Paul Robbins's website


image of a mountain range
The Aravalli hills in Rajasthan. Used by local herders, farmers, and adivasi "tribals," but also a site of ecotourist development.

Whose ecosystem is it anyway?

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, India and 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:

Robbins, P., J. Hintz, and S. Moore. 2010. Environment & Society: A critical introduction. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

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): 747–755.

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 Jennifer Robinson.

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.

image of a chameleon on a branch
The Indian chameleon, one of hundreds of species of concern living in close proximity to human forest users and communities in the Aravalli hills.

Can conservation succeed even when it fails?

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:

Robbins, 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 Niña'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.

close up image of mesquite plant
Prosopis juliflora (or mesquite); an invasive species that thwarts indigenous grass and shrub cover.

Are Invasive Species Friends or Foes?

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 landscape change.

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, make species invasion a politically complex and ambiguous process.

Also see:

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 Review. 94(2):139-156.

close up image of a mosquito on a finger

Can mosquitoes be managed?

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.

Also see:

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.

close up wild berries on a plant

How can mixed methods be used in geographic research?

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.

Also see:

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.

photo of a sidewalk in front of houses
Well-manicured, high-input suburban lawns - an unregulated contributor to non-source point pollution in groundwater and the ambient ecosystem.

How are urban ecologies formed and how might they be managed?

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.

Also see:

Robbins and Sharp. 2003. "The Lawn Chemical Economy and Its Discontents" Antipode. 35(5):955-979

Robbins and Sharp. 2003. "Producing and Consuming Chemicals: The Moral Economy of the American Lawn" Economic Geography. 79(4):425-451

Robbins and Birkenholtz. 2003. "Turfgrass Revolution: Measuring the Expansion of the American Lawn" Land Use Policy. 20: 181-194