Critical Debates in Environment and Development (928AF)

30 credits, Level 7 (Masters)

Spring teaching

The aim of this module is to gain familiarity with cutting edge debates linking environment and development. The modules cover controversies ranging from the emergence ‘market-based approaches’ and offsetting and whether they address environmental sustainability, through to deliberations concerning geoengineering (purposefully altering the planetary ‘thermostat’). 

The module examines controversies concerning dominant approaches to forest policy known as REDD+, and why there are social movements against it. It examines how solutions to climate change, combining carbon sequestration, conservation and biofuels give new value to land and sea, and how this is associated with emerging social inequalities sometimes framed as 'Land Grabbing', 'Green Grabbing' and 'Blue Grabbing'.

We examine controversies about how policy links climate change to migration, and to conflict. We examine developments in law are giving rights to the natural world and the power of earth law to direct environmental futures. We consider how environmental science and futures has been shaped by political populism. These are among the key environmental debates of our times. The research paper that you develop for the evaluation of this course will enable you to contribute to these, or indeed to other pressing debates.

A subsidiary aim is to develop research skills and in particular to develop skills in establishing analytical frameworks and the use of evidence in relation to them. We call this module ‘Critical Debates’ both because the debates are critical to our futures, and because we bring the critical social sciences to bear on them, to examine the social and political implications of policy trends and options, including questions of inequality and injustice that are also crucial to their effectiveness.

The ethos of the course is thus shaped by the UN Sustainable Development Goals, their universalism, and the policies focused on their achievement, but you should think critically. We will discuss current research that both outlines and questions much of the mainstream analysis of environmental problems and their social causes that now informs development policy and practice. The readings not only draw on human geography and anthropology, but also on interdisciplinary fields such as political ecology, historical ecology, and draw on methods reflecting different social values (e.g. taking a pro-poor, or politically marginalised perspective).

The debates covered will force us to expose relations between power, environmental knowledge and environmental policy. We explore their significance for understanding the relationship between poverty, environmental science and policy, and consider how these relations are changing given the globalisation of environmental science and policy.


67%: Lecture (Film, Lecture)
33%: Seminar


100%: Written assessment (Essay)

Contact hours and workload

This module is approximately 300 hours of work. This breaks down into about 66 hours of contact time and about 234 hours of independent study. The University may make minor variations to the contact hours for operational reasons, including timetabling requirements.

We regularly review our modules to incorporate student feedback, staff expertise, as well as the latest research and teaching methodology. We’re planning to run these modules in the academic year 2022/23. However, there may be changes to these modules in response to feedback, staff availability, student demand or updates to our curriculum. We’ll make sure to let you know of any material changes to modules at the earliest opportunity.