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Humans Improving the Environment, and Relativism in Practice

Perhaps the most interesting piece of political ecology that has been produced thus far is the work of James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, who challenge some prevailing notions of environmental degradation in Africa. Along the border between the Sahelian savanna and the tropical rain forests in west Africa, we find numerous patches of forest amid grassland. The prevailing notion among government and development agency personnel was that human activity had destroyed large swaths of forest, turning it into savanna through indiscriminate burning, farming, and overgrazing. They rushed to slap restrictions on the use of the remaining bits of forest, hoping to preserve them from destruction by limiting human activity.

Through some careful use of historical sources, Fairhead and Leach found that just the opposite was true. The areas in question were "naturally" pure savanna, and human activity had created the forest patches. Fallow fields and areas around villages had the soil conditions necessary to support forest growth (it's unclear whether the forest, once established, is self-sustaining, or whether continued human disturbance is necessary to prevent the savanna from encroaching). Think about that: it's an example of an instance of human activity not degrading, but improving an ecosystem.

This research launched a major new school of political ecology, superseding the older Marxist-structuralist variety. However, from my perspective the second wave of political ecology focused on the wrong parts of Fairhead and Leach's work. This new school (well represented in The Lie of the Land, edited by Leach and Robin Mearns) was drawn to Fairhead and Leach's analysis of why the powers that be had gotten the story of the African savanna-forest mosaic so wrong. They drew on a variety of constructivist, poststructural, and postmodern theories to critique other prevailing environmental narratives.

Constructivists fight a constant battle against accusations of relativism. To some degree I sympathize, as many critics lump all left-of-positivist theories together and are reflexively hostile to any attempt to question the workings of science. On the other hand, to answer the charge of relativism it is not enough to assert that one is not relativist. The real test is not whether you say "material" a lot, but whether your analytic approach gives us any tools for grappling with the external world.

Unfortunately, most constructivists do not. By going beyond constructivism as a method of challenging particular stories, into constructivism as an overarching philosophy, they lose their grasp of any means of researching nature itself in order to talk in a more radical way about our ideas of nature. This is made apparent in the actual products of constructivist research. Rarely do we see carefully documented assertions about what the state of the environment actually is, of the kind Fairhead and Leach made. At best, we get a sort of rotating hypocrisy -- while the writer's constructivist lens is focused like a laser on the scientific discourse in question, he or she draws without critical comment on other scientific findings. The findings of a few "new ecology" studies are presented as uncompicatedly accurate in the course of a ruthless deconstruction of a narrative based on a few "old ecology" studies. At most, this use of science will be justified through its political efficacy -- constructivists are always at pains to stress that their constructivism does not lead them to question the basic idea that humans are using nature unsustainably, even as they deconstruct environmental institutions' use of science to buttress that claim.

Constructivist relativism is bad, and constructivism that conceals a realist backside is incoherent. What we need is a philosophy that can recognize how societies might construct accurate answers, thus properly merging constructivist insights about how knowledge is produced with the realist goal of producing accurate knowledge. I understand that Dianne Rocheleau's more recent work has actually engaged with the prevailing theories in biology, rather than asserting that the natural sciences must become constructivist (and wishfully thinking they're on their way) before such engagement is possible. Perhaps that's what I ought to be reading next.


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