NIFK15004U Political Ecology

Volume 2024/2025

MSc Programme in Environment and Development
MSc Programme in Global Environment and Development


Environmental sustainability challenges such as land degradation, deforestation and climate change are complex processes and often cannot be understood in isolation from broader dynamics 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 practitioners 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 direct blame toward some actors, for instance farmers practicing subsistence farming, while leaving others out, such as large-scale investments in mining.

Political Ecology is a broad analytical and methodological approach which asserts that the way we know environmental problems affects the solutions we identify. This implies that Political Ecology sees science and knowledge of environmental problems as inherently political and intrinsically linked to economic and social context. Further, Political Ecology seeks to understanding how local processes of environmental change are linked to past and present wider regulatory frameworks and market processes. It provides conceptual lenses that help unpack the entwined economic and political processes that drive environmental and social change.

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 invites students to explore how Political Ecology is used 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 sustainability issues in developing countries (Global South) including those concerned with forests, agricultural lands, water, wildlife and range lands.

The course is structured around an opening and closing week and three conceptually driven modules each lasting two weeks. The three modules are briefly described below. During the course, you will be presented with critiques of much of mainstream practice in development and environmental sustainability policy. In the last week of the course, we will engage with what alternatives to the mainstream could look like.


Introduction week

During the course introduction week, we will introduce to political ecology – outlining the main characteristics of the field. We will situate the emergence of political ecology in its historical context. By pointing to colonial legacies in the relationship between the Global North and the Global South we discuss how it is a critique of a business as usual in the development industry which too often has served to sustain and deepen existing inequalities.


Environmental knowledge

This module concerns the role of knowledge of environmental change and its drivers. We will examine how environmental degradation can be defined and how we can come to know environmental change. We will also discuss the role of narratives in shaping everyday knowledge as well as scientific studies of the environment, and examine how the reproduction of narratives has been furthered by the authority afforded to science. Finally, we will look at how decolonial perspectives help us unpack and situate the production and circulation of environmental knowledge.


Political economy

In this module we will seek to understand how ‘the economy’ structures humans relations with the rest of nature. We will primarily focus on concepts and perspectives from Marxist political economy, which has formed a central element in political ecology as a critique of capitalism and neoliberalism. Focus in the module is on examining the dynamics, origins, and consequences of capitalism as an economic and social system.


Politics and power

In this module we will build an understanding of how politics and power shape and is shaped by environments and how they are known, used, and managed by society. We will engage fundamental theory of power, and see how it has inspired classic concerns in political ecology. This includes an emphasis on hidden and open forms of resistance to perceived unjust or oppressive policies. It also includes an emphasis on understanding how power operates through the various forms of governance approaches that infuse environmental conservation.


Closing week

In this last week of the course, we will reflect on the implications of the insights into and critiques of much of mainstream environmental and development policy that we have gone through during the course. We will use these reflections to consider alternatives – other ways of thinking nature-society relations that are potentially more sustainable, more equitable, and more empowering of ordinary people. We end with a summary of the course learning and course evaluations.

Learning Outcome

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



Define environmental degradation and describe methods to assess it;

Describe what is understood by ​environmental crisis narratives;

Identify central concepts and features within the broad tradition of Marxist political economy;

Describe different approaches to examining power in environmental governance;



  1. Identify and assess underlying assumptions and empirical evidence supporting environmental crisis narratives;
  3. Apply political economy to analyze concrete cases of policies, uses and practices pertaining to nature and natural resources;
  5. Analyze how power operates in environmental governance.



  1. Reflect on on the role of environmental knowledge in shaping environmental governance and ideas about human-society relations;
  3. Reflect on how political economy shapes environmental degradation and conflict;
  5. Reflect on how power operates through environmental governance;
  2. Reflect on the potentials of alternatives to mainstream development and environmental sustainability policy.

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 mainly book chapters 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 social science academic literature is an advantage. Academic qualifications equivalent to a BSc degree is recommended.
The course makes some use of traditional lectures, but emphasize group discussions and exercises, student presentations, and student peer-to-peer feedback as key teaching and learning activities. 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.
  • Category
  • Hours
  • Lectures
  • 16
  • Preparation
  • 110
  • Practical exercises
  • 50
  • Exam
  • 30
  • Total
  • 206
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.

7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Oral examination, 20 minutes
Type of assessment details
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. No time for preparation.
All aids allowed
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship
Several internal examiners

Same as ordinary exam.

Criteria for exam assesment

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