This course at Universitat de Barcelona taught me a language that changes everything.
Are you a GLOCAL student, wondering how to plan your semester in Barcelona? If you look for deeper lessons about the economy, nature and your role in it, go straight for this elective.
Global Political Ecology is a course taught by Federico Demaria, Diego Andreucci and Niccolo Bertuzzi. With such a young and active team of professors, don’t expect monotonous, traditional teachings, but group discussions that may get heated. No matter how far the debates go, the accompanying book “The History of The World in 7 Cheap Things” by Raj Patel and Jason Moore, strings everything together nicely. The course is round up by guest lectures by renowned researchers and activists in the field. In addition, it is up to the students to apply the book’s concepts to real Environmental Justice cases, turning the students themselves into activists.
Even some activist friends from Austria were jealous that I could take this class in the epicentre of circular economy scholarship, Barcelona. Indeed, the knowledge of Federico, Joan Martinez-Alier et al. is impressive. Once I asked one of the professors, “could we also play the devil’s advocate and cover what people criticise about the Political Ecology approach?” I wanted to be prepared with witty answers to explain myself, once faced by criticizers, which were sure to appear. He replied “No. You get the devil’s advocate in every other course.” Check mate.
Read on to learn 7 ways in which choosing this course will accelerate your learning curve on your path to become a critical and environmentally conscious scholar.
Lesson 1: A deep Dive into one Book, Resulting in Deep Learning
As mentioned, the course is characterised not only by a superficial coverage of concepts, but a deep exploration of the book. The authors, Patel and Moore, structure the world into cheap Nature, Money, Work, Care, Food, Energy and Lives. “Cheap in terms of low-cost?” you may ask. Yes, also. But cheapening refers to how these things are utilised, commodified and classified in ways that may promote growth and destroy the planet. Patel and More take a historical approach to show how each of these things were turned into an engine of production, and thus into wealth for some, since the beginning of colonialism.
Lesson 2: The Split of Nature and Society
“It is easier for most people to imagine the end of the planet than to imagine the end of capitalism.”
Would you agree that most people think that way? How is that possible? This is what the book, and eventually the course, was about for me.
The authors claim that environmental destruction, inequality and hunger have aggravated based on the conceptual distinction between Society and Nature. This intellectual shift, promoted by Francis Bacon and Renée Descartes was invented to legitimise the oppression of slaves, women and peasants. Today, it is normal for most people to talk about “humans and nature,” whereas the authors talk about “humans and the rest of nature.” This may seem a slight linguistic difference at first, however, it reveals everything about how we relate to the world we live in. Let me give you an example: Indigenous Andeans, considered part of fauna, were called “naturales” by colonisers. To this day, terms like “savage” or “primal” are used ignorantly to refer to non-European people. While “Society” includes fully abled, “rationally thinking” male, white aristocracy, “Nature” includes the rest, meant to be subjugated. The authors show how the conceptual split of Nature/Society predefines oppression, racism, sexism and environmental destruction.
Lesson 3: Understanding Oppression
This leads us to Lesson 3. Capitalism does not only differentiate between “humans and nature”, but also between particular kinds of humans. Did you ever feel like something about the economic system we live in feels faulty, but you couldn’t pinpoint it? Especially people of colour, women, LGBTQI+, or differently abled, tend to be disadvantaged by capitalism. These notions are expressed loud and clear in the course: Capitalism doesn’t work without discrimination. According to the authors, racial and gender discrimination, as well as ableism, are features of capitalism. The question is: Who and what can be commodified for the cheapèst price? This is why, according to the authors, in capitalism, elderly, children, differently abled – everyone who requires care – are rendered “useless” for the capitalist project. Not only once did I note down “OMG” in capital letters next to paragraphs of the book. I was appalled, and alerted by uncovering the historical meaning of being white, European and fully abled. On the other hand, I also reflected on my role as a woman, and how human experiences intersect.
Lesson 4: Learning A New Language
Global Political Ecology and its professors gifted me a new language. A box full of vocabulary, and a string to weave them together in a way I hadn’t tried before, and through which I could uncover and recreate invisible abstractions that describe the world and make it.
You will be able to utilise words like frontiers, NIMBY (not in my backyard), planetary boundaries, or externalities. Also, you will understand capitalism not only as a form of production, but a socio-ecological order.
Joseph Nye once said, What is not clearly said, is not clearly thought, and I find this to be true. Don’t we need to have clear words in order to express ideas, and finally, to visualise alternatives? The vocabulary of this course will turn unspoken notions into clear images.
Lesson 5: Humanity is not inherently bad
Let me go into another short anecdote here to illustrate the relevance of this course for my work, and life. When I was twenty years old, I volunteered in a marine project on the island of Roatán, Honduras. The organisation worked hard on monitoring activities, reforesting mangroves and teaching locally. One Honduran coworker about my age and I ended up in a deep conversation about the human impact on the planet. Given that everyone talks about their ecological footprint, what is our role as humans? What is the solution? He said “I am aware of my impact of being human on this planet and would remove myself from it.” Yes, you read it right. This is how far-reaching the guilt tripping of individuals goes. “But humans have an innate drive for survival, so that stops me from doing it.” Phew!
Let that sink in. A young Honduran, dedicating his studies and professional life to the removal of plastic from the sea, which he did not even cause, discusses suicide as a potential solution.
I had forgotten about this conversation for some years. Now I see how the concept “anthropocene” and colonialism pressure people who have no reason to be blamed, to take the blame. It shows the depth and impact of the narrative that is told to us, and that we ignorantly tell one another: It’s us. It is our fault. We are living in the anthropocene, so we need to reduce our number. The course taught me that Malthusian thought is not only racist, but downright dangerous, and that the term capitalocene may be more suitable than anthropocene to describe the era we currently live in. Thanks to this course, I learned that it is not all humans who wreak havoc by nature, but the economic system they now live in
Lesson 6: Becoming a practising scholar though EJ Atlas
Another thing I really enjoyed about this course is the practical aspect of it. All of us chose a real-world case of people fighting for environmental justice. The task was to research it deeply and upload it on a platform co-founded by one of our professors, EJ Atlas. By combining the case with the theoretical framework of the book, we applied “science for insurgency”, or activist research.
One case which is very dear to me, Lhaka Honhat vs Argentina, has been sitting on my laptop since it was graded as my bachelor thesis. I had been aware that researching indigenous people, when done without care, can be a form of extractivism and appropriation, too. I always wondered how I could share my research, and give back to Lhaka Honhat. EJ Atlas gave the perfect format. I hope to have been contributing something by uploading the case and sharing their struggle to a wider audience.
Lesson 7: Not everything is bleak
Although the book does not fail to point out that everything that is cheapened fights back, the optimism of the authors is almost not credible. Like many books in the range of post-marxist thought, criticism towards “the system” is harsh, but solutions are thinly spread. Oftentimes I found myself angry and powerless in class, facing one case of environmental injustice after another. From Filipino farmers fighting aerial pesticide spraying to factory workers trying to boycott SHEIN, where was I in all this? Still, the professors did not fail to approach such heavy subjects with a leap of faith, and a healthy portion of proactivity.
In the end, I am very glad we didn’t cover the devil’s advocate position. Indeed, “growth” is promoted and perpetuated in almost every academic circle, and so is “nature/society.” The course Global Political Ecology, however, offers a framework in which we not only remember how the nature/ society split came about, but debunk it. And, we can learn about examples of those people who create alternative realities through resistance and relentless fights for environmental justice.
So, if you are undecided which elective to take, let me promise you that this course will not disappoint you. It will not only teach you some words, but it will introduce you to a language of liberation.
Written by Nadine Schuller