Habitability in Environmental Political Theory

At the beginning of April I participated in a roundtable that examined habitability as a specifically political concept. The context was session on Environmental Political Theory (EPT) at the annual Western Political Science Association (WPSA) meeting. An informal group of scholars—mostly political theorists, but some people from other disciplines as well—sponsors sessions every year at WPSA. These sessions are always extremely rewarding, and have served as a kind of incubator for important work in the field. For example, many regular participants (including myself) are contributors to the new volume Engaging Nature: Environmentalism and the Political Theory Canon, ed. Peter F. Cannavò and Joseph H. Lane, Jr. (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2014).

For this year Peter Cannavò and I organized a session entitled “Exploring a Habitability Approach in Environmental Political Theory.” We called for contributions that would explore the notions of habitation (construed as the way a community makes use of its environment to support its form of life), and habitability (the dynamic match or mis-match between its environment and the form of life it seeks to lead) by articulating those relationships in a specifically political way, thereby contributing to a specifically environmental political theory of habitability. We were delighted to be joined for our session by George Davis, Timothy Luke, and Andy Scerri.

In a sense the session was an experiment, designed to test whether the idea of habitability could be articulated in a way that made it a useful category to apply within political theory. The experiment had at least initial success, in the sense that the discussion in that session (and indeed in other sessions as well) showed that the concept of habitability could indeed be taken up into the cluster of concepts deployed in the effort to theorize the political dimensions of human beings’ relationship with the environment. (Though to be sure there were important questions raised about the merits of the concept as well.) This experiment will be pursued further, in two more sessions on habitability planned for the meeting of the American Political Science Association at the beginning of September.

But the session involved an experiment of another sort too. The participants did not do formal papers, but aimed to instigate as rich and lively a conversation about the topic as we could. In hopes of priming the discussion in the session, we made use of a blog to share and engage with each other’s ideas. Each panelist put his abstract on a page, and then we all commented on the other presentations. The result is a complex and very robust set of exchanges, through which we revealed overlapping and divergent ways of understanding habitability, of using the concept to make sense of particular cases, and the fascinating range of issues it gathers together.

I’m using this post to introduce the EPT blog—to readers who are interested in what the participants said to each other, but also who are interested in joining in with our interactions. We particularly welcome comments because, as I mentioned, we are working toward another presentation at the end of the summer. This will be more formal, and is aimed at a collection of papers we might publish. We will use the EPT blog (or a successor, redone to incorporate additional participants scheduled for the APSA sessions) to gather and make use of responses to our work in progress. Because of the obvious overlap between the EPT exploration of habitability and the purposes of this blog, I have added a tab to the menu to link these two projects.

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