Political Ecology

Course content

Environmental problems such as land degradation and deforestation are complex processes and often cannot be understood in isolation from broader processes of economic and social development, struggles over access and rights to resources, or conflicts originating from historical grievances. Yet, their complexity is not always acknowledged by researchers, governments, and development interventions seeking to identify, measure, and correct or alleviate them. Scientific measurements of the extent of environmental degradation are often inaccurate and/or highly uncertain, and knowledge of the underlying drivers is framed in ways that put direct blame on some actors, for instance farmers practicing subsistence farming, while leaving others out, such as large-scale investments in mining.

Political Ecology asserts that the way we know environmental problems affects the solutions we identify, which implies that science and knowledge of environmental problems are inherently political and intrinsically linked to economic and social context. Further, Political Ecology is keenly invested in understanding how local processes of environmental change are linked to past and present wider regulatory frameworks and market processes.

Political Ecology draws on various disciplines to frame studies on resource and management challenges in fields such as environment and development, climate change, land-use, and conservation. This course illustrates how Political Ecology is useful to understand processes of natural resource management, use, and contestations around these. Participants in this course will be challenged to re-think and reconsider mainstream understandings of environmental problems and how they are produced.

The course is primarily (but not exclusively) concerned with and draws its examples and cases from environmental problems in developing countries (Global South) including those concerned with forests, agricultural lands, water, wildlife and range lands.

The course is structured in four themes each of a duration of approximately two weeks. The four themes are briefly described below. During the course you will be presented with ways of viewing that appear critical towards much of mainstream practice in development and environmental policy. In the last week of the course we will discuss the dilemma of having to navigate as an expert in a professional context of institutions with aims, logics, and narratives that may be subject to critique from a political ecology perspective.


Environmental degradation

This theme concerns environmental change (degradation). We will look into questions such as: By whom and how is environmental degradation defined? How can we know/ascertain/measure environmental change? How is environmental knowlegde produced and used? Who drives degradation? How and why have environmental crisis narratives emerged and persisted? What functions have they served? And what are the environmental and socio-economic consequences?


The political economy of natural resource management and use

Political ecology may be defined as “the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy” (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987, p. 17). In this theme we in particular discuss Marxist political economy which has formed a central element in political ecology as a critique of capitalism and neo-liberalism. We also broaden the view to other orientations of political economy. Focus throughout the theme is on the analysis of cases and situations in relation to use of natural resources and conservation, on questions such as “who gains?”, “who loses?”, “how?” and “why?”


Gender and social difference

Environments are located in socially uneven terrains. Gender, caste, class, ethnicity, and indigeneity are some of the kinds of social difference that shape resource access. In this module we look at perspectives from post-structuralist and feminist political ecology to understand some of the subtle, everyday dynamics that create environmental inclusions and exclusions. Feminist political ecology considers gender a critical variable in shaping resource access and control, and conceptualizes its intersections with other forms of social difference. And more than that, it deconstructs the very idea of gender. Also relying on post-structuralist critiques, we discuss how subjectivities are shaped through interactions with the environment and ask how to denaturalize power, categories, and social hierarchies in our analysis of resource access and control.


Environmental conflict and resistance

Environmental conflicts have multiple causes and forms. Conflicts arise when people living in rural areas of the ’Global South’ experience restrictions on access to land and livelihood as a consequence of multiple processes of extraction, infrastructure development, or conservation. These are often both exacerbated by and contributing to local processes of social stratification and elite formation. They are often accompanied by competing claims seeking to legitimate a certain development in the area and about the histories, identities and capabilities of people living there. At times, conflicts erupt into open acts of defiance and violence, whereas at other times it takes shape as hidden forms of resistance. In ‘Environmental conflict and resistance’ we will seek to understand the causes and forms of environmental conflicts and resistance.



MSc Programme in Environment and Development

Learning outcome

Upon completing this course, the students should be able to:



Explain various methods to assert environmental change and its causes;

  1. Describe what is understood by environmental orthodoxies/environmental crisis narratives;

  2. Discuss major strains of political economy of relevance to Political Ecology;
  3. Discuss strands of feminist thinking in relation to analyses of environmental issues;

  4. Describe how social categories shape resource access and control;

  5. Describe different causes and forms of environmental conflict and resistance.



Identify and assess underlying assumptions and empirical evidence supporting environmental crisis narratives;

  1. Apply political economy to analyze concrete cases of policies, uses and practices pertaining to nature and natural resources;

Analyze situations where social difference influence political ecologies through a focus on subjectivity, intersectionality and/or embodied practices;

Analyze dynamics of environmental conflict and resistance.



  1. Reflect on what constitutes environmental change/degradation;

  2. Reflect on how environmental crisis narratives have emerged and what functions they serve;

  3. Reflect on how political economy shapes environmental degradation and conflict;

  4. Reflect on the role of gender and other forms of social difference in political ecology;

  5. Reflect on the role of claim making about environments, economies and identities in environmental conflict and resistance.

The course makes limited use of traditional lectures. The key teaching and learning activities are group discussions and exercises, student presentations, student peer-to-peer feedback, and short written assignments (article reviews). The learning activities draw on scientific articles and book chapters, but also on other media, such as podcasts and films. For each week of the course, there is an introduction and guidance note presenting the topic of the week, the intended learning objectives and the learning activities.
The course requires students’ timely preparation and active participation in order to achieve the intended learning outcomes. The indicated readings for each week must be read prior to class. Students who are unable to meet this requirement should not enroll in the course.

The curriculum for the course is indicated in the introductory and guidance notes for each theme of the course which are uploaded on Absalon.

The curriculum includes chapters from Paul Robbins: “Political Ecology”, lecture notes and peer-reviewed journal articles. The course provides students amble opportunities to enhance their ability to read and analyze scientific texts, many of which will be in the social science domain or in the interface between social and natural science.

No special academic qualifications are required. Some experience in reading scientific journal articles is an advantage.
Academic qualifications equivalent to a BSc degree is recommended.

Continuous feedback during the course of the semester
Peer feedback (Students give each other feedback)

Feedback is provided in multiple ways. The course involves many class discussions with continuous feedback (oral). Oral feedback will also be given to group exercises and group presentations.In addition, feedback in writing will be given to group essay assignments.

7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Oral examination
20 minutes oral examination with point of departure in one of the course themes of student’s own choice followed by questions in the broader course curriculum.
All aids allowed
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship
Several internal examiners
Criteria for exam assessment

The assessment will be based on the intended learning outcomes within knowledge, skills and competences listed above

Single subject courses (day)

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Preparation
  • 110
  • Lectures
  • 10
  • Seminar
  • 0
  • Practical exercises
  • 56
  • Exam
  • 30
  • English
  • 206