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The Political Ecology of Failure

Type: Paper
Sponsor Groups: Cultural and Political Ecology Specialty Group
Organizers: Bruce Erickson, Jonathan Peyton
Chairs: Bruce Erickson


In her 2007 bestseller The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein (Klein, 2014) builds her critique of neoliberalism on the dangers of Milton Friedman’s mobilization of crisis for market aims. “Only a Crisis – real or perceived,” he writes, “produces real change.” The economic crisis that followed in 2008-9 was supposed to be a testament to the failure of the market fundamentalism of neoliberalism, but as has been shown, in many ways, the crisis was used to deepen the market’s role in the aftermath (Aalbers, 2013; Mirowski, 2013). Geographers have placed these “market failures” within an analysis of environmental governance designed to alleviate resource conflict (see, for instance, Bakker 2010; Bakker et al 2008). In this session, we ask about the productive capacity of these kinds of failures in the field of environmental change. How is failure woven through our interactions with the environment—from failed industrial projects to failed conservation efforts—and what are the legacies of these foiled, delayed and diverted dreams.

Indeed, failure is a fundamental feature of environmental change and has emerged as a significant part of the discussion within political ecology (See for example, Dempsey, 2016; Jones, 2019; Mukherjee, 2017; Paprocki, 2019). Yet, we are only starting to address failure as an analytical tool for understanding the consequences of our desires in nature (Peyton, 2017; Rowe, 2017; Tsing, 2015). Cognate terms have emerged to test the “messy, contradictory, multilayered, conjunctural effects” (Li, 2005) of development failures: Papers in this session might probe questions on debris, ruins and ruination (Stoler 2008, Tsing 2015), or rubble (Gordillo 2014) or other terms and dispositions that interrogate the complex afterlives of failed plans for extraction, development, conservation or industrial reinvention. Alongside empirical papers on specific failures, this session welcomes consideration of failure as an important analytic lens for political ecology. Potential topics could include:

- Failure as productive of future investment
- Legacies of failed industrial development
- Failure and anxiety in the context of environmental degradation.
- Failure and compromise in conservation movements
- Crisis as motivator for change and resistance
- Salvage economies and the re-mobilization of value in Nature
- Markets, mechanisms and rent in the failure of environmentalism
- Failure and the production of scientific knowledge
- Social movements and failure
- Landscapes of ruination and responsibility

Please submit abstracts of no more than 250 words to Bruce Erickson ( and Jonathan Peyton ( by October 22nd.

Aalbers, M. B. (2013). Neoliberalism is Dead … Long Live Neoliberalism! International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 37(3), 1083–1090.
Bakker, Karen. Privatizing water: governance failure and the world's urban water crisis. Cornell University Press, 2010.
Bakker, Karen, et al. "Governance failure: rethinking the institutional dimensions of urban water supply to poor households." World Development 36.10 (2008): 1891-1915.
Dempsey, J. (2016). Enterprising Nature: Economics, Markets, and Finance in Global Biodiversity Politics. John Wiley & Sons.
Gordillo, Gastón R. Rubble: The afterlife of destruction. duke university press, 2014.
Jones, B. M. (2019). (Com)Post-CapitalismCultivating a More-than-Human Economy in the Appalachian Anthropocene. Environmental Humanities, 11(1), 3–26.
Klein, N. (2014). This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Canadian First edition). Knopf Canada.
Li, Tania Murray. "Beyond “the state” and failed schemes." American anthropologist 107.3 (2005): 383-394.
Mirowski, P. (2013). Never let a serious crisis go to waste: How neoliberalism survived the financial meltdown. Verso Books.
Mukherjee, R. (2017). Anticipating Ruinations: Ecologies of ‘Make Do’and ‘Left With.’ Journal of Visual Culture, 16(3), 287–309.
Paprocki, K. (2019). All that is solid melts into the bay: Anticipatory ruination and climate change adaptation. Antipode, 51(1), 295–315.
Peyton, J. (2017). Unbuilt Environments: Tracing Postwar Development in Northwest British Columbia. UBC Press.
Rowe, E. W. (2017). Promises, Promises: The Unbuilt Petroleum Environment in Murmansk. Arctic Review, 8.
Stoler, Ann Laura. "Imperial debris: reflections on ruins and ruination." Cultural anthropology 23.2 (2008): 191-219
Tsing, A. L. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press.


Type Details Minutes Start Time
Presenter Kate Massarella, Wageningen University, Josie Chambers, University of Cambridge, Robert Fletcher*, Wageningen University, The Right to Fail? Problematizing failure discourses in international conservation 15 12:00 AM
Presenter Andrew Schuldt*, University of British Columbia, Fuelling the Failure: The Non-Performance of Second Generation Biofuel Plants in the Southern United States 15 12:00 AM
Presenter James Wilt*, , Jonathan Peyton, University of Manitoba, Mobilizing Arctic gas 15 12:00 AM
Presenter Daniel Banoub*, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Christine Knott, Memorial University, Failing worse: legacies of extractive resource frontiers on Newfoundland’s south coast 15 12:00 AM
Presenter Neil Nunn*, University of Toronto, On anti-relationality: constraint, Eurowestern supremacy, and thoughts on the conditions for repair 15 12:00 AM

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