The Meaning of Political Ecology

‘Political ecology’ is an expression which has become quite familiar in recent years, but does not appear to have acquired a clear and settled meaning.* Evidently it is used to point up some kind of connection between politics, or the political, and ecology, yet the project of making the connection is deeply problematic. In this article I argue that ‘political ecology’ is most appropriately used as the name of a field of real relations which include, but are not exhausted by, those already comprehended as political economy.

This argument is advanced, in the first place, as a corrective to two other prevalent, but unsatisfactory, interpretations of political ecology – one which treats it as a branch of politics, the other as a branch of ecology. On the one interpretation, ‘political ecology’ can refer to the taking of a political view of ecology, that is, viewing ecology as an issue or set of issues concerning which principles and policies have to be devised. On the other interpretation, the project can be seen as one which involves viewing politics ecologically – this would involve a more thorough-going claim that ecology not only provides the content of a political agenda, but, as a foundation of and restriction on political possibilities, even determines appropriate forms of politics.

Neither of these general ways of making the connection is entirely satisfactory. The problem with the first approach follows from the fact that entering ecological issues into the political calculus need do little or nothing to alter the essential values or forms of politics itself. Since politics has to have in view things other than ecology, and since only certain aspects of ecology – ‘environmental issues’ – normally enter the purview of politics anyway, viewing ecology politically is compatible with not viewing politics ecologically and so with a continuation of other political business as usual. This approach does too little to establish the connection between ecology and politics, which remain externally and contingently related. Hence opponents of this approach criticise it for its ‘shallow’ grasp of ecology, and condemn it as ‘managerial’ environmentalism. Indeed, the forms of environmentalism which earn these pejorative designations are arguably founded on a fallacious conception of the ‘environment’ itself.1 In contrast to ‘environmentalism’, as just described, then, the opposing approach, which can be referred to as ‘ecologism’,2 invokes a much stronger, ‘internal’, relation between ecology and politics: on this view, ecology does not simply furnish ‘issues’ for politics to deal with, it actually yields imperatives – determining not only the values which must guide politics, but perhaps also the very forms politics must assume. However, if ‘environmentalism’ attempts too little, ‘ecologism’ may seek more of ecology than it can yield – for example, in generalising ecological concepts beyond their appropriate scope, and being more sanguine than there is good reason to be about the possibility of drawing clear or unequivocal normative desiderata from ecological realities.3 Moreover, this view threatens to eliminate the distinctiveness of politics as much, and as mistakenly, as the other view eliminates the distinctiveness of ecology.

So, I believe, if political ecology is to have a distinctive and coherent meaning, it must be capable of comprehending the relation of ecology and politics without simply subsuming the one under the other. In order to do so, it must be able to grasp the real relations between them: therefore a definition of what political ecology is will emerge as a theory of those real relations.

The limited objective of the present paper is to indicate, in a general way, how and where it seems to me that such a theory is currently developing. In order to thematise the real relations between politics and ecology, it is particularly important to be able to focus on their mediations. The locus of these mediations, and hence the object-field of political ecology, can perhaps best be described as the ‘human metabolism with nature’.4 This idea captures fundamental aspects of our existence as both natural and political beings: these include the energetic and material exchanges which occur between human beings and their natural environment both at an individual level (reproduction of the human organism and, more importantly in the present context, at a social level (through the activities of extraction of materials, agriculture, construction, manufacture etc.). This ‘metabolism’ is regulated from the side of nature by natural laws governing the various physical processes involved (energetic and chemical exchanges etc.), and from the side of society by institutionalised norms governing the division of labour and distribution of wealth etc. The ensemble of regulating factors from the side of nature can be gathered under the head of ecology; those from the side of society under that of politics: the conjoined effects of those two sets of factors and their interrelations constitute the field of political economy.

Now the idea of human metabolism with nature, in much this sense, originated with Marx: it served to characterise the materialist basis for his critique of political economy.5 In this article I shall suggest that there are good reasons for seeing the project of political ecology as being premised on a materialist conception of history much as Marx sought to develop. However, I shall also argue, there are respects in which Marx’s radicalisation of classical political economy does not go far enough. In particular, both classical political economy and its Marxian critique effectively consider the human metabolism with nature almost exclusively in the dimension of human intention – labour – while all but disregarding unintentional effects, and the input of nature Itself. Nevertheless, it will not suffice to counter this deficiency with an equally one-sided emphasis on the workings of ecology behind the backs of humans: for this abstracts precisely from the political dimension. Hence, as I go on to argue in section II, the Marxian critique of political economy remains a necessary if not a sufficient condition for the development of political ecology. What is also necessary, as contemporary attempts at an ecological reconstruction of Marxism are tending to show, is a radicalising of Marx’s critique of political economy on the basis of a fuller and more differentiated elaboration of his own materialist premises. This will lead to a consideration of how the development of political ecology must also be informed by aspects of a feminist critique of Marxism. For the ‘human metabolism with nature’ involves not only the day-to-day reproduction of individuals and social relations, which have been mentioned already, but also procreative reproduction – something which Marx, as much as the political economists, effectively consigns to the sphere of unmediated nature, with the consequence that the parturitive labour of women, in particular, but also nurturative and domestic labours more generally, are drastically undertheorised and depoliticised. I therefore argue that it is wholly appropriate and necessary that the entire metabolism with nature – including all aspects of human reproduction, and not just those activities which happen to be defined, in some ways arbitrarily, as ‘productive’ – should be comprehended as political ecology. Finally, I offer some points of clarification about the relation of political ecology to a feminist socialist and Marxist critique.


* Earlier drafts of this paper have been presented at the Political Thought Conference, New College, Oxford, January 1991, and at a seminar of the series ‘Socialism and Ecology’, run by David McLellan and Sean Sayers, at Canterbury in October 1991: I am very gratefulfor the helpful comments of participants on both occasions.


1. ‘Environmentalism’, understood in this sense, is quite compatible with ‘green capitalism’ and the ‘environment industry’. Hence not only deep ecologists, but also ecosocialists, can be critical of it. As Q’Connor puts it, ‘mainstream environmentalists’ are ‘those who are trying to save capitalism from its ecologically self-destructive tendencies’ (James O’Connor, ‘Socialism and ecology’, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 8, 1991, p. 2). Such a description might apply quite well, for instance, to David Pearce et al. Blueprint for a Green Economy (Earthscan,  London, 1989).

Of course, ‘environmentalism’ can also be used in a more inclusive sense: see, e.g. T. O’Riordan, Environmentalism (Pion Ltd, London, 1976).

2. Cf. Andrew Dobson, Green Political Thought (Unwin Hyman, London, 1990), whose account is organised around the ‘environmentalism’/’ ecologism’ opposition.

3. Cf. Arne Naess, Ecology, Community and Lifestyle, trans. and revised by David Rothenberg (Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 40ff, where he explains, amongst other things, that principles for action cannot be derived from ecology. In view of how ‘ecologism’ is often used as an affirmative designation, especially by people influenced by deep ecology, it is interesting to note that the founder of deep ecology himself defines it as ‘excessive universalisation or generalisation of ecological concepts and theories’ (ibid., p. 40).

4. This concept is quite often referred to in the literature. Bohme and Schramm, for instance, see it as an indispensable heuristic and metatheoretical concept: ‘It continually forces reflection back to the material basis, to the concrete interaction between humans and nature … embracing not only productive appropriation of nature, but also the consumptive relation of humans to nature; of not just intentional engagement with nature, but also unintended effects’ (G. Bohme and E. Schramm, eds, Foreword to Soziale Naturwissenschaft: Wege zu einer Erweiterung der Okologie, Fischer, Frankfurt am Main, 1984, p. 8 [my trans.]).

5. See Alfred Schmidt, The Concept of Nature in Marx (New Left Books, London, 1971). Juan Martinez-Alier has commented that although the concept was used non-metaphorically by Marx and Engels, they thought only in terms of the exchange of matter (cf. the German Stoffwechsel), without recognising the importance of energy exchanges: this was drawn to their attention by Podolinsky, and Martinez-Alier sees their inadequate response as a crucial missed opportunity in the dialogue between Marxism and ecology. (Juan Martinez-Alier, Ecological Economics: Energy, Environment and Society, paperback edition with new Introduction, Blackwell, Oxford, 1990, esp. chapter 14).

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