Table of Contents

Critical Introductions to Geography

Critical Introductions to Geography is a series of textbooks for undergraduate courses covering the key geographical subdisciplines and providing broad and introductory treatment with a critical edge. They are designed for the North American and international market and take a lively and engaging approach with a distinct geographical voice that distinguishes them from more traditional and out-dated texts.

Prospective authors interested in the series should contact the series editor:

John Paul Jones III

Department of Geography and Regional Development

University of Arizona


Cultural Geography

Don Mitchell

Geographies of Globalization

Andrew Herod

Geographies of Media and Communication

Paul C. Adams

Social Geography

Vincent J. Del Casino Jr


Jeremy W. Crampton

Environment and Society

Paul Robbins, Sarah Moore and John Hintz

Research Methods in Geography

Basil Gomez and John Paul Jones III

Political Ecology, Second Edition

Paul Robbins


Geographic Thought

Tim Cresswell

Cultural Landscape

Donald Mitchell and Carolyn Breitbach

Title page

Preface to the Second Edition

The seven years between the first edition and this one have made the relevance and urgency of political ecology a difficult thing to determine. On the one hand, the field has grown so dramatically, and in so many directions, that it is even easier to say of this contested enterprise that it has become too diffuse to matter. References to “political ecology” in the Web of Science database have more than doubled in the intervening years but now reflect a huge range of approaches. One might think that political ecology has finally “jumped the shark,” a phrase from the television industry suggesting the creative end of a franchise. I am sympathetic with those who may hurriedly wish to get on with the “next thing” as well as those who are still not sure what political ecology is, let alone whether it has a purchase on a special kind of explanation.

And yet if political ecology is no longer relevant, no one bothered to tell the world. The horrifying 2004 tsunami revealed structures of vulnerability that demand structural analysis. The summer monsoon of 2010 swept away hundreds of thousands of people in Pakistan, in a floodplain perfectly engineered to reduce the year-to-year hazard of flooding in defense of cash crop production, while increasing the decade-to-decade probability of human tragedy on an unimaginable scale. Areas gazetted for conservation mushroomed in recent years without consensus on how to deal with the displacement of people and loss of productive resources this entails. Mining concessions have ballooned on indigenous land. The world got warmer.

And Hurricane Katrina in 2005 came closer than perhaps any other single event of recent memory to tear back the veil on the structural inequalities of race and class in the United States, which are physically inscribed into the seascape, implicated in the ecological transformation of the coastal zone, and inseparably linked to the technologies that govern the flow of water through the Mississippi delta. That event came closer, but clearly not yet close enough. There is simply no way to pass through that obscure barrier without continuing to research, produce videos on, analyze, ecologically track, and mount soap boxes to shout about the swirling political and economic relationships that dialectically produce levees and slums, soils and dams, tourism and hunger, energy and climate, people and things. I am forced to conclude that there is as much or more need for political ecology now than seven years ago, and the revised version of the book you have in your hands is the result.

Those familiar with the first edition will notice that changes in the book are numerous, but made in a judicious attempt not to throw in the “kitchen sink.” I have attempted to update examples but many cases continue to draw on the canon from the field. I have added discussions of emerging traditions, including urban ecology and actor-networks, but not to the detail that they might receive elsewhere. Many new boxes have been added, including key recent works, but necessarily at the expense of some important older work. I have added a chapter (Chapter 7) engaging both land change science and the challenge of causal explanation approaches. I have introduced what I observe as a recent fifth “thesis” in the field, concerning the political-ecological status of non-humans (Chapter 12). But in the largest departure from my original effort, I have tried to stress that political ecology is not a method or a theory, nor even a single perspective. Rather, I suggest, political ecology is an urgent kind of argument or text (or book, or mural, or movie, or blog) that examines winners and losers, is narrated using dialectics, begins and/or ends in a contradiction, and surveys both the status of nature and stories about the status of nature (Chapter 4).

In light of this last revelation, I have tried to resolve the issue that seemed to bother many commentators: the insistence that I am not a political ecologist. I maintain that, insofar as political ecology is the characteristic of a text, one might be a political ecologist only in the same way those who consistently and exclusively write gothic novels might be considered gothic novelists. But this should not encourage any of us – whoever we are or whatever we do – to shy away from researching, reading, writing, and witnessing political ecologies, whenever or wherever it is scientifically enlightening or socially and environmentally urgent. One need not be a political ecologist to mobilize the resources, or learn from the insights, of political ecology.

Many Acknowledgments

Writing requires a rare space that is comfortable and intellectually challenging. I’ve been lucky to have two such spaces. Thanks to Ohio State University Geography and Larry Brown for my first intellectual home and to University of Arizona Geography and Development, John Paul Jones, and Sallie Marston for my second.

All of the researchers I approached in the preparation of this volume and the previous edition were invaluable, including Arun Agrawal, Tom Bassett, Fikret Berkes, Piers Blaikie, Harold Brookfield, Judith Carney, Susanne Freidberg, Larry Grossman, Julie Guthman, Christian Kull, Tania Li, Nancy Peluso, Dianne Rocheleau, Joel Wainwright, and Michael Watts. I am also in debt to my many colleagues around the world, who answered e-mails, read drafts, and explained complex problems so that even I could grasp them, including Simon Batterbury, Tor Benjaminsen, Denis Gautier, Tony Bebbington, Susanna Hecht, Noriko Ishiyama, Brad Jokisch, Thembela Kepe, Rheyna Laney, Becky Mansfield, Brian Marks, Kendra McSweeney, Ian Scoones, and Randy Wilson. John Isom provided feedback on drafts and produced the original Figures 2.2 and 3.2.

The several years of my own fieldwork described throughout the book would have been impossible without the help of David Bennett, Jody Emel, Susan Gilbertz, Douglas Johnson, David McGinnis, Ilse Kohler-Rollefson, Komal Kothari, S. M. Mohnot, Julie Sharp, and Hanwant Singh Rathore. Thanks also to Justin Vaughan and Ben Thatcher at Wiley-Blackwell. The work and thinking of all members of my graduate “collective” are present throughout this volume, but most notably Trevor Birkenholtz, Kristina Bishop, Heidi Hausermann, Stephen Martin, Katharine Meehan, and Jennifer Rice. Thanks to Bob Toborg, Frank Forgione, and Dave Feroe for being the intended audience of the volume. The Department of Geography at the University of Denver and the Kulturstudier program in Ghana are wonderful institutions and were generous with collegiality and space. Thanks there to Andy Goetz, Matthew Taylor, Siri Fagerheim, and Liv Adams. Finally, and very likely against their wishes, Billie Lee Turner II and Andrew “Pete” Vayda remain inspirations for this work.

Most importantly, throughout the whole process Sarah Moore continued to insist not only that the book would eventually get finished (despite my strong doubts) but that at least one person would eventually agree to read it; her comments on and support for my writing have saved a great many confusions and embarrassments over the years (the word “penultimate” means next to last, for example; who knew?). Her knowledge of the politics of waste and consumption was invaluable and her contributions are evident throughout this edition. Having said this, the interpretations and perspectives contained within the book are my own, and I certainly can’t lay blame at anyone else’s feet for controversial, confusing, or bizarre claims. The reader will have to address any complaints to me.

Paul Robbins, August 2011


I am standing in a smoldering dumpsite, watching a small army of people disassemble radios. This pile of electronic trash has been dumped in the Agbogbloshie neighborhood of Accra, Ghana, a slum infamous for its role in processing tons of waste that are gathered here from around the world, from baby chairs and truck engines to radios and computers (Figure ). Looking across the scene, several somewhat contradictory things pass through my mind.

Residents of a slum in Accra, Ghana, buy, sort, and process hazardous materials and ewaste. Wires are burned and fused while battery lead is melted by hand for resale.


First, the many violent ecologies of global inequality are on display here. From where I stand, I can smell the pall of smoke rising from a vessel sitting over a small open fire, filled with melting lead, distilled by hand from batteries scavenged from countless devices littering the scene. The smoke, along with that from plastics, as well as rubber from wires burned to recycle the copper within, blackens the faces of the workers bent over these conflagrations and drifts over the scene. It darkens the sky over the nearby neighborhood where children are playing in the streets and where dinner is being prepared in countless open pots. The waterway that separates the worksite from the adjacent sea of informal businesses and housing, assembled in a jumble along its length, is green with sewage. The mountains of trash, my hosts explain to me, include huge quantities of materials imported, legally and illegally, into the country. The ecology of the scene is rooted in a far-ranging politics of waste disposal, with unquestionably grim implications for local environments and residents.

It is hard not to notice, however, incredible technical inventiveness, ecological knowledge, and economic innovation on display here as well. Trucks of junk have been directed here by local team-leaders, who bid for access to shipping containers that make their way to the distant dockyards from China and the Americas. These teams together organize labor to disassemble and process the materials for sale to middlemen, whose massive industrial scales are positioned along the perimeter of the dumpsite, awaiting negotiations over prices of copper, lead, and steel. The men at work prying apart circuit boards and stripping components out of relict computers quickly sort materials that can be easily resold or refurbished from those that must be processed. They have a terrific grasp of the workings of the electronics, as well as the obsolescence of its components. The melting of lead is a delicate operation, conducted by people who can sift off materials for match-heads and purify the element to satisfy buyers. This is done with such efficiency, I am told, that the site can make a mountain of computers disappear in months or weeks. Livelihoods are being practiced in this landscape, by people who sometimes lack a grade school education, but who possess far-ranging knowledge of markets, chemistry, and engineering.

But one more thing is drawn to my attention: the radios are totally unused. As one worker pulls square angles of Styrofoam from their boxes and threads these along a length of twine, it becomes clear that these hundreds of music players have arrived on site encased in the very packaging in which they left their factory in China. This final fact changes the scene in an inexplicable way. Rather than the necessary outcome of contemporary consumer society and an unfortunate inevitability of modern life (someone “has to” process waste after all!), the ingenious workers of Agbogbloshie appear as part of a bizarre engine that maintains a self-replicating worldwide system of over-production. Oceans of organic and inorganic material are drawn from the earth and flow into an enormous feeding machine that re-forms them into myriad configurations (refrigerators, televisions, printers), devours energy in their transportation across the globe, and then summarily dumps them here, unused, in this deadly metabolic intestine of labor. There is Wonderland logic at work here that could only be considered comic if the human and environmental price was not so obviously high.

These three moments point to a convergence of things and people, which raise normative questions of basic justice and fairness, present daunting instances of human genius, and look out onto landscapes of irony and paradox. They are driven by a worldwide engine of economic exchange but reconciled by regional actors and metabolized in local soils and local bodies. They are highly technical problems but ones commanded by formidable systems of indigenous knowledge. They contradictorily suggest grossly unfair outcomes but retain openings for ingenuity and survival. They also demand different kinds of research and theory to fully understand, from the technical assessment of air and waterborne lead particles and the extensive study of electronics markets, to intensive survey of informally constituted local labor systems and institutions of redistribution. This dump might tell a number of interlaced and urgent stories.

This book is an effort to survey these kinds of contending tales and to describe the hard work that underlies researching and telling them well. By introducing political ecology, a field that seeks to unravel the political forces at work in environmental access, management, and transformation, I hope to demonstrate the way that politics is inevitably ecological and that ecology is inherently political. But more than this, I intend to show that research in the field can shed light on environmental change and dynamism, thereby addressing not only the practical problems of equity and sustainability, but also basic questions in environmental science.

The normative goal of the book is not over-ambitious. By explaining and constructively exploring the body of research sometimes called political ecology, I intend only to clarify the most persuasive themes in a highly disparate body of writing and show the politics of nature to be both universal and immediate. This, I think, may make a small contribution to helping us all break from an image of a world where the human and the non-human are disconnected, a fiction that remains so stubborn a part of our modern reasoning that it is as difficult to unimagine as it is to picture a world without patriarchy or class. I believe, however, that an alternative picture, where nature and society are undivided, is as much an act of remembering as one of inventing. Since the popular environmental movement has already done such an admirable job of getting many of us started, it may only be a matter of completing the revolution by rendering it more explicitly political.

It is my hope, therefore, that though this book is aimed at an academic audience, it presents the claims of the field in a plain enough way that picnickers, hikers, and hummingbird watchers can find in it a compelling argument for the way their concerns are implicated in those of working communities, disenfranchised minorities, and subsistence producers around the world. In this sense the book departs from some theoretical and programmatic approaches to the politics of nature, especially those that eschew alliances with traditional environmental movements. This rejection of “bourgeois” environmentalism, a hallmark of some political economic approaches to nature, is both shortsighted and impractical; what more radical challenge to the political economic status quo exists in US law than the Endangered Species Act?

Having said this, it is also my goal to persuade those concerned about the condition of forests, the threat of climate change, and the fate of wild animals that it is no blasphemy to admit that the world is crafted by political forces and human industry, even and especially those dearly held wildernesses that sell so many Sierra Club calendars. At the same time I hope to encourage those concerned with more traditional political economy that an increased sensitivity to the influence (and perhaps even the interests) of non-humans is essential for better politics, explanation, and ethics. The potential power of a popularized political ecology is so great, in fact, that merely shedding a few tightly clasped shibboleths on either side might make way for a very new world, emerging from these dark times when progressive politics in both human and non-human realms seem so painfully paralyzed.

The Goals of the Text

It would be impossible to survey the field of political ecology in its entirety. The contributors are too many, the breadth of topics too vast, and the regional diversity too great. I do not, therefore, intend here to provide exhaustive case studies of political ecological research (see especially Peet and Watts 1996a and Peet, Robbins, and Watts 2010) or a general account of the relationship between science and politics (Forsyth 2003), since this is a task well performed by others. Nor can I place this field and approach within the longer history of geographic science in more than a cursory way, though there are other excellent sources for this (Castree 2005, 2011 (forthcoming)). Neither do I intend to survey the world system as a whole, pointing to the processes, players, and dynamics that are at work politicizing the natural environment. Many excellent books survey the condition of global debt, the position of local producers in commodity markets, and the dwindling power of the state in managing nature (Sheppard et al. 2009 and Bryant and Bailey 1997).

Rather, I intend to do something different here. Whereas most summary texts on the state of global political ecology are designed to show political ecology as a body of knowledge, this book is designed also to show political ecology as something people do. And whereas collected volumes highlight a number of separate and distinct cases, this book also gropes for common questions that underlie them. Finally, where some work highlights the field as a specific approach, I suggest instead that it constitutes a community of practice and characterizes a certain kind of text, albeit an extremely valuable one.

The book is also designed to serve as an introduction and companion volume to the key books, articles, arguments, and research statements that make up the core of the field, and should serve to introduce any interested party to its major works and contested ideas. In this regard, it is offered as a remedy for the purported problem that the field is so fragmented that citation in it, as senior political ecologist Piers Blaikie once remarked, “is largely a random affair.”

But more than this, the book is a critical review of the work that goes on in the field, one that advocates a very particular vision of which approaches work and which do not and which lines of inquiry have the most political and analytic power and which do not. In the process, I further hope that the book reveals areas where the field might yet improve its analytical tools. I hope to show, notably, that political ecological analysis and argument have shifted from a focus on the destruction of environments, with a stress on human influences, to a more powerful focus on the production of socio-environments and their co-constitution by many kinds of human and non-human actors. Even so, the book will suggest that there may and must be ways to move “beyond” political ecology or to leverage political ecological texts to better effect. Even while showing the strength of the approach, therefore, the book is written to demonstrate weaknesses, while pointing the way forward towards a more coherent and simultaneously more critical way of doing research.

I will not provide and rehearse, however, the laundry list of more typically pronounced criticisms often made of the field – usually centered on the fact that it is too focused on the broadly defined “underdeveloped world” and that it is too “rural” in character. This is true, but such biases, as discussed here, grow quite inevitably from the professional and intellectual seeds from which the tree of political ecology sprouted – critical development research, peasant studies, environmental history, cultural ecology, and postcolonial theory. We have already seen in the past few years how political ecology has become more symmetrically concerned with the traditionally defined “first world” and urban areas and issues. This change has not guaranteed, however, that its approaches have become more coherent, or that the use of either ecological science or critical deconstruction has been managed with greater rigor. These explanatory problems, I argue, are prior to and more important than the specific topical and regional choices made in research.

The Rest of the Book

The remainder of this book directs itself to describing political ecology as a set of grounded arguments, attempting to show what makes political ecology researchers tick, what makes their work urgent to them, and what useful lessons they have provided for addressing important questions.

In Part I, I describe how political ecology came to be the way it is, with its inherent possibilities and limits. Chapter 1 introduces the term political ecology, distinguishing it from apolitical ecologies of various kinds, and showing a unity of practice amidst much diversity of thought. Chapter 2 reviews the deep roots of this line of inquiry, arguing that political ecologists have been around a very long time. Chapter 3 describes the historical development of a critical science of the environment, showing the disparate fields and eclectic tools that converged in the last three decades of the twentieth century to give greater analytical form to the field. This chapter is dense with history and referencing, but is intended to be a source to which the reader can return. Chapter 4 draws this opening section to a close to stress the common character of diverse political ecological texts: they stress winners and losers, are narrated with dialectics, begin or end from contradictions, and stress simultaneously the politicized state of the environment and the politicized nature of accounts about the state of the environment.

The three chapters in Part II review challenges to the field from a range of sources. Chapter 5 examines challenges from ecology, and the question of environmental change as environmental degradation or destruction, while Chapter 6 attends to challenges in the way researchers have considered the environment to be imaginary or constructed. Chapter 7 examines other approaches to nature/society study, including those in “land change science” and those from the perspective that stresses “causal” explanation. These approaches are shown to provide useful, indeed critical, lessons for political ecology, while at the same time they continue to reflect and reinforce some problems political ecology has evolved to address.

Part III examines five central theses of political ecological research, each in its own chapter, which I describe as 8) degradation and marginalization, 9) conservation and control, 10) environmental conflict and exclusion, 11) environmental subjects and identity, and 12) political objects and actors. The case materials in each chapter are selected to represent a range of research regions across the world, including cases from the “developed” and “underdeveloped” worlds. The biases of my training and experience will be evident throughout. The research described comes predominantly from the discipline of geography, though it is coupled with work in environmental history, development studies, anthropology, and sociology. While I have tried to include examples from both the global north and south, including cases from North and South America, Africa, and Asia, I have mentioned nothing of Western or Eastern Europe or of Australia. Research and theory in English predominates in the volume, despite the strong parallel threads of Francophone political ecology (Whiteside 2002; see also the forthcoming volume in French by Gautier and Benjaminsen (2012, forthcoming). Referencing of North American work somewhat outweighs that from other places. Finally, numerous international case examples were cut in final editing, owing to a lack of space.

Each of the chapters in this section also includes case histories of how, in my own work, I have tried to do research, and how on many occasions I have been tripped up by hidden pitfalls. These sections only reflect what I have done in research rather than what political ecologists have done more generally, but I think my methodological choices are not unique and the problems I have faced are common not only to political ecology, but to much research in general.

The conclusions in Part IV will critically evaluate the status of the field and point to ways political ecology can expand and improve. My central argument here is that, dominated by a certain kind of argument and rooted in case studies, political ecology needs to reach increasingly both outward to a more synthetic global politics (briefly reflecting on the case of climate change) and inward to a highly immersive form of practice (briefly considering the question of school gardening).

Scattered throughout the text are boxed critical summaries of important individual contributions to political ecology and the people who made them. These are based on my own reading, but wherever possible these also include direct reflections and responses from those authors kind enough to provide them.

The sum of the effort can only be said to give the reader a “feel” for a field of practice that certainly has come to be influential and whose reach has arguably crossed many social and environmental sciences. Curiously, however, for a field of this stature, it seems odd that political ecology is so hard to define! We first must attend to why this might be so.


The intricate details of this economy have been more exhaustively described by Martin Oteng-Ababio in his many articles, including: Oteng-Ababio, M. (2010) E-waste: An emerging challenge to solid waste management in Ghana. International Development Planning Review, 32 (2), 191–206.

Part I: What is Political Ecology?

In which eclectic uses of the term “political ecology” are introduced and wherein much divergent research is shown to share an intellectual history, a community of practice, and a certain kind of text. Rather than finding a single body of theory, we discover instead a number of independent trains of thought colliding in the field, leading to a remarkable synthesis in the late twentieth century.