Towards a postcolonial political ecology of the atmospheric commons

Political ecology' has a long tradition of addressing the structural drivers of ecological crises and of doing so by situating specific issues within a historical context shaped by colonialism and capitalism (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987). Although the field incorporated postcolonial perspectives that sought to create space for “thinking about the complicity' of academic narratives in the extension of colonial power and repression, even narratives that ostensibly represent emancipatory ideologies” (Robbins 2011, 69), with few exceptions, the explanatory powers of a postcolonial political ecology' have not been utilized to seek to explore the ‘inchoate possibilities’ of the ‘unfailure’ that is NIEO. Laclau (1990, 31) describes ‘inchoate possibilities’as “those whose actualization was once attempted but were cancelled out of existence”. Gilman (2015, 10) describes an ‘unfailure’ as:

the paradox that many seemingly failed political and social movements, even though they did not realize their ambitions in their own moment, often live on as prophetic visions, available as an idiom for future generations to articulate their own hopes and dreams. . . . The unfailed afterlife of the NIEO is perhaps most evident today in global climate change negotiations.

These unchoate possibilities of the NIEO present a salient case for a scaled-up postcolonial political ecology analysis of climate negotiations as the specifics of the Paris Agreement are deliberated on in the coming years. Two major concerns inherent in political ecology' scholarship are central to this examination — a focus on the politics of access and control over resources that is cognizant of “the role of unequal power relations in constituting a politicized environment” (Bryant 1998, 79; Watts and Peet 2004), and a normative orientation towards redistributive justice and ecological sustainability that are derived from a “basic radical ethical position” (Bryant and Jarosz 2004, 808). A Gramscian approach to political ecology has been identified as particularly relevant because of its emphasis on the ‘ethico-political’ dimensions of scholarship (Ekers, Loftus, and Mann 2009; Mann 2009). Feminist geographers (Jarosz 2004), decolonial thinkers (Grosfoguel 2011), and postcolonial thinkers (Kapoor 2008; Spivak 2010a) have emphasized the importance of critical reflexivity of a scholar’spositionality and epistemic location, and it is also present in Gramsci’s thinking on Marxism (Gramsci 1957).

Early political ecology focused on the dynamics of environmental change in the Third World with an emphasis on problematizing neo-Malthusian explanations of environmental degradation (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987). Uneven access to, and power over, environmental resources and “the ways in which conflict over access to environmental resources is linked to systems of political and economic control first elaborated during the colonial era" (Bryant 1998, 79) have been key themes in the literature. There have been efforts to bring political ecology' to the First World (Robbins and Sharp 2003) as well as to formulate regional political ecologies in both South (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987) and North (Walker 2003). While political ecology' has judiciously sought to situate explanations of environmental change within the context of a globalized political economy, few researchers have sought to address North/South power dynamics in struggles over the atmospheric commons (Joshi 2015; Kim 2009). I have found the Gramscian notions of hegemony' and counterhegemony to be helpful in scaling up political ecology' to a North/South context (Cox 1993; Doty' 1996). The global atmosphere serves as the environment over which hegemony is reinscribed or challenged (Ekers, Loftus, and Mann 2009). This can happen discursively: “the hegemonic dimension of global politics is inextricably linked to representational practices . . . how certain representations underlie the production of knowledge and identities and how these representations make various courses of action possible” (Doty 1996, 8); but of course the discursive is inherently connected to the material (Neumann 2009). Identity categories such as class, state elites, North/South are discursively constructed and contested in efforts to maintain or oppose hegemony' and therefore should not be assumed a priori (Doty 1996). As Watts and Peet (2004, 25) also argued, power struggles over access to resources “are invariably wrapped up with questions of identity'. . . . [T]hese forms of identity' are not stable (their histories are often shallow), and may be put to use (they are interpreted and contested) by' particular constituencies with particular interests.”

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