CAPErs Spotlight

CAPErs Spotlight is a micro-interview series aimed at getting to know our faculty, post-doctoral, and graduate student members three questions at a time.

Megan Ybarra (Associate Professor, University of Washington) — 2019 Outstanding Publication Award Winner

  1. What aspects of political ecology, or emergent research directions within the sub-discipline, do you currently find exciting?
    This is an exciting time for new directions in political ecology! I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways that abolition and decolonization may be incommensurable (pace Tuck & Yang 2012), and the opportunities for collective knowledge production in grappling with these incommensurabilities. For political ecologists, our engagement with human and non-human ecologies demands that we learn from theories of abolition and decolonization as we rethink nature. For example, I was recently blown away by a talk that Sarah Hunt shared at UW Seattle on Tłaliłila’ogwa  “gathering at the shoreline” as a way to rethink methodologies and knowledge production. Sarah’s talk has helped me to rethink reparation as relations of repair in land/human relations that is not about closure, but continuation. Nik Heynen describes some of these directions as an “abolition ecology,” and I’m working with him on a special issue that offers empirically engaged examples of what abolition geography can bring to bear in political ecology. Likewise, I have been really pleased to see political ecologists increasingly drawing on the work of scholars like Clint Carroll, Andrew Curley and Michelle Daigle in Indigenous Studies.
  2. Which political ecology texts do you always include in your syllabi, and why?
    I have two go-to texts. Carolyn Finney’s Black Faces, White Spaces is an accessible and incisive intervention that I use in my classes to think through the limits of multicultural inclusion (as opposed to institutional transformation), as well as the need to bridge the gap between environmentalism and environmental justice.
    Paul Robbins’ Lawn People is indispensable to challenge students to question ideologies that underlie environmentally rational decision-making. At the same time, centering the relationship between middle-class homeowners and their suburban lawns subtly reshapes our understanding of who “needs” political ecology.
  3. Are you currently reading or listening to something that you would recommend to the CAPE community?
    I just finished reading The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. I love the way that his musings on the violence of the Black experience and the joys of cooking (punctuated with recipes) offer a through-line from Judy Carney’s history of Black Rice and the role of African Diaspora chattel slaves in innovating USA food systems into the present, and the future. I haven’t cooked from any of the recipes yet, but I plan to over winter break.

W. Nathan Green (PhD Candidate, UW-Madison) — 2019 Student Paper Award Winner

  1. What attracted you to political ecology?
    I first became attracted to political ecology in the fall of 2006 while studying abroad in northern India as a geography undergraduate at the University of Washington. Our group from UW was based in the mountainous state of Uttarakhand, which borders Nepal to the southeast and China to the northeast. The curriculum was very intense for a study abroad program — we were taking three courses including introduction to political ecology, forest ecology of the Himalaya, and intermediate Hindi. We also had to do independent research projects based upon original field work. It was my first experience conducting research in a different country using a second language, and I absolutely loved the challenge of it. With the help of my Hindi teacher, I conducted a qualitative study on local forest management, in which I compared how community-level access rules within three different villages led to variable forest cover. Sure, I could have studied introduction to political ecology in a classroom back in Seattle, and maybe I would have still found it interesting. But working with people, speaking another language, tromping through forests, all while working through concepts from Robbins’ book? I was hooked. Though my research interests and geographical focus have since changed, I’ll always remember that first project as the beginning of my attraction to political ecology.
  2. Describe a recent research a-ha moment.
    My most recent research a-ha moment came while in Cambodia this summer as part of Dr. Jefferson Fox’s new Agrarian Transition of Mainland Southeast Asia research project, funded by NASA. I was leading a team of researchers in northwestern Cambodia, where we were conducting a large-scale survey about how rice agriculture has changed over the past twenty years. We were about halfway through our survey when I started to hear over and over again about people’s troubles with a newly-built Chinese irrigation system that will cost the Cambodian government more than $100 million to finance. Farmers were complaining about how much debt they had fallen into in the last couple of years because their crops had failed. Many of them had radically altered their farming practices because they were told they would have access to dry-season irrigation water. However, due to a lack of rainfall, low water storage capacity, and institutional mismanagement, there has not been reliable water in the irrigation canals since the system was completed in 2015. I had gone into this project knowing that Cambodian farmers were struggling with debt — this being the topic of my recent dissertation — but it was the first time I had heard about such a clear link between the failed promises of irrigation and the rise of household indebtedness. This connection between water, farmer debt, and irrigation developmentalism has given me a lot to think about in terms of my continued work about the financial landscapes of agrarian change.
  3. What must-have item do you always pack with you for fieldwork?
    I never go into the field without a krama. The krama is a Cambodian scarf, often the size of a beach towel, made out of very thin cotton and patterned like a white and red checkerboard. It’s ubiquitous in the rural countryside, especially amongst older men and women. The krama is so popular because it costs about $1 and is used for pretty much everything—as a towel, a skirt, a scarf, a hat for sun protection, or a sling for carrying all sorts of stuff. For me, since it weighs next to nothing and dries off in minutes after a bath, it’s definitely my must-have item for the field.

Nicole Van Lier (PhD Candidate, University of Toronto) — 2019 Scholar-Activist Award Winner

  1. What attracted you to political ecology?
    I think what first attracted me to political ecology — and what has held my attention since — is the way this approach to research can give material or geographic expression to multi-scalar and (at times) seemingly-abstract structures like settler colonialism. Much can be explored and revealed through a focus on how societies organize their relationships to human and more-than-human natures. I am also encouraged by a growing awareness in the field to recognize the longstanding roots that some of PE’s foundational insights on socio-natures have in Indigenous epistemologies, and by efforts to explore opportunities for synergy between these knowledge systems.
  2. How does political ecology help you pursue your research interests?
    My research looks at the relationship between water pollution abatement and the contested scalar politics of access to and control over water in the St. Clair-Detroit River corridor, where water access (in quantitative and qualitative terms) remains socially and spatially uneven. This transboundary waterway between Michigan and Ontario is heavily industrialized, heavily urbanized, and populated by multiple sovereigns, including Indigenous nations, claiming and enacting authority over water. Political ecology provides a framework that allows me to take seriously the materiality of water and its degradation at two contested sites of reproduction: the social and cultural reproduction of local communities on both sides of the border; and the reproduction and unsettling of settler colonial and capitalist environmental regulatory regimes across a multiply-determined waterscape.
  3. Are you currently reading or listening to something that you would recommend to the CAPE community?
    I recently read Eric Perramond’s (2019) new book, Unsettled Waters: Rights, Law, and Identity in the American West. In it he articulates how state efforts to “simplify” water use rights in politically, culturally, and ecologically diverse watersheds across the state of New Mexico end up entrenching racial hierarchies and stirring up conflicts over access rights that had been largely functional under customary governance systems. Although the political ecological context differs in important ways from the one I study — Perramond writes of access adjudications motivated by real and perceived water scarcity, which cannot and does not explain uneven water access in the heart of the Great Lakes basin — there are important insights here for my work and for others researching state-led environmental resource management. In particular, his work is helpful in thinking through the discrepancies that materialize between the expressed objectives of the state and the lived outcomes of resource management interventions, and in understanding the production of uneven geographies of water access as a social and political process.

Kate Shields (PhD Student, University of Oregon) — 2019 CAPE Field Study Award Winner

  1. What attracted you to political ecology?
    I was trained as an epidemiologist, and and then worked with environmental engineers on applied development research in water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH). I became increasingly frustrated with the way that both traditional epidemiology and WaSH researchers looked at proximal determinants of disease/access, like the social determinants of health, but often failed to look at broader social, environmental and political contexts. For me, political ecology is a way to broaden the lens, and more critically engage with the many ways that water and health intersect.
  2. What must-have item do you always pack with you for fieldwork?
    I always pack multiple containers of hand sanitizer — a relic of my previous life studying WaSH. I also bring a Kindle — I’ve discovered that I can check-out e-books from my local library from anywhere in the world that has internet access, and it’s a lot lighter than bringing a lot of books.
  3. Are you currently reading or listening to something that you would recommend to the CAPE community?
    I’ve just finished reading Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life. Her incredibly poetic book takes readers though a tour of happiness, willfullness, the feminist killjoy, diversity work in the academy, and feminist snap before concluding with a feminist killjoy survival kit and manifesto. This book speaks to everyone I know who has read it. In particular, I find the way that Ahmed brings together theory and practice food for thought in how I would like to do my own work.

Thomas J. Bassett (Professor Emeritus, University of Illinois) — 2018 Netting Award Winner

  1. How does political ecology inform your work?
    My political ecological approach is grounded at the intersection of political economy and cultural ecology. In my recent research, whether on the cashew boom in Côte d’Ivoire, land tenure reform in West Africa, or on cartography and European colonization of Africa, my attention focuses on local resource access, control, and management practices, how the state and capital try to rework them, and how local practices invariably (re)shape these political economic initiatives in unexpected ways. My analytical frameworks are historical and multi-scalar, additional hallmarks of political ecology.
  2. What aspects of political ecology, or emergent research directions within the sub-discipline, do you currently find exciting?
    I am excited about the contributions political ecologists are making to climate change adaptation research. The adaptation concept is of longstanding interest to cultural and political ecologists. In fact, emergent political ecologists made significant theoretical contributions to the adaptation concept in the 1970s and early 1980s in their critiques of hazards research. The flowering of political ecology in the context of global climate change has significantly broadened the conversation around adaptation as the discussions of vulnerability, climate justice, and transformative adaptation indicate. I am personally interested in what Michael Watts calls “the limits of adaptability,” particularly how social relations of production and exchange undermine smallholder farmers’ capacity to cope with the everyday and long-term risks of economic and ecological uncertainty.
  3. Are you currently reading or listening to something that you would recommend to the CAPE community?
    I am currently reading Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. It is a book about indeterminate encounters in multispecies worlds. Its key words are precarity, patches, polyphonic assemblages, collaborations, entanglements, and matsutake. The mushroom grows best in human modified landscapes and circulates in global supply chains that she follows from the forest floor to high-end restaurants and gift-giving in Japan. If you are looking for an inspirational book on relational thinking, read this one.  I am looking forward to her next book, The Feral Atlas, a collaborative project scheduled to come online at Stanford University Press later this year.

Jessica Dempsey (Professor, University of British Columbia) — 2018 Blaut Award Winner

  1. How does political ecology inform your work?
    It’s everywhere, in my research and teaching. I am always thinking about environmental imaginaries — that is, particular ways environmental problems come to be understood, framed, by who, and the implications of those imaginaries in efforts to make change.
  2. Where do you think political ecology still has room to grow?
    I’ve been thinking about how the discussion of conservation in political ecology has tended to focus on the question of human cost from conservation interventions. This is for good reason given all the violences that conservation interventions have entailed. But I’ve been reading important interventions in the environmental justice literatures, where Indigenous scholars like Deborah McGregor are pushing EJ to also think about the nonhuman, and what justice might look like in relation to other species. So how can we think carefully about patterned arrangements of accumulation and liberal governance that involve persistent devaluations to human and nonhuman bodies.
  3. Which political ecology texts do you always include in your syllabi, and why?
    It’s changed; like many, I’ve realized how Anglo, white and male my syllabi were (and to be honest, still are in some cases). I’ve been waiting for Cronon’s The Trouble with Wilderness to become irrelevant for students. Every year I think, this year is the last year: his arguments must now be so obvious for students living amidst climate change and who — at least where I live and teach in Vancouver — are less steeped in wilderness politics as I was in my undergraduate degree. But every year Cronon’s essay still makes me and the students re-think the nature of environmentalism, historicize environmental imaginaries (not only wilderness), give class a central place in our discussions, and so on. The last several years I’ve added excerpts of Carolyn Finney’s book, Black Faces, White Spaces, and we’ve been focusing on why the environmental movement is so white. It makes a good and important complement to Cronon (as well as the excellent, if very American-centered Green 2.0 data and reports on diversity in the environmental movement, including Dorceta Taylor’s The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations). The Ranganathan and Pulido double-punch on Flint in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism is excellent, introducing big ideas — liberalism and racial capitalism — but helpfully using the same case study (we should do more of that!). Naomi Klein’s Said Lecture, “Let them drown: The violence of othering in a warming world,” works well alongside both of them, emphasizing not only how the burdens or harms of climate change are inequitably distributed along lines of social difference, but how abstracted, hierarchical difference-making is part of what is driving climate change.  And also over the last several years, we’ve been watching the film Angry Inuk, directed by A. Arnaquq-Baril. It focuses on the seal hunt and the effects of the E.U. banning seal products on Inuit peoples. The film hammers out how racist stereotypes about Indigenous Peoples as “non-modern” have dangerous effects.

Ashley Fent (Post-doctoral Fellow, Vassar College) — 2018 CAPE Student Paper Award Winner

  1. If you had to describe political ecology using only one text as an exemplar, which would you choose and why?
    I would choose Paul Robbins’ Lawn People. Robbins takes something that we often take for granted as part of the American landscape — the (ideally) green and weedless lawn — and demonstrates how this has been produced through entanglements between the unruly and often uncooperative turf grass ecosystem, chemical companies, housing development charters, and, of course, lawn owners themselves. I think it does a great job of making political ecology accessible and emphasizing the ways that ecologies, cultural values, and political economy are bound up together.
  2. What must-have item do you always pack with you for fieldwork?
    Since I normally end up doing research in the rainy season over the summer, the first thing that comes to mind is a dry sack — this has saved me, my notes, and my electronic devices during many a rainstorm, boat ride, or combination thereof.
  3. Are you currently reading or listening to something that you would recommend to the CAPE community?
    I’m somewhat embarrassed that I’m just now reading it, but I recently started Elizabeth Povinelli’s Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. So far, I find it fascinating in terms of thinking about how distinctions between life and non-life are embedded in Western rationalities.

Jessica DiCarlo (PhD Candidate, CU-Boulder) — 2018 CAPE Field Study Award Winner

  1. If you had to describe political ecology using only one text as an exemplar, which would you choose and why?
    While there are many texts that have become cornerstones in my political ecology library, the first that came to mind was Land’s End: Capitalist Relations on an Indigenous Frontier by Tania Murray Li. In my first political ecology course at UC Berkeley, this was an “a-ha” book. Land’s End helped me wrap my head around broader debates and themes in the field. It provided launching points for me to dig into theory and helped me make sense of some of my own experiences of fieldwork. At the same time, it paints a beautiful and textured account of agrarian transformation ‘from below.’ I was especially struck by the detail of 20 years of ethnographic work in one location.
  2. What must-have item do you always pack with you for fieldwork?
    For creature comforts, I like to have herbal tea and tinctures, podcasts for long bumpy roads, and running shoes. For research, favorite pens and an audio recorder that a good friend and research collaborator gifted me.
  3. Are you currently reading or listening to something that you would recommend to the CAPE community?
    Many things! I recently listened to Anna Tsing’s interview on the “Edge Effects” podcast; her work and thoughts consistently push my thinking in unexpected directions. I just started listening to a new podcast called “Caliphate” and I’m hooked. It’s about New York Times journalist Rukmini Callimachi’s work to understand ISIS. In the realm of the written word, I recently finished reading Dead in the Water: Global Lessons from the World Bank’s Model Hydropower Project in Laos. It is an edited volume examining the social and environmental outcomes of the Nam Thuen II Dam in Laos ten years after its construction, to show that what was viewed as a model infrastructure project has instead had profound social, environmental and economic costs. Lastly, Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Need I say more? A bonus: she reads the audiobook should you want to experience it with her personal inflections.

Megan Mills-Novoa (PhD Candidate, University of Arizona) — 2018 CAPE Field Study Award Winner

  1. How does political ecology help you pursue your research interests?
    I study how climate change adaptation projects persist over time. Political ecology orients my understanding of these projects by placing them within the context of the political economy of global adaptation aid, material impacts of climate change, and agency of adaptation experts and “beneficiary” communities. By building a research design that focuses on these key dynamics, political ecology enables me to dig into who wins and loses across scales and over time under climate change adaptation projects. 
  2. What must-have item do you always pack with you for fieldwork?
    I always bring a portable charger for my cell phone, which doubles as my recorder for interviews.
  3. Are you currently reading or listening to something that you would recommend to the CAPE community?
    I am currently reading Dilemmas of Difference: Indigenous Women and the Limits of Postcolonial Development Policy by Sarah Radcliffe. I would absolutely recommend this book for anyone thinking about intersectionality and development policy in a post-colonial context.