GEOG 430
Human Use of the Environment

Setting the Stage: Theoretical Perspectives


Now that you've had a chance to think about how your actions and activities are connected to environmental change, we are going to take a look at some of the ways researchers have approached these questions.

Paul Robbins, director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has made significant contributions to critical scholarship on environmental politics, challenging researchers to rethink how we conceive of human-environment interactions. His impact on geography and numerous other fields has been profound, in part due to a strong commitment to interdisciplinary research. In that spirit, try to connect what you study, or have interests in, to the themes and ideas presented in these two chapters of his book, Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction.

Chapter 2: "A Tree with Deep Roots” provides a historical look at the theoretical underpinnings of much human-environment research. Robbins traces how different scholars researched and described human-environment interactions and indicates how the very act of description can be imbued with charged language replete with assumptions about the nature of things—even when scholars are working to account for those imbalances! These relationships of power are central in scholars’ descriptions—people, places, nature, and the problems encountered.

Take note of how Robbins describes the role of nature in each of these perspectives. Additionally, track how Robbins describes how critically examining the questions that research asks can reveal underlying assumptions about the world, and more specifically, about the power relations that order society. As you encounter these passages, try to think for yourself about how you could ask different questions, or what you like about how these scholars account for issues of power in the research they pursue.

This chapter will introduce you to many names and terms—you don’t have to remember all of them. When you come away from this reading, you should have a sense of how determinist, hazards, and cultural ecology frameworks approach questions of human-environment interactions. The purpose of this chapter is to get you thinking critically about the theories and assumptions underpinning research. You will find this way of thinking helpful as you continue on with the material in this course.

The excerpt you will read from “Chapter 3: The Critical Tools” describes theoretical threads of human-environment research, often referred to as political ecology. Each will provide you with tools to conceptualize different human-environment questions. These emphases are important for you to think about as you move through this course. In particular, Robbins highlights how power and ethics are related to struggles over land, resources, the means of production, and the language with which we understand these conditions. In reading this passage, you want to take note of the central issues present in each of the following:

  • Common Property Theory
  • Marxist Political Economy
  • Peasant Studies
  • Feminist Development Studies
  • Critical Environmental History
  • Postcolonial Studies

As you did with Chapter 2, take note of what these different theoretical approaches emphasize and how they engage with issues of power. What do they react to? How do they emerge from particular historical moments in world events and from within research?

Finally, reflect. Are any of these ideas surprising to you? Why? Do these perspectives change your own thinking? Do they reflect any of your own ideas?

These readings will challenge you to think critically about the very foundations of how we perceive human-environment interactions by drawing attention to the complex processes that not only shape how we view human-environment issues, but also the material conditions of those interactions. As you proceed to the next page where you will find instructions for the first discussion, think about how different perspectives shape your own ideas and interests.

Required Reading

Robbins, P. 2012. Chapter 2: A Tree with Deep Roots. In Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction, 2nd ed. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., pp. 25-48.

Robbins, P. 2012. Chapter 3: The Critical Tools. In Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction, 2nd ed. Malden, MA: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., pp. 48-72.