On Political Ecology

When I give a general lecture now, I typically have to inform the audience that I am talking about scientific ecology not political ecology. What is the difference? Scientific ecology is classical boring science, stating hypotheses, doing experiments or observations to gather the data, testing the idea, and accepting or rejecting it, outlined clearly in many papers (Platt 1963, Wolff and Krebs (2008), and illustrated in this diagram:

Scientific ecology is clearly out-of-date, and no longer ‘cool’ when compared to the new political ecology.

Political ecology is a curious mix of traditional ecology added to the advocacy issue of protecting biodiversity. Political ecology is aimed at convincing society in general and politicians in particular to protect the Earth’s biodiversity. This is a noble cause, and my complaint is only that when we advocate and use scientific ecology in pursuit of a political agenda we should be scientifically rigorous. Yet much of biodiversity science is a mix of belief and evidence, with unsuitable evidence used in support of what is a noble belief. If we believe that the end justifies the means, we would be happy with this. But I am not.

One example will illustrate my frustration with political ecology. Dirzo et al. (2014) in a recent Science paper give an illustration of the effects of removing large animals from an ecosystem. In their Figure 4, page 404, a set of 4 graphs purport to show experimentally what happens when you remove large wildlife species in Kenya, the Kenya Long-term Exclosure Experiment (Young et al. 1997). But this experiment is hopelessly flawed in being carried out on a set of plots of 4 ha, a postage stamp of habitat relative to large mammal movements and ecosystem processes. But the fact that this particular experiment was not properly designed for the questions it is now being used to address is not a problem if this is political ecology rather than scientific ecology. The overall goal of the Dirzo et al. (2014) paper is admirable, but it is achieved by quoting a whole series of questionable extrapolations given in other papers. The counter-argument in conservation biology has always been that we do not have time to do proper research and we must act now. The consequence is the elevation of expert opinion in conservation science to the realm of truth without going through the proper scientific process.

We are left with this prediction from Dirzo et al. (2014):

“Cumulatively, systematic defaunation clearly threatens to fundamentally alter basic ecological functions and is contributing to push us toward global-scale “tipping points” from which we may not be able to return ……. If unchecked, Anthropocene defaunation will become not only a characteristic of the planet’s sixth mass extinction, but also a driver of fundamental global transformations in ecosystem functioning.”

I fear that statements like this are more akin to something like a religion of conservation fundamentalism, while we proclaim to be scientists.

Dirzo, R., Young, H.S., Galetti, M., Ceballos, G., Isaac, N.J.B. & Collen, B. (2014) Defaunation in the Anthropocene. Science, 345, 401-406.

Platt, J.R. (1964) Strong inference. Science, 146, 347-353.

Wolff, J.O. & Krebs, C.J. (2008) Hypothesis testing and the scientific method revisited. Acta Zoologica Sinica, 54, 383-386.

Young, T.P., Okello, B.D., Kinyua, D. & Palmer, T.M. (1997) KLEE: A long‐term multi‐species herbivore exclusion experiment in Laikipia, Kenya. African Journal of Range & Forage Science, 14, 94-102.

6 thoughts on “On Political Ecology

  1. Peter Jørgensen

    I think many would say that you in your rant is misusing the term “political ecology” while you seem to take care defining scientific ecology

    1. Charles Krebs Post author

      Peter – could you elaborate more details of how I have misused the term political ecology. It would be good to get a view of what it really is, or is not so I could adjust the language or use another term as needed. Thanks.

      1. Steven Lade

        You could try Wikipedia for a start. I am far from expert on this but my impression is that political ecology is a social science concerned with the effects of environmental changes on societal inequalities. A key observation is that any environmental change or change in environmental governance, even one that is ‘good’ for the environment, will lead ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in society. It is definitely not about how best to advocate for environmental conservation, as you appear to believe.

  2. Brian Wood

    Great post. I teach a class called “Human Ecology” and in the beginning of this course, try to introduce students to the dizzying array of “ecologies” that exist in the wild. A detailed taxonomy could include behavioral ecology, evolutionary ecology, political ecology, historical ecology, community ecology, cultural ecology, conservation ecology, … etc., etc. I can distinguish and present idealized versions of these fields to students, but the question “is it scientific?” I think requires a case-by-case analyses of works.

  3. Juan

    “Political ecology is aimed at convincing society in general and politicians in particular to protect the Earth’s biodiversity.”

    I wanted to dissect this statement for the sake of clarification.

    Society, in general, ignores the concept of “biodiversity”, particularly among pre-industrialized groups that constitute a significant component of developing countries. Consider also that most developing countries are located in equatorial regions where, in general, the degree of biodiversity is negatively correlated with the degree of scientific and technical development required to protect such biodiversity. In short, “nature” rather than “biodiversity” may be a concept that provides a better common ground for scientists and society in general when the objective is conservation. That aside, “protect nature” as a message is not anything new. Regardless of education, humans are wired to identify the environmental threats associated with biodiversity loss (pollution, erosion, etc.), not as an ecological or academic dilemma but as a direct threat to human existence. Local indigenous folklore and global environmental regulations reflect that.
    This understanding, however, has been superseded within a scenario of flawed, distorted economics. “Convincing society”, then, may be more effective as an exercise in economics: pricing biodiversity properly to evaluate the long term benefits of conservation in view of competing economic activities that lead to biodiversity loss is key. The recently ratified Nagoya Protocol has this very objective, but unfortunately uses language that in terms of biotechnology may very well belong to life sciences prehistory (e.g. who owns and what would be a reasonable price regarding genomic information?). The fact that politicians and scientists barely communicate or understand each other is truly alarming.

    Biodiversity loss, like most environmental problems, is the consequence of flawed economic thinking that seeks infinite growth within a finite planet. Everything seems to have evolved, except economics. For example, our capitalist economy has explicitly been measured in terms of resource appropriation and extraction for centuries (the petrodollar, for example, is a concrete link between global economy and climate change), and is explicitly ignorant of economic externalities (the effects of a transaction on unrelated third parties, biodiversity loss e.g.).
    In this sense, politicians are perhaps in the worst position to effect any influence because they are fully dependent on a broken economy for fundraising, and crudely put, because biodiversity does not vote.

    Thanks for the post, I actually thought human ecology is what everyone else calls politics.


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