This post builds on Approaching Environmental Theory, and is part of a series of weekly reading posts intended for my students in ENVS 350 (Environmental Theory), fall semester 2019, Lewis & Clark College. I focus here only on readings we will do for this coming week; many important citations are not woven into the below. Featured image courtesy AdBlue4You: what implicit theories are apparent here?
Theory is everywhere
It is understandable, though mistaken, to assume that theory must be added to an atheoretical world—that, in our case, the reason we seem to be getting nowhere in successfully addressing environmental issues is that we have no theory. Yes, we can and must deepen our theoretical understandings of these issues, but theorizing does not happen in some vacuum: theory is actually all around us. A good first step, therefore, is to discover, name, and come to terms with the environmental theory we find around us. Going back to Eagleton’s definition of theory as “reasonably systematic reflection on our guiding assumptions” (2004, 2), exploring environmental theory around us aims to discover those guiding assumptions.
As with all theory, we can approach existing environmental theory as a vehicle, not just a view. “Where does a certain theory take us?” is to me a good question; “what is the perspective of a certain theory?” is not necessarily a bad question, but it presumes that all theories are (merely) particular perspectives among others. Theories are more than perspectives; they do work, and we commit ourselves to theories as vehicles that take us places. Indeed, we can often make better sense of existing theory by observing where it takes its adherents than by restricting ourselves to its conceptual details.
We can place existing environmental theory into one of two categories: explicit and implicit. Explicit theories have settled names, and sometimes distinct movements of people who support or oppose them; implicit theories may be ubiquitous but do not go by a name, so we must supply it in defining the idea and its associated movement. Existing environmental theory thus goes beyond its official forms—say, neo-Malthusianism—to include unofficial forms, though naming implicit theory is not always straightforward and uncontested.
Take, for example, the overwhelming sense of hopelessness about climate futures that one may be tempted, however incorrectly, to call apocalypticism, which more properly refers to the unveiling of a hidden truth than the imminent arrival of a catastrophe, as noted on the EcoTypes Future axis. Hopelessness, as a conceptual and affective leap from, say, the facts of climate science to the future likelihood of climate crisis, is among our most prominent implicit environmental theories at present; yet finding the right name to put on it is not straightforward. Indeed, implicit theory may be the most important yet challenging of the two.
My graduate community in geography at UC Berkeley was one in which a particular explicit theory, political ecology, was prominent; even though my current work doesn’t look like political ecology I often climb on it as a materialist vehicle of choice to navigate environmental issues. And having invested in environmental studies for decades I look around at the vehicles some in the environmental community ride, and a certain common—to me, troubling—theoretical thread could be called incrementalism. Let’s look in more depth at political ecology and incrementalism, building on the readings we will be doing in ENVS 350.
Explicit theory: Political ecology
What is political ecology? As a formal, explicit theory of human-environment relations dating back at least several decades, one would think that there is a settled definition we could simply write down; but this denies the humanness of the concept and its response to particular environmental issues. It may be best, with political ecology and other explicit theories, to define them along all three axes: their conceptual basis, their social movement(s), and the environmental issues they generally address. This post cannot cover all such dimensions, but let’s not forget them as we eventually move on to understand other environmental theories we find around us.
Many of the readings this week appear dated: two, for instance, are review articles from the mid-2000s (Walker 2005; 2007), and one review goes back to the late 20th century (Bryant 1998)—all three of which appeared in international geography journals, suggesting its status by then. Paul Robbins’ broadly cited Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction is a 2012 revision of his original 2004 book. Then there are two efforts to bridge political ecology with other theories, one by Amy Quandt (2016) with resilience and the other by Robbins and Billie Lee Turner (2008) with land-change science.
[Before proceeding, the question of gender—both of gendered realities of interest to political ecology and gendered authorship on these realities—is a rich one in political ecology. The overwhelmingly male representation of writers this week may be more a feature of the general nature of these writings than some indication of political ecology’s social/intellectual movement.]
It is not difficult to find passages in these texts where political ecology is clearly defined. In the earliest we read, Bryant says
At the heart of political ecology research is the notion that politics should be `put first’ in the attempt to understand how human-environment interaction may be linked to the spread of environmental degradation (p. 80).
And Robbins echoes this sentiment with an entire first chapter titled “Political versus apolitical ecologies” (pp. 11-24), contrasting political ecology with neo-Malthusian ecoscarcity and economic modernization accounts. To Robbins, these alternative theories are not so much apolitical as differently political, i.e., they presume and support a different sort of power relations between humans, and between humans and nonhumans.
There is, clearly, something about the “political” of political ecology that matters to the movement. One convenient shorthand definition traces political ecology back to two roots: ecology (or, sometimes, cultural/human ecology) and political economy of a neo-Marxist vein (Bryant 1998, 81-2), then incorporating post-structuralist, feminist, and other significant threads (Walker 2005). There are other uses of “political” that feel more mainstream: political science comes to mind. Here in contrast, as with Robbins’ first chapter, the movement seems to be making a statement of difference from a mainstream where human-environment relations may be researched and discussed without recourse to power.
Several questions arise from how “political” is underscored in political ecology: what sort of/whose power? Is there an overdetermination of political forces in political ecology? Is this intellectual commitment to politics matched in political practice (Walker 2007)? All such questions require not only delving deeper into political ecology, but into the realities and intellectual traditions to which political ecology responds.
And so, how assess political ecology? There are two broad and complementary considerations when approaching existing environmental theory: inclusivity and coherence. These considerations have a ready explanation (Proctor et al. 2013): environmental theory is a boundary-crossing endeavor spanning the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. In this highly interdisciplinary terrain we justly wonder whether a theory is sufficiently open to a wide range of disciplinary contributions (inclusivity), as well as whether these contributions are woven in a compelling manner (coherence).
Inclusivity may be the reason I have been drawn to political ecology: here could be where the riches of ecological science intersect with the best of the analytical and interpretive social sciences. But any attempt at inclusivity must be thoughtfully critiqued, and Walker does this in two ways, first by considering whether, in its embrace of power, political ecology has essentially abandoned ecological science (Walker 2005), and second, whether it actually includes political activism (Walker 2007). Inclusivity can also be considered via the comparative readings, which suggest that there is something to the science of land-change science (Turner & Robbins 2008), and something to the systems management orientation of resilience (Quandt 2016) that is typically outside of political ecology.
Then what of coherence? The most ready measure of incoherence would be some sort of disconnect or contradiction between elements of political ecology. Here the proof would be in the pudding of actual political ecology research, but there are promising indications that, at least in intent, political ecology aims for coherence. One key example is that of spatial scale, where from the most local form of environmental change to the most global political-economic process, political ecology strives for connection—see for instance the classic example of land degradation cited by Bryant (1998, 83).
The above is just a start on assessing inclusivity and coherence in political ecology. But hopefully we see the opportunity and challenge of formal, explicit environmental theory, where an intellectual movement of scholars can collaborate to stretch theory to become more inclusive, and to weave theory to become more coherent. The two goals of good theory challenge each other: as more disciplines and realities are included in environmental theory it becomes harder to bring them together in a coherent manner, yet as a theory becomes more and more coherent the compellingness of the idea may well overrule reality!—much as approaching environmental theory as a Just-So Story. In my estimate, political ecology has done a pretty good job of both, but the dated reviews included in our readings suggest its growing pains in moving toward these goals.
Implicit theory: Incrementalism
Perhaps of far more interest and import, environmental theory sneaks around in a variety of implicit forms. The one I want to use an an example here is incrementalism, a theory of change which presumes that small steps can lead to big outcomes. In the EcoTypes Change axis, incremental change is contrasted with radical change, which presumes that small steps are basically a feel-good waste of time. These are by no means sufficient definitions of incremental vs. radical change, but they do illuminate a prevalent sense in environmental practice that the little things we each do can add up to something much bigger.
How diffuse is incrementalism as an environmental theory around us? Try, for instance, a Google search for “simple things environment” and you will see a plethora of lists: the top ones just now include “50 Ways to Help the Planet,” “40 Unexpected Ways You Can Help the Environment Right Now,” and “8 Simple Ways to Help the Environment.” None of these use the word incrementalism!: that is our word to describe a key guiding assumption—along with individual-scale action, which we’ll soon see is not necessarily the same.
As assembled onto the EcoTypes Action theme, incrementalism (i.e., the Change axis) is closely tied to, but conceptually distinct from, other axes. In particular, it can seem that incremental action is done by individuals whereas radical action requires institutional change; but this conflates the Action theme with the Social Scale theme. In fact, one of the most highly cited examples of incrementalism is a paper on (largely) institutional action toward climate policy titled “Stabilization wedges: Solving the climate problem for the next 50 years with current technologies” (Pacala and Socolow 2004). Cited over 3000 times at present, the gist of their argument is that, as their abstract begins, “Humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half-century” (p. 968).
Their incrementalist approach uses the notion of wedges: relatively small reductions in fossil fuel emissions—e.g.., vehicle fuel efficiency, building energy efficiency, coal plant efficiency, carbon capture, nuclear and alternative fuel use—that cumulatively amount to the large reductions we need. As their abstract concludes:
Although no element is a credible candidate for doing the entire job (or even half the job) by itself, the portfolio as a whole is large enough that not every element has to be used (p. 968).
Most popular assumptions of incrementalism are linear: each contribution adds up bit by bit. But a more sophisticated justification would presume a nonlinear transformation whereby small steps somehow catalyze a much larger response. Such is the famous argument of Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000). Gladwell provides example upon example of nonlinear incrementalism in his book, of “epidemics” that start small and then explode. As Gladwell concludes:
In the end, Tipping Points are a reaffirmation of the potential for change and the power of intelligent action. Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped (p. 259).
Tipping points don’t, however, just randomly happen, according to Gladwell; there are specific rules, e.g., that “Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen” (p. 256) are the only three types of people to approach when initiating a word-of-mouth epidemic. [Note from its date that Gladwell ignored social media-based epidemics.] Gladwell’s book is thus not an endorsement of incrementalism writ large, but it does suggest the possibility of incrementalism in particular cases and following particular rules.
How then shall incrementalism be assessed, along the lines of inclusivity and coherence used above for political ecology? As an implicit theory, incrementalism perhaps can’t be held to the same standard of disciplinary inclusivity as was political ecology, but there are other measures of inclusivity that may apply. Certainly there are instances cited in the literature, and as experienced in daily life, that potentially define its realm of applicability, such that someone for whom incrementalism serves as a vehicle would ask “Shall I ride it in this instance?,” e.g., is incrementalism an adequate theory in the case of shopping behavior or public transportation or voting? Here, perhaps, inclusivity would be redefined as excluding cases not applicable to incrementalism, whether understood in a nonlinear or linear fashion.
And the, what about coherence? At one level, incrementalism is thoroughly coherent because it it so simple (some would say simplistic): just do your little thing and it will all add up. No matter how internally coherent incrementalism is to the incrementalist, our concern here is whether it seems coherent to us. Here, one could imagine doing interviews to see whether the many cases in which incrementalism is deemed applicable are similar in terms of supported step-by-step behaviors. “Does it all hold together?” is the test of coherence, and it may or may not do so to the person doing Eagleton’s “reasonably systematic reflection” version of theory.
Theory around us as narrative/paradigm
Let us go back to theory as a vehicle: where do the existing theories above take their adherents? Political ecology has arguably taken not only its adherents but the larger academic area of human-environment relations in important directions in connecting local-level resource use challenges with global-scale political-economic processes, and thus has also connected seemingly independent instances of local-level resource use given this larger political-economic explanatory framework. There are dangers with a global-scale explanatory framework like this, for instance that the explanation is provided prematurely, but overall political ecology as a vehicle is one I urge many of our students to consider.
And what of incrementalism? In its linear, every-little-bit-adds-up version, it may unfortunately be taking its adherents nowhere. I think of this every time I take (speaking of vehicles!) public transportation to the airport and see my vote outweighed by the rows and rows and rows of parked cars. [Want more information on how people get around in PDX?] Perhaps, in applicable cases, Gladwell’s nonlinear version is the vehicle to ride: it at least sounds compelling when you read Tipping Points, though Gladwell’s detractors are many.
There are other ways to think of political ecology and incrementalism as vehicles that take us places; two are approaching these theories not just as concepts, but as narrative or as paradigm. The classic reading on environmental narratives was written by historian William Cronon (1992). In “A place for stories: Nature, history, and narrative,” Cronon contrasts two seemingly factual accounts of the U.S. Dust Bowl, both reaching quite distinct conclusions. In one, a declensionist narrative decries human abuse of nature; in the other, a progressive narrative lauds human survival in the face of natural crisis.
What we learn from Cronon is that there is, essentially, a difference between telling the truth about an environmental issue and telling the whole truth about that issue—the latter of which would be impossible given the myriad details and twists and turns one would need to relate. Rather, we communicate via stories: selected truths organized in a certain way to deliver a certain moral.
As a linear story, narrative is much like a vehicle in that it takes us somewhere. Where does it take us? Which landmarks (here, truths) does it point out en route, and which are ignored or obscured? Where is the destination (here, the moral of the story)? It is not difficult to imagine how narrative analysis (of which there are many varieties) could be a valuable way to make sense of political ecology and incrementalism.
Another sample approach builds on the notion of a paradigm: a shared, structured set of assumptions that guides our trajectories of research and practice but is rarely itself questioned, until empirical anomalies lead us to craft a new paradigm seemingly better fit to the facts. Made famous via Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn  2012), political ecology—at least as now settled—and incrementalism may be understood to merit paradigmatic status if their adherents mostly apply rather than reflect on them.
As one relevant example, ecologist Michael Barbour (1995) related a major paradigmatic shift in his field in the mid-20th century, from a holistic notion of ecosystems as integrated communities to an individualistic notion of ecosystems as little more than opportunistic assemblages of species, each with their own independent trajectory. Here, one could ask of theories of holism and individualism (which were largely stated in explicit, formal ways by leading ecologists of the day): where did and didn’t they take their adherents, i.e., which field-based facts did and didn’t each adequately support? Why is it that ecologists got off the holist vehicle and climbed on the individualist vehicle (a question to which Barbour devoted considerable attention)?
One ironic quality of theories of the political ecology and incrementalism sort is that they do not, among their adherents, seem like theories—i.e., proposed, yet-to-be-proven explanations—at all; rather, they seem to have achieved paradigmatic status. This is both true and ephemeral: approaching existing theories as paradigms, vehicles people trust to ride over and over again, is understandable, but the day may come when a new theory replaces political ecology, and when incrementalism is discarded by its adherents in favor of…what? As challenging as it can be to make sense of environmental theories around us, it is even more challenging to remember that they will likely not last, though what will come next, what vehicles of meaning we will choose to ride in say 2050, is perhaps the most elusive question of all.
Barbour, Michael. 1995. “Ecological Fragmentation in the Fifties.” In Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature, edited by William Cronon, 233–55. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Bryant, Raymond L. 1998. “Power, Knowledge and Political Ecology in the Third World: A Review.” Progress in Physical Geography 22 (1): 79–94.
Cronon, William. 1992. “A Place for Stories: Nature, History, and Narrative.” The Journal of American History 78 (4): 1347–1376.
Eagleton, Terry. 2004. After Theory. New York: Basic Books.
Gladwell, Malcolm. 2000. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown.
Kuhn, Thomas S. (1962) 2012. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Quandt, Amy. 2016. “Towards Integrating Political Ecology into Resilience-Based Management.” Resources 5 (4): 31. https://doi.org/10.3390/resources5040031.
Pacala, S., and R. Socolow. 2004. “Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the next 50 Years with Current Technologies.” Science 305 (5686): 968–72.
Proctor, James D., Susan G. Clark, Kimberly K. Smith, and Richard L. Wallace. 2013. “A Manifesto for Theory in Environmental Studies and Sciences.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 3 (3): 331–37. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-013-0122-3.
Robbins, Paul. 2012. Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction. John Wiley & Sons.
Turner, B. L., and P. Robbins. 2008. “Land-Change Science and Political Ecology: Similarities, Differences, and Implications for Sustainability Science.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 33: 295–316.
Walker, Peter A. 2005. “Political Ecology: Where Is the Ecology?” Progress in Human Geography 29 (1): 73–82. https://doi.org/10.1191/0309132505ph530pr.
———. 2007. “Political Ecology: Where Is the Politics?” Progress in Human Geography 31 (3): 363–69. https://doi.org/10.1177/0309132507077086.