Ethno-territorial conflict/Political Geography

Nature-Environment-Capitalism/Political and Cultural Geography

First a look at some of my current work, then a bit about past projects.


Among my work on ethno-territorial is a project that involves developing the language and methods of international river basin dispute resolutions for use in land-based conflicts.  David Frank of the University of Oregon Honors College is my collaborator in trying to apply the lessons of river treaties to conflicts over land, using the cities of Jerusalem (Israel/Palestine) and Derry/Londonderry (Northern Ireland) as case studies.  Our 2002 article "Jerusalem and the Riparian Conflict Simile" (Political Geography 21(6):745-765) laid out the conceptual framework for this project.  We are building from the Transboundary Freshwater Dispute Database and collecting material from these two cities to explore the potential in thinking about disputed land as if it were disputed water.  Further development of this approach can be found in our article "Innovative Approaches to Territorial Conflicts:  Using Principles of Riparian Conflict Management" (Annals of the Association of American Geographers 99(5):948-955, 2011).  Though grounded in issues of territory and space, this project ranges into questions of identity, citizenship, symbol, and historical narrative/memory.  An example is my article "Winning While Losing:  The Apprentice Boys of Derry Walk Their Beat," in Political Geography 26(8):951-967 from 2007.

Another project that I am beginning is a consideration of the production of space in extreme places, drawing upon my work in battle zones and prisons.  I am interested in the ephemeral or transitory nature of altered states in places that are marked by tensions that arise from unequal power and the play of identity when individuals or groups interact.


Some of my earlier work looked at tree planting in various places and contexts.  All over the world people are being encouraged to plant trees. The reasons for tree planting range from the aesthetic of landscape to the imperative of mitigating global warming, and everything in between. Many of the individual benefits of tree planting are bundled together so that trees become the "do-all" wonders at the interface of society and nature. My work explores the power of trees in human cultures, and the ways that this power is harnessed for political ends. I study tree planting at a variety of scales, and for different purposes, and I examine citizen and non-governmental group, timber industry, and governmental planting.

In my book Planting Nature:  Trees and the Manipulation of Environmental Stewardship in America (University of California Press, 2004) I examine the role of non-profit planting organizations as a bridge between citizens and power brokers in the United States as a manifestation of Gramscian hegemony in the environmental realm.  I also dealt with the links between these sectors in "Promoting Eden: Tree Planting as the Environmental Panacea" (Ecumene 6(4) 1999). In that article I traced the use of an Edenic metaphor that suggests that we have an unlimited ability to remediate harmful impacts on the environment via tree planting. By fetishizing the numbers of trees planted and touting their many benefits, tree planting groups, the timber industry, and the federal government create a discourse of empowerment that actually speaks to symptoms rather than causes, and encourages an abdication of control of nature to the "experts" who plant more trees. I brought many examples in the article that illustrate that this is a shared discourse, with mutual benefit among the non-profit, profit, and governmental sectors, an argument that is supported by the functional links between the sectors that I described as well.

In The Politics of Planting (University of Chicago Press 1993) I examined the way that trees were employed by the Israeli government and Palestinian villagers in their conflict over land in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Under legal codes that have existed since Ottoman reforms in the 19th century, planting trees is a fast-track method to establishing usufructury rights to land. After tracing the "roots" of arboreal symbolism in both cultures, I examined the evolution of the legal codes that give trees their current power. I then described several conflicts where planting is being used by one side and/or the other in villages in and around the city, looking at the case as it is represented by each side. For those studies I drew upon Ottoman, British, Jordanian/Palestinian, and Israeli documents, and interviews with Palestinian and Israeli participants.

The Israeli planting was part of an effort to ring the city in a green swath, separating it from its immediate landscape, both Israeli and Palestinian. The origins of that effort led me to write an article titled "Greenbelts in London and Jerusalem" (Geographical Review 84(1) 1994). In that article I look at Greenbelts as a mechanism of spatial domination (and urban beautification) that was developed by British planners for London, and later applied to many cities that came under British colonial influence. Jerusalem was one such city, and Israeli planners inherited the concept of the greenbelt from their English predecessors. Once again, the lines of ethnic conflict as manifested in the landscape had been drawn for Israelis and Palestinians through the policies of an earlier (and foreign) ruler that were played out in the local environment.

My most recent work dealing specifically with trees in that part of the world was published in Society and Space in (20(2):209-230 2002). "As a City Besieged: Place, Zionism, and the Deforestation of Jerusalem" involves the decline of the Jerusalem Forest, a small area to the west of the city that was planted in the 1950s. In attempting to prevent the ongoing encroachment of urban development on what remains of that forest, a newly-formed coalition of "green" groups and agencies has taken on the Jerusalem municipality. The discourse of the dispute is anything but local, however, and an interesting dynamic emerges from the linkage of this small-scale dispute with national issues. The municipality represents the effort to block expansion of the city as a threat to permanent Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem. The green groups, in turn, implicitly link -through word and image- damage to the forest with terrorist attacks, thus casting the municipality in the role of the terrorist. I discuss this dynamic in relation to emerging implications of nationalism and class in conjunction with disputes over space, place, and the environment.

Of course it can't always be about trees. In "An Absence of Place: Expectation and Realization in the West Bank" (Murphy and Johnson, eds., Cultural Encounters With the Environment: Emerging and Evolving Geographic Themes, Rowman Littlefield, 2000) I looked at the concept of place and how the desire for place created a complex dynamic for Palestinians in the West Bank. Beginning with the poetry of dispossession and the genesis of an ambitious rhetorical Palestinian nationalism, I trace the evolution of the political map of the West Bank and its reflection of stymied Palestinian hopes for an ideal homeland. I argue that the dissonance created by the disjunction between territorial expectations (based on unfulfillable political/military agendas) and the current situation make it harder for Palestinians to truly feel "at home" - an already remote prospect given the on-going manifestations of Israeli occupation.  I look at some of the recent dynamics of (not) sorting that place out in an article with the unprosaic title "Israel's West Bank Barrier:  An Impediment to Peace" in Geographical Review, 96(4):682-695, 2006.  I undertook a broader analysis of Palestinian and Israeli discourses of nature in "Environmentalism Deferred:  Nationalisms and Israeli/Palestinian Imaginaries," pp. 246-264 in D. Davis and E. Burke eds., Environmental Imaginaries of the Middle East:  History, Policy, Power &Practice, University of Ohio Press, 2011.