Resilience and Power — and Political Ecology

Earlier this year members of the Resilience Thematic Group raised concerns that resilience practitioners helpfully emphasize systems-thinking, yet tend to offer weak diagnoses of the structures and practices that create and perpetuate exclusion, inequality, and injustice.  They applied this critique to popular discourse around disaster resilience – a conversation that has continued in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria – though did not spare themselves.  The dialogue raised the issue of how terms get appropriated, which I will address in a subsequent post.  It also raised the issue of how resilience practitioners can sharpen their analyses of power relations and subsequently transform them.  In this post, I argue that the field of political ecology provides a rich reference point for tracing and reworking power in the context of building landscape resilience.  Ultimately this linkage can support practitioners in moving from single-loop interventions focused on immediate dynamics, to double-loop (per Argyris and Schön) interventions focused on the systems that generate and reproduce these dynamics.  I illustrate my claim through recalling work on collaborative forest restoration with Sierra National Forest.

Land Degradation

To gloss political ecology simply, the field has focused on the relationships between power, wealth, culture, nature, and technology, understanding all of these as rooted and routed through historical, place-based terrains, with a focus on access to and control of resources, gender, race, and identity as common critical lenses.  It emerged in the 1980s from a combination of Marxist political economy (including agrarian studies and critiques of Development as an international post-war project), and anthropology (particularly human ecology).1  Political ecology’s emphasis on history as essential for understanding the present and its potential for redirection (per Antonio Gramsci’s concept of the terrain of the conjunctural) also bound it to critical studies of environmental history.2  As with resilience, “nature” is understood as having agency and as constitutive of a complex, dynamic, social-ecological system that evolves in relation with people.3  Power is commonly understood (per Michel Foucault) not as direct influence, but as action upon and shaping of the entire field of possible actions of others; it is relational, and is inseparable from knowledge.  Similarly, “culture” is understood not as an essence, but as a series of practices that is perpetually transmitted, contested, and reworked over time.  Over the years several primers have provided careful introductions to the field.4

People have often asked me whether political ecology has informed my work as a public policy mediator and resilience practitioner; yes, certainly.  My work with the Dinkey Creek Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Project (CFLRP), Sierra National Forest, provides a good example of how political ecology can inform the practice of resilience.  Established as a National Forest in 1893 by President Benjamin Harrison, the enclosure (primitive accumulation) of originally 6 million acres (later divided) came on the heels of an aggressive campaign of genocide against California Native American Tribes.  Through the 20th century the landscape succumbed to extensive clearcutting and reforestation for plantations, combined with suppression of wildfires.  From the 1980s onward, lawsuits to protect sensitive species and habitats, particularly the California spotted owl, disrupted the logging industry throughout the Sierra Nevada Mountains and American Pacific Northwest generally.

Fast-forward to 2010 and the convening of the Dinkey Creek CFLRP.  By design the process included the range of stakeholders with some historical and current measure of control over or access to the forest.  These included but were not limited to:

  1. The primary land manager – the U.S. Forest Service, whose mission involves “balancing” resource extraction, recreation, and environmental conservation; the Forest owns around 130,000 of the 153,000-acre Dinkey Creek Landscape.
  2. Southern California Edison, one of the state’s two largest power utilities, who both owns and manages land and hydropower facilities within the Collaborative’s boundary (around 22,000 acres), including Shaver Lake.
  3. Intermountain Nursery, a private business that owns the roughly 250-acre Grand Bluffs Demonstration Forest, and five other private in-holders owning another 100 acres.
  4. The North Fork Mono Tribe, a non-federally recognized California Native American Tribe with historical usufruct rights to the entire landscape and greater region. Also the Cold Springs and the Big Sandy Rancherias of Mono Indians, both federally recognized tribes with small reservations just outside the landscape project boundary, which also possessed historical usufruct rights.
  5. Sierra Forest Products (SFP), a lumber producing company founded in 1964 with a mill in Terra Bella, about a 2-hour drive from the landscape. In the early 2000s, SFP retooled their mill to profitably process restoration byproducts such as small-diameter sawn lumber, biomass power, fuel pellets, and composite lumber.
  6. Multiple recreation groups, including the Backcountry Horsemen, Stewards of the Sierra National Forest, California 4-Wheel-Drive Association, and California Off-Road Vehicle Association.
  7. Multiple environmental groups, including Sierra Forest Legacy (a regional coalition of approximately 20 organizations), The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, John Muir Project, and the local Sierra Club Tehipite Chapter.

Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 10.54.02 AM          Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 10.53.40 AM

Broadly, the historical political economy of the forest shifted from

  • First, non-property system of tribal access and use, to
  • Second, primarily public land ownership that dispossessed and largely excluded tribes, and granted priority access to regional lumber enterprises and their contractors, interspersed with a small amount of private property, and environmental users traveling through the landscape, to
  • Presently, continued public agency control, except where logging access has decreased dramatically in accord with a variety of regulatory, policy, and management constraints, and day-to-day land use has shifted primarily to motorized recreational users, and secondarily to a wide variety of environmental users.

Set against this backdrop, during my five years mediating and facilitating the work of the Dinkey Creek CFLRP, cultural practices manifested in five broad ways.

  • Within the Forest Service, a bifurcation existed between older-generation silviculturists who, per their professional training and longstanding organizational culture, viewed the landscape in terms of sustainable timber yield, and subordinated all other resources values (e.g., wildlife, water) to this; and younger-generation resource experts (e.g., biologists, hydrologists) who struggled to place other resource values on equal footing with vegetation.
  • Intertwined with the Forest Service, the daily lives of many rural residential stakeholders involved working the land, or at minimum a strong self-identification with this ethic. While they recognized that the forest embodied a variety of values, they felt unequivocally that it should provide for resource extraction and underwrite the rural economy.  They possessed contemporary, nuanced views, recognizing that past logging and grazing practices degraded the forest, and instead implementing more sophisticated methods of tree removal, vegetative thinning, as well as regenerative horticulture based on native plants, and prescribed burning.
  • A variation within this second category, rural recreational stakeholders frequently spent their Saturdays, Sundays, summers, and winters driving and riding the roads and trails that crisscrossed the landscape. They derived a sense of freedom from and expressed a sense of entitlement to their non-extractive use of public lands.  While they supported the general idea of working lands, they typically did not make a living from the landscape.
  • Conversely, the Collaborative also included several non-“local” (in quotations to signify the term’s amorphousness) environmental stakeholders, typically from San Francisco and Sacramento. (Some local environmental stakeholders also participated.)  Culturally these people possessed professional policy, scientific, and advocacy training; drew heavily upon regional, statewide and national conservation movements and the scholarly research community; and participated as part of their paid employment responsibilities.
  • Finally, the California Native American Tribes brought an extended historical perspective and associated critiques to the process. With archaeological connections dating back several thousand years before the present, the cultural identity of native stakeholders stemmed from the landscape’s seasonal rhythms, a sense of equivalence with its plants and animals, and intimate associations with distinct places throughout the geography.  The concept of land and resource “management” and a narrow focus on sensitive species jarred with their view of people as temporary, humble yet proud stewards working in partnership with ecological processes.  Their advocacy focused primarily on restoring the practices, like small-scale “cultural burning” in oak groves and meadows, that had shaped and maintained the landscape from time immemorial prior to Western colonists.

Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 10.55.04 AM          Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 10.55.26 AM

In these ways cultural identities and practices infused the contemporary political economy of forest control, access, and use.  Simultaneously, cultural practices and political economy themselves had evolved in dynamic, non-linear relation with the land and with technology.  As noted earlier, in the 20th century timber extraction and fire suppression re-structured the forest and its watersheds, from tree species-age distributions through erosion, soil formation, carbon cycling, wildlife habitat, insect and disease outbreaks, stream morphology, meadow formation and groundwater tables.  And in parallel the long-arc of technology – from straightforward 19th-century man- and horse- and rail-power, through mid-20th-century coarse mechanical skidding equipment, through today’s low ground pressure and cut-to-length mechanical equipment – shaped the ability to alter vegetation, both driving and responding to social values and scientific inquiry.

This thumbnail sketch of the Dinkey Creek CFLRP demonstrates how political ecological analysis can illuminate the power relations that unavoidably infuse efforts to assess and alter the resilience of landscapes.  As mentioned in the overview above, one could take such analysis further in any number of directions, whether toward law, race, institutions, discourse, or other elements.  Such a framework allows for not simply identifying proximate power relations, but unearthing the historical evolution of the concepts, practices, and structures that shape these systems, and – crucially – the places where a resilience-building intervention has a high likelihood of success.  In our search for ways to understand the resilience of landscapes (or lack thereof), the comparative question arises:  What analytical framework do you use for understanding and reshaping power in the context of resilient landscapes?


  1. Formative texts included Michael Watts’ Silent Violence: Food, Famine, and Peasantry in Northern Nigeria (1983); Louise Fortmann and Dianne Rocheleau’s Women and Agroforestry (1985); Piers Blaikie and Harold Brookfield’s Land Degradation and Society (1987); and Nancy Lee Peluso’s Rich Forests, Poor People: Resource Control and Resistance in Java (1992).
  2. For example, Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature (1980) and William Cronon’s Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (1983).
  3. For example, Richard Norgaard’s The Oyster Beds of Ao Ban Don (1988), and Timothy Mitchell’s Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, and Modernity (2002).
  4. Though I have not worked in academia since 2006, and some readers undoubtedly know of better primers, a relatively fresh one is the second edition of Paul Robbins’ Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction (2011); another, with a heavier theoretical emphasis, would be Global Political Ecology by Peet & Robbins & Watts (also 2011).



Unless otherwise noted, the information presented herein does not represent IUCN’s or the Commission’s position on the matters presented.

One thought on “Resilience and Power — and Political Ecology

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  1. This is an interesting article about a matter that, as far as I know, is not well addressed by the resilience science community or by resilience practitioners. It would be instructive to explore the resilience literature on the matter of power relationships with a view publishing a paper on your experience from a political ecology perspective and make some suggestions as to how these might be explored in a resilience assessment. A political ecology description would make a useful complement to the historical ecology description that is part of a resilience assessment. I think that E&S would or the Solutions Journal would like a paper like this.

    Following on from double loop learning, I note that Terry Chapin et al., describe a triple loop learning process in relation to transformational change in which the third learning loop involves a change in mindset, norms and governance to create a fundamentally different system.


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