Political ecology and ontology: Is literal critical realism the answer? A response to Knudsen



In a recent article in this journal, Ståle Knudsen argues that the recent trend to flat ontology in political ecology is mistaken, and urges more engagement with critical realism as introduced by Roy Bhaskar. His article also criticizes how various political ecologists have used critical realism. In this response, I argue that Knudsen misses the point, firstly about my work but more generally  on two further matters: the challenges of discussing ontology for environmental problems that are embedded in human experience and discourse, and on his insistence that ideas about critical realism should be limited to a literal reading of Bhaskar's writings decades ago. This response gently questions Knudsen's tone and argument by making two points. Firstly, debates about critical realism should not be limited only to Bhaskar's original framework concerning different domains of the actual, empirical, and real, but also to ideas that have built on this framework. Second, political ecology does not only ask what is ecologically real but also how, and with what politics, are ideas of reality made and used. Bhaskar's writings in the 1970s were foundational to debates about critical realism, but are insufficient for understanding how ideas of ecological reality are made, persist, and include or exclude different perspectives. This article examines Knudsen's discussion of the Tragedy of the Commons as an example.

Keywords: critical realism, science and technology studies, depth ontology, tragedy of the commons, new materialisms, Roy Bhaskar

How to Cite: Forsyth, T. (2023) “Political ecology and ontology: Is literal critical realism the answer? A response to Knudsen”, Journal of Political Ecology. 30(1). doi: