Out of sight/site, out of mind: the challenge of studying what really matters in political ecology

According to Marx, a defining characteristic of capitalism is the way that the social relations involved in the production of commodities are obscured: he called this ‘commodity fetishism’, suggesting that we see commodities as ‘inanimate objects worshipped for their supposed magical powers’ (OED). So, for example, when we buy a cheap T-shirt or the latest gadget we can exist in a bubble of ignorance about the social and ecological consequences of their production. This allows us to carry on consuming, and capitalism to carry on churning out surplus value, without too many difficult questions being asked about things like labour rights or pollution.

Political ecology scholarship regularly, and rightly, calls attention to these hidden processes and seeks to shed light onto them. For example, a recent paper by Martin Arboleda argues that one cannot understand the dynamics of urban areas, with their towers of steel and glass and hyperconsuming citizens, without also understanding the connected dynamics that produce immense holes in the ground and gigantic livestock factories in distant rural locations, with all of their social and ecological consequences. The one could not exist without the other, and so to understand them, Alboreda argues that we must understand (and therefore conduct research in) both.

This is a compelling argument, but in practice it presents two important challenges. First, it isn’t always easy to know where to look for the concealed relations of fetishized commodities, precisely because they are so well hidden. Second, even where the concealed relations that go into the production of commodities can be uncovered, studying them in detail can be very difficult, requiring fieldwork in multiple locations and sometimes multiple languages. This work can also be fraught with potential danger, as the underbelly of capitalism can be reluctant to give up its secrets. Continue reading

Diva species: flagships that sink the fleet

Take any introductory class in conservation biology and you are bound to learn about umbrella species and flagship species; two of the main tools in the conservationist’s toolbox. Umbrella species occur when the conservation of one species (the umbrella) leads indirectly to the conservation of other species, usually because the umbrella species needs a lot of space. Flagship species are those that have particular resonance with an important conservation audience, such as donors, tourists or local people, allowing the flagship to generate resources and support that can be used to conserve many other species.

So far, so much like a conservation biology textbook. But are things always this simple? A lot has been written on these concepts and their practice, and I don’t make any claim to be familiar with it all. But I do have some first-hand experience of a situation in which the flagships and umbrellas began to look like they might get pretty leaky. Continue reading