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MSc Environmental Governance

Year of entry: 2021

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Course unit details:
Nature Society & Social Power

Unit code GEOG71211
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by Geography
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This course examines the interrelationship between humans and nature, with a particular emphasis on the how social power relations produce and change socio-physical conditions. The course starts from the premise that nature and society are not separate. They are mutually intertwined and co-evolving. The course will draw on a variety of critical theoretical perspectives and illustrate the argument with a series of case studies. The course will consist in 10 2-hour lectures and 10 1-hour seminars (reading sessions, video and documentary presentations, discussion sessions, etc…)


  • To theorize how the social and the physical world interact;
  • To understand critically the entanglements of social and physical conditions under


  • To provide a critical review of the socio-ecological dynamics of capitalism;
  • To offer insight in the processes through which particular environmental conditions

come about and are changed;

  • To explore the key actors that shape environmental activities and their spatial

                configurations and outcomes;

  • To show how socio-environmental processes are also political processes;
  • To illustrate these processes by means of concrete historical-geographical examples.


Learning outcomes

By the end of the course unit, you should be able to:

  • Understand the key concepts and theories that underpin political ecology;
  • Be familiar with an outline of historical-geographical materialist understandings of

 the world;

  • Be able to think critically about the relationships between people and their


  • Understand the political significance of socio-ecological processes, problems, and


  • Be able to start your own research project on socio-nature interactions and dynamics



Week 1                                 Introduction – Socializing Nature                             

Week 2                                 Circuits of Capital: The Socio-Ecological Dynamics of Capital

                                                Circulation – Part 1

Week 3                                 Circuits of Capital: The Socio-Ecological Dynamics of Capital Circulation – Part 2

Week 4                                 a) The Production of Nature

b) The Power of Water: Karl Wittfogel’s thesis

Week 5                                 Reading Week

Week 6                                 Cities, Nature, and Social Power: The Urbanization of Nature

Week 7                                 Nature and Political Projects: The Contested Production of Environments I: The example of Spain   

Week 8                                 Nature and Political Projects: The Contested Production of

Environments II:               The example of Spain (cont’d)

The example of Sicily    

Week 9                                 Reading Week

Week 10                              The Sustainability Paradox: a political-ecological perspective       

Week 11                              Saving Nature(s)  … or the End of Politics: Ecology as the New                                        &n

Transferable skills and personal qualities

During this course unit, you will be encouraged to develop the following abilities and skills:

  • Critical thinking and reflection;
  • An ability to assess the merits of contrasting theories and explanations;
  • An ability to relate theoretical argument with empirical evidence, including the

                construction of theoretically informed real-life research;

  • An ability to translate theory into politics;
  • Motivation and self-directed learning;
  • Awareness of your responsibility as a global citizen.


Assessment methods

One two hour unseen examination with essay-style questions (to be chosen from a total of 6 question) (50% of total assessment)

Students prepare a 2500 word essay on a theme to be chosen from a list of titles that will be made available at the beginning of the Semester. The title will relate to the course material and permit students to explore specific themes either more theoretically or by means of exploring a specific case study (50%).



For Master’s Students


The assessment will be 100% based on a 3500-word essay on theme decided in consultation with the course convener.


Feedback methods

Feedback will be provided in the following ways during this course unit:


  • extensive verbal feedback through Q&A, discussion and interactive activities

                                within lectures;

  • verbal feedback on any course unit issue through consultation hours;
  • detailed written feedback on the coursework assignments;
  • verbal feedback on examinations provided in academic advisor meetings.


Recommended reading

Braun B., Castree N (Eds.) (1998) Remaking Reality. Routledge, London.

Harvey, D. (1985). The Geo-Politics of Capitalism. In D. Gregory & J. Urry (Eds.), Social Relations and Spatial Structures (pp. 128-163). London: Macmillan.

Harvey D. (1981) Limits to Capital. Blackwell, Oxford

Harvey D. (1996). Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Oxford: Blackwell.

Heynen N., Kaika M., and Swyngedouw E. (2006) (Eds.) In the Nature of Cities – Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism, Routledge, London and New York

Lefebvre H. ((1974)1991) The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Robins Paul (2011) Political Ecology – A Critical Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell.

Smith N. (1984). Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.

Swyngedouw E (2000) “The Marxian Alternative – Historical Geographical Materialism and the Political Economy of  Capitalism”, in Barnes T., Sheppard E. (Eds.)  Reader in Economic Geography, Blackwell, Oxford, pp. 41-59.

Swyngedouw E. (2004) Flows of Power – Water and the Political Ecology of Urbanisation in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Oxford: University Press .

Swyngedouw E (2004) “Scaled Geographies. Nature, Place, and the Politics of Scale”, in McMaster R., Sheppard E. (Eds.) Scale and Geographic Inquiry: Nature, Society and Method. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., pp. 129-153.


Swyngedouw E. (2010) “Trouble with Nature – Ecology as the New Opium for the People”, in Hillier, J. and P. Healey (Eds.) Conceptual Challenges for Planning Theory. Ashgate, Farnham, pp. 299-320.

Swyngedouw E. (2012) (with Ian Cook) “Cities, social cohesion and the environment: towards a future research agenda”, Urban Studies 49(9), pp. 1938 - 1958

Swyngedouw E. (2015) Liquid Power: Contested Hydro-Modernities in 20th Century Spain. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Swyngedouw E. (2015) “Depoliticized Environments and the Promises of the Anthropocene”, in Bryant R. (ed.) International Handbook of Political Ecology. E. Elgar, London, pp. 131-145.

Wittfogel K. (1957) Oriental Despotism. Yale University Press/Oxford University Press


Key Journals



Environment and Planning A

Capitalism, Nature, Socialism

Annals of the American Association of Geographers

Transactions of the IBG



Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 20
Seminars 10
Independent study hours
Independent study 120

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Henrik Ernstson Unit coordinator
Erik Swyngedouw Unit coordinator

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