William (Bill) M. Adams is a geographer who worked in the University of Cambridge from 1984 to 2020. Bill got an undergraduate degree in geography and, in the course of his PhD, made the shift from being an ecologist to a social scientist. His research interests lie at the intersection of conservation and development, viewed through the lenses of political ecology and environmental history. Bill has written a number of books on these interests, of which the most recent, co-authored with Kent Redford is called Strange Natures: Conservation in the Era of Synthetic Biology. In this conversation with Hari Sridhar, Bill talks about the origins of his interests in geography and conservation, the ‘political ecology turn’ in his work and thinking, and his views on what political ecology has to offer to our understanding of
questions around conservation and development.
Hari Sridhar: You did a BA in Geography and an MSc in Conservation. Looking back, how would you trace the origins of your interest in these two disciplines and their intersection?
Bill Adams: I have spent most of my adult life researching or teaching in the discipline of geography. It is an amazingly interdisciplinary subject, stretching right from the humanities through the social sciences to natural science. Its focus is the Earth, how human society and the natural world interact, and all the different patterns and outcomes of that interaction. I had an inspiring geography teacher at school, Don Pirkis, and I remember him on a field trip, standing on the chalk hills south of London and explaining how the landscape laid out below fitted together—geology, water, soils, forests and fields, settlements, roads and retail parks: places emerging, evolving and changing over time.
Geography had recently undergone a revolution, changing from a descriptive subject to an analytical one. At university, I had to study everything from glaciology to development theory—the degree required us to understand both social and physical processes, with all that implied in terms of different kinds of theory and different methods, from the analysis of historical archives to counting pollen grains in sediment cores. Since then, Geography has gone through a succession of intellectual revolutions, but it is still recognisably the same: turbulent, diverse, and restless. Geography attracts and rewards the curious. The world remains a strange and complex place—wonderful, mismanaged, and unjust.
When I finished my Geography degree, I wanted to find work in the environment or conservation (after all, this was the 1970s, the decade of Limits to Growth and the Stockholm Conference). I eventually got a place on the MSc in Conservation at University College London. Postgrad courses in the environment were few and far between in those days, and disciplines like Conservation Biology didn’t yet exist. The UCL course had its roots in ecology, but was very interdisciplinary. It seemed a natural extension of a Geography degree. I met an amazing and iconoclastic group of fellow students and staff who had the time (and inclination) to talk and argue, and a host of visiting speakers from the practical conservation world. I started to understand how the nature conservation movement had emerged, how it worked, and why it might sometimes make enemies of the people whose lives it impacted. In the 1970s, the UCL course was strongly focused on the UK, but the breadth of its approach to conservation has been just as relevant everywhere else I have worked since.
Above all, my Masters began to show me the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to understanding conservation—one that combines an understanding of species and ecosystems with knowledge of communities, landowners, businesses and policy-makers, and the conflicts they are too often embroiled in. You need to go well beyond ecological science, to learn how people think and how societies and institutions work, if you want to understand how nature is exploited, why conservation is needed, and why it succeeds and fails.
HS: When we reached out to you about doing this interview you said political ecology is “a bit like Banksy’s art—we know what it is when we see it, but we don’t know who is doing it.” For someone who is hearing the phrase “political ecology” for the first time, could you explain this a little more? When would you say your own work started taking the “political ecology turn”?
BA: Well, that was not a thought-through comment! I think what I had in mind was that political ecology is recognisable when it is done, but it is not a tightly-regimented discipline. People come to political ecology from a lot of different homes across the natural and social sciences and the humanities: anthropology, conservation biology, ecology, geography, history, political science—the list is potentially endless. This gives the field a characteristic hybridity which is an important source of its energy. And it does not matter how people get into political ecology— what matters is what they do when they get there. As a field, political ecology is wonderfully rambunctious and diverse. It can be messy and is often passionate, but (in my opinion) rarely boring—and sadly that is not something that can be said for all academic study! Most political ecologists have no degree entitled “political ecology”, and while there are specialist journals (like the delightful Journal of Political Ecology), research gets published in a lot of different places.
Political ecology emerged as a field in the 1980s, when radical social scientists started taking environmental change seriously—political economy meeting ecology. I first came across it in work, mostly by geographers, on drought and famine in the Sahel. Between 1972 and 1974 the rains failed in the Sahel, and many people starved. The conventional explanation of the drought was neo-Malthusian, that it was the result of biogeophysical feedback caused by human population growth and overgrazing.
But scholars like Keith Hewitt showed the political dimensions of so-called ‘natural disasters’ such as famine (for example his 1983 collection Interpretations of Calamity), while Mike Watts (in Silent Violence 1983) challenged the conventional story of human ‘misuse’ of West African drylands, pointing to the history of colonial exploitation and agricultural commercialisation.
It is now conventional to observe that there is a politics to hunger, to the way land is allocated and used, and to degradation of the environment. Piers Blaikie’s 1987 book The Political Economy of Soil Erosion neatly caught the political ecologist’s argument that the state of the environment is as much the result of political processes (who owns land, who has the power to shape its management) as of variability in natural systems. The core question addressed by political ecology—how the powerless and the powerful (smallholder or corporation) interact to shape landscapes and human futures—is as important in industrial zones as drylands.
It is easy, looking back, to assume that the evolution of academic ideas is seamless, and obvious from the first. For myself, I began to use the term political ecology (as opposed to its way of thinking about society and nature) in the 1990s. I remember reading a review paper by Raymond Bryant in Political Geography in 1992 (“Political Ecology: an emerging research agenda in Third World Studies”), and thinking ‘Oh—so that’s what I do!’. Recognition of the field (for example in Liberation Ecologies, edited by Richard Peet and Michael Watts in 1996) slowly began to make the study of the environment and development more academically respectable.
Since then, the evolution of political ecology has been rapid and continuous. Political ecologists have analysed the way power is exercised to shape nature, and how that shaping intersects with questions of human justice, in many different contexts—in the industrialised as well as developing world, in cities as well as rural areas. They have also explored the ways ideas about nature, or about the categories of ‘human’ and ‘natural’, shape non-human lives and the struggles that emerge between people for justice and livelihood. Political ecologists have argued repeatedly that questions of nature are always and everywhere political.
HS: Right from the beginning, a major emphasis in your work has been around the politics of water in Africa. How did you get interested in that, and how has your work and emphasis in this area evolved over time?
BA: I became interested in the politics of water during my PhD, which was on the downstream impacts of a dam on the Sokoto River in northern Nigeria. My original plan had been to look at impacts on natural ecosystems, but the floodplain of the Sokoto was no ‘wilderness’ in need of conservation. It was densely settled by farming communities, intensively cultivated and seasonally grazed. So, whereas I had imagined myself working as an ecologist, I quickly had to retrain as a social scientist.
The downstream impact of dams are often underestimated by dam planners, or ignored altogether. A big reason for this is that the impacts are complex and hard to understand. They require an understanding of hydrology (rainfall, runoff, the extent and duration of flooding), soils and crop ecology (what you can grow on a floodplain depends on sediment, topography and flooding, and these can change over very short distances), and of the people who use floodplain land (in the case of the Sokoto, this included seasonal grazing by Fulani cattle keepers, as well as resident Hausa farmers). The dominant discipline involved in dam planning is engineering, and even today engineers are not trained to have this breadth of insight. It is also a problem that the impacts of a dam can be felt many miles downstream, often in remote areas. Project planning contracts rarely mandate surveys in these areas: they are out of sight and out of mind.
In the case of the Sokoto, all the water in the river arrived during the short rainy season (June-August). The Bakolori dam was designed to hold this water back for irrigation in the long dry season that followed. The dam therefore delayed and lowered downstream peak floods, leaving both less water overall for downstream farmers, and making its arrival unpredictable in timing. This had a significant negative impact on rice farming and shadoof irrigation from shallow groundwater.
Meanwhile the dam had a range of other social impacts. The people living in the upstream floodplain, whose homes and land were flooded by the reservoir, were resettled, and promised irrigation water once the project was finished. The communities in the irrigation area itself, below the dam, had their land bulldozed as irrigation canals were put in, but had to wait until the dam and supply canal were finished before getting it back, or receiving water and starting to farm again. It was a long, hungry wait, and there were angry blockades of the dam in protest and an undocumented number of protestors were killed.
Nor were these negative impacts offset by economic benefits. The formal irrigation scheme that the dam was built to supply (like other large scale irrigation schemes developed in the1970s and 1980s in Africa) proved uneconomic, offering lower yields and rates of return than had optimistically been promised in the cost-benefit analysis of the dam planners.
The most important thing that I learned about the politics of water development projects through this experience is that the key problem is not (usually) any failure of technical competence. The Bakolori Dam was technically sound, well-built, and completed more or less on time and on budget. But it was a well-built dam to do the wrong things. The dam was the result of a flawed process of river basin planning that saw the drought of the arid north of Nigeria as a problem that needed a sweeping solution. After a decade of drought in the North, dams and irrigation schemes looked like a perfect development solution, a one-shot miracle of modernity that would transform the country. Dams are expensive and complicated projects to build, but in the 1970s and 1980s, the federal government was looking for ways to invest spiralling oil revenues. Moreover there were rich pickings, both legal and illegal, from contracts to design and build them.
After my PhD, I worked for an engineering company on a different dam project as a resettlement planner, seeing from the inside how near-impossible it was to do anything worthwhile once a project has begun. Then I moved to a lecturing job in geography, and did research for a number of years on smaller-scale farmer-managed irrigation schemes, in the wetlands of northern Nigeria, in Kenya and Tanzania. I was looking for examples of development projects that people planned and implemented themselves, in the hope that there might be an alternative model for water resource development. I hoped that small would be beautiful.
In 1992 I pulled my thinking together in the book Wasting the Rain . This had a passionate but (in retrospect) a rather naïve argument, contrasting the imposition of development from above in large scale water projects with the ingenuity of smallholder farmers to derive livelihoods sustained by the seasonal dynamics of rain and river. Floodplain people across Africa do not build dams (at least, not large concrete ones), but they build adaptively on the opportunities offered by river, soils and rain. Dam project designers promise economic ‘development’, and in its name they completely restructure the landscape to fit their blueprint. They try to lock future development into a straightjacket of concrete, and their plans too often do not work.
Sadly, not much has changed. The World Commission on Dams, which published its report, Dams and Development in 2000, set out an approach to dam planning that could have done away with unexpected negative social and environmental impacts. But it did not find favour with government planners or dam builders, and after a short lull, dam planning and construction surged across the developing world.
The news is not all bad. The negative impacts of dams are more widely recognised, and there are new frameworks to guide dam developers, such as the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol. There is a growing awareness of the issue of risk to those providing capital for dams.
Yet dams are still controversial, and often have significant negative impacts, especially on floodplain people. People (and natures) are treated as eggs that must be broken to make the omelette of development. Dam planners act as if the ideas and wishes of those affected by dams were irrelevant to investment decisions, believing that their needs and interests can and should be traded off against national needs, or that somehow they will benefit from national economic growth. To those planning dams, it seems that the people they affect only become important when they have to be persuaded to move quietly off their land. Their dissatisfaction, and opposition, is treated simply as a project risk that needs to be managed. Compensation for losses is treated as a costly, necessary evil, to be minimized to protect the positive balance of the cost-benefit analysis.
HS: Would a political ecologist also argue that questions of nature are always and everywhere about capitalism?
BA: Well, certainly the grip of capitalism on nature has been a key focus in political ecology. Historically, capitalism’s search for cheap material and labour, its drive to open up and transform markets, has had radical impacts. Nature has been reshaped at every scale from the global to the sub-cellular, from the release of greenhouse gases to the manipulation and patenting of crop genomes. Indeed, with private sector space exploration we might need to start wondering how capitalism will change inter-planetary natures.
So, yes, nature is everywhere entrained by the juggernaut of capitalism: crushed, transformed, made to flourish or to die. But the scale of that transformation varies from place to place. In the Southern Ocean we might see a relatively discrete range of impacts, such as the unsustainable killing of seals, whales, fish and krill, and of course, anthropogenic climate change. Urbanised or farmed landscapes might reveal more profound human transformations of nature over long timeframes, and more diverse entanglement between capitalism and nature. To me, it is the complexity of the engagements between human societies and nature (the living and non-living more-than-human world) that is so interesting about political ecology.
But not all the politics around nature is necessarily the direct outcome of the workings of capital. You can find complex arguments about access to nature at a local scale, where the broader effects of global capitalism are no more than a distant buzz. There can be significant conflicts between men and women about water rights in locally-managed irrigation systems, between neighbours in reef fisheries, or between local dog walkers and conservation managers in popular nature reserves. Like larger conflicts, these can also range from the material to the conceptual, from disagreement about where people can go and what they can do, to disagreements about what ‘nature’ is and how it works. ‘Is this a hunting ground, a delicate ecosystem or a ‘natural place’?’ Ways of framing nature code directly into conflict.
HS: If questions around nature and the environment are always political, what about the sciences that address these questions, for example Conservation Biology? I ask this because science is viewed as impartial or neutral, and therefore one would think that conservation decisions based on scientific evidence will be apolitical.
BA: Well, Conservation Biology is interesting because it makes a foundational claim that it is (and should be) ‘mission-driven’. To me, this is inherently political—evidently, not everyone will agree with the conservation ‘mission’. The discipline’s ideological heart creates an inevitable politics as conservationists engage with others. I see nothing wrong with that.
In science, a huge amount of effort goes into making sure that experiments are free from bias. But most science takes place far from the classic environment of the laboratory, and in interdisciplinary fields like conservation, a lot of tricky issues can arise. For example, there is a politics to choosing which questions get asked, and to deciding how they are framed.
The identity of the people doing research is another issue to think about. The conservation literature is still dominated by white men working in universities in the Global North. This kind of narrow social base can lead to narrowly framed questions. In medicine, it is recognised that the assumption that all people are the same can lead to failure to recognise that diseases or treatments can affect women differently from men, or people of colour differently from white people. In conservation, too, the way research questions are framed may make the ‘scientific facts’ misleading. So, for example, if you are interested in the impacts of illegal hunting on declining species, you might ask whether illegal hunting is a significant driver of population decline, whether game guards extort money from rural households, or whether children in hunting households suffer protein deficiency. It is quite possible that the answer to all these questions might be yes. So the challenge is to decide which question to ask. The question you choose will shape how the ‘conservation problem’ is defined, and in turn what might be done to address it: is the solution poverty alleviation or more guns?
The issue of how research questions are framed is particularly important when conservation biologists study social issues. There is a lot of great conservation social science being done these days, but not everybody gets it right. It is only too easy to build questions that reflect simplistic ideas about how societies work, for example assuming that ‘cultures’ or ‘communities’ are standardised and unchanging things: bias can creep in if research questions are badly framed.
I worry sometimes about the enthusiasm of conservation biologists for ‘speed-feeding’ their work into policy. This is often seen as an attempt to avoid ‘politics’, as if politics were simply a way of wasting time. But by trying to avoid debate, scientists are in fact being deliberately political—bypassing wider interrogation of results, for example by people who might be affected. Unfortunately, the application of scientific findings is unavoidably political. The messiness of the policy processes can be very frustrating for scientists, but wide debate allows the answers to poorly framed questions to be seen for what they are, and it allows some kind of agreement to be reached on what should be done. Politics is fundamental to human freedoms.
So, yes, science is really important in conservation, but it is definitely not apolitical.
HS: This interview is being published in Current Conservation, a magazine that aims to “tell stories from the field of conservation in a manner that engages both scientific and non-scientific audiences”. As a political ecologist, what might be the questions that come to your mind in evaluating the influence of conservation magazines, like Current Conservation, that aim to reach a non-scientific audience?
BA: Magazines like Current Conservation have excellent coverage of conservation issues. The quality of photography is extraordinary, and there is some great writing. The ease of electronic communication also makes it more possible (in theory at least) to publish voices ‘from the ground’, rather than sticking to the old ‘explorer mode’, where a metropolitan writer (classically a white journalist) travels to an exotic place to view wildlife. I suppose that, as a political ecologist, I am more interested in the possibility of articles that go beyond the celebration of charismatic species and places, and beyond simplistic narratives of threat and protection. I value writing that is truly ecological—that looks beyond cute quadrupeds to describe less obvious species (termites? fungi? grasses? the microbiome?) and the complex connectivities among them. I also think that the way conservation stories include people as part of the ecological whole is really important. So much conservation involves making trade-offs between conservation and people. Indeed, all too often, conservation imposes significant social and economic costs on somebody, usually people who are poor and lack political voice. And to many people, nature is not always lovely—lions may look great if you are a tourist, but are bad news if your children are herding your livestock. So the diversity of relations between humans and other species (love, hate, collaboration, dependence, fear) is really important, as is the political question of the negative impacts that conservation may have (and how these might be dealt with).
Above all, I think, it is important for writing about nature to talk about the real world and not some imaginary Edenic version of it. No part of planet earth is wholly ‘pristine’ (if only because of climate change), and writing about ‘precious places’ or ‘the wonders of nature’ potentially distracts attention from the actual scale of human transformation of nature. So, for me, a critical challenge for biodiversity conservation writing is to explain the unsustainability of human society (at all scales from the rural hamlet to the mega city, and from a shack to a millionaire’s pad).
Capitalism, and its patterns of production and consumption, are the fundamental drivers of global biodiversity loss. Mundane questions of consumption are therefore important conservation issues whether palm oil or soya in the cooking pot, kerosene powering the ecotourist’s jet, mined rare earths in phones, or the burgeoning ‘internet of things’.
So it is really important for conservation writing to look beyond the surviving wonders of nature, to explore and explain the world we are creating—to look at biodiversity in industrial farming landscapes, in polluted and drying rivers and the sterile concrete and grass parks of cities. Here, too—in the environments where the majority of humans live—there is nature. Here too, conservationists work their magic to allow nature to come back and thrive. There are lots of exciting stories beyond threatened
species and wild places.