Whose ecosystem is it anyway?
The Aravalli hills in Rajasthan. Used by local herders,
farmers, and adivasi "tribals" but also a
site of ecotourist development.
Control of the world's grasslands, forests,
wetlands, and wild rivers is daily contested by politicians, farmers,
herders, corporations, consumers, tourists, bureaucrats, and the producers of
global consumer culture. As they struggle over the rules of use and access
for natural systems, strange alliances and surprising divisions emerge. The
politics of rule-making and rule-breaking in natural resource management is
one of Professor Robbins' central concerns. Tracing the history and effects
of rights to forest and pasture in Rajasthan,
access to wildlife in Park County Montana, his research has demonstrated that
neither the central state nor the local community is a necessarily superior
manager of nature. Further, the research has shown that neither state nor
local knowledge is monolithic but that they are instead both interwoven and
divided across gaps formed in daily resource politics.
For more on these question, see:
P., J. Hintz, and S. Moore. 2010. Environment & Society: A critical
Robbins, P. and K. M. Bishop. 2008.
“There and back again: epiphany, disillusionment, rediscovery in
political ecology” for special issue of Geoforum on “Piers Blaikie’s
Life Work: Political Ecology—Past, Present, and Future”. 39(2):
Turner, B. L., and P. Robbins. 2008.
Land-Change Science and Political Ecology: Similarities, Differences, and
Implications for Sustainability Science. Annual
Review of Environment and Resources 33 (1):295-316.
Robbins, P. 2007. "Political Ecology and the
State: A Postcard to Political Geography from the Field" for The
Handbook of Political Geography, edited by Kevin Cox, Murray Low, and
Robbins, P. 2006. "Carbon colonies: From local use
value to global exchange in 21st century postcolonial forestry" for Colonial
and Postcolonial Geographies of India, edited by Saraswati
Raju, Satish Kumar, and
Stuart Corbridge, Sage Publications. Pages 279-297.
Can conservation succeed even when it fails?
The Indian chameleon, one of hundreds of species of
concern living in close proximity to human forest users and communities in
the Aravalli hills.
We have the great misfortune to be living
through the largest mass extinction to occur during humanity's history. The
contribution of urban development, agriculture, and other human activities to
the disruption of habitat and environmental change is unquestionable. But
efforts at conservation that have desperately sought to
"dehumanize" the environment in order to save the species with whom
we share the planet have been remarkably unsuccessful, both because humans
are themselves part of larger ecologies and because efforts to coercively
exclude local and indigenous people from areas in which they live tend to
result in backlash and failure. Robbins longest term project has been to
trace the successes and failures of conservation efforts in India.
Working with several colleagues, including Dr. Anil Chhangani at the
Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary in Rajasthan, Robbins' work has shown that
many wildlife species - those adapted to rule-breaking and illegal grazing,
including wolves, panthers, langur monkeys, and sloth bear - have managed to
survive and thrive, while others have declined. So too, while invasive
species have harmed habitats for many species, they have allowed the survival
of others. Finally, while the costs of adjacency to reserves have been high
for many local households, it has been a boon for others. This suggests that
while wildlife species cannot be preserved by even the most zealous
international efforts, they might instead be produced. So too, while
behaviors of local people cannot be controlled by zealous conservationists,
they might be accommodated to yield surprising progress in both
environment and development.
For more on these question, see:
P., K. McSweeney, A. K. Chhangani, J. L Rice 2009.
“Conservation as it is: Illicit resource use in a wildlife reserve in India,”
Human Ecology. 37(5): 559.
Robbins, P., A. Chhangani, J. Rice, E. Trigosa, and S.M. Mohnot. 2007.
"Enforcement Authority and Vegetation Change at Kumbhalgarh Wildlife
Reserve, Rajasthan India"
Environmental Management. 40(3):365–378.
Waite, T.A., L.G. Campbell, A.K. Chhangani, P. Robbins.
2007. "La Niņa's signature: synchronous decline of the mammal community
in a 'protected' area in India"
Diversity and Distributions.
Robbins, P., K. McSweeney, T.
Waite, and J. Rice. 2006. "Even conservation rules are made to be
broken: implications for biodiversity" Environmental Management
37 (2): 162-169.
Are Invasive Species Friends or Foes?
(or mesquite); an invasive species that thwarts indigenous grass and shrub
Throughout the world ecosystems are
increasingly under apparent siege from the invasion of foreign species, which
are well-adapted to these new contexts and often lack competitors for scarce
resources. The second of Robbins' concerns is with this global pattern of
Using ethnographic, historic, and remote sensing techniques, he seeks to map,
track, and explain the politics and economics that drive and are driven by
exotic species invasion. The research has revealed that the causes of such transformations
include forces traditionally known as "natural" - including the
inherent qualities of aggressive exogenous species to new locations - as well
as forces more traditionally understood as "social" - including
state efforts to conserve land through forestry or intensify production.
Moreover, the research suggests that the insistence of planners to control
landscape change by spatially and conceptually separating the
"social" from the "natural" can actually lead to further,
often unintended, land cover changes, including an increase in species
invasion. These kinds of tensions between efforts to control change while
potentially exacerbating it, makes species invasion a politically complex and
Waite, T. A., Corey, S. J., Campbell, L. G., Chhangani, A., Rice, J.,
Robbins, P. 2009. “Satellite sleuthing: Does remotely sensed land-cover
change signal ecological degradation in a protected area?” Diversity & Distributions. 15(2):
299 – 309.
Robbins, P. 2005. "Comparing Invasive Networks:
The Cultural and Political Biographies of Species Invasion" Geographical
Can mosquitoes be managed?
Robbins confused in the laboratory: Is that an Aedes?
Few problems are as
intractable as mosquito borne disease. Dengue fever, West Nile Virus, and
Malaria kill millions of people around the world each year. Thought to have
been brought "under control" through the use of pesticides in the
middle of the 20th century, these diseases have proven remarkable resilient
because their main vector, the mosquito, eludes human control. Seemingly
everywhere at once and yet nowhere in particular, aided by global warming,
mosquitoes range across complex human spaces, breeding in paper cups and
thriving in manmade restored wetlands. Mosquitoes are returning to places
from which they have been long banished and invading new territories across
the world. Robbins most recent research has been an investigation of the way
modern institutions have sought to deal with this complex and elusive
problem. Using institutional ethnography and collaborating with
climatologists and entomologists, the work seeks to understand the spatial
patterns of mosquito distribution relative to the spatial jurisdictions,
imaginations, and knowledges of water managers, health department employees,
and planners. The preliminary results suggest that current bureaucratic
systems, precisely because of their partitioned and schismatic spatial
practices, are poorly equipped to cope with the dispersed and adaptive
mosquito species they face.
I. Shaw, P. Robbins and J. P. Jones. 2010 “A Bug's
Life and the Spatial Ontologies of Mosquito
Management” Annals of the
Association of American Geographers. 100(2): 373 – 392.
Robbins, P., R. Farnsworth., and
J.P. Jones III. 2008. “Insects and Institutions: How do bureaucracies
adapt to emerging environmental problems?” Journal of Environmental
Policy and Planning. 10(1): 95-112.
Robbins with Sevan grass (Lasiuris indicus), a
deep-rooted perennial of the Thar Desert of India.
Robbins is on the right, Sevan on the left.
How can mixed methods be used in geographic
Under conditions where resource use and access are the center of struggle
("whose ecosystem is it?"), where landscapes are changing quickly
("are invasive species friends or foes?"), and where knowledge of
nature is built on slippery categories ("when is a forest not a
forest?"), how can we rigorously explore human environment interactions
and make robust claims? This area of exploration explores the use of mixed
methods in geographic research. His most recent work has sought to unite
remote sensing with human perception research and discourse analysis with
environmental change analysis. This mixing of methods is not without
problems; some ways of knowing the environment are less compatible than
others. Still, a plural methodological vocabulary seems increasingly
essential for any comprehensive analysis in Geography.
Robbins, P. 2010. “Methods in Human Environment Geography” for Research Methods in Geography: A First
Course. Edited by John Paul Jones III, and Basil Gomez. Blackwell.
Robbins, P. 2007. "Nature Talks Back" for Politics
and Practice in Economic Geography, edited by Adam Tickell,
Eric Sheppard, Jamie Peck and Trevor Barnes, Sage Publications.
Robbins, P. 2005. "Research is theft: rigorous
inquiry in a postcolonial world" in Philosophies, People, Places, and
Practices Edited by Gill Valentine and Stuart Aitken.
Sage Press. Pages 311-324.
Robbins. 2003. "Beyond Ground Truth: GIS and the
Environmental Knowledge of Herders, Professional Foresters, and other
Traditional Communities " special issue of Human Ecology 31(1) on
GIS in Cultural and Political Ecology.
How are urban ecologies formed and how might they
A well-manicured, high-input suburban lawn in Columbus Ohio
- an unregulated contributor to non-source point pollution in groundwater and
the ambient ecosystem.
80% of people in developed nations are
urbanized and half the global population lives in cities, where immense
systems of water, energy, and nutrient flows are harnessed to make life
possible for billions of people. Yet, despite an interest on the part of policy
makers and planners, urban ecosystems have received less than full attention,
particularly in social science and environment/society research. A central
reason for this silence on urban ecological dilemmas is the staggering
complexity of problems that are aggregated into larger systems, but built
from the disaggregated choices of individuals, each of whom is located within
intricate physical and social systems. Millions of decisions governing trash
disposal, automobile use, home maintenance, etc., combine to form the urban
environment. Moreover, the very ordinariness of these daily decisions makes
them easy to overlook, even as they combine to create large effects. Robbins'
most recent work has been an examination of such ecologies, specifically in the
form of the American lawn, a landscape (the coverage of which is around 8
million hectares) onto which millions of pounds of toxins are poured every
year, including slightly toxic substances like 2,4-D
and Dicamba, as well as moderately toxic herbicides
like Glyphosate and Chlorpyrifos
and highly toxic broad spectrum insecticides like Carbaryl
and the deadly organophosphate Diazinon. This
research explores the social and economic motivation of lawn owners. Initial
conclusions suggest that wealthy well educated people use chemicals most
frequently and that people who claim concern for the environment are
disproportionately likely to use chemical inputs.
Robbins and Sharp.
2003. "The Lawn Chemical Economy and Its Discontents" Antipode.
Robbins and Sharp. 2003. "Producing and Consuming
Chemicals: The Moral Economy of the American Lawn" Economic Geography.
Robbins and Birkenholtz. 2003. "Turfgrass
Revolution: Measuring the Expansion of the American Lawn" Land Use
Policy. 20: 181-194.
Some Publications by Robbins with his Colleagues
Robbins asking trenchant questions: "Where'd ya get all that dung?..."
Student Research in "The Collective"
Graduate students working in Robbins' research group work on an enormous
range of environmental topics, including work on urban water governance, sewage,
traditional medicine, urban global warming policy, forest timber
certification, "green" suburban development, salmon conservation
politics, coffee growing, and sea turtles. They work in Tijuana,
South Africa, Costa Rica, and Malaysia, among other places.
Together they comprise "the collective," a loose supportive
community with a common respect for Tom Stoppard. Students in the collective
have gone on to teach at places including Rutgers
University and University of Oregon,
but have also taken positions in environmental consulting, in international
development, and at state EPA offices.
and the rest...
When he is not wandering around the landscape, Professor Robbins is teaching.
His classes include those on World Regional Geography and The Politics of
Nature, and his graduate seminars cover Political Ecology and Research
Design. In the past, he has taught courses on Institutional Ecology, Water
Resource Management, and Environment and Development. He has also written on
the teaching of geographic methods, techniques, and pedagogy at many
educational levels and on the postcolonial misadventures of contemporary
Robbins has received support for
international research and travel through the American Institute of Indian
Studies, the US Fulbright Program, the National Science Foundation, and the
Royal Geographical Society.
He as served as an Editor of the journal Geoforum, sits on the editorial
board of the Annals of the Association of American Geographers and recently
served as the Chair of the Cultural and Political Ecology Specialty Group of
the Association of American Geographers.
In his ample spare time, Robbins listens to Wilco,
Regina Spector and The Shins and rewatches episodes of "Deadwood" as well as the
films of Robert Altman, and the incomparable Arthur Penn. Robbins used to
sing lead vocals for a local Columbus
Ohio band: The Distants. He also plays a mediocre guitar, is a poor foil
fencer, and spends a not insignificant proportion of his day helping to tend
to Onyx and Khaki, Great Danes who can't think very well on their own.
updated: June 6, 2010