December 29, 2011

Environmental science and politics: Book reviews

Having a bit of time off this week, I've read two books that both take a political ecology approach to environmental problems. Political ecology emerged from a certain tradition of social scientists, and really seeks to intertwine the social and natural aspects of the environment. Since both books are relevant to the themes of this blog and my own research, I thought I would do a quick review!

The first book was Critical Political Ecology by Tim Forsyth. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Forsyth over the summer, so I was really excited to read this book. Forsyth combines critical social theory with STS, philosophy of science, and his on-the-ground experience in international development work in South and Southeast Asia. The central theme of his book is that environmental science has been used to reinforce "environmental orthodoxies," which are similar to myths or narratives. Some of these key environmental orthodoxies are that population growth causes soil erosion, and deforestation causes loss of biodiversity. Forsyth shows that these arguments are used for specific political/normative agendas, but that alternative scientific approaches have actually revealed contrary data in some contexts. Each chapter reviews different case studies that touch on themes of democratic science, science-policy boundaries, global risk and uncertainty, and scientific expertise vs. indigenous knowledge. Overall, his book shows the tension between top-down environmental orthodoxies and local adaptations to the environment, and the limits of using scientific facts to make policy decisions.

The second book I read was Arun Agrawal's Environmentality (no connection to the photo above, but still funny). "Environmentality" is a form of Foucault's "governmentality," which roughly means rendering subjects governable. So environmentality is the making of environmental "subjects" through technologies of governance. The primary technology that Agrawal examines is the use of statistics in Indian forestry, starting in the mid-eighteenth century under British colonial rule. Agrawal takes both a historical and anthropological approach to the region of Kumaon, in northern India (looks like a horrible place for fieldwork). He uses historical sources as well as surveys and interviews to show how Kumaon villagers have a dialectical relationship with state-driven forest policy, which protects forests but limits local access. The villagers use some of the environmental rhetoric of protecting forests, while simultaneously using it to their advantage and resisting state control. This is a great analysis, because it confronts the shortcomings of a one-sided approach to development politics (i.e. either ignoring or too relient on indigenous knowledge and local adaptations).

The themes of local adaptations vs. global development/top-down power/technological interventions is seen throughout Forsyth and Agrawal's recent work, especially with regards to climate change, and is something I hope to explore in my own research on agriculture in India (once I figure out what I'm doing...).

Finally, I also recently enjoyed Paolo Bacigalupi's The Wind Up Girl, which is a science fiction novel about a dystopian, post-sea-level-rise, post-fossil-fuel world. Bacigalupi's dislike of agri-chemical companies is obvious, as they are the main antagonists in the hunt for the last remaining seed bank in Bangkok, Thailand. Intriguingly, the government in Thailand is dominated by the Environment Ministry, which usurped power because of the impacts of climate change and global pandemics. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the book is that in the absence of fossil fuels, energy is measured in calories since the only remaining energy sources are biological. This relates back to Agrawal's Environmentality-- making things into government subjects by classifying them-- whether it's carbon emissions or calorie intake.

[UPDATE] I also wanted to say THANK YOU to everyone who's reading and commenting! According to Blogger stats, I've had over 4000 pageviews this year. Not sure how accurate that is, but thanks even if you're not getting counted through GoogReadz or something. Happy New Year!

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