Introduction to Political Ecology Lesson

Poverty next to Wealth in Brazil
Poverty and wealth separated by a wall in Brazil.
(Photo permission granted from Tuca Vieira)

The field of political ecology originally emerged as a framework or conceptual approach for understanding socio-environmental interactions and system dynamics. How it has been defined, as well as its focus, has changed over time, but an enduring characteristic is that it is not “a” singular field—rather, it is an approach, a set of beliefs, or a lens through which to think about socio-environmental problems and observations. A key focus of the field is on “who wins and who loses” based on decision making. This is a vast topic; therefore, this lesson is only a general introduction to political ecology perspectives.

Assumed Prior Knowledge
This lesson is geared toward students or participants with little or no social science background.
Learning Objectives
  • Be able to define and explain political ecology as a perspective.
  • Understand how political ecology is linked to environmental and social equity.
  • Be able to provide specific examples of how a political ecology perspective can help identify factors driving water resource decisions and the consequences of those decisions.
  • Understand why environmental vulnerability relates to social capital and geopolitical context rather than simply environmental risk.
Key Terms/Concepts
power; vulnerability; political economy; post-positivism; normative
The “Hook” (suggestions for quickly engaging students)
  1. Image
    Heatmap of Baltimore; Higher surface temperatures = darker red

    Have the participants spend 2–3 minutes looking at the heat map image to the right of Baltimore, MD, and jot down at least 5 potential drivers of the uneven distribution of hot regions.


    Next, invite them to go to this site and scroll down until they see the interactive tool that allows them to see two maps side by side (one is the heat map, the second one a socio-economic map), as well as explore other cities.


  2. Have them listen to the below < 2 min. clip from a SESYNC podcast interview on asthma and infrastructure, which focused on the research findings of Dr. Kelly Jones. Interview conducted by Erin Duffy.


Teaching Assignments

The following are suggested assignments/exercises that may be used prior to or following the instructor’s presentations or discussion sessions.

  1. Have learners freewrite for 3 minutes following the prompt: “Political ecology is…” 


  2. Use the SESYNC PowerPoint slide presentation below, “What Is Political Ecology?” to engage in a discussion with the class. The instructor should emphasize that while political ecology is a very diverse field, it may be best understood as a community of practices rather than an intellectual corpus. There are certain themes and concerns that resonate throughout. These include a focus on the relationships between people and their environments, the importance of socio-political-economic influences on these relationships, and the role of power in mediating relationships at scales ranging from households to world-systems perspectives.

  3. In lieu of using the PowerPoint slides and/or for more advanced groups, have the participants read the following chapters by Robbins (2012) and Perreault et al. (2020) and then respond to questions in writing or in class (in groups or not). Both of these are available in electronic versions from university libraries. 

    Editors' Introduction (pages 3–19)  in The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology

    • Bridge, G., McCarthy, J.,  & Perreault, T. (2015). Editors' Introduction. In T. Perreault, G. Bridge, J. & McCarthy (Eds.). The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology (1st ed.,  p. 3-19. London: Routledge.; Introduction: p. 3-19.

    Political versus apolitical ecologies (pages 11–24) in: Political ecology: A critical introduction

    • Robbins, P. (2012). Political versus Apolitical Ecologies. In: Political ecology: A critical introduction (pp. 11–24). John Wiley and Sons.
    • Note: This 2012 (2nd edition) is available as a downloadable e-chapter from university libraries; the 3rd edition (2020) is not, but the older version is sufficient.


    • Is there apolitical ecology, apolitical physical geography, apolitical chemistry (or other domains)? 

    • Does nature set limits that are independent of human social/political/economic forces, etc.?

    • Describe what is meant by each of what Robbins calls “core theses of political ecology”:

      • Degradation is a political and economic process.
      • Conservation outcomes [for some people] can do more harm than good.
      • Conflicts related to the environment are usually tied to issues of “other.”
      • Peoples’ identities and social groups are usually tied to livelihood and use of the environment.
      • Political and economic conditions are closely tied to non-human “actors” such as governments, businesses, etc.


  4. Political ecology has a long history and deep ties to other traditions (e.g., cultural ecology) and theories. Ask participants to read on the web for 3-5 minutes about each of the following and describe what connections they see to political ecology:

    • Common property theory

    • Marxist philosophy and economics

    • Historical materialism (how people use nature)


  5. To introduce thoughts on the scope of political ecology, have students/participants watch and then discuss a short (3 min.) video of Paul Robbins responding to question about the political vs. ecological content of political ecology: 



Background Information for the Instructor
  1. Geographies of insecure water access and the housing–water nexus in US cities

    • This paper explores the number of households in Canada and the United States experiencing water insecurity, including water access, quality, and affordability. The authors' findings show that that gaps in urban water access in the United States are neither random nor accidental but underpinned by precarious housing conditions and systemic social and racialized inequality.

    • Meehan, K., Jurjevich, J. R., Chun, N. M., & Sherrill, J. (2020). Geographies of insecure water access and the housing–water nexus in US cities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(46), 28700-28707.

  2. Political ecology: where is the ecology?

    • This paper provides intellectual genealogy, as well as critical accounting of engagement, with biophysical/ecological science methodologies.

    • Walker, P. A. (2005). Political ecology: where is the ecology? Progress in Human Geography, 29(1), 73-82. 

  3. Political ecology II: Engagements with ecology

    • This article is framed as an update to the Walker (2005) article above, by documenting work strongly influenced by or aligned with political ecology in the realms of environmental politics and the political economy of environmental change.

    • Turner, M.D. (2016). Political ecology II: Engagements with ecology. Progress in Human Geography, 40(3), 413-421. 

  4. Political Ecology 1: From the margins to the center

    • This article advocates for the importance of moving some epistemologies, such as feminisms and decolonial theories, from the margins to the forefront to advance the field of political ecology. The author argues for the need to engage and advance different forms of intersectional, interdisciplinary, and international feminist inquiries to address ongoing socioecological issues at their current meeting point. 

    • Sultana, F. (2021) Political Ecology 1: From the margins to the center. Progress in Human Geography, 45(1), 156-165.