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Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.
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Are you aware that sustainability and environmental management aren’t the only ways to look at the ecological crisis?

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There are many different positions that we can take towards the ecological crisis. Most established theories, and contemporary theorists, have developed at least some thoughts on the matter. Likewise, governments, media and other institutions have all weighed in and put forward ways to think about the crisis.

Some of these ways are totally insufficient responses to the crisis. They either play down the importance of climate change, or completely deny its existence. Others take the view that something quite specific (the market, technology, little behaviour changes…) will get us out of the crisis, so there isn’t a need to worry. And further theories still argue for complete and radical change to societies and systems of the globe.

When we look at all these theories, there are two main groups of assumptions that people make when they talk about the ecological crisis. This is why we end up with the two positions of environmentalism, and political ecology. In New Zealand we hear only of environmentalism, and sometimes of ‘nature lovers’ which often sit somewhere between the two. In Europe, the position of political ecology is much stronger, with France’s largest leftist coalition the NUPES taking a stance on political ecology more than environmentalism. Global discourse, however, is almost entirely environmentalist.

Environmentalism

Environmental governance, management, even environmental studies refer to a mechanistic way of viewing the natural world: humans live in environments, which, due to their resource needs, require control. The term environmentalism refers to those who want to save or protect the environment using this top-down managerial approach, and do not question the relationships that might be causing the problem. Environmentalism is often popular among governments because it puts a focus on measuring and quantifying many different things in ‘nature’, so that they can then be controlled, and the government can be shown to be acting (or not, as the case may be).

Underpinning this idea of environmentalism is that human beings and societies live either on a backdrop called nature, or that we are at least separate from something called nature. There is one collective of things which are society, civilisation; and another collection of things that are nature, the environment. The two are fundamentally different.

In te ao Māori, traditionally, human beings were seen as being part of the environment. Nature didn’t exist outside of society; rather, humans were nature, they were born out of Mother Earth. This traditional view is the opposite of what we see today in environmentalism, where human beings propose that the environment must be managed, controlled, and guided towards certain ends so that humans can achieve their own goals. Humanity stands on top and outside of nature, able to look onto it and decide what it needs and how it should be run.

Another part of the environmentalist discourse is a very strong mechanistic foundation. Environmentalists believe in the idea that nature is mechanic – that it follows laws and principles which are able to be established and then function as truths about the way the world works. One such thing is the idea that there exists in nature some kind of balance, or equilibrium state, where all things are getting what they need. Another part of this mechanistic view influences how we grow fruit and vegetables, and plant trees. Many environmentalists are happy to have large scale monoculture plantations of one single species, like pine forests or potato farms.

Environmentalists often believe in technological solutions to climate change, as well. Instead of looking at social causes of the ecological problem, they look to mechanical causes like too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, to diagnose what is going wrong. When we look at global warming that way, it appears as if the solution is to remove that extra carbon, and everything will be alright again. Sustainability and sustainable development are also concepts that are key to the environmentalist movement.

Political Ecology

There is an alternative to this way of thinking. Political ecology is a radically different way of looking at the ecological crisis and its solutions. Instead of looking at material causes, political ecology looks to the social and political causes of the ecological problem, using the science of ecology as its backdrop. Political ecology is sometimes characterised as a movement rather than a domain of thought, but I think its unique way of analysing the world means that it has now become its own domain.

Ecology is the science of the study of relationships between living and non-living beings, and their environment. This emphasis on relationships means that ecology is the prime place for a social and political critique to be constructed.

Political ecology is not just a combination of politics and ecology. Rather, it has its own characteristics and ways of thinking. Bruno Villalba wrote a book in 2022 on the topic, and he decides that the common traits of political ecology thinking are: the importance of the concept of limits, an eco-centric vision, and the decentralisation of the political system. So, political ecology discusses the idea that there is a finite number of resources on the planet, that never-ending economic growth isn’t possible, and the existence of many other limits. It also proposes that ecology is the central way through which we should analyse our times. Finally, more democracy is needed to solve political crises which will emerge as a result of climate change.  

The key part of political ecology is that it is multidimensional, and includes the social and political causes of the ecological problem as a much larger problem than just climate change. There are multiple strands of political ecology, rather than one sole theory, or way of explaining the world. Felix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies is a good way of seeing how the ecological crisis is not just about climate change.

Guattari says that there are three different ecologies which require our attention: the environment, social relations, and human subjectivity (identity, who we believe we are). He calls this mix of three ecologies ecosophy.

Environmentalism therefore tends to be the discourse of the right of the political spectrum. Those who believe in conservatism, technocracy, and market supremacy often take environmentalist views. On the other hand, political ecology is often a view from the left. Political ecology brings into question human relationships amongst themselves and with nature, and therefore proposes more radical changes to our social systems in order to respond to the ecological crisis.

Plurality.eco

Plurality.eco is a space where both views will be discussed and welcome. All discussion on the ecological crisis is important and valuable to help us to form a new pathway forward. Much of the content will be from the perspective of political ecology, however, because this is an important alternative to the dominant global discourse, which is currently leading to inaction, delays, and empty promises. If you’re an environmentalist, feel free to write an article for us – just as if you’re more of a political ecologist. 

Want to know more?

A political ecology and environmentalism reading list is coming soon! We’ll point you towards some basic texts explaining these ideas, as well as more complex books for those who want to go further.

Sharing knowledge is also a great gift.
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It took more than 30 hours of research and writing to produce this article, which will always be open and free for everyone to read, without any advertising.

All our articles are freely accessible because we believe that everyone needs to be able to access to a source of coherent and easy to understand information on the ecological crisis. This challenge that confronts us all will only be properly addressed when we understand what the problems are and where they come from.

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