Piers M. Blaikie

Piers M. BlaikieWinner of the 2009 Robert McC. Netting Award

The life-long work and intellectual history of Piers Blaikie is both a tribute to and an alternative means to discover what Political Ecology [PE] is today. PiersBlaikie’s canon also encompasses research and writing on natural disasters and risk, development policy and practice, international environmental policy, conservation and biodiversity, AIDS in Africa, livelihoods, and books on India and Nepal. His long and productive career has evolved from pioneering foundational texts, through transdisciplinary exchanges in the fields of geography, development studies, anthropology, and policy, to constructive and critical engagement with the postmodern turn, and questions of epistemology and methodology. In essence, Piers Blaikie has been a central actor in both the theory and practice of PE.

What is perhaps most striking in first meeting Piers Blaikie are the personal and professional traits displayed: he is humble, open, always as self-critical as critical in his analyses, and incredibly generous intellectually. Blaikie is willing to engage and integrate a broad range of knowledges into all his work—perhaps eclectic, but never dogmatic. And it is this lack of dogmatism that perhaps best explains the continuing vitality of his body of work. In terms of Political Ecology, the vitality of the field is at least partially attributable to Blaikie’s numerous key interventions. Thankfully there is no dearth of material to build such an argument upon. Blaikie is an extremely productive scholar, and as such his influence is clear and powerful. Leaders in the field were enthusiastic in acknowledging this in the three sessions of the AAG devoted to Piers’ life-long contributions, and the special issue of Geoforum that resulted from the papers published in 2008. It is rare that one person has such impact, and not only though the written word, but through teaching, lecturing, mentoring, as well as the iterative application of ideas through participation in development projects and policies. This is Piers Blaikie’s unique legacy. It was no accident that David Simon chose him as one of the Fifty Key Thinkers on Development in his recent volume of that title (2006

 

Piers Macleod Blaikie, Professor Emeritus of Development Studies at University of East Anglia (UEA), has been one of the principal voices in PE from its inception, providing decades of path breaking thinking, research and writing. Blaikie did his Geography degrees at Cambridge University. His first posting was in Geography at the University of Reading, from 1968 to 1972. He subsequently moved to UEA where he remained for 33 years, though not in Geography—an important point. Instead he was housed in the School of Development Studies. The unique qualities of UEA’s approach to Development Studies, with unusual job specifications, shaped his life work in important ways. At UEA a professor’s workload included 2/3 teaching and 1/3 outside research and consultancy. This encouraged a continuous cycle of ‘forced’ field experience, research and teaching, and created a constant oscillation between theory and practice.

Blaikie did his Ph.D. dissertation research in northwest India between 1966 and 1970. The subject was the spatial organization of agriculture and consolidation of land holdings in north Indian villages. He followed this with research on the family planning program in northeast India between 1971 and 1973, with a subsequent long stretch of work in Nepal writing on underdevelopment and center-periphery theory. He reported his fieldwork in three co-authored books: Crisis in Nepal, Peasants and Workers in Nepal, and Struggle for Basic Needs in Nepal. Through consultancies and research he continued to work in India and Nepal for over 25 years, and in the Himalayas more generally, including Pakistan, Bhutan, and China. He has also worked in Morocco, and many of the countries of central and southern Africa.

He came as a guest professor to the U.S. often—to Clark, UCLA twice, UC Berkeley, University of Hawaii, as well as briefly lecturing at Harvard’s Institute for International Development, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He was also a visiting professor at Australia National University, and at the NorwegianUniversity of Science and Technology.

In 1985 he wrote The Political Economy of Soil Erosion in Developing Countries, and subsequently co-authored Land Degradation and Society with Harold Brookfield. These two texts were foundational in the rising sub-discipline of PE, particularly The Political Economy of Soil Erosion. Coming into the 1990s, he continued with PE, but also with a number of other research projects including AIDS in Africa, with significant fieldwork in Uganda in the early 1990s. In 1994 he co-authored At Risk with Terry Cannon, Ian Davis, and Ben Wisner. The book is widely used in university courses as well as by policy makers and practitioners, and is now in its second, revised, edition and has been translated into a number of languages. He then moved into what he terms ‘a strange period’ of doing what we may call PE, but which Blaikie himself doesn’t really label as such. Rather, he viewed his new focus as being concerned with the politics of environmental policy, and from this perspective produced numerous articles and a book called Policy in High Places. In the late 1990s he wrote a series of review articles of PE and development, most notably in Zeitschrift, and Environment and Planning A, in which he not only provided overviews of the evolving directions of PE, but also discussed some of the challenges PE faces today. At the 3rd International Union for the Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress, in November 2005, he was invited to give the plenary speech, entitled “Risk and vulnerability to loss of biodiversity: changing what people do”. This June he will be given an Honorary Doctorate at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, in Trondheim, Norway, representing his long engagement with Norwegian scholars.

While Piers would not consistently self-identify as a political ecologist for all his work, it was and continues to be foundational for the large number of recent books on PE. The effort to consider society and nature together, to be simultaneously intent upon environmental conservation and social justice, to theorize and yet adhere to praxis, to synthesize ideas through the messy complexity, day to day challenges, and urgent demands of the majority of the world’s peoples and places—i.e. a critical modernist ethic (though perhaps bounded within a ‘constrained constructivism’), is no less important today than it was when Piers Blaikie began his exceptional career.

Although it is a dramatically difficult time to maintain optimism, Piers Blaikie dares to believe that our work can contribute to a more socially and environmentally just future. He continues to challenge us with pertinent questions: How might PE, with its focus on the interrelationship between environmental destruction and social inequality, and with core values of social justice and equity, help us overcome the ‘vacuum of responsibility’, and engage the political realities of unequal power and control? Blaikie argues that, in a sense, PE’s ‘incoherence’ is a risk worth preserving precisely because it provides a flexible non-dogmatic approach to ‘real world’ problems and their complexities. As such, it allows alliances with a wide range of others (not merely policy elites), and coalitions with individuals and groups in civil society, often in surprising places. This is Blaikie’s guardedly optimistic approach.

For not only the ideas and actions of a lifetime embedded in local to global practices, but also for the very long and hard work, often hidden from view, that is required to produce the quality of his ideas and actions—we owe Piers Blaikie a collective debt of gratitude

Joshua Muldavin, March 2009

 

© CAPE

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