Social and political ecology: why they matter

Social and political ecology: why they matter

I was just reading an article on-line from an Australian newspaper where the author asked the question: What is Australia’s climate policy? It was a reminder of the changed political (and as a result, conservation/sustainability) dynamics within Australia.

This is no real surprise and the deeper reminder is actually about the fluid and dynamic relationship between political systems/political power, people’s socio-economic and cultural values and actions, and the quest for sustainable futures.

As someone who has worked at this intersection for most of my professional life, I wanted to introduce two ideas/concepts that provide a window to this relationship. My couple of paragraphs won’t do justice to the complexities and the debates, but hopefully this post will provide a taste of the kinds of frameworks I, and others, use.

Social ecology

The concept of social ecology, at its base, emphasises the ways the causes of environmental problems are found in our social systems. In other words, environmental problems are actually social problems.

For some social ecologists, these problems are found in hierarchies – political hierarchies perpetuating inequality and exploitation of nature, status hierarchies resulting in unequal access to life chances, hierarchies of knowledge which value some forms of knowledge over others and so on. Other social ecologists will look for causes not just in hierarchies, but from the intersection of social, economic, historical, political and cultural processes – in other words, taking a broader perspective than just hierarchies.

Political ecology

Political ecology is similar to social ecology in that it puts the human and the societal at the forefront of understanding human relationships with nature.  However, for me, it differs in emphasis – political ecology’s main focus is on the political/power structures including the political/power structures occurring between countries.  For me, this emphasis potentially provides a greater recognition of the power of political systems within countries and the political relationships between countries.

Why these are important

Irrespective of the angle or the emphasis taken, social and political ecology reminds us that sustainability issues and solutions are to be found in socio-economic and political relationships.  All the tiger ecologists in the world won’t save the tiger unless these relationships are sorted. Sustainability is not a technical issue, its a political issue (and a socio-economic one etc)

Crucially, given that societies don’t ‘just happen’ – they are the result of our interactions and our decisions for example – it stands to reason that social and political ecology give us insights into the ways we, all of us, are able to be social actors in developing sustainable futures. Understanding the causes of things allows us to look for long-term solutions.

And that is extremely important. We move beyond criticising to re-imagining and reconstructing our futures.