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Environmental Values

Ontological Politics: Mapping a Complex Environmental Problem

Michael S. Carolan

Environmental Values 13(2004): 497-522. doi: 10.3197/0963271042772587

What is an environmental problem? Philosophers of science and sociologists of knowledge have been writing for more than a decade about the de-centred, multiple object. Yet what if this insight were applied to the realm of environmental problems? What would be revealed? These questions are explored in this paper by examining the ontology of environmental problems. Ethnomethodologists, social constructionists, and sociologists of knowledge have all painted a descriptive picture of a thoroughly sociological ontology; an ontology that is fluid, at times de-centred, and (at least potentially) multiple. Yet if ontology is social, and thus multiple, than it is also ultimately political. But multiplicity need not imply fragmentation. It can be coherent, but this requires both coordination and trust. To give further visual and conceptual shape to this argument a heuristic model is constructed. Through this model I 'map' a handful of environmental problems - in terms of their 'complexity' and 'epistemological distance' - and in doing so give focus to the ontologically diverse nature of environmental problems today. A case study involving a particularly contentious environmental dispute is then examined so as to give the argument additional focus and an empirical grounding.

KEYWORDS: Translation, coordination, complexity, trust, environmental problems, modernity

REFERENCES to other articles in Environmental Values:

In Truth We Trust: Discourse, Phenomenology, and the Social Relations of Knowledge in an Environmental Dispute. Michael S. Carolan and Michael M. Bell

CITATIONS in other Environmental Values articles:

Risk, Trust and 'The Beyond' of the Environment: A Brief Look at the Recent Case of Mad Cow Disease in the United States. Michael S. Carolan

The Controversy over GM Canola in Australia as an Ontological Politics. Rosemary Robins

This article is available online (PDF format) from Ingenta Journals. Access is free if your institution subscribes to Environmental Values. Reprints of this article can be ordered from ingenta or the British Library

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