Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

The Art of Friendship in the Context of Political Ecology

As we have learned in the class the expansion of friendship to encompass all areas of life is essential to understanding to ridding ourselves of the ills we have created the disconnection and the ultimate ills in our society. Through this course we have learned that through neoliberalism and other systemic forces we have lost the value of friendship. Understanding the role that friendship can fill in the context of nature, religion, art, politics and economics can thus be hugely beneficial- yet today is vastly under researched. As an Environmental Studies and Religion major I have a focus in Political Ecology that I see as undoubtedly in line with friendship studies. In this essay I hope to enumerate the ways that Political Ecology can be seen as the study of friendship in the context of socio-political and environmental relations. I will do this through incorporating my course work from Political Ecology with Karl Often last semester with this friendship course. It is through this that I also hope to create a cohesive narrative of my studies to better comprehend my alignment in values with my studies and my future line of work. Further, starting with my own, through this essay I hope to start drawing ways in which friendship studies can be incorporated into other academic disciplines.

First it is important to determine two key terms- political ecology and friendship- before I enumerate the various links between them. Political Ecology is a relatively broad term that encompasses an interdisciplinary field, a theory, and a conceptual approach that focus on how power relations in society affect—and are affected by—the natural environment. In particular, political ecology explores the role of political powers, economic interests, socio-cultural norms, and emerging conflicts in environmental decision making. The approach centers on the notion that politics and environment are thoroughly relational on multiple scales and levels, as all access and control of natural resources are structured by power relations in human society.  Along these lines political ecology attempts to provide critiques and alternatives in the interplay of the environment and political, economic and social factors for a better relationship between all. Determining a single, fully adequate definition of friendship may be an insurmountable goal based on the wide variety of categories and life spheres in which friendships are formed throughout our lives. However, most researchers agree that friendship exists within the socio-emotional realm and that it is hallmarked by interdependence and the voluntary nature of interactions.

Even in these two definitions I think is become apparent the connection between friendship studies and political ecology. The whole field of political ecology is based on acknowledging the power of relation. Charles Eisenstein, a scholar, has called attention to our generation as experiencing numerous separations from nature, from the self, and from the “other” which he calls to be leading us towards what Eisenstein calls “echocide.”[1] I argue that political ecology is the willful rejection of this separation through no longer ignoring these disconnects and their associated ills but in fact directly studying them. Currently it seems that modern humanity acts in such a way as if we are fully ignorant of the costs and consequences of the lack of friendship. Political ecology directly studies these costs and consequences due to disconnect to inspire change.

 In the context of political ecology- ecology does not simply furnish ‘issues’ for politics to deal with, it actually yields imperatives – suggesting not only the values which must guide politics, but perhaps also the very forms politics must assume. Considering the rise in the phrase ‘eco-friendly’- which I believe un-coincidentally coincided with the rise in the field of political ecology- there is a growing recognition of the need to be more friendly towards the environment. I believe that these imperatives are in line with those of friendship as they are based in fostering a good relation between entities for mutual flourishing.

To me political ecology is the applied study of friendships among humans and the environment put into academic terms for legitimacy. The separation between political ecology and friendship is the political ecology’s academic roots and need to maintain its standing within the institution of higher education. I believe the ecology part within the field of political ecology offers a venue through which the academic field maintains its standing. It has been unfortunate but true that state building was a central part of what transformed friendship into phenomena mostly viewed as private and personal instead Osterberg, a friendship scholar, writes that the virtues of friendship “lost something of their charm in public life. Instead, formal instructions, and written rules, the principles of unbiased meritocracy and rational bureaucracy, increasingly characterized public life.”[2] The modern aversion to intimacy and emotionality has created a discrediting of friendship studies that political ecologists wish to avoid through their objective and scientific research means.  

Additionally, because political ecology is the relationship between these two terms there can be no predicted outcome- like there are in the physical sciences- as the political side of the subject is not as fine-tuned as the biological. For this reason, for political ecologists to make any objective claims on the truth of matters, would naturally led to ideas about how to ‘fix’ a ‘problem’ or do what is ‘right’ and would cause major problems for the field. Additionally, to identify a ‘truth’ on matters commonly investigated by political ecologists would create a moral right or wrong and therefore discredit the field within acedemia.

This is where friendship and political ecologists differ, while friendship studies often make moral/ethical claims that can be argued to be non-academic, political ecologists try to avoid moral and ethical claims. This benefits political ecology agendas by liberating them from having to address the modern idealizations of the rights-conscious concepts of justice and freedom. Instead political ecology underhandedly makes our societies more friendship- conscious through studying various kinds of relationships and their outcomes. Political ecologists can be argued to study what influences how different relationships(friendships) develop with the natural world without discrediting itself by making the subjective claim that certain relationships are better than others. In place of making these claims the political ecologist gives their critical analysis and then allows for the reader to interpret and form their own opinion from the studied outcomes of the relationships within the case study.

For example, if in On the Poverty of Theory case study Watt’s had taken a stand to claim that British colonialism is ‘bad’, there would be a conflict of interest and questions on the credibility of the author. This would take away the credibility and threaten the future of the discipline of political ecology. However, the way British colonialism in Nigeria was analyzed was through the lens on the effects of the colonial triad breaking the independence of peasant households leaving them vulnerable to climatic variation. This act of colonialism, when simplified, is an act of bad friendship. Without saying any larger truths, but simply calling attention to the frameworks and systems that led to the vulnerability of peasant households in Nigeria, the study preserves the integrity of political ecology as an academic field.

The political ecology approach to society-nature dynamics is centered on holistic understandings of the socio-political and ecological elements of any environmental interaction. This inherently means that political ecology topics arise around the environment but will have a socio-political focus in their research. As Watts asserts in On the Poverty Theory “…for though a drought may be a catalyst or trigger mechanisms in the sequence of events which leads to famine conditions, the crisis itself is more reflection of the ability of the socioeconomic system to cope with the unusual harshness of ecological conditions and their systems. (259)” Indeed in A Closer Look at Famine, Nally and Kearns illustrate how the potato famine was cast in a new light after the recognition of how the English enforced political system left the Irish population more vulnerable to famine. This ties into the critique Watts has on “natural hazards” in which the focus should be more turned towards human vulnerability over a seemingly inevitable natural disaster. Watts uses the example of Nigeria who he argues once had social and political systems to cope with climate variability but lost them due to an imposed colonial system. For Nigeria the political colonial factor left Nigerians more vulnerable to drought and famine just as in Ireland the English imposed land ownership restrictions left the Irish poor and more vulnerable to famine. This holistic research manifests in the many academic disciplines that political ecologists utilize to approach an environmental issue through a lens of relation. I argue that this objective exploration of relation ultimately gives academics a lens through which to learn of what creates good (which I believe to be based in ideals of friendship) and bad relationships through discovering which lead to destruction or production.

Just as we have learned about the modern periods crisis in loneliness due to the de-valuing of friendship, political ecologists point to the modern periods demise due to the idea of ‘economic freedom’ becoming separate from that of ‘natural necessity’. This is due to the fact that the sphere of economic activity does indeed gain some autonomy from the natural world – and in two major respects. On the one hand, there is the freedom generated through the growth in human powers of technological manipulation which has been realized through the achievements in this period of science and industrialism. On the other hand, there is the development of the market system which entails the general alienability of land, relationships and capital. These factors of production had been seen not merely as social phenomena, but as aspects of the natural world. With the generalization of the market system, however, this naturalness can be increasingly abstracted from: the specificity of nature becomes an indifferent generality. The social reality of land, labour and capital is now merely quantitative: its sensuous reality becomes a matter of indifference.  Firendship scholars like Tod May[3] propose that deep friendship can offer an antidote to extreme consumerism is also a viable alternative to protectionism.

A fundamental part of political ecology is the recognition of the always shifting relationship between societies and land-based resources. With this there is an understanding of unpredictability in terms of the outcome of subjects studied within the field. Thus instead of being like cultural ecology and systems theory who focus on adaptation and homeostasis, political ecologists focus on political economies influence on maladaptation and instability. An example of this study of maladaptation is the case study set in the Sahel region of West Africa by Bassett and Koli Bi that compares the “conventional wisdom” of global environmental narratives with local knowledge about desertification[4]. In ways this comparison between conventional, or mass produced and impersonal, to local knowledge can be likened to impersonal relationships to friendship. Impersonal relationships with land are problematic as they often lead to unsustainable land use, not aware of the particular needs of the land. Much like we have learned of the loneliness and lack of deep friendships that have been produced from neoliberalism and technology, political ecologists also see faults in neoliberalism. The concept of nature as capital has gained visibility in policies and practices in both the public and private sectors. Similarly, the concept of relationships as capital or ‘networking’ opportunities within a neoliberal society devalues them.  

There also is the inherent assumption among political ecologists that environmental change effects different populations differently. This sense of inequality and diversity has led to the complexity that political ecologists assert in their work. Political ecologists, instead of simplifying the situation, often complicate them with these basic assumptions. As in the work of Nietschmann Ecological Change, Inflation, and Migration in the Far Western Caribbean there is the critique of cultural ecologists who believed that climate purely effects culture. While recognizing the value of cultural ecology as a means to understand society-nature relations in specific places there is the understanding among political ecologists that it is not that simple and that outside global market economies will influence these relations as well. Nietchmann exemplified this with his case study of the Miskito people whose economic system was once the same as the social but is now separate due to the outside globalized markets influence. By arguing against a simplification of issues there is an element of deeper systemic investigation that political ecologists employ to seek the true factors that have created the situation over trying to simplify it to one like cultural ecologists traditionally have. This holistic and human approach to the occurrence of relationships is much like those of friendship, understanding the various factors that influence the ways in which friendships do or do not manifest. Political ecology therefore offers site-specific insights into the cumulative impacts of negative and destructive pressures above or from below, which are caused by disconnect, misunderstanding and miscommunication.

Case studies are used by political ecologists to more fully understand how environmental and political change co-effect different and diverse populations. There is an additional fundamental understanding among political ecologists of dynamic and unceasing changes of environmental and social systems. Case studies give attention to this by investigating how various political, environmental and cultural changes to a group manifest during the period of the case study. This dynamic view of political ecologists purposefully makes it challenging to view any environmental issue in isolation as each factor is seen as having an active role to play in the issue. In the case study Suffering for water, suffering from water by Farhana Sultana, she explores how women access safe drinking water in rural Bangladesh, where much of available water is polluted by naturally-occurring arsenic. In her study she discovers that what informs women’s decisions about water is not necessarily rational but more emotionally-charged. Without understanding this nuance of the water situation in Bangladesh we would not fully understand the struggles of water access in such places. Case studies help political ecologists also get the full picture more than any isolated laboratory or historical research that focuses on a singular removed question. This too is the only way to understand problems within friendships. People, each being complicated and unique, always bring their own baggage and limitations into whatever relationship they have and these have to be addressed on a case by case basis between friends. I believe we can view political ecologists as performing a meta-friendship analysis on site-specific case studies to see what is effecting relationships within the site.

Case studies, while specific, are linked to larger systems as a window into the ways that these larger systems have an impact on the micro. Additionally, these studies also explore the potential of successful environmental and social population’s systems to be expanded to a macro level. Because case studies are the main means of political ecology research there is a tension between finding “The appropriate balance between detailed local research and broad historical sweep creates a dilemma that is difficult to resolve.”[5] As discussed in The Commons in History by Derek Wall there is a tension between economists and anthropologists who each approach the ‘contested commons’ with often too micro or macro lenses. While anthropologists seem too detailed and localized, economists seem to offer too paired down models of explanation, both of which are critiqued as not leading to sustainable future approaches. In the case study of the Environmental Discourses and the Ivorian Savanna, Bassett and Koli Bi investigate ‘conventional knowledge’ of environmental narratives with local knowledge surrounding the desertification in the Sahel region of West Africa. They broaden their work out to examine discourse as a ‘framing device’ surrounding global environmental work by outside organizations in developing world countries. Political ecologists try to cut through this by focusing on the specific study while broadening the lens of their work at the beginning and end to explain its possible implications or commentary on existing political ecology thought. In these ways political ecologists have found real applied ways to gain legitimacy surrounding their suggestions through utilizing established academic frameworks to analyze relations in order to better them towards what I believe to be deep friendship.

There is an optimism among the field that there is a “normative understanding that there are very likely better, less coercive, less exploitative, and more sustainable ways of doing things” (Robbins, 2004, 12) that gives political ecologists work meaning. In Authority and Environment: Institutional Landscapes in Rajasthan, India Robbins finds that social institutions are not as important as respect for authority is. He turns his work to suggest that for effect natural resource management actual resource users should be involved, given a stake in the outcome, and that there should be a transparence about the decision process. The ultimate take away of political ecology could be considered that there is no division between ecology and social relations. While we cannot so easily control nature, we can change relations with it. Political ecology is a means in which we can study these dynamic relations in hopes of bettering them through the virtues of friendship.   

Friendship is a relationship that has existed across historical times in all types of societies. Friendships form one of the most proximal contexts with a critical role in peace and wellbeing of all. There is currently a seeming rise in indifference and loneliness within the world. The suffering that ensues from a lack of friendship has two types of costs: one is material destruction and loss of life, and the other a decrease in quality of life that depends on various levels of friendship deficit in a society. We need new and innovative approaches and methodologies that will institutionalize friendship-based philosophies, theologies, and economies. This means that within academia, there ought to be the recognition and incorporation of friendship studies in each discipline. The study of political ecology is an attempt to find the roots causes that are undermining friendships through researching the relationship between political, socio-cultural, economic and environmental factors. I believe that political ecology acts as an academic field that expands and extrapolates the elements of friendship from the realm of personal life to that of the public, academic and political life and eventually will help push the crisis of friendship into global consciousness. While political ecology studies critically the causes and symptoms of poor human-nature relationships friendship politics picks up where their studies leave off by offering a solution.  One of the great friendship scholars Schwarzenbach offers three Aristotelian elements of friendship; mutual awareness, affection and doing together as friendly exercises that are available for all humankind.[6] It is my hopes that the expansion of friendship studies, through friendship, will lead to these brilliant scholars collaboration and progress means of rebuilding friendship between all.

[1] Eisenstein, Charles. The ascent of humanity. Panenthea Press, 1994. 18.

[2] Österberg, E. (2010) Friendship and Love, Ethics and Politics. Studies in the Medieval and Early Modern History. Budapest & New York: Central European University Press. Pg 79.

[3] May, Todd. Friendship in an age of economics: Resisting the forces of neoliberalism. Lexington Books, 2012.

[4] Bassett, T. J. and Zuéli, K. B. (2000), Environmental Discourses and the Ivorian Savanna. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 90: 67-95. doi:10.1111/0004-5608.00184The Art of Friendship in the Context of Political Ecology

[5] Wall, Derek. The commons in history: culture, conflict, and ecology. MIT Press, 2014. 11.

[6] Schwarzenbach, Sibyl. “Fraternity, Solidarity and Civic Friendship.” AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies 3.1 (2015): 3-18.


Watts, Michael. “On the poverty of theory: natural hazards research in context.” Environment. Routledge, 2017. 57-88.

Eisenstein, Charles. The ascent of humanity. Panenthea Press, 1994.

Österberg, E. (2010) Friendship and Love, Ethics and Politics. Studies in the Medieval and Early Modern History. Budapest & New York: Central European University Press

Nally, David P., and Gerry Kearns. “A Closer Look at Famine.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 Oct. 2011,

May, Todd. Friendship in an age of economics: Resisting the forces of neoliberalism. Lexington Books, 2012.

Bassett, T. J. and Zuéli, K. B. (2000), Environmental Discourses and the Ivorian Savanna. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 90: 67-95. doi:10.1111/0004-5608.00184

Nietschmann, Bernard. “Ecological change, inflation, and migration in the far western Caribbean.” Geographical review(1979): 1-24.

Sultana, Farhana. “Suffering for water, suffering from water: emotional geographies of resource access, control and conflict.” Geoforum 42.2 (2011): 163-172.

Wall, Derek. The commons in history: culture, conflict, and ecology. MIT Press, 2014.

Robbins, Paul. “Authority and environment: Institutional landscapes in Rajasthan, India.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 88.3 (1998): 410-435.

Schwarzenbach, Sibyl. “Fraternity, Solidarity and Civic Friendship.” AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies 3.1 (2015): 3-18.

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