By: Hamani Wilson
During the most recent lecture of the Environment & Society course at the University of Maryland College Park, our discussion centered on Political Ecology. We discussed Dr. Aletta Biersack’s writing “Reimagining Political Ecology," in which she discusses the genesis of the field of Political Ecology in 1972 as a form of "neo-Marxism" to signify the study of how power relations mediate human-environment relations.1
Political Ecology is built upon the intersection of politics, ecology, and economics, and their impacts on environmental issues. You may have some familiarity with Environmental Justice, which is similar to the concept of political ecology. Dr. Bill Dennison noted that the difference between the two is that Political Ecology is the “scene setter” for environmental injustices to take place. During his lecture, Dr. Michael Paolisso focused on the history of power and the juxtaposition between capitalists and proletariats in the context of ecological degradation, pollution, and climate change. Our discussion centered on the notion that Political Ecology occasionally focuses more heavily on its economic and political aspects at the expense of ecology. The interesting thing about this dynamic is that the environment has become more degraded as capitalism has continued to expand and grow. I feel that historical context is significant and must be applied to any set of issues. Although Political Ecology was not officially recognized as a discipline until the 1970s, I will discuss how Political Ecology and power dynamics have been a central component of the development of America as a global power.
Washington, D.C. has been known as an urban metropolis and a political power center globally for quite some time. An aspect of the area that is perhaps not as widely known is the agricultural history of the region and the use of its local waterways and ports as major hubs for the exportation of tobacco. Growing up in Washington, D.C. near the Anacostia River, I always wondered how we (humans) could let an entire body of water, which would typically be used for various recreational activities and as a source of food, to become nearly unusable. The river is so badly polluted that the fish have tumors and lesions on them, yet people still eat fish from the water as an economical food source. Located primarily in a poorer and predominantly African American community in Southeast, D.C., most people assumed the river’s poor condition to be a remnant of a community already deemed unsalvageable prior to its gentrification. After taking a closer look at the history of the Anacostia River, you will discover that the degradation of the river can be traced back to the 1700’s. The river itself was once 40 feet deep, but deforestation provided more area for tobacco to be grown, which then caused large deposits of sediment to flow into the river. There has been so much sediment that has eroded into the river over the years that an individual can walk across the river during low tide in knee-deep water.2
This trend of deforestation and the erosion of sediment into the river could be considered to be an ecological issue only, until one considers the social climate during the time. The tobacco industry was driven primarily by the enslavement of African Americans during a time in the country's history when black people were counted as 3/5 of a human being. The situation of power in this particular case has been removed from African Americans and the river environment alike as the power structure of the day took a position of ownership over both. The supply chain of tobacco farmed by enslaved people and exported to the wealthy classes of Western Europe for consumption can be characterized as a “Dependence Theory” in sociology. The prospect of economic prosperity took precedence over both the needs and well-being of African Americans in the region and of the river. This was the Political Ecology of the time— an intersection of politics, economics, and the designation of power that would facilitate a sequence of ecological and sociological consequences for centuries that can still be seen and felt today.
The Industrial Revolution (~1830) is a time known as an economic shift in the history of the world, and can also be characterized as the beginning of the Anthropocene, when human-influenced carbon dioxide emissions began to usher in the period we now know as “climate change” or “global warming”. American inventions, such as the cotton gin, created efficiencies in previously non-profitable trades like the cotton industry, which hastened the need for arable land to grow it, and slaves to harvest it.3 The land needed for cotton production would come in the form of the “Indian Removal Act”, which displaced Native American populations further west across the Mississippi River during a forced migration known as the Trail of Tears.4 With the abolishment of the international import of African slaves in 1808, the people needed for the harvesting of cotton would come in the form of a domestic slave trade where over one million enslaved were forced to walk from former tobacco-growing states like Maryland to cotton growing states in the deep South. Economically, the buying, selling, and transport of slaves in Richmond, Virginia was enormous with the practice generating 4 million dollars (440 million today) in 1857 alone.5 The economic impact for the entire country was apparent with bankers, insurance companies, textile factories, and the shipping industry all benefiting even in northern states that were free of slavery.
The repeated growing and harvesting of cotton on land formerly belonging to Native Americans who grew crops of maize, beans, and squash was ecologically evident and affected the quality of the land. Following the years of Civil War, the quality of the soil in most southern states was unsuitable for agriculture and contributed to additional hardship and poverty. George Washington Carver, often credited with saving the south’s economy, taught farming techniques related to erosion prevention and crop rotation to restore soil that was depleted due to years of repeated cotton growth. Like tobacco farming in Maryland, the industrial revolution created sociological and ecological consequences and exacerbated them with carbon emissions that characterize climate change policy, economics, and changing environments presently. I feel that some people deny climate change because they are hesitant to admit that one of the most prosperous times in American history could also be responsible for negative consequences to our daily lives that arise as a result of climate change.
For those of us that perceive climate change as a potential risk to society, most of us can agree that corrective measures should be taken to ensure that future generations can thrive. However, the evolution of Political Ecology in the history of the country necessitates the need for corrective measures to more than just the ecological iniquities of the past. When contemplating the Political Ecology of these past events, we aptly describe the economics as beneficial to the country and the ecology as needing restoration. But when it comes to the iniquities of the past related to the exclusion of power and displacement of people, many fall silent or question whether those effected should be recompensed.
As a senior in high school, I was shocked along with much of the nation as we watched the events that took place during Hurricane Katrina. What has become apparent to me in the years since is that the underlying issues that led to the marginalization of populations that are too poor to evacuate from a natural disaster in 2005, resulted from social inequities that took place during the 1700’s and 1800’s and reflected the Political Ecology of the time. Whether through segregation, housing policies, forced migration, or climate gentrification, inequitable distribution of power has directed populations without it to settle in areas where environmental disasters happen more frequently and at greater magnitudes. I won’t pretend to have the answers for our problems that can be characterized by Political Ecology, but I do know that the road to healing begins with acknowledgement. Or…we can simply continue with politics as usual…
1. Biersack, A., & Greenberg, J. B. (2006). Reimagining Political Ecology. Durham: Duke University Press.
2. Anacostia Rising: What's Next For D.C.'s 'Forgotten' River. (2018, March 26).
3. History.com Editors. (2009, October 29). Industrial Revolution.
4. History.com Editors. (2009, November 9). Trail of Tears.
5. Ball, E. (2015, November 1). Retracing Slavery's Trail of Tears.