Lancaster launching UK’s first Master’s in Political Ecology

Lancaster becomes the first UK University to offer a Master’s in Political Ecology – exploring the relationship between humans, nature and politics to create a more just and sustainable future.

The new postgraduate programme in Political Ecology will not only give students intellectual tools to make sense of some of the most pressing issues in the world today, but will also provide practical skills to enable them to change the world for the better, according to the Director of Studies, Dr John Childs.

‘There is an increasing realisation that the way environmental change plays out isn’t even: some people win, and some people lose. We will explore justice and power from different perspectives on a whole range of issues, from what a new green economy might look like, to debates around resources extraction and water use.’

Lancaster University is one of Europe’s leading centres in Political Ecology with one of the UK’s largest groups of researchers, and has recently appointed Professor Frances Cleaver as the country’s only Professor of Political Ecology. Lancaster researchers were instrumental in the creation of POLLEN, the international network of political ecologists. John sees the new degree as a key element in the developing Lancaster School of Political Ecology: ‘The students, who we hope will come from across the world and across many different disciplines and sectors, will be a huge part of shaping the school and giving it definition.’

Professor Cleaver, who heads the Political Ecology group in the Lancaster Environment Centre and is an expert in the governance of natural resources, explains that the subject ‘is like peeling an onion’, revealing the different perspectives and layers of power involved in an issue.

‘Take a subject in my area, like how farmers use ground water for irrigation: there are a whole lot of actors involved, both natural and human. Irrigation has implications for food security, who gets access to the food produced? There is a natural and physical element as water is embedded in ground and rock and may need infrastructure to extract it: who owns and markets those technologies? There is a cultural and societal aspect: is there indigenous or localised knowledge that is influential in shaping water use and how is agriculture organised – in families or communities or via business interests? Then there may be national and international legislation about ground water use and local politics about who can turn on the irrigation flows , who has the right to a share of the water.’

The degree, which is now recruiting students for October 2021, is aimed at anyone interested in the politics of the environment, from new graduates to those already working in the environmental sector who want to deepen their knowledge, understanding and skills. This range of viewpoints will be reflected in the course content as well.

‘One of the things we will be doing is to really engage with activist networks, as well as with policy groups and traditional actors such as governments, business and NGOs,’ says Dr Childs. ‘These communities bring so many skills and talents.

‘We will also engage with local and national communities over issues of contemporary interest. For instance, we hope to explore fracking, a debate we have on the doorstep, or consider what a decolonial approach to the environment looks like in a place like Lancaster, with its history of involvement in the slave trade. For dissertations, we will be responsive to the world around us, looking to hook students up with active groups dealing with live issues.

‘This combination of a critical academic approach and an activist practitioners’ approach, building conversations across different worlds, is a key element of the programme’, explains Professor Cleaver. ‘It will bring together different views to increase understanding across disciplines and sectors.’

While she expects many of the students to have a social sciences background, she believes it will also be attractive to physical scientists who want ‘a more critical understanding of scientific claims to truth.

‘In water projects, for instance, you get quite a lot of people with first degrees in engineering or hydrology, who know from their practice that the techno-managerial approach they have learned isn’t the whole story, that they need something to help them make sense of the complex world they see and understand why projects often don’t work out as intended.

“And it’s not just about making sense of the world, but about doing something positive, wanting it to be better and to be part of the transformation to more sustainable and more just futures.’

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