UA's Public Political Ecology Lab Shapes Discussion on Environmental Research

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By Candice Childress, UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences July 9, 2014

The UA's Public Political Ecology Lab connects students, faculty, organizations and community groups around political ecological research.

Lily House-Peters, a graduate student in the School of Government and Public Policy, presented a photo essay on the PPEL webiste. "The Periphery of the Periphery: Surface Water Management in the Sonoran Borderlands" includes a photo of ranchers relaxing under a mesquite tree to escape the mid-day heat near the water-stressed San Miguel River in Rayon, Sonora, Mexico.

Tracey Osborne said political ecology is "a social science framework and approach for looking at the complex relationship between people and the environment that emphasizes the political and economic drivers of environmental change."

The University of Arizona's Public Political Ecology Lab is a force in a new field that investigates how cultural and technological advances transform the planet's most crucial resources.

The lab, also called PPEL, communicates research in political ecology – the union of scientific thought and social concern in order to solve pressing environmental problems – to the public by training political ecology students and scholars to employ a diverse set of research methods.

In particular, PPEL advances community-based and participatory action research in ways that correlate with the UA's emphasis on interdisciplinary collaborations to address the grand challenges of the day.

PPEL also trains students and scholars how to give media interviews and to produce work that's interesting to general, nonacademic media outlets and provides a forum to present their work through blog posts, videos, photo essays and other content on the lab's website.

It is a unique approach. Tracey Osborne, assistant professor in the School of Geography and Development and the lab's director, noted that the common way of sharing research in the field is through peer-reviewed journal articles.

"While important, it can also take a year or two in some cases for those articles to come to light, to be published," Osborne said. "Through a blog, which can be anywhere from 500 to 2,000 words, scholars can quickly and effectively speak to current events."

At the end of the academic year, several students and faculty members produced videos and columns on topics such as environmental justice activism, the preservation of riparian enclosures and humanistic approaches in research concerning issues along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The lab also serves as a portal that connects organizations and community groups seeking political ecological research with graduate students interested in conducting research that has a social and environmental impact.

The lab was established by Osborne, who teaches a general education course called Environment and Society. Her students, many of them freshmen and sophomores, were concerned about the environment, but believed that the only way they could make a difference was through their purchasing power, such as choosing eco-friendly light bulbs or hybrid cars. 

"While that is certainly an important first step, without looking at some of these broader political-economic factors and drivers of environmental change we're really only scratching the surface," Osborne said. "So that's the gap a political ecology approach can fill."

Since PPEL's founding in 2011, Osborne has lectured and led workshops at institutions including Yale University and the University of Oregon. She visits with graduate students and discusses the political ecology framework and its application to real-world issues, as well as PPEL's use of technology to deliver information much more quickly than can happen in traditional forums of academic discourse.

"There are scholars across the globe who utilize this approach, and for those who have been working in the field in various places, addressing issues such as climate change, water contamination, marginalization of communities, environmental issues in urban as well as rural areas – it's an opportunity for us to communicate some of this really critical research in a timely manner," Osborne said.

UA graduate students are heavily involved in the project. They publish their own research and interview prominent political ecologists, including UA faculty, about their methodology, posting the videos on the PPEL's website. Their work has helped make PPEL a significant venue for dialogue across the discipline, one that engages scholars and other agents of change from disparate backgrounds and strategies, Osborne said.

The matters studied by political ecology scholars consider the delicate and increasingly endangered balance between human consumption and nonrenewable resources.

"Scientists have identified a new geologic era they call the anthropocene," Osborne said, explaining that the era represents the first time in the Earth's history that humans have had a significant impact on the planet, represented most notably by climate change.

And it doesn't stop there.

"If we look at biodiversity loss, dwindling freshwater resources, ocean acidification, deforestation, we have exceeded or are quickly approaching the safe zones in many of those planetary boundaries," she said.

"The time to act is now, and our actions must be based on understanding the fundamental social and political economic dimensions of environmental issues," Osborne said.

"Political ecology does a fantastic job of producing such knowledge, and I think the lessons from the field can point to a truly sustainable future. Because solving environmental problems will require collective action, PPEL hopes to engage a broader public in the scholarship and practice of political ecology."

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