CRD 20    —    CRD 142    —    CRD 244    —    GEO 200C


CRD 244: Political Ecology of

Community Development

[W]hat is called human power over nature is actually the power exercised by some humans over others with nature as its instrument.

— C.S. Lewis, cited by Hindmarsh and Lawrence (2004: 28)

Political ecology has three essential foci.  The first is interactive, contradictory and dialectical: society and land-based resources are mutually causal in such a way that poverty, via poor management, can induce environmental degradation which itself deepens poverty.  Less a problem of poor management, inevitable decay or demographic growth, land degradation is seen as social in origin and definition. . .  Second, political ecology argues for regional or spatial accounts of degradation which link, through ‘chains of explanation’, local decision-makers to spatial variations in environmental structure. . .  Third, land management is framed by ‘external structures’ which for Blaikie meant the role of the state and the core-periphery model.

— Michael Watts (2000: 591)

This graduate seminar explores the interactions between societies and the environment from the perspective of geographical political ecology.  Political ecology, an academic subfield with contributions from geographers, anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, ecologists, and biologists, integrates social theory and social science — especially political economic analysis and, increasingly, post-structural theory — with environmental sciences/studies across multiple scales to analyze the dynamic relationships between society and land-based resources, environmental outcomes resulting from social structures, and the environmentally-mediated interactions between and within social groups.  Geographical political ecology includes a large number of theoretically-informed, empirical studies in spatially-delimited locales shaped by the interplay between local and extra-local processes.  Michael Watts and Richard Peet (2004) argue that political ecology as a subfield is nearly at the point of being a “normal science” in the Kuhnian sense (Kuhn 1970), having foundational works (Blaikie 1985; Blaikie and Brookfield 1987; Watts 1983; Wolf 1983), its own journals (Journal of Political Ecology; Land Degradation & Development; Capitalism, Nature, Socialism), a conceptual toolkit, a rich history of theorizing nature-society relationships in multiple contexts and across scale, and graduate textbooks (e.g., Robbins 2004).

A great deal of political ecological work has focused on the politicization of nature through the processes of environmental conservation, economic development and commodification, and conflicts over livelihoods and the landscapes on which they depend.  A political ecological approach to local communities and social movements — i.e., communities of interest — stresses understanding them in the context of their relationship to the state, markets, and other elements of civil society; discourses of identity, culture, and nature; and the various components of the biophysical environment.  We use political ecology to understand cases of the commodification of nature, land, and food; the role of community in environmental degradation and conservation efforts; the use of nature in primary production activities such as agriculture, forestry, and fishing; environmental social movements; and the linkages between nature and society in rural, urban, and suburban areas in both third world and first world contexts.  We will also examine the place of social theory, ecological theory, scale, capitalist development, knowledge, power, environmental justice, and first world/third world distinctions in political ecology.

While much work in geographical political ecology focuses on detailed understandings of cases, the field can also dialogue with a number of larger questions: How do we conceptualize society-environment interactions at a variety of scales?  How can one bring together biophysical and social sciences in analysis and practice?  What does a political ecological perspective mean for our understandings of sustainability as a concept and as a movement?  What role does social justice play in sustainability?  Is capitalism sustainable?  How should society be reconfigured to increase ecological sustainability, and how should we as individuals and as members of communities attempt to reconfigure society?  What alternatives to the widespread commodification of nature exist, and how do we bring them into being, and scale them up?


Blaikie, Piers. 1985. The political economy of soil erosion in developing countries. London: Methuen.

Blaikie, Piers, and Harold Brookfield. 1987. Land degradation and society. London: Methuen.

Hindmarsh, Richard A., and Geoffrey Lawrence. 2004. Recoding nature: deciphering the script. In Recoding nature: critical perspectives on genetic engineering, pp. 23-40, edited by R.A. Hindmarsh and G. Lawrence. Sydney, Australia: UNSW Press.

Kuhn, Thomas S. 1970. The structure of scientific revolutions. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Robbins, Paul. 2004. Political ecology: a critical introduction. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers.

Watts, Michael. 1983. Silent violence: food, famine, and peasantry in northern Nigeria. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. 2000. Political ecology. In The dictionary of human geography, pp. 591-2, edited by R.J. Johnston, D. Gregory, G. Pratt and M. Watts. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers.

Watts, Michael, and Richard Peet. 2004. Liberating political ecology. In Liberation ecologies: environment, development, social movements, pp. 3-47, edited by R. Peet and M. Watts. New York: Routledge.

Wolf, Eric R. 1983. Europe and the people without history. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Course Materials

winter 2010


Term Paper



Peer Review