This seminar will introduce you to the field of political ecology: as an eclectic 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 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, classic texts, and illustrative examples from the field aimed at familiarizing you with the breadth of work, theoretical debates, and key questions that have come to characterize political ecology in research and in practice.
From global land grabs and agrarian revolutionary movements to clashes over energy infrastructure and the establishment of protected areas, what we call “environmental” is thoroughly enmeshed in political relations and deeply entangled with the historical formations of capitalism, colonialism, the state, and science. In this course, we will analyze how “social” dynamics—encompassing questions of power, political economy, and social struggle—pervade the “natural” (and vice versa). Such 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. The field of 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 aims to sharpen your capacities for critical analysis as readers, writers, and thinkers, but also as active participants in the socio-natural urgencies that now surround us. The task ahead—of dislodging the ecocidal logics currently rampaging across the surface of the planet—is a colossal one. Your challenge, in this class and beyond, will be to find ways of understanding these social and environmental transformations (already a tall order) but also to learn how to practically negotiate the turbulent historical conjuncture they have created.
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.