Radical geography

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21 Does Radical Geography Lack an Approach to Environmental Relations?
Ben Wisner
1978. Antipode 10(1), 84-95.1

As radical Anglophone geography approached the close of its first decade it began to show signs of introspection. Several authors sketched out and pondered its development (Akatiff, 1974; Anderson, 1977; Peet, 1977, Santos, 1975; Wisner, 1977a). In particular, Peet (1977, 26)focuses our attention on an alleged dichotomous development of the spatial and environmental sides of radical geography: Within radical geography, the theoretical base is increasingly strong in one of the traditional areas of geographic interests (spatial relations) and conspicuously weak in another area (environmental relations). The Marxist theory of spatial relations is becoming more and moresophisticated, especially in the area of underdevelopment processes. In that area a coherent body of theory, developed outside geography, already existed; in addition, there is a condition of crisis in spatial relations between the center and the periphery of capitalism, marked by a series of successful wars of Third World liberation, which has spurred on theoretical inquiry. But there is also anenvironmental crisis of monumental proportions, and the materialistic approach of Marxist geography can easily be applied to environment-man relations; yet this area of geography remains largely untouched by radical geographers. I share Peet’s concern; however, I believe the situation is not as stark as his words imply. Certainly as a Marxist geographer setting out to participate in the creation of1

Reprinted with permission from Ben Wisner and Richard Peet.

Does Radical Geography Lack an Approach to Environmental Relations?

socialist environmental relations in Mozambique [...], I would hate to believe that the theoretical base of the environmental side of geography is so impoverished. In this brief paper, I will argue that some theoretical foundation already exists, butin a more scattered and less systematic form. I will begin with a few comments on the schema of development of radical geography employed by Peet. I will then comment on the meaning of “environmental crisis”. Finally, I will try to sketch out some alternative approaches to theory-building for the study of environmental relations, political ecology, or, as I would prefer to term the side ofMarxist geography emphasizing environmental relations, a socialist human ecology.2

The Development of an Environmental Relations School in Radical Geography If I am to parallel Peet’s description of the development of the spatial school, I mustn’t be tempted into reviewing the history of “radical ecology”. The welter of paper and activity loosely labeled the “ecology movement” has produced someideas concerning the relations between capitalism and pollution (e.g., Enzensberger, 1974; Sherman and Hunt, 1972). The middle class generally, and hence a wide range of professionals including biologists, economists, and even some geographers, have been caught up in the collective outrage at what a group of German radicals call “Profitschmutz” [profit-pollution]. However, “radical ecology” as aliterature does not stand in the same relation to a Marxist science of environment as “radical urban sociology” [...] to Marxist spatial science. There are three reasons: first, “radical ecology” has produced no coherent theory of environmental relations to inspire geographers in the first place. Some useful superficial historical (Ridgeway, 1971) and global (Weinberg, 1971) overviews have beenproduced with a broadly “left” perspective, but they can neither be termed Marxist nor theoretical.3 Second, in following Peet’s method, one must focus more narrowly on what radicals with such classic geographical interests as “resource use”, “rural land use”, and “environmental perception” have been doing and thinking over the last ten years. These people are by no means identical with the “ecology...