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Political Ecology

Description of the field

Political ecology analyses social forms and human organisation that interact with the environment. This burgeoning field has attracted scholars from the fields of anthropology, forestry, development studies, environmental sociology, environmental history, and geography. Its practitioners all query the relationship between economics, politics, and nature. Notwithstanding their varied background, these researchers advocate fundamental changes in the management of nature and the rights of people. A review of the term political ecology shows important differences in emphasis. Some definitions stress political economy (Blaikie and Brookfield, 1987) while others point to more formal political institutions (Peet and Watts, 1996) some identify environmental change as most important (Watts 1985), while others emphasise narratives or stories about that change (for example Escobar 1996).

Political ecology is at the confluence between ecologically rooted social science and the principles of political economy. It explicitly aims to represent an alternative to apolitical ecology (Forsyth, 2008). The field synthesises the central questions asked by the social sciences about the relations between human society and its bio-cultural-political complexity, and a significantly humanised nature. Political ecology thus encompasses the issues of the clash of individual interests and the potential for collusion that lie at the heart of political economy, and ecology‘s concerns with our biological and physical environment and emphases on holistic analysis that connects with the more social and power-centred field of political economy.


The program or movement now being called political ecology appears to have emerged in reaction to certain features of human ecology or ecological anthropology as it was practiced in the 1960s and early 1970s. In particular, there was a reaction to the neglect of the political dimensions of human/environment interactions. 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. Historically, political ecology has focused on phenomena in and affecting the developing world. The questions of conservation and wilderness are also central to research. Conservation is indeed a human process that defines what nature is.

Underlying assumptions

More recently, political ecology has realised links with gender studies and social movement analyses. The broad scope and interdisciplinary nature of the field lends itself to several definitions and understandings. However, common assumptions across the field give it relevance. Raymond L. Bryant and Sinéad Bailey (1997) have developed three fundamental assumptions in practicing political ecology:

  • First, costs and benefits associated with environmental change are distributed unequally. Changes in the environment do not affect society in a homogenous way: political, social, and economic differences account for uneven distribution of costs and benefits. Political power plays an important role in such inequalities.

  • Second, this unequal environmental distribution inevitably reinforces or reduces existing social and economic inequalities. In this assumption, political ecology runs into political economies as any change in environmental conditions must affect the political and economic status quo.

  • Third, the unequal distribution of costs and benefits and the reinforcing or reducing of pre-existing inequalities hold political implications in terms of the altered power relationships that are produced.


Political ecology attempts to provide critiques as well as alternatives in the interplay of the environment and political, economic and social factors. Robbins (2005) asserts that the discipline has a normative understanding that there are very likely better, less coercive, less exploitative, and more sustainable ways of doing things.

From these assumptions, political ecology can be used to:

  • Inform policymakers and organisations of the complexities surrounding environment and development, thereby contributing to better environmental governance;

  • Understand the decisions that communities make about the natural environment in the context of their political environment, economic pressure, and societal regulations;

  • Look at how unequal relations in and among societies affect the natural environment, especially in context of government policy.


Blaikie, P.M., Brookfield, H., Eds. (1987) Land degradation and society. London and New York: Methuen.

Bryant, R. L., Bailey, S. (1997) Third World Political Ecology. Routledge, London.

Escobar, A. (1996) Construction nature: Elements for a post-structuralist political ecology. Futures, 28(4): 325-343.

Forsyth, T. (2008) Political ecology and the epistemology of social justice. Geoforum, 39(2): 756-764.

Peet, R., Watts, M. (1996) Liberation ecologies: environment, development, social movements. London: Routledge.

Robbins, P. (2004) Political Ecology. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.

Watts, M.J. (1985). Social theory and environmental degradation: the case of Sudano-Sahelian West Africa. In Desert development: man and technology in sparselands (Y. Gradus, Ed.) Dordrecht: D. Reidel.

Useful websites

Journal of Political Ecology []

This glossary entry is based on a contribution by Tom Bauler

EJOLT glossary editors: Hali Healy, Sylvia Lorek and Beatriz Rodríguez-Labajos

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