Summer school

The Natures of Life and Death: Political Ecologies of Collapse, Transformation and Revival - 4 ECTS

The five-day intensive PhD workshop ‘The natures of life and death: political ecologies of collapse, transformation and revival’ will be held from 3-7 April 2023 in Wageningen University, the Netherlands. The workshop gives motivated PhD students the chance to deepen their knowledge on diverse political ecological approaches to contemporary environmental crises, strategies for conservation and environmentalism in response to the crises, and the broader processes of transformation these are part of. Given the intensity, impacts and catastrophic images of the crises and the hectic discourses around them, political ecologists are increasingly arguing that the very natures of how we understand life and death are changing. On the one hand, we are seeing a rapid growth of studies that try to grapple with the manifold implications of mass ecosystem, animal and plant extinctions within broader contexts of (anticipated) societal collapse. Inspired by broader humanities, political economy and critical theory debates, these studies deal with the emotional, historical, political and power dimensions of dying species, lives, futures and forms of being and their consequences for human-nonhuman relations. A growing strand of this discussion, including a rising wave of ‘collapsology’, asserts that things have grown so bad that there is no longer any realistic chance to stave off ecological devastation and hence that we should instead focus on figuring out how to cope with the aftermath. On the other hand, we are seeing a renewed attention for the ways in which human and nonhuman life changes and adapts to ongoing transformations, which also includes the re-appearance of forms of (wild and other) life in places where these had long been extinct. Political ecologists have started to register these urgent and emerging developments, study their manifold empirical dimensions and understand and debate their implications for an environmental politics capable of responding to the scale

Organised by Wageningen School of Social Sciences (WASS)

Mon 3 April 2023 until Fri 7 April 2023

Venue Leeuwenborch, building number 201

This year’s Wageningen Political Ecology PhD course analyses and discusses the nature and power of the changing meanings of life and death in times of collapse, transformation and (possible) revival. Most specifically, it focuses on: 1) how contemporary crises are forcing political ecology to come to terms with the changing nature of (mass) death, loss, and collapse; and 2) how this also changes how we appreciate, govern and understand the diversity of life on the planet, including visions for how we can conserve biodiversity (as well as relate with nonhumans more generally) in different and, perhaps, more hopeful and effective ways.

1. The changing nature of death and collapse

Over the last decades, we have the witnessed the rise of irreversible climate change, the sixth extinction crisis, and other environmental crises, as well as different political, economic, technological, and other responses to this. Central to these crises is an increasingly hectic sense of immanent collapse and a general renewed awareness of the role of death and dying in broader forms of social-environmental change. Political ecology is whosing hos this sense and awareness is changing environmental politics and different nonhuman natures, including animal and plant species, ecosystems and their interactions. At the same time, political ecologists, especially from the global south and from a decolonial perspective, are questioning the ‘newness’ of these discourses, arguing amongst others that many societies and racialised populations have long had to deal with mass death, collapse and brutal forms of socio-ecological violence. This begs the questions: how can we think about death, dying and loss in an age of potentially irreversible ecological crises from different perspectives? How can we intellectually and otherwise respond to a generic sense of immanent collapse or broader doom-focused approaches? And how do these questions change the very nature of how we think about death and collapse themselves? And what do different strands in political ecology have to say about this?

2. The changing nature of the diversity of life and how to govern this

At the same time as we are seeing the rise of ‘death and collapse’, we are also seeing renewed attention to the diversity, tenacity and even abundance and joys of life. This is accompanied, furthermore, by growing calls for the need for dramatic transformation in the perspectives and institutions intended to nurture and sustain this life. Political ecology studies point at the liveliness of many commodities as well as the wild and unexpected lives of the more-than-human and the new encounters this leads to between humans and the rest of nature. Moreover, as we are worried about degrading biodiversity, so we are discovering new forms of biological diversity in sometimes unexpected places, as well as how forms of life change under pressure. If the diversity of life changes as rapidly as it does now, how can we understand, let alone govern this effectively? Biologists and ecologists are breaking their heads over these questions, but political ecologists also have much to say here. After all, the way we measure, value and govern diversity, especially in relation to different nonhuman life forms, is inherently political. What, then, is a political ecology of diversity, both in relation to nonhuman life and in relation to human life and life-prospects in an age of environmental crises?

The PhD course aims to provide PhD candidates with an advanced introduction to these questions, themes, their interconnections, and current academic perspectives on both and allows PhD students to interact with the international team of cutting-edge scholars engaged in research concerning these issues that we have assembled to deliver the course. The spring school, as always, makes an explicit effort to combine and clarify different (Foucauldian, post-Marxian, more-than-human, ANT, feminist, decolonial and other) perspectives so as to develop a broader understanding of contemporary theoretical currents in the field of political ecology and the prospects for alternative futures.

In the introductions and discussions, the theme and practice of ‘contestation’ will be central. We will delve into the contestations entailed in development and analysis of our interrelated themes and employ them productively to get a handle on different trends and traditions in political ecology. Special emphasis will be on identifying contestations between and among different theoretical traditions, empirical settings, material resources and political objectives that inform, or form the subject of, various political ecology studies. What consequences do different choices with regard to these ‘ingredients’ have for the types of political ecology presented in the literature and presentations? And how can we harness the contestations inherent within them to inform our own understanding and use of political ecology in research and action? One of the objectives of the course, then, is to answer the question of how to start thinking about political ecologies of collapse, transformation and revival in the present era.

Besides looking for contestations in the literatures and presentations, we will also practice contestation. In small and large group discussions, we will aim to stimulate intellectual debate through various strands of argument and critique and problematize these from various angles. In this way, the course also explicitly incorporates development of academic debating skills.

Altogether, the workshop and these debates are also meant to support the second objective of the workshop, namely to contribute to a broader understanding of the meaning and nature of political ecology in the 21st century.

Target group and learning outcomes

The course ‘The natures of life and death: political ecologies of collapse, transformation and revival is intended for PhD students across the social and environmental sciences, especially anthropology, geography, political science, sociology and development studies, with an interest in political ecology. In this course, we will move between close reading of texts, workshops, discussions, and field trips. Students following this course will not only learn about contestations in relevant themes and new dynamics in political ecology, but will also become part of and interpret these contestations.

Students participating in this course are expected to write a short statement (max. 1 page A4) to: i) introduce who they are in terms of disciplinary background and education ii); outline how they (intend to) engage with the theme of life, death, biodiversity and extinction in political ecology; iii) outline questions or issues on these themes with which they would like to engage; and iv) offer expectations from the course.  

After successful completion of this course participants will be able to:

  • Demonstrate a thorough knowledge of new dynamics in the links between crises, power, life and death, and the intersections amond these;
  • Critically reflect on different political ecology approaches to these themes and employ these in social science research;
  • Broadly understand some of the main contestations around these themes in relation to theoretical traditions, empirical emphases, political projects and material resources;
  • Formulate whether and how elements of these discussions and contestations could fit on and contribute to their own research projects;
  • Engage in active learning, critical thinking and academic debating, especially by positioning oneself in (relation to) academic contestations.

Assumed prior knowledge

MSc in social sciences: anthropology, geography, political science, sociology or development studies.

Session Times/ Outline of the Course in Hours

Before starting the course, the students are expected to do several days of self-study to read the prescribed reading and write a 3–4-page annotated bibliography or ‘reflection document’ on the readings and how these (potentially) relate to their own research. In the week of the course, we will have lectures, group-work, a field trip and discussions (3-7 April 2023).

Date Topic Lecturer
Monday 3 April Morning: Introduction to the course and themes of this year Prof. Bram Büscher and Prof Robert Fletcher
Afternoon: history + humanities Prof. Kate Rigby
Tuesday 4 April Morning: more-than-human Dr. Clemens Driessen
Afternoon: political ecology of extinction Bram Büscher Lecture – including for the MSc PE course
Wednesday 5 April Morning: Riverhood framework Prof Rutgerd Boelens
OPEN SPACE OUTSIDE – something creative
Thursday 6 April Morning: wounded landscapes Dr. Esther Marijnen
Afternoon: Urban political ecology and climate change Prof. Maria Kaika + co-editors – including for the MSc PE course
17.00-18.00 ROB FLETCHER BOOK LAUNCH + PE drinks
Friday 7 April Morning: changing forms of non-western environmental governance and dealing with extinction and loss Dr. Annah Zhu
Afternoon: Open afternoon Prof. Bram Büscher

    (A detailed programme including readings will be communicated later)

    Teaching methods

    The course offers combination of different educational activities:

    i)  Lectures to introduce and explain new dynamics and theoretical approaches

    ii) Self-study to further develop the understanding of the new dynamics and theoretical approaches discussed.

    iii) Assignments that address contestations regarding the new dynamics and theoretical approaches and apply these to the student’s own research

    iv) Plenary discussions of literature and assignments.

    v) Presentations by participants

    Course fee

    WGS PhDs with TSP € 300
    Other PhDs, postdocs and academic staff € 640
    All others € 900

    NB: for some courses, PhD candidates from other WUR graduate schools with a TSP are also entitled to a reduced fee. Please consult your Education/PhD Programme Coordinator for more information

    Cancellation conditions:

    The participants can cancel their registration free of charge 1 month before the course starts. A cancellation fee of 100% applies if a participant cancels his/her registration less than 1 month prior to the start of the course.

    The organisers have the right to cancel the course no later than one month before the planned course start date in the case that the number of registrations does not reach the minimum.

    The participants will be notified of any changes at their e-mail addresses.