Anthropocenic Imaginaries: Politicized Nature and the Making of Place in Tourism

In December of 2012 the United Nations World Tourism Organization announced that the one billionth tourist had arrived. This event is highlighted in the organization’s recent “1 Billion Tourists, 1 Billion Opportunities” campaign that asks tourists to partake in “small actions” that can result in big impacts, such as taking public transport, buying local products and conserving water by reusing hotel towels. This UNWTO initiative is indicative of the changing relationships between politics, the environment and global tourism.

An ENHANCE-organised panel, Anthropocenic Imaginaries: Politicized Nature and the Making of Place in Tourism, at the American Association of Geographers meeting in San Francisco this April, builds on emerging scholarship that links assemblages of political ecological action with globalising processes of tourism and planetary concerns about humanity’s role in climate change.

Logics of political ecology and tourism

As an experience-oriented economy, tourism is driven by the semiotic production of imaginaries of place, often mediated by planetary environmental logics that drive tourism planning, development and conservation agendas. Illustrating the unavoidable entanglement of political economy with ecological concerns, political ecology invokes a dialectics of nature and society to provide new ways of thinking about relationships between politics, economics, culture and the material world. While considerations of political ecology across spheres such as fair trade (Goodman 2004), agriculture (Guthman 2007) and conservation (West 2006) have been substantively addressed in the social sciences, how such engagements play out in the global-local context of tourism has yet to be significantly investigated. While a handful of scholars (Brockington and Duffy, 2010; Cole, 2012; Douglas, 2014; Gössling, 2003; Mostafanezhad, 2015; Stonich, 1998) have highlighted the familiar dilemma between the desire for both tourism development income and environmental sustainability, little scholarship has sought to apply a political ecology framework to the study of tourism practices. A recent volume (Mostafanezhad et al.2016) paved the groundwork for an engaged political ecology of tourism; this panel pushes this further by folding in conceptual regimes of anthropogenic climate change.

Much like fair trade, tourism development in the name of conservation and/or social and economic development often works both “in and against the market” (Goodman 2004), frequently with the explicit goal of preserving or sustaining the environment, or improving local ecologies. Governments, businesses and NGOs routinely articulate the relationship between environmental conservation in and through tourism development, just as they appropriate tourism as a strategy for responsible, pro-poor or ethical ecological stewardship. Such interactions are made more poignant as political ecological concern surrounding the Anthropocene becomes more widespread, and as popular awareness about climate change spawns new forms of tourism practice (Lemlin et al. 2012).

Anthropos scene

The Anthropocene is understood to be a potential (proposed) geological epoch, one in which human agency is a planetary force acting on the Earth, which in turn becomes human artifact. Yet in addition to serving as a geo-scientific index, the Anthropocene must also be seen as both a conceptual regime and a socio-cultural imaginary that co-opts the language of the earth sciences in order to strengthen neoliberal, depoliticizing projects (Reszitnyk 2015, Moore 2015). Figuring into the logics of how tourism – as both an industry and an consumable experience – is envisioned and practiced, as local and global political communities bear witness to the materialization of planetary changes in climate, articulations between ecological and tourism development mobilize both “hosts” and “guests” into political and environmental action, at times collaboratively.

In seeking to illustrate the ways in which local tourism-related environmental and political challenges can be productively considered through political ecology analyses, the panel looks to push forward thinking that considers such interconnections in the context of fundamental anthropocenic logics. The collection of essays is deliberately geographically broad in scope; what might be otherwise clear distinctions between so-called First and Third World political ecologies are increasingly blurred both by more nuanced understandings of global and local environmental relationships (Bryant and Bailey, 1997) and by planetary-level considerations of ecological change. The collection addresses the multiple and sometimes contradictory global imaginaries implicit in both tourist practices and environmental subjectivities through a range of core themes that include gender politics, geopolitical imaginaries, the Anthropocene’s commerciality and the authority of endangerment, among other areas of concern. Taken individually, each of these essays theoretically and empirically integrate linkages between tourism practice and political ecological responses to tourism through the lens of the Anthropocene. It seeks to identify core themes, concepts and issues for a critical political ecology-focused tourism scholarship that understands anthropocenic logics as a fundamental consideration.

The panel is co-convened by Roger Norum, University of Leeds. Among the nine presenters are ENHANCE members Jesse Petersen, KTH, and Anna Antonova, University of Leeds.

Select references

Brockington, D. and Duffy, R. (2010) Capitalism and Conservation: The Production and Reproduction of Biodiversity Conservation. Antipode, 42, pp. 469-484.

Bryant, R. L. and Bailey, S. (1997) Third world political ecology, Psychology Press.

Cole, S. (2012) A political ecology of water equity and tourism: A Case Study From Bali. Annals of Tourism Research, 39, pp. 1221-1241.

Douglas, J. A. (2014) What’s political ecology got to do with tourism? Tourism Geographies, 16, pp. 8-13.

Gössling, S. (2003b) Tourism and development in tropical islands: political ecology perspectives, Edward Elgar.

Mostafanezhad, M. (2015) “They Came for Nature”: A Political Ecology of Volunteer Tourism Development in Northern Thailand. In: FINNEY, S., MOSTAFANEZHAD, M., PIGLIASCO, G. and YOUNG, F. (eds.) At Home and in the Field: Ethnographic Encounters in Asia and the Pacific Islands. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Mostafanezhad, M., Norum, R., Shelton, E.J. and Thompson-Carr, A. (2016) Political ecology of tourism: Communities, power and the environment. London: Routledge (2016).

Stonich, S. C. (1998) Political ecology of tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 25, pp. 25-54.

West, P. (2006) Conservation is Our Government Now: The Politics of Ecology in Papua New Guinea, Durham, Duke University Press.

Posted by : Roger Norum

Posted At : 11:31 am

Posted On : 2nd July 2015

Posted In : News & Events

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