This seminar introduces students to the field of political ecology: as a diverse body of scholarship for understanding nature-society relations; as a source of methods for studying these relations; and as a ‘way of seeing’ which prompts us to critically examine the political causes and unequal consequences of global environmental problems, the purported solutions to them, and the hidden and not-so-hidden power relations that shape them. We will read a selection of historical and contemporary case studies, seminal texts, and illustrative examples from the field aimed at familiarizing you with the breadth of work, theoretical debates, and key questions that characterize political-ecological research and practice.
From agrarian transformations and tropical deforestation to clashes over energy infrastructure, the establishment of protected areas, and “natural” disasters, what we call “environmental” is suffused with political relations and entangled with the historical formations of capitalism, colonialism, the state, and science. We will consider how “social” dynamics — encompassing questions of power, political economy, knowledge, identity, conflict, and struggle — are always implicated in the “natural” (and vice versa). These questions are invariably messy and full of surprises, confounding reduction to universal theories extended from afar. Often, they require a close, in-the-weeds look. That is what this class will invite you to do. Political ecology offers a rich repertoire of approaches for developing empirically grounded, historically contextualized, and theoretically nuanced forms of analysis that grapple with the situated complexities of resource and environmental issues.
Beyond introducing you to some of the conceptual foundations of political ecology, this class will challenge you to sharpen your capacities for critical analysis as readers, writers, and thinkers — and as active participants in the socio-natural urgencies that now surround us. Students from a range of disciplinary (and interdisciplinary!) backgrounds are encouraged to enroll.
Spring 2018, Spring 2019, Middlebury College (ENVS 385)
Image courtesy of my PhD advisor, Nancy Lee Peluso. It depicts one scene from her recent photo essay, “The Gold Farmers,” which explores the spread of small-scale gold mining across western Kalimantan, where she has worked for over four decades.