Book review: Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-obscene: Interruptions and Possibilities

edited by Henrik Ernstson & Erik Swyngedouw and reviewed by Enora Robin

22 Jan 2020, 1:49 p.m.
Enora Robin

​Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-obscene book cover

Book review: Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-obscene: Interruptions and Possibilities

edited by Henrik Ernstson & Erik Swyngedouw and reviewed by Enora Robin

London: Routledge, 2019; 272 pp.: ISBN: 9781138629196, £29.99 (pbk)


Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-obscene: Interruptions and Possibilities brings together contributions that interrogate what an emancipatory and radical urban political ecology (UPE) scholarship could look like in the age of the so-called Anthropocene. The premise of the book rests on the observation that current discourses of the Anthropocene support the depoliticisation of contemporary responses to global ecological challenges. The editors further argue that academics, experts of all kinds and the urban middle class have been complicit in embracing and promoting a discourse that addresses the environmental crisis through responses that ensure the survival of the capitalist system and the perpetuation of the racial, gender, social and environmental inequalities that go with it. This consensus supports the production of eco-proof enclaves for the rich in the name of sustainability without addressing the root cause of contemporary ecological turbulences. At the same time, the editors note that UPE as a scholarly and political project to date has had ‘little to offer in terms of what to do, in terms of thinking with radical political activists about new political imaginaries, forms of political organising, and practices of emancipatory socio-ecological change’ (p. 5). The volume thus offers to recast the role of UPE within this context, exploring avenues for a renewed UPE to engage what remains hidden – or, as the editors have it, Obscene – in the Anthropocene’s depoliticised and sanitised doxa (Chapter 2, Henrik Ernstson and Erik Swyngedouw). The objective of the book is to ‘organise anew the articulation between emancipatory theory and political activism’ (p. 3) by bringing together authors who have contributed to the development of the field in its early days (e.g. Erik Swyngedouw, Maria Kaika, Roger Keil) and authors whose works rooted in postcolonial, feminist and race studies have significantly enriched UPE in recent years (e.g. Nik Heynen, Malini Ranganathan, Sapana Doshi, Henrik Ernstson, Jonathan Silver). In its attempt at ‘producing both knowledge and political possibilities’ (p. 9) the book is organised in three distinct parts: The Political (1), The Situated (2) and The Performative (3).


Part 1 foregrounds the theoretical proposition of the book, showing how the Anthropocene discourse depoliticises current responses to the global environmental crisis and obliterates some subjectivities and knowledges (Chapter 2). It suggests that UPE has a role to play in unsettling the instituted ways of doing politics in the age of the Anthropocene and in revealing its obscene underbelly to interrupt techno-centric interventions perpetuating ecological, racial and social violence and inequalities. Chapter 3 (Richard Walker and Jason W Moore) recasts these theoretical and political ambitions within the broader history of capitalism, using a Marxist analysis to explore how the appropriation of natural resources has been central to the production of value since the origins of capitalism. This chapter offers insights that foreground extra urban relationships of extraction, exploitation and subjection operating within, outside and across cities, situating the possibilities of an emancipatory UPE within a global regime of accumulation. Chapter 4 (Andrés Fabián Henao Castro and Henrik Ernstson) directly addresses the volume’s ambition to bring to the fore postcolonial theory for a (re)politicisation of UPE through an engagement with the situated struggles of subaltern groups.


This emphasis on ‘Situated’ experiences of ecological violence lies at the heart of Part 2, which brings together empirically rich contributions that deploy UPE to reframe what ‘the political’ might mean when apprehended through postcolonial and abolitionist lenses. In Chapter 5, Malini Ranganathan and Sapana Doshi draw on cases in Bangalore and Mumbai to explore how anticorruption politics can help address the ‘post-political condition of the Anthropocene’ in the context of wetland grabbing. Whilst they argue that anti-corruption might not be a panacea, they show how it can be tactically deployed by different groups, at different historical junctures, to read through and fight against specific forms of violence, in this case real estate-/state-led ecological dispossession. Writing from Atlanta, Nik Heynen (Chapter 6) draws on black scholarship to call for an inclusion of ‘abolitionist ecologies’ within UPE, and to engage more deeply with the issue of racial capitalism. In Chapter 7, Jonathan Silver pursues similar lines by deploying Frantz Fanon’s notion of ‘suffocation’ to reframe climate change as socio-ecological violence in postcolonial African cities. Through very detailed empirical descriptions, Silver shows how urban dwellers suffocate in a climate changed world, either because they directly suffer the impact of ecological changes they are not responsible for (as is the case of Saint Louis, Senegal and Accra, Ghana) or because they suffer the violent consequences of techno-managerial climate mitigation strategies imposed upon them by supranational entities (as is the case of Mbale, Uganda). Writing from Africa too (Dakar and Pikine, Senegal), Garth Myers (Chapter 8) invites us to rethink politics from the grassroots. In doing so he urges UPE to develop analytical and methodological registers that can capture the ‘transformational energies and dynamism that produce radical incrementalism and forms of emancipation, albeit not in the same form as previous urban revolutions’ (p. 161). Roger Keil (Chapter 9) draws attention to the suburban politics of the Anthropocene. Like Myers, he argues that the suburb might lend itself to mundane forms of radical ecological politics, and invites us to consider the forms of incremental and performative politics that can emerge from these spaces that have been traditionally overlooked in UPE scholarship. In the last contribution to this ‘Situated’ moment, Marco Armiero shares reflections from his work with activists combatting toxic waste contamination in Campania (Italy), offering humbling insights into the role of engaged scholarship in supporting ecological struggles.


The final part of this book deals with The Performative and explores different ways of performing ruptures supporting radical politics. Jodi Dean (Chapter 11) narrates the potential of reconfiguring the museal institution – in her case the National History Museum – to create spaces for emancipatory politics and imagination, overcoming the paralysing power of apocalyptic discourses of the Anthropocene and the depoliticising effects of techno-managerial utopia. Andy Merryfield (Chapter 12) calls for a revolt of the amateurs (or shadow citizenry) to interrupt the ruling of the professional, to ‘take back democracy from technocracy’ (p. 233), locating the potential for emancipatory politics within ordinary citizens and their collective mobilisation. Finally, Maria Kaika (Chapter 13) stresses the necessity for UPE scholars to reclaim ‘a scholarship of presence’ (p. 239) and to engage with already existing social movements in order to give voice to the imaginaries they create, in the hope of advancing socio-ecological and environmental justice.


Through these different contributions, the book manages to reflect upon and build on the exciting directions UPE has embarked on over recent years, engaging with postcolonial, feminist and black scholarship, and producing rich empirical work grounded in the experiences of small and large African and Asian cities, or emerging from a meaningful engagement with social movements and environmental justice struggles. Developing analytical vocabularies to describe the complex socio-ecological relations underpinning city formation, the production of injustices and uneven urban development, within and beyond cities’ boundaries, has been one of the key contributions of UPE since its inception. Yet reading through some of the book’s most tedious and highly theoretical arguments, I could not help thinking that laying out a political project for academic scholarship also requires thinking through the politics of our own language. If the Anthropocene discourse has contributed to the depoliticisation of current responses to ecological turbulence, notably through the erection of scientific facts and discourses as a new regimen of truth, then perhaps a scholarship that seeks to contribute to a radical political project needs to reconsider the performative power of its own language. Reading through this volume, the most powerful contributions appeared to be the most empirically grounded, replete with facts, examples, and narrating experiences that weave together socio-ecological struggles from across the globe in a clear and relatable way. In that sense, I can only agree with Kaika’s point when she stresses that ‘rigorous empirical work and hard labour to advance emerging concepts and methods is what is required if we as scholars and urban practitioners want to retake our role as co-producers of alternative socio-environmental futures’. This volume is filled with inspiring ideas as to how we might do so, particularly through engaging with, and learning from, the new vocabularies and imaginaries emerging from both global and local environmental justice movements, but also more mundane and less spectacular forms of radical politics.


Related articles

If you enjoyed this review, the following articles published in Urban Studies might also be of interest:

Thinking through heterogeneous infrastructure configurations

Mary Lawhon, David Nilsson, Jonathan Silver, Henrik Ernstson, Shuaib Lwasa

Cities and the Anthropocene: Urban governance for the new era of regenerative cities

Giles Thomson, Peter Newman


From resilience to multi-species flourishing: (Re)imagining urban-environmental governance in Penang, Malaysia

Creighton Connolly

Urban green boosterism and city affordability: For whom is the ‘branded’ green city?

Melissa Garcia-Lamarca, Isabelle Anguelovski, Helen Cole, James JT Connolly, Lucía Argüelles, Francesc Baró, Stephanie Loveless, Carmen Pérez del Pulgar Frowein, Galia Shokry


Controlled environments: An urban research agenda on microclimatic enclosure

Simon Marvin, Jonathan Rutherford

Recognising the edible urban commons: Cultivating latent capacities for transformative governance in Singapore

Huiying Ng


Read more book reviews on the Urban Studies blog.



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