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Political ecology and the epistemology of social justice

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Piers Blaikie’s writings on political ecology in the 1980s represented a turning point in the generation of environmental knowledge for social justice. His writings since the 1980s demonstrated a further transition in the identification of social justice by replacing a Marxist and eco-catastrophist epistemology with approaches influenced by critical realism, post-structuralism and participatory development. Together, these works demonstrated an important engagement with the politics of how environmental explanations are made, and the mutual dependency of social values and environmental knowledge. Yet, today, the lessons of Blaikie’s work are often missed by analysts who ask what is essentially political or ecological about political ecology, or by those who argue that a critical approach to environmental knowledge should mean deconstruction alone. This paper reviews Blaikie’s work since the 1980s and focuses especially on the meaning of ‘politics’ within his approach to political ecology. The paper argues that Blaikie’s key contribution is not just in linking environmental knowledge and politics, but also in showing ways that environmental analysis and policy can be reframed towards addressing the problems of socially vulnerable people. This pragmatic co-production of environmental knowledge and social values offers a more constructive means of building socially just environmental policy than insisting politics or ecology exist independently of each other, or believing environmental interventions are futile in a post-Latourian world.

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