Afghan Massacre: Convoy of Death

>> Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I haven't been blogging much this summer. Been focusing on writing for publication. Instead I will direct you to some interesting things found on the web recently. This video is a must see:


Political Ecology of Shifting Cultivation

>> Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Rasul, G. 2007. Political Ecology of the Degradation of Forest Commons in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. Environmental Conservation 34, no. 02: 153-163.

While there are many definitions of political ecology, all political ecologies share a common set of assumptions, similar mode of explanation, and a rejection of “apolitical” ecological explanations of social environmental change (Robbins 2004). Blaikie and Brookfield (1987) define political ecology as a combination of “the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy. Together this encompasses the constantly shifting dialectic between society and land-based resources, and also within classes and groups within society itself” (p. 17). While this definition is good, political ecology from an institutional perspective similar to Ostrom (2007) is a “confluence between ecologically rooted social science and the principles of political economy” (Peet and Watts 1996, 6). Rather than dwell on definitions, I will let the definition of political ecology be made clear through the discussion of a study of the degradation of forest commons in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), Bangladesh.

Golam Rasul (2007) challenges the widely held belief of the United Nations and national governments that shifting cultivation is the major cause of deforestation in South East Asia. Instead, deforestation cannot be understood without also understanding the political and social processes and historical legacies that condition the access, control, and management of resources (Bryant 1997). To understand these social and political processes, Rasul (2007) collected information from colonial reports, official documents, diaries of colonial administrators and travelers’ books, journals, and censuses. The data collected from these secondary sources was supplemented with field visits, non-participant observation, and key informant interviews. Informants were selected to capture the variety of views held by different stakeholders (local people, forest officials, revenue department, civil society, business community, and traditional institutions). Rasul (2007) interviewed informants informally using checklists. These checklists had similar common elements, but differed according to the expertise and knowledge of informants, in order to capture different aspects of forest management knowledge. “Useful” key informants (circle chiefs, tribal leaders, and forest officials) were interviewed more than once, and the information received was verified against different sources to avoid bias.

Rasul (2007) uses the data from these secondary and primary sources to analyze the political and legal changes that have influenced access, control, and management of CHT in the pre-colonial, British colonial and post-colonial (Pakistan and Bangladesh periods) eras. This historical trend is summarized (as concise as possible) in Table 3. Rasul (2007) demonstrates that the process of deforestation became prevalent in the British colonial period as the British nationalized forests extracted timber for revenue, planted monocultures of teak, and alienated indigenous people from traditional forest management practices. The post colonial government continued to follow these policies as they tried to further centralize power and control over forests. While post-colonial government sought control over the forests, deforestation continued due to corruption, illegal timber trade, improved road connections to forests, and increasing indifference among the local people. Finally, this poor management regime, which was de facto open access, led to reduced trust and confidence between ethnic communities and the government, and ultimately to armed conflict. This open access situation is contrasted with the traditional shifting cultivation system of the tribal communities, which controlled the use of the forest by outsiders (Rasul 2007). Thus, the claim that shifting cultivation is the cause of deforestation in CHT is too simplistic, and instead of banning this practice, Rasul (2007) recommends a series of policies that could alleviate the conflicts over the forests of Chittagong.

Rasul (2007) provides a historical account of CHT that demonstrates a shifting dialectic between forests and society, particularly a dialectic between indigenous people, colonial power, and the institutional legacies of colonial power (See Table 5 for details). A diversity of methods is employed, including an analysis of historical documents and semi-structured interview. Some important methodological aspects come out of this study. First, when using ethnographic methods, the ability to establish rapport with informants is crucial. Under conditions of low trust, as we might expect under conditions of potential armed conflict between groups, the ability to obtain accurate information, or any information from informants becomes difficult. Furthermore, social conflicts may make it hard for some social groups to be able to get interviews. Additionally, the ability to communicate in the same language would completely rule me out of this type of ethnographic research, unless I was able to collaborate with someone who could communicate effectively, and establish rapport with the stakeholders involved in this account.

Additionally, Rasul (2007) states that the data from interviews were verified by checking them with different sources, but does not state which sources were used for verification. Furthermore, when reading the article, it is difficult to determine when Rasul (2007) is discussing information from historical data, or from informants. This leaves the reader somewhat unable to understand how the historical and ethnographic data were combined. Nevertheless, this political ecology study demonstrates the importance of putting institutional changes relating to SESs into a socio-political context. By understanding the processes that have led to deforestation, loss of confidence and trust, and weakening of traditional institutions, we can understand how policy and economics affects SESs, and begin to develop solutions to these problems within a given context.


Cholera and Interdisciplinary Science in 19th Century London

>> Wednesday, May 6, 2009

From: The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. Johnson, S. 2006.

Johnson describes the scavengers of London’s underclass in the 19th century, who performed the daily tasks of recyclers in the city. Numbering over one hundred thousand people, the scavengers recycled compost, metals, cloth and other materials. These forms of recycling have been found in all cities, and our current recycling system is a new less dangerous or labor intensive method. With the invention of water closets, water use increased and more excrement was flushed into cesspools, exacerbated by population increases. With this rise in excrement in the city, and the inability of recyclers to deal with it, came the rise of Cholera. Soho, a site of an earlier plague became an important location, both for Cholera outbreaks, and as a location for urban poets, artists, and writers like Marx, Blake, and Shelley. Much of the Soho area was located above a mass plague burial pit. John Snow became an important figure in medicine, and Soho was the grounds in which he examined the causal relationships between water and Cholera outbreaks.

John Snow was first focused on the use of ether for anesthetic. His method of bridging between different disciplines, from properties of gases, to dosage in humans and their effects on individuals, to the development of devices to control dosages. This unique type of thinking was more focused on chains and networks moving from scale to scale. Snow’s interest in Cholera, however, moved him from the individual to study of social groupings. While the contagionists argued for a Cholera contagion passed from person to person, and the miasmatists argued that Cholera lingered in unsanitary places, Snow argued that the disease was a contagion that is transferred through water, and not air, and provided evidence that showing that Cholera’s effects were related to shared water supplies. During an outbreak in Soho, both John Snow and Henry Whitehead began separate investigations. While Snow began to map out the cases of Cholera deaths in order to determine its location, Whitehead began to notice the class differentiation of cholera contraction, and the ability to fight off the disease. Additionally, Whitehead found that the water responsible for Cholera deaths ceased to cause people to contract the disease after a certain amount of time.

Edmund Cooper’s map successfully proved that the plague pit was not responsible for the cholera outbreak, but the map was too detailed to show that the culprit was actually the water pumps. Snow used voronoi diagrams to show the correspondence between Cholera cases, water pumps and footpaths. This map reflected an intimate street-level knowledge combined with a birds-eye view. Snow’s map provided further evidence for his waterborne theory, but his theory was not accepted until years later. Whitehead used this map in combination with an index of cases to further support the theory. Snow and Whitehead were using a new method for exploring urban space, and a model for managing and sharing information based on two principles; the importance of local experts and the lateral cross disciplinary flow of ideas.

Through the telling of the story of John Snow and Henry Whitehead, the author highlights the important and unique attributes of these people that allowed them to see beyond the dominant theories of the time, and make a breakthrough in the understanding of Cholera, disease, and urban environmental health. Scientists tend to think that our sophisticated techniques of analyzing spatial/temporal problems have developed with the increasing sophistication of our tools (i.e. satellites, laboratories, chemical assays, genetic analysis). The story of Snow and Whitehead demonstrates that unique flows of information between people, local knowledge, and the simple method of representing data on a hand-drawn map can lead to scientific breakthrough. While the tools we have at our disposal have vastly increased our capabilities, it is the ability to utilize multiple forms of knowledge, local context, and a fresh perspective with these tools that can lead to further breakthroughs.


Harvey's Dialectics

>> Monday, April 27, 2009

From David Harvey's Justice, nature, and the geography of difference.

Historical materialist enquiry infused with dialectics can integrate themes of space, place, and environment into both social and literary theory.

Literary theorists have brought about resurgence in dialectics, setting the stage for confrontations in social theory between positivism, materialism, and empiricism, with phenomenology, hermeneutics, and dialectics. Parallel modes of thinking:

1) Notion of “thing” as something that has history and has external connection

2) Notion of “process” containing history and possible futures, and “relation” containing ties with other relations Duality has no purchase in dialectics, yet the debate does have significance in regards to the abstraction of phenomena we encounter in everyday life.
Dialectics in 11 propositions:

1) “Dialectical thinking emphasizes the understanding of processes, flows, fluxes, and relations over the analysis of elements, things, structures, and organized systems.”

2) “Elements or “things” are constituted out of flows, processes, and relations operating within bounded fields which constitute structured systems or wholes.

3) The “things” and systems which many researchers treat as irreducible and therefore unproblematic are seen in dialectical thought as internally contradictory by virtue of the multiple processes that constitute them.

4) “Things” are always assumed “to be internally heterogeneous” at every level.”

a) What looks like a system at one level becomes a part at another level?

b) The only way we can understand the qualitative and quantitative attributes of “things” is by understanding the processes and relations they internalize.” Contradiction is a union of two or more internally related processes that are simultaneously supporting and undermining one another.”

c) “There is no limitation to be put on the argument.” We do not internalize everything, but only what is relevant.

d) Setting boundaries is a major strategic consideration. What is relevant, at what scale?

5) “Space and time are neither absolute nor external to processes but are contingent and contained with them. Processes do not operate in but actively construct space and time and in so doing define distinctive scales for their development.”

6) “Parts make whole, and whole makes part.”

7) The interdigitation of parts and whole entails “the interchangeability of subject and object, of cause and effect.”

8) Creativity arises out of contradictions from the heterogeneity in systems and internalized heterogeneity of “things”.

9) All aspects of all systems change

10) Dialectical enquiry is a process that produces permanences that can be supported or undermined by continuing processes of enquiry.

11) Exploration of “possible worlds, or potentialities is central do dialectical thinking

To the extent to which you replace labor power with machines, the market is reduced as unemployment increases. This means that the market has to expand, rewarding the rich and those who are not unemployed and have the money to consume more. Capitalism thus creates uneven development. This contradiction is manifested in crises.


The above 11 dialectical concepts attempt to allow us to accept a strong view of dialectics, that the world is inherently dialectic, while according to Marx’s practice, focusing on socio-economic systems. The dialectic approach implies that the search for order must be replaced with a search for generative principles that produce different types of orders.


Cartesian thinking is lacking in some ways. It cannot cope with change and process except in terms of comparative statics, feed back loops, or linear rates of change.


Capital is conceptualized as a process or as a relation rather than a thing. He further states that we must concentrate our attention to the transformative moment of production if we want to understand the creative mechanisms of transforming the process of capitalism. The labor process and its appropriation allow capital to flow. Marx’s ideas have required further specialization, and can be used to explain processes and flows occurring today. But dialectics is not free from destructive misappropriation and a trenchant unchanging view of the world, but neither is any other form of worldview (i.e. Capitalism).


Weak Actor-Network Theories: Hybrid Nature

>> Sunday, April 19, 2009

Summary of:


The first version of social constructionist arguments is that nature is socially and culturally given meaning, and thus we can never know nature in-and-of-itself. The second version argues that nature is increasingly reconstituted materially as it is physically produced and reproduced as industrial science and technology becomes increasingly profit driven. Both versions agree that nature is both humanly fabricated, and a tool or effect of power. These views, however, along with natural realism that it rejects all lack the ability to imagine human-nature relations as anything but dualities. Actor network theory (ANT) has been proposed as a way to imagine the world as hybrid, chimeric, complex, and entangled. It is founded on four important concepts.

Binarism – ANT argues for an amodern ontology recognizing hybrids or quazi-objects. This type of thinking compels us to think relationally instead of in terms of separations. Thus, through the metaphor of the network, we instead look at chains of connections between so-called social and natural entities. Instead of assuming that the same general processes drive different networks, ANT posits that the processes determining the dynamics of a network are internal, and explanations can only emerge after the network is described.

Symmetry – ANT argues for a symmetrical greening of human geography in which nature is not thought of in ecocentric or anthropocentric terms, instead as a hybrid. The social and the natural are co-constitutive within networks.

Actors as networks – Instead of assuming that significant actors are human, ANT argues that every actor is also a network, and actors are social and natural. This means that agency is a relational effect caused by the interacting components of the network. Additionally, capacities of actants vary according to their place within a network. This is a notion of actors and actions as multiple, contingent, and non-essentialist.

Power Relations – ANTs argue that power is not centralized; instead it is shared involving “myriad natural actants as much as social ones”. To see power as solely a human attribute is to be deceived and to “overstate the power of power”.

Castree and MacMillan argue for a more weak form of ANT to go along with a weak constructionism. First, they argue that ANT obscures the difference by flattening out out things in the world as being the same. Second, there still is the potential that the processes, which make up and make actor-networks, could be the same. Third, strong ANT in refusing any prior explanations, it is unclear what kind of explanations can be taken, and no theoretical commitments or commitments to weighing social forces. Finally, ANT risks ignoring the possibility of that some actants do have more power over others, and thus can limit the abilities of others.

Thus Castree and MacMillan argue for a weak ANT, remaining critical to duality, asymmetry, limited conceptions of agents, and centralized power. But at the same time weak ANT would concede that many actor-networks are driven by similar processes, these processes are social and natural, but not necessarily equal in measure, agents vary in their ability to direct power, and that the objective remains to develop a politics of nature attuned by o both human and social needs.


Historical and Ethnographic Analysis of the Conceptualization of Natural Landscapes

>> Friday, April 17, 2009

In Laura Ogden’s article of the politics of nature of the Everglades, the concept of the Everglades was transformed from Tansey’s original mechanistic concept, to the interconnected socio-ecological systems concept. Finally, this concept was further transformed through the bureaucratization of the ecosystem concept into separate and technocratically controlled units. This type of research can be said to be similar to theory laid out by Foucault’s analysis of madness, sexuality, and the body among others, wherein knowledge is created as a product of power, and power operates through this socially constructed knowledge. In this case, a certain type of knowledge is created that benefits the technocratic and bureaucratic agencies and the continued application of this knowledge. Laura Ogden’s use of ethnographic and historical methods has effectively revealed the gaps left open by this particular type of knowledge, and the importance for a greater degree of agency among a diverse group of people in knowledge production in the context of socionatural relations.

In the second article on the ‘smoothing out’ of the Royal Palm Hammock region of the everglades, rural whites were first depended upon as guides for naturalists, and later alienated from the land. This was done by the separation of European whites from nature, the concept that any ‘civilization’ is detrimental to the Royal Palm, and the emphasis on rational technocratic knowledge. This study, while similar in methods to the politics of nature article, emphasizes the creation of the “pristine myth”. To dispel this pristine myth is of importance to the re-establishment of other forms of knowledge. Sluyter’s (2003) study of the transformation of the landscape of early Colonial Mexico shows how the pristine myth can erase a history of potentially sustainable relations with the land by the construction and production of “pristine” environments. Similarly, Laura Ogden’s study reveals the history of a region that was both social and natural, while additionally being of great interest to naturalists and scientists.

While the below articles have revealed important gaps and political agendas in the dominant ecological knowledge, it is important to understand the objectives of this type of research. While some critics could liken this type of research to current streams of argument for the social constructivism of climate change, a distinction must be made between what Demeritt (2001) describes as construction-as-refutation and construction-as-philosophical-critique. While the former makes a giant leap from the social construction of certain types of knowledge to the refutation of that entire body of knowledge, the latter emphasizes the importance of being reflexive on our knowledge and contextualizing and situating our knowledge into a broad range of perspectives. It is in this sense that Laura Ogden’s study can be of great benefit to the conceptualization of the socionatural landscapes of the Everglades, and greater agency of different social groups in future management policies.

Sluyter, A. 2003. Material-conceptual landscape transformation and the emergence of the pristine myth in early Colonial Mexico. In. Political Ecology: an integrative approach to geography and environment-development studies Ed. Zimmerer K. Z. and Bassett. T. J. The Guilford Press, NY, pp. 221-239

Demeritt, D. 2001. Being constructive about nature. In. Social nature: Theory, practice, and politics. Eds. Castree N., and Braun B. Blackwell Publishes, MA, pp. 22-40

Part 1: The Everglades ecosystem and the politics of nature. Ogden. L. 2008.

In this article Ogden (2008) traces the institutional history of the scientific concept of the ecosystem as it was applied to policy and environmental science in restoration efforts in the Florida Everglades. She analyzes the quasi-government organizations and government bureaucracies involved in Everglades restoration planning and implementation, as well as the political agendas and knowledge systems and the knowledge production within these institutions.

From the early to mid 20th century, the Everglades were considered to be uncivilized lands to be drained, settled, and made productive by human hands. The Corps initiated a massive construction project to achieve these ends, diverting excess freshwater to the oceans. But this reengineering project was linked to ecological problems. Guided by the ecosystem approach, the U.S. congress authorized CERP. This ecosystem approach assumes that the natural world can be separated by semi-permeable boundaries with internal interactions, and that ecosystems are adaptable, resilient, and exhibiting alternative stable states. This concept of the ecosystems differs largely from Tansley’s original mechanistic modernist concept. Yet this concept was redefined as it became incorporated into the policy of state and non-state institutions. Ogden (2008) documents this process of bureaucratization of knowledge with the use of participant observation, semistructured interviews of policy makers and scientists, and the analysis of official documents.

Before the concept of the ecosystem was applied to the Everglades, the landscape was a set of resources to be managed. As this landscape was rapidly undergoing transformation, the scientific research of the Everglades was narrowly constrained by the bureaucracies that employed scientists. Through the control of funds and resources, and strictly defined boundaries to research protocols, the scientific approach to problem solving was fragmented and limited to local scales. Environmental NGOs helped to transfer information between scientists and administrators, allowing interagency collaboration, and helping to transform the culture of Everglades science and management. This led to a broader perspective on the Everglades as an ecosystem, but humans were not included in this model. Instead, they were abstract external impacts, and their variation as differently embedded into global and national markets was homogenized.

This ecocentric approach began to shift to reflect the interdisciplinary focus of ecosystem studies. Through the Commission for a Sustainable South Florida, the emerging concepts of the interconnectability inseparability of society, economy, and ecosystems was transformed as it was separated into domains, managed by separate entities. With the implementation of CERP, the ecosystem concept was bureaucratized resulting in conflicts between the attributing of expertise to those organizations (such as the Corps) that historically has failed in their stewardship roles, and the ecosystem as a nonlinear uncertain system. Ignoring the uncertainty of ecological knowledge, the approach to the everglades was transformed into a technocratic management plan.

Part 2: Searching for paradise in the Florida Everglades. Ogden L.A. 2008.

This narrative article accounts the rise of Royal Palm Hammock in the Florida everglades and the contributions of the local experiences to scientific knowledge. Ogden (2008) reviews scientific papers, letters, fieldnotes, photographs, bibliographies of naturalists, newspaper articles and published accounts of fieldwork from the late 1800s through to the mid 1930s, in order to understand the cultural history of the scientific process. Much of this literature has ignored the human history of the hammock, emphasizing ecological worth and rarity. This history includes the encroachment of white settlers on indigenous land , the genocide of indigenous people, as well as the subsequent removal of white settlers to create a ‘pristine’ national park. This type of research is essential to the understanding of the continuation of colonialist rhetoric that frame the disputes of land use between indigenous people and the national parks. Additionally, Ogden (2008) conducted interviews with alligator hunters to demonstrate how the once blurry distinction between human and natural world have now been separated.

While indigenous people were considered to be a part of nature, nonindigenous people were abstracted from nature and considered out of place. In order to protect Royal Palm Hammock, it needed to be transformed into a ‘smooth object’, ontology devoid of conflict, or incongruities, or human-nature entanglements. The Royal Palm Hammock and the people that inhabited the region were ‘generified’ into intelligible, stable categories. Naturalists from the late 1800s to mid 1930s did not recognize the connections rural whites had to the site, saw all white presence as detrimental, and portrayed the ways of knowing the landscape as intuitive despite their fundamental dependents on local rural whites.

In order to assert the ecological importance and rarity of Royal Palm, naturalists were required to conduct intensive research, surveys, fieldwork, and replicable scientific progress. To do this, naturalists depended upon the expertise of white rural guides, who knew the area as alligator hunters, trappers, and traders. Interviews with alligator hunters indicated that both Seminoles and whites continued to hunt and camp in the hammocks of Royal Palm, even after the establishment of the hammock as a state park in 1916 and a national park in 1947. This picture of the national park runs contrary to the narrative of the region as a pristine and undiscovered landscape, yet naturalists achieved this by categorizing the rural whites as deviant, unsophisticated and detrimental to the ecological integrity of the area.

To combat the unsophisticated and destructive activities of rural whites, the conservationist discourse emphasizes the rationality of technocratic expertise in managing land and resources. This technocratic knowledge, originally dependent on local knowledge becomes a means to the removal of rural whites from the Royal Palm region. To this conservation approach, all signs of ‘civilization’ (a term that excluded the Seminoles) is a threat to Royal Palm.


The Power Relations of Parks

>> Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Patapsco Forest Reserve: Establishing a “City Park” for Baltimore, 1907-1941. Buckley et al. 2006.
We can better understand progressive era park building by considering the historical web of relationships involved in the formation Patapsco Forest Reserve. In this article, the history of this process is described by an examination of landownership records, state government documents, newspapers, accounts, and original reports of the Olmsted brothers.
As the City Beautiful movement became popular in the U.S. at the turn of the century, Romantic Era parks were altered to accommodate a more diverse general public, as well as recreational and aesthetic demands. This meant a shift from lawns and flowers to athletic facilities. While the Municipal Art Society initially focused on decorating and improving the aesthetics of the city, the Society’s Committee was authorized to collaborate with landscape architects in order to create a scheme for parks, street planning, drainage and development of suburban regions. The Park Report submitted by the Olmsted Brothers was favorably received, and Major Richard M. Venable of the Board of Park Commissioners successfully secured funding for the project. One recommendation from the Olmsted plan was the purchase of land beyond city limits to secure there is plenty of protected park areas as the city grows. The Patapsco Valley was purchased for this purpose.

State Forester Fred W. Besley, inspired by Gifford Pinchot, promoted state forest reserves for the “ecosystem services” they provide, including timber production and water purification. The Forest Conservation Act granted the Board authority to protect and improve state parks, condemn land, and purchase and accept gifts of land. As concern over the fate of Patapsco Valley began to grow, Besley sought to form an alliance with the elites of Baltimore in order to strengthen his scientific forestry plans, and the influence of the State Board of Forestry. Besley rallied support from Baltimore’s economic establishment to testify before the Maryland General Assembly (1912) for funds to purchase property to expand the Patapsco Valley Reserve to the banks of the Patapsco River. He ended up receiving twice the appropriation requested, as well as support from the Municipal Art Society. By 1956, a total acreage of 3,2144.875 acres was secured through donations and purchases for the Patapsco Reserve. Land was contributed by private residents, mostly of the upper class, and industries that had been adversely affected by sediment buildup and increased silt in the river and dams.

The forest reserve was marketed to the public as a park, allowing middle and upper class (those with the means to get to the park) Baltimoreans to get close to nature. Thus, Baltimore’s Progressives transformed Besley’s idea of the park as a timber reserve into a place of scenic beauty. Since Besley did not want to bound and separate scenic parks from timber reserves, he continued to garner support from the Baltimore public for conservation of the Patapsco Park.
Despite the goals of building parks throughout the city by the Olmsted brothers, this favoring of outlying parks reinforced the orientation of the middle and upper classes to suburban regions.