NEWS | Shannon O’Lear – Environmental Geopolitics

Shannon O'Lear is a Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Kansas and visits BIOSEC in October to talk about her research in environmental geopolitics.

Shannon O’Lear is a Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Kansas. She visits BIOSEC in the first week of October to talk about her research, as well as presenting to the Political Ecology Group. She has recently written ‘Environmental Geopolitics’ – a critical geopolitical lens for understanding global environment politics. The book is available to buy on the Rowman & Littlefield website.

It isn’t often that the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (JHU/APL) calls me. I am a political geographer with joint appointments in the Geography & Atmospheric Science Department and in the Environmental Studies Program here at the University of Kansas. A couple of years ago, a group at JHU/APL was organizing a Human Geography Futures Seminar, and my name ended up on their list of speakers to invite. On the initial phone call, I was asked if I would come and speak about arable land, food, and water scarcities around the world and how they lead to conflict. That request makes sense. We hear a lot about how those kinds of scarcities seem to be linked to armed conflict. The Human Geography Futures Seminar was being organized with an eye on writing the “JOE 2035”, the Joint Operating Environment manual for the U.S. military that identifies trends and describes areas of likely change as well as the evolving nature of conflict in the near term future. So, it makes sense that they would be interested in the idea of how resource scarcities lead to conflict.

However, my research takes a different approach. I offered to draft an outline of how I would go about asking these kinds of questions so that my contribution to the seminar – if they still wanted it — would be clear ahead of time. I wrote up an outline that considered various reasons for resource scarcities, that examined the roots of scarcity narratives in problematic, Malthusian thinking, and that addressed shortcomings of resource determinism and its focus on resources separately from the human systems and networks that value or devalue those resources.

After receiving my outline that didn’t exactly follow the requested topics, my JHU/APL contact called me back and said, “I’ve read your outline, and ah, it looks like we’re going to have to double your speaking time”.

At the time, I was already starting initial work on my book, Environmental Geopolitics, which has since been published by Rowman & Littlefield. After years of reading scholarly work on environmental security and resource conflict, what seemed to be missing was a geographic interpretation of human-environment interaction along these lines. Yes, political ecologists have for years been considering land management, political economy, and conflict at the local scale, but there were few political geographers working on environmental topics alongside more traditional political geography themes of borders, territory, networks, identity, political struggle and the like. As a discipline, we seemed to be missing out on a conversation that was dominated by IR theorists who didn’t understand or at least pay any attention to critical nuances of spatial relationships. My book addresses that gap by demonstrating how a critical geopolitics approach can be helpfully applied to develop a better understanding of human-environment interactions and how, why, and where these interactions come to be associated with either risk or security.

My talk at the Human Geography Futures Seminar went well, and I was, indeed, allocated twice the time of the other speakers (all of whom were, for some reason, political scientists). In addition to the group who organized the seminar, there were about 100 military officers attending from various countries. I can’t say anything specific about who was there (or with whom I may have inadvertently clashed on the topic of land acquisitions), but at the end of my talk someone asked a question – or rather, made a really long comment that was turned into a question at the very end – about my approach. The comment was about how, in the case of each of the different kinds of resources I had discussed, I stepped back to look at the unique role and purpose of that resource and how and where it is used and why it is important not to look just at where the resource or the scarcity is located but more broadly at the different groups of people and human systems in different places influencing the use and availability of that resource while also considering dynamics of power and unequal power that can contribute to different forms of tension as well as motivate cooperation in a rather holistic systems approach…right? Yes. Exactly. That is what geographers do.


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The Department of Politics and International Relation’s Environmental Politics Group cordially invites you to join them for their inaugural 2019/2020 seminar on October 2nd with Professor Shannon O’Lear.

Date: Wednesday 2 October
Time: 15.30-17.00
Location: Elmfield G19

Shannon will be presenting her approach to Environmental Geopolitics. Her work critically engages with the discursive construction of environmental problems and the ways in which such discourses embody and stabilize power in ways that shape how we perceive, respond to or overlook human/environment interactions

The talk will be followed by a drinks reception sponsored by BIOSEC

Shannon O'Lear