Political ecology, in its relatively short history, has always been a sort of weird animal in the academic world. Proudly interdisciplinary, decidedly environmentalist and unabashedly political, it wasn’t until Paul Robbins’s landmark book Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction in 2004 that we really had a very good definition for the field. Indeed, it was Robbins who demonstrated in this work that “politics are inevitably ecological and that ecology is inherently political,” and called for recognition that political ecology was not just an epistemological perspective, but rather a collection of what political ecologists are ‘doing.’
And that is?
Enter the Dimensions of Political Ecology (DOPE) Conference. Sponsored by the newly formed Political Ecology Working Group (PEWG) at the University of Kentucky, this inaugural conference hosted an array of activities February 17-19 on the campus of the University of Kentucky in Lexington. By the organizers’ count, over 160 people from 30 states and eight countries attended — certainly not bad for a first shot.
A field trip to coal country, a “Mountain Witness Tour” to examine the landscapes of mountain top removal mining was scheduled on Thursday, February 17, technically the day preceding the conference’s opening. The trip was sponsored by the PEWG, under the guide of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (KTFC). While I had originally intended to participate in this trip, my travel arrangements were disrupted and I could not make it. In talking to a number of people who did participate, the trip was a moving experience, to the point where the dean of Arts & Sciences at Kentucky is intending to make this trip mandatory of all incoming employees. Hearing the incredible feedback made me even more disappointed that I missed this trip.
The DOPE Conference (and yes, the organizers have embraced that acronym) officially kicked off on the evening of the 18th in the library auditorium, with a keynote speech from the very same Paul Robbins who sought to define the field. Robbins, a professor of geography at the University of Arizona, ran the keynote with the excitement and charisma of a revival preacher, using the chance to bring all political ecologists under the same umbrella regardless of home discipline (and many were represented). It was, perhaps, the best way to begin an inaugural conference on political ecology, because after his talk the room was motivated and pumped for an engaging weekend.
The keynote was followed by an opening reception in the difficult-to-locate Gaines Center, where casual discussion (and wine) were enjoyed by all who attended. I unfortunately could not stay long because my talk was the following morning at 8:00 am, and I didn’t want to spoil that with a nasty hangover.
I presented the basic findings of my dissertation research on Katrina to a session on Hazards & Political Ecology. I’ve already posted my paper’s draft, if you’re really that interested… What was perhaps the best part of this conference was seeing work from researchers that paralleled my own in some ways. Too often in hazards research, the practitioners try to remain objective, and remove any political insinuation from the findings; but here, three other researchers were allowing the political to manifest itself within their research on hazards and disasters. It was, in some respect liberating, but also brought a strong feeling of legitimacy to the work I’ve done, which too often felt like I was shouting down a dark hallway to no one. So, thanks to Tim Vatovec from Kentucky, Harlan Morehouse from Minnesota, Cynthia Sorrensen from Texas Tech, discussant Shaunna Scott and chair Chris Van Dyke for making this a great session, even at 8:00 in the morning!
In the next set on the schedule, I took Robbins’s unifying rhetoric to heart and I hit up a session called “Anthropology in Political Ecology.” The interesting thing is, while these folks were certainly different in their methodologies than geographers are, I would’ve sworn that they’re practicing geography in their political ecologies. If nothing else, their political ecologies were place-based studies, covering diverse locales like the East Cape of Baja California (Ryan Anderson from Kentucky), the Yucatan (Veronica Miranda from Kentucky), the Arctic (Britteny Howell from Kentucky), forested Kenya (Scott Matter from McGill) and rural Mongolia (Daniel J. Murphy from Kentucky). Though the session had, as a whole, an understandable tendency to drop more deeply into culturally contextual matters than I generally find necessary, the place-based aspect of these talks left me fascinated by what I had learned.
My curiosity carried me forward into the next session, “Environmental Politics,” which I found similarly enjoyable. I particularly enjoyed the first two talks in this room, the first by R. Cameron Lowery of Environmental Studies at College of Charleston which addressed “green” stereotypes, and the second by West Virginia geographer Autumn Long about the politics of non-capitalist food production. Each of these talks looked at socially constructed aspects of space, place and environment that were really speaking my language as a scholar of these topics.
Following these talks were a period for lunch, and because of my travel schedule, I was forced to leave before the afternoon sessions. I did want to see the screening of Deep Down: A Story from the Heart of Coal Country that was shown during the afternoon, but I’m forced to wait for my ordered copy to arrive in the mail. Bummer.
Overall, this was a great little conference. The organizers were warm and welcoming to all in attendance, and they put together a great set of events and papers. In many ways, this conference did what many fail to do: it made me feel like my work and I belonged to the larger conversation that the conference is hosting. I’ve certainly put it on my calendar for intended conferences next year, where ever I end up being by then.