MSc Environmental Governance / Course details

Year of entry: 2023

Course unit details:
Nature, Society & Social Power

Course unit fact file
Unit code GEOG71212
Credit rating 15
Unit level FHEQ level 7 – master's degree or fourth year of an integrated master's degree
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Geography
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


The 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, but intimately interwoven. They are mutually intertwined and co-evolving. The course will draw on a variety of critical theoretical perspectives (Marxist, post-Marxist, Critical, Foucauldian) and illustrate the argument with a series of case studies. The course will consist of 10 two-hour lectures and 10 one-hour seminars (reading sessions, video and documentary presentations, discussion sessions, etc…)




  • To theorize how the social and physical world interact;
  • To understand critically the entanglements of social and physical conditions under capitalism;
  • 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 demonstrate 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 environments;
  • Understand the political significance of socio-ecological processes, problems, and                conditions;
  • Be able to start your own research project on socio-nature interactions and dynamics



Week 1 - (ES) Part 1: Introduction and Overview/Part 2: Circuits of Capital (1): The Socio-Ecological Dynamics of Capital

Week 2 – (ES) Part 1: The Circuits of Capital (2): Combined and Uneven Socio-Ecological Crisis/Part 2: The Production of Nature

Week 3 – (MU) Knowledge Politics: Science, Ecology and Power

Week 4 – (MU) Governmentality and the Environment: Activating the Citizen in Singapore

Week 5 - (ES) The Power of Water – Past and Present: State, Nature and Political Power

Week 6 – (ES) Cities, Nature, and Social Power: The Urbanization of Nature (Guayaquil)

Week 7 — (MU) Natural Capital: Reframing Value in the Environment Sector

Weeks 8/9 reading weeks

Week 10 - (MU) Infrastructualising Nature: Turning Nature into Assets

Week 11 (ES) Nature and Political Projects: The Contested Production of Environments II:  Water, Fascism and the Hydro-modernity of Spain

Week 12 - (ES) Saving Nature(s)… or the End of Politics: The Sustainability Paradox

Teaching and learning methods

The course is delivered through a range of lectures, seminars, and student reading. Each week will comprise of 2hr lectures and 1 hr seminar. All teaching material will be available on Blackboard. Both lectures and seminars will be on-line and available as pod-casts after the lectures/events for those who could not attend the live lecture/seminar. Depending on the COVID19 situation, a small number of seminars will be held face-to-face.

Knowledge and understanding

  • Critically assess a range of perspectives related to the question of nature, society and social power
  • Critically assess how nature and society are mutually constituted through a range of social power relations

Intellectual skills

  • Think critically about and and reflect on questions of socio-ecological change
  • To assess the merits of contrasting theoretic and explanations
  • To relate theoretical argument with empirical evidence, including the construction of theoretically informed real-life research

Practical skills

  • To translate theory into politics
  • To assess and formula socio-ecological policies and practices

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Motivation and self-directed learning
  • Awareness of responsibility as a global citizen

Assessment methods

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

Feedback methods

  • One-to-one on-line feedback on course essay outline
  • One-to-one on-line course work surgery
  • Written feedback on course essay

Recommended reading

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

Bryant, R. (Ed.) (2015) The International Handbook of Political Ecology.  Edward Elgar, Cheltenham.

Ernstson H., and Swyngedouw E. (Eds.) (2019) Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-obscene: Interruptions and Possibilities. London: Routledge.

Forsyth, T. 2003. Critical Political Ecology. London: Routledge.

Harcourt, Wendy, and Ingrid L. Nelson. 2015. Practising Feminist Political Ecologies. Edited by Wendy Harcourt and Ingrid L Nelson. London: Zed Books.

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

Perreault, T., Bridge G. and McCarthy J.  (Eds.) (2015) The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology. Routledge, London

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

Rocheleau, Dianne E, Barbara Thomas-Slayter, and Esther Wangari, eds. 1996. Feminist Political Ecology: Global Issues and Local Experience. London and New York: Routledge.

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, Erik, and Nikolas C Heynen. 2003. “Urban Political Ecology, Justice and the Politics of Scale.” Antipode 35: 898–998.

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

Study hours

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

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Erik Swyngedouw Unit coordinator
Mark Usher Unit coordinator

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