Thoughts from our session on (political) ecology

For our second topical meeting, our group discussed ecology and how it relates to our interests in human-microbe relations. The small sample of readings that we selected dealt with a range of topics, including the field of political ecology (Robbins 2012) and the relationship between ecology and the humanities and social sciences (which I will shorten to HASS) (Fitzsimmons 2004). Fitzsimmons argues that these disciplines have two paramount shared concerns—public interest and precaution—and that these shared interests are grounds for an alliance between the two. This common ground means that ecology and HASS are concerned with making sure that their work is both relevant to diverse publics and calls attention to latent, unnoticed, or concealed violence and destruction. But even given these common concerns, some important questions remain: how can we make the relationship between ecology and HASS a mutually beneficial one? What can each contribute to the other? What, exactly, are ecologists and HASS interested in defending and promoting?
Our group discussed how HASS can contribute an emphasis on the constructedness of science, as well as on interrogating and defending different sciences’ underlying values. It’s exactly this kind of interrogation that Fitzsimmons (2004) embarks on. HASS also add a history of working to understand and theorize human social behavior—an important part of ecology, especially in the era some have taken to calling the Anthropocene—and a deep concern with processes of human subject-making—crucial if cultivating ‘ecological selves’ is to be a part of our shared precautionary politics. Ecology, on the other hand, can contribute to HASS a large body of evidence indicating that organisms always exist in complex multispecies webs of relations. More than anything else, ecologists teach us, it is these relationships that shape species and individuals. They can also add an understanding of human behavior’s impact on diverse earth systems.
From reading Haraway (2016) the week prior, it was clear to us that HASS and ecology both have vested interests in grappling with complexity, in thinking beyond the more conventionally bounded individual subject, and in finding new ways of ‘getting on’ in relationships with other species, microbes included. In order to ‘get on’ with each other, though, ecologists and HASS scholars will have to continue to develop new modes of cooperation and collaboration. As HASS scholars ourselves, we have to find ways to balance working with ecology with appropriate critiques of the science and interrogation of some of its frequently espoused values (some of which are surely shared beyond ecology): diversity, abundance, utility, conservation, sustainability. We also need to heed accusations of cherry-picking ecological science to suit our own ends, and of using the word ecology as merely a stand-in for environment, as political ecology has at times been accused of doing (Walker 2005). Tied to ecology by shared concerns, we in HASS should work to maintain a dialogue with ecologists and to develop a deep and genuine interest in their work in all of its complexity, in the interest of making our relationship as symbiotic as possible.
In the end, our group was left with a few key questions: What practical gains can we achieve by taking an explicitly ecological approach to human-microbe relations? What do we risk ignoring? How can we, as HASS scholars, engage more with processes of ‘ecological self-making,’ and how can we become more deliberate or intentional in these processes? We will continue to puzzle over these in the weeks and months ahead as we delve deeper into the world of human-microbe relations.


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