What is political ecology?

At a time when it is crucial for the Green Party to differentiate itself from other 'progressive' parties, Derek Wall, Green Party International Co-ordinator, revisits the history of political ecology - one of the foundations of the Party

The Green Party of England and Wales was, from 1975 to 1985, known as the Ecology Party. With the reality of climate change and the need to differentiate the Green Party from Labour, after its shift left under Corbyn, perhaps members should consider what is meant by ecology and how it can be put into practical action. 

Ecology, it should be stressed, is not simply an appreciation of the environment. The term was coined by Ernst Haekel, a late nineteenth-century German biologist in the 1860s, who studied the interrelationship of different species and how it can lead to dramatic and often unforeseen consequences. Protecting the environment means that we need to understand this science as much as possible to make sure that green intentions lead to practical results.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the word ‘ecology’ became used more and more in the media. Anxieties emerged about nuclear weapons and nuclear power, rainforest protection and, after the publication of the seminal Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, the issue of pesticides killing wild birds and harming human beings. 

The political ecology leading to the creation of Green Parties was kick-started by naturalist scientists. A key event was the publication of Blueprint for Survival in January 1972, a special issue of The Ecologist magazine, arguing for a movement to enter British politics, to win power and create an ecological society. This led to the creation of PEOPLE, which later became the Ecology Party; the predecessor to today’s Green Party.

The issue opened with the following dramatic statement: ‘An examination of the relevant information available has impressed upon us the extreme gravity of the global situation today. For, if current trends are allowed to persist, the breakdown of society and the irreversible disruption of the life-support systems on this planet, possibly by the end of the century, certainly within the lifetimes of our children, are inevitable.’ Over thirty leading British scientists signed the document, including Sir Julian Huxley and Peter Scott and 750,000 copies were sold.

While the science of ecology has evolved, revealing the inherent complexity of the biodiversity at the heart of all planetary ecosystems, it is agreed generally by scientists that biodiversity gives rise to more stable environments. The pressure for more economic growth often leads to the destruction of rich and diverse ecological communities, leading to more fragile ecosystems. So while we can manage environments and develop new technologies such as renewables, an economic system based on economic growth still seems ecologically dangerous.

Neither should it be forgotten that human beings are part of nature. Whatever we do, we interact with
the environment; it shapes us and we shape it. Often, human intervention is necessary to maintain diverse environments. A dramatic example is fire ecology. Although climate change forest fires are increasing, deliberate burning is used in some parts of the world to protect trees.

On Cape Barren Island, off Tasmania, local people with expertise in traditional land management make ‘cool fires’. Experts in weather and vegetation, they use their knowledge to light seasonal fires to burn piles of dry leaves. Without them the leaves would accumulate, acting as a tinder box for accidental forest fires, amplifying the scope of and danger posed by such fires. One member of the Cape Barren Island community put back in charge of their land management, noted: “It’s really important, now that we’ve had the land handed back, to show people from off the island how we can look after our land, and that we want to.”

While I am not suggesting that Greens light fires, this story illustrates that sometimes simple, traditional forms of land management can be effective in solving complex ecological problems. Indigenous knowledge can be combined with scientific testing.

If you are really interested in this, journals like Ecology and Society can be very informative. Even at a parish council level it is possible to protect habitats and promote diversity and ecology should run through everything Greens do.