in other settings. Racial prejudice in how Third World people are seen in relation to their environments has also played a part in neo-Malthusianism and green Orientalism in shaping these discourses (Lohmann 1993; O’Connor 2016). Ehrlich’s (1968) Population Bomb is a case in point.

In a climate where highly subjective and sometimes unfounded pronouncements about Third World environmental degradation could be made with impunity, we would find solutions that matched how the problems were depicted. Nepal used to have a Ministry of Population and Environment from 1995 to 2018. US-based organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation, Malthusian ideology, and ‘population advisors’ played an influential role in shaping India’s population policies in the decades after Independence (Connelly 2006; Minkler 1977). In such a policy climate, the much-needed intervention made by political ecology was to introduce and insist on a critical evaluation of the underlying structural drivers of environmental crisis that were being attended to, thus moving beyond surface manifestations of the problem to their root causes (Robbins 2004). Blaikie (1985), in discussing soil erosion as symptom, cause, and outcome of underdevelopment, sought to analyze both place-based and global political economic forces that impinged upon the resource practices of the maligned local land user. Blaikie and Brookfield (1987) went further to deduce a ‘chain of explanations’ that would situate land degradation within a landscape shaped by colonialism and capitalism.

The impetus of this newly formulated field of study, political ecology, then, was to explain environmental change in the Third World within a broad framework situated within a Marxist political economy analysis. In doing so, scholars increasingly theorized environmental change in the Third World as structurally created as a result of a conjoined history of colonialism and capitalism, the legacies of which continue to the present day in the form of neocolonialism and neoliberal capitalism in the Third World and settler colonialism and capitalism within the First World. Explaining why fishers or foresters or farmers operated in the ways they did due to the structural constraints of a globalized political economy of neoliberal capitalism in a world irreversibly transformed by colonialism - and where European ideas of Enlightenment would shape the way in which fundamental elements of the postcolonial ‘development’ project were conceptualized and operationalized; and where knowledge claims about

Introducing climate change 9 environmental problems and their solutions could be made - became de riguer within political ecology (Robbins 2004).

Political ecological analyses of a wide range of environmental conflicts and natural resources, ranging from fossil fuels to forests, farmland, fisheries, and water, are all useful in unpacking the climate crisis — whether one wishes to understand the dynamics involved in mitigating climate change by reducing GHGs or by sequestering carbon in forests, or to understand the dynamics of vulnerability to climate impacts and adaptation capability. There is considerable overlap between research on the commons and political ecology, given the interests of both sets of scholars on natural resources, their use, governance, and conflicts over them. Contrasted with the seemingly apolitical orientation of research and writing on the commons, whose focus tended to be on institutions of governance and their structure, the focus of political ecology has always been on power. The question of who has power, access, and control over resources, who makes decisions and who is affected by them, whose ideas and knowledge of environmental change count are all key questions asked by political ecologists when they examine environmental change, conflicts, conservation, or discourse. The work therefore spans the gamut of social, political, economic, and cultural structures that shape and constrain the agency of human and nonhumans in the environment: capitalism, colonialism, patriarchal structures, and, increasingly, racism (Keucheyan 2016). The initial overwhelming reliance on a structuralist class analysis would later make way for post-structuralist analyses engaging in postmodern approaches, postcolonial theory, and feminist theory not only limited to unravelling the materiality of the means and modes of production and reproduction but also unpacking the discursive (Robbins 2004).

Over the past decade or so of political ecological research on climate change, important work has been done on complicating the nature-society binary inherent in mainstream analyses of climate change that posits humans as acting on nature, altering the climate system, which, in turn, acts on human systems. The notion of climate change as a socio-natural problem created in conjunction with the many ways in which non-human nature is co-produced with human activity has been a particularly critical intervention on the tendency most climate adaptation policy-makers have to limit their work to finding ways in which to make socio-ecological systems less vulnerable to the depredations of a climatic system gone haywire due to anthropogenic interference. The notion of climate change as a socio-natural phenomenon does the dual work of specifying which social activities have been most influential in co-producing nature in its current avatar, accordingly referred to as capitalocene, plantationo-cene, manthropocene, and chthulucene (Haraway 2015; MacGregor 2019; Moore 2017), as well as problematizing the notion of enhancing resilience of communities to (an external) climate change acting on them. Rather, the social structure — a heteropatriarchal capitalism in a colonial context — is simultaneously understood to be both creating the climate crisis and creating or entrenching the social vulnerabilities of human and non-human systems to it (Sultana 2020; Taylor 2014). Not surprisingly, some of these insights overlapwith an understanding of how social vulnerabilities are co-created when the commons are enclosed (Sovacool 2018). Political ecology work on climate change has therefore done valuable work to emphasize structural solutions to the climate crisis.

One serious gap in political ecological analyses on the climate crisis, though, is to contend with the problem at the scale of the global. It does so in some ways but not in others. The hallmark of political ecology - particularly the Third World variant, which is also the context in which most early work was accomplished - has been to situate the agency of the resource user within a structure shaped by global capitalism and colonialism. The impetus in the early days was to deflect blame from the rural peasant. In the contemporary context, in studies engaging with the climate crisis, the impetus is to prob-lematize Band-Aid solutions in climate adaptation that focus on the agency of the individual or group vulnerable to climate change without addressing the structural drivers of vulnerability and of the problem of climate change. There have also been numerous studies critically examining carbon trading as a mitigation measure (e.g. Bumpus and Liverman 2010). These remain important critical interventions that focus on global forces impinging on the life chances and livelihood prospects in localized contexts. A still unfulfilled gap is to think of the power struggles between nation-states in the context of North-South conflicts over the atmospheric commons.

Geographers have reasonably taken umbrage with the categories Global North and South as being geographically inaccurate, but also for their statecentrism. These spatial and territorial imaginaries are indeed socially constructed, but that does not make them worthy of dismissal as figments of people’s imaginations. Much like the understanding of the acknowledgment that material non-human nature exists, even as ‘nature’ is a social construct; and that racism is real and operates through insidious processes through which racial formation becomes institutionalized, even if race is a social construct, the core and the periphery of the global political economy have a materiality and associated discursive elements. There are power dynamics at play between representatives of the more than 200 nation-states in the world, as well as between blocs of countries with shared histories, even as countries and coalitions of countries are never monoliths. There is a privileging of local sites of action and change, and a corresponding obliviousness of or indifference towards international sites of negotiation, policy-making, and North-South politics in political ecological analysis of climate change that I want to push back against. Chapters Two to Four engage in more depth with this effort, drawing on a Gramscian analysis to bridge the gaps between traditional political ecology and global environmental politics. Questions that are critical to political ecology: —who has power, who decides, who benefits, and who loses in the struggle over the global atmospheric commons — can and should be asked for the North/South axis of diff erence, even as these are not static categories, and even if they are state-centric concepts vulnerable to the politics of scale. Meanwhile, more granularity is needed for understanding nature-society dynamics in contexts such as in Nepal that were not colonized by Europeans. Chapters Five and Six examine the forest commons in Nepal as they are incorporated into carbon trading by seeking to provide a nuanced analysis of the legacies of colonialism, caste, and patriarchy.

Inspired by feminist political ecologists (Rochelean 2015; Sultana 2020) and postcolonial thinkers (Grosfoguel 2011; Spivak 2010), I have chosen to write in a critically reflexive manner that renders visible to the reader my positionalities — in terms of both social and epistemic locations - in the context of examining North-South climate politics as well as the implications of carbon trading for forest communities in Nepal. My analyses in this book are attempts to offer a theoretically and empirically informed, yet necessarily partial and situated knowledge of the complexities of seeking climate justice (Haraway 1998; Mansvelt and Berg 2010).

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