I study political ecology, specifically, the institutional and cultural requirements of politically adapting to changing ecological conditions. In political theory, many green theorists suggest a return to local-scale institutions in order to cultivate dual objectives of enhancing responsiveness of institutions through accountability and setting the conditions for cultural acceptance of responsibility for ecological outcomes. Others have suggested that these kinds of decentralizing projects have unintended effects, however, increasing the possibilities for regional inequalities, elite capture, and entrenchment of traditional power-brokers. My work examines the role of urgency and scale in green political theory, then seeks to test these theories in California, the US-Mexico border region, Southern Mexico, and Bolivia.
My project deals with the connections between local governments, NGOs, and higher levels of state, national, and international governance over environmental issues. To many researchers across the world, mounting global ecological problems pose a challenge to the resilience of human civilizations. The evidence presented by the UNEP, FAO, and other international scientific bodies studying global-level problems like climate change, species extinction, sustainable energy, deforestation, and land use change suggests that, due to the unevenness of the effects of these global processes, paradoxically it will be local communities and local governance which are challenged first by the much more variable and unevenly distributed local effects of these global problems. In some communities, this may spell the end of a way of life. In others, this may even present an advantage.
In the burgeoning political science literature on green institutions there is a lively debate about the effective levels of sovereignty for addressing ecological problems, which often occur at various geographic and temporal scales. What has emerged is a kind of network theory of nested institutions, enshrined as recently as the COP 16 meeting in Cancun. At this conference, the state of Chiapas signed a ‘governor’s agreement’ with the state of California, effectively bypassing the federal levels of bureaucracy traditionally in control of disbursing funds throughout the levels of Mexican government (and freezing themselves effectively out of federal funding in the years following). This discussion is still active amongst the international donor and regulatory boards: how to most effectively distribute funds to combat ecological problems occurring at different scales?
In political theory, I have been investigating theories of local environmental governance, especially a tradition born in California in the late 1960s and early 1970s known by the ugly term ‘bioregionalism.’ Bioregional thought believes that decentralizing meaningful political authority to local levels creates the conditions for what has been more recently described as ‘ecological democracy.’ What bioregionalism contributes is a holistic attempt at combining green institutional and cultural tasks, i.e. to make decisions meaningful at a local level and make those decisions reflect a responsibility for human and nonhuman outcomes. I look at examples from California, the US-Mexican border, Bolivia, and Southern Mexico.
I was led to study southern Mexico for a number of regions. For one, Oaxaca and Chiapas are a kind of living laboratory for local environmental governance, a mixture of diverse cultures, geographies, and local sovereignty found in very few places on earth, let alone in the most biodiverse, heavily forested parts of Mexico (and therefore the world). For another, many bioregionalists (as well as other political ecologists and green political theorists) invoke the traditions of indigenous peoples as a model for institutional and cosmological change, and posit ancient indigenous territories as the proper bounds for political sovereignty, giving structure to what is often an amorphous concept of ‘bioregions.’
My research here reveals the complexity involved in decentralization campaigns and the problematic nature of using the term ‘indigenous’ (usually operationalized as language) as a blanket term for non-Western traditions. Too often, in the industrialized, ‘modern’ world, we consider ourselves to be at the end of history, and proceed to rank all other contemporary cultures into a ranking derived in European history—peasants, feudalism, ‘developing’, etc. What I want to suggest is that looking to other places in the world who do not (yet) share our way of life can help us in the ‘developed’ world stop feeling as if the end of our own way of life is the end of all life.
Indigenous, a term used in many green texts as an after-image of Western, Northern, industrial, ‘developed’ (or whatever they are opposing) ways of life, often has little to anchor it to the old world. What I suggest instead is that we learn from other parts of the world as co-moderns, and subject these lessons to evaluation rather than simple acceptance or dismissal. What is obvious in Mexico and Bolivia is that this term indigenous is highly contested and actively negotiated with a large mestizo community, and requires a subtle contextual knowledge to be useful for social science utilization. That said, I argue that it can provide a geographic instrument for decentralized communities in certain contexts, and can provide a meaningful access point for making claims about decentralized institutions and cultural responsibility tractable.