10 March 2017

Natural and social scientists must work together to influence policy, says Lancaster’s new Professor of Political Ecology

Professor Simon Batterbury is an unusual academic, believing that responding effectively to today’s complex environmental challenges involves working “broad not deep”  and at different scales.

“Scientific 'facts' on climate change are getting ignored because they are too challenging for mainstream pro-growth agendas,” he maintains.

A geographer by background, his published work ranges from soil science to social theory, and he has taught at a wide range of academic institutions on three continents from a college of higher education to the LSE and University of Oxford.

Born in London, Simon left the UK in 2001, working at the University of Arizona and then, for the past 12 years, at the University of Melbourne as Associate Professor of Environmental Studies. As well as heading up a large student research group, he led a very successful Environmental Masters programme, which permitted students to take modules from right across the University. 

He’s been tempted back to the UK by the opportunity to work in one of the world’s biggest centres of environmental research and teaching, where he will lead one of few research groups focussed on political ecology - the intersection between society, environment and development.

Simon is Lancaster University's first Professor of Political Ecology, only the second such professorship in the UK. He is attracted by the mix of disciplines at the Lancaster Environment Centre and its key role in POLLEN, the international Political Ecology Network.

“Political ecology branches off into many fields: it is where discourse analysis and sociology meet soil science, remote sensing and atmospheric science.”

This gives it a key role in bridging the natural and social sciences to help turn knowledge into action, Simon argues.

“In the ‘post truth’ age, scientific facts aren’t enough. We need to find other ways to influence policy."

“Political ecology refuses to ignore power dynamics, and the political decisions that can frustrate low-carbon, low-growth, or socially and environmentally equitable policies".

“In Cameroon, for example, I am working with Frankline Ndi to uncover the government-business deals and local conditions that have allowed thousands of hectares of tropical forest to be cut for palm oil"

“There is a specific political ecology approach to environmental problems that recognises a ‘chain of explanation’, that local environmental issues have broader drivers, human and environmental, that we must expose.”

Simon has been doing this since he started his PhD, working on soil conservation in post-socialist Burkina Faso in the 1990s as part of a German development project, and how “soil erosion in a field could be the result of global agribusiness trends.”

He then researched erosion and livelihoods in Niger, and land tenure and rural livelihoods in East Timor a few years after the genocide and independence. He often works in marginal locations, particularly in the drylands of Africa and is interested in how people sustain livelihoods and their identities in adverse environmental, political and social conditions. He also provides advice to governments and aid agencies. He  has edited the open access Journal of Political Ecology since 2003.

His next project should be in the South Pacific, advising KNS, in New Caledonia, the only large scale mining operation with majority Indigenous ownership.

Dr Matthias Kowasch from the University of Graz and he have been invited to look at the long term socio-economic impact of the multi-billion dollar nickel mine on land use, gender, education, employment and labour relations.

“With few exceptions, large mines negatively affect Indigenous people and their territories. This mine is different –Kanak people run it. They want economic and maybe political independence from France. Mining is embedded in a geopolitical struggle, but it also creates pollution and destroys ancestral land. The leadership don’t want to hide the impact, they want to understand it.”

Simon hopes to build on the Lancaster Environment Centre’s size, multi-disciplinary structure and teaching programme to increase its impact.