Political ecology is an umbrella term for a variety of projects that involve "politics" and the "environment." These projects generally fall within one of three types:
- attempts to study politics using the language and methods of ecology (in other words, the claim that, like species of plants and animals, societies and states can only be understood in terms of their place in a larger system including other societies or states)
- the study of political struggles for control over natural resources, or of political struggles whose outcome is determined by differential access to natural resources
- research on biotic diversity and natural resource exploitation that is intended to inform public policy.
Within geography and anthropology, "political ecology" involves elements of all three of these approaches. In both disciplines political ecology also refers to a specific attempt to bring together cultural ecology and political economy. This conjuncture is a little complicated because geographers and anthropologists mean different (but complementary) things by "cultural ecology." In general, "cultural ecology" studies the relationship between a given society and its natural environment. But geographers generally mean the study of how socially organized human activities affect the natural environment; anthropologists generally mean the study of how the natural environment affects socially organized behaviors (although, at its extreme, environmental determinism has fallen out of favor among most anthropologists).
When geographers and anthropologists refer to "political economy," they generally mean the study of how different polities (states or societies) in different parts of the world are actually parts of a global structure through which one polity exploits another polity. This approach to political economy comes out of the works of Immanuel Wallerstein and Andre Gundar Frank , who argues that European development was made possible by the "underdevelopment" (or impoverishment) of non-European societies.
Geographical and anthropological political ecologists argue that a cultural ecology informed by political economy will
- look at cultures not only in their natural environment, but in their political environment as well
- look at how unequal relations among societies affect the natural environment
- look at how unequal relations (especially class relations) within a culture affect the environment