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Unit information: The Politics of (Un)sustainability in 2018/19

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Unit name The Politics of (Un)sustainability
Unit code POLIM0028
Credit points 20
Level of study M/7
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2 (weeks 13 - 24)
Unit director Dr. Parrott
Open unit status Not open




School/department School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies
Faculty Faculty of Social Sciences and Law


Over the last three decades, prominent geologists and – increasingly – social scientists, have argued that the Earth is entering a new geological era: the Anthropocene. Human activity, they argue, has altered the Earth’s climatic and other natural systems to the extent that the geo-physical make-up of the planet and its atmosphere has been irrevocably changed. In this unit we explore the political, social, cultural, economic and ecological causes and consequences of this transformation, and ask whether humanity currently stands on the precipice of ‘apocalypse’ or whether an ‘ecotopian’ future is both pragmatically possible and normatively desirable.

Adopting a utopian framework, this unit focuses on the intersections between global ecological degradation, social inequality, political representation and participation, economic development/growth and human flourishing, with an emphasis being placed on the importance of how we understand nature, the environment and human-nature relations as a determinant of the actions and agendas undertaken to respond to ecological challenges and the politics of (un)sustainability. Students are encouraged throughout the unit to challenge and critique the dominant discourses and practices of (un)sustainability associated with the ‘green’ neo-liberal state and capitalist economy.

This unit will appeal to students who are interested in: critical approaches to sustainability politics and sustainable development; political activism and grassroots responses to ecological change and social justice; issues of equality, fairness, hierarchy and non-domination; new social movements, prefigurative politics and political representation; ecological and sustainable citizenship; ‘trangsressive’ utopianism; and degrowth economics.

Intended learning outcomes

Upon completion of the unit students will be able to demonstrate via the assessment:

1) Critical awareness of the intersections between global environmental degradation, social inequality, political representation and participation, and economic development/growth.

2) The ability to identify, critique and defend different theoretical perspectives, conceptual applications and practices with regard to the politics of (un)sustainability.

3) The ability to analyse and assess diverse responses to the politics of (un)sustainability.

Teaching details

  • Seminars taught through a variety of methods including: workshop activities, focussed discussion and bite-sized lectures
  • Independent research

Individual meetings with the unit convener (e.g. office hours)

Assessment Details

One essay plan of 500 words (formative assessment), one assessed 4,000 word essay (100% of unit mark).

The Policy Brief will allow students to engage with an environmental issue that is of particular interest to them. The Policy Brief assesses LOs 1 and 3, and may also assess LO 2.

The essay will facilitate additional research, enabling students to indulge their curiosity in a particular aspect of the politics of unsustainability to a far greater extent. Furthermore, the essay will afford students the opportunity to display the depth and breadth of their comprehension of the major themes of the course. The essay assesses LOs 1, 2 and 3.

Reading and References

  1. Barry, John (2012) The Politics of Actually Existing Unsustainability, Oxford: OUP.
  2. Bluhdorn, Ingolfur and Walsh, Ian (2015) The Politics of Unsustainability, Abingdon: Routledge.
  3. Dryzek, John et al (2013) Climate Challenged Society, Oxford: OUP.
  4. Hannis, Mike (2016) Freedom and the Environment: Autonomy, Human Flourishing and the Political Philosophy of Sustainability, London: Routledge.

Naguib Pellow, David (2014) Total Liberation, London; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.