The Environment and Climate Change

Course lead: Dr Su-ming Khoo


This module examines how climate change works through, and also exacerbates long-standing inequalities and exploitation. It suggests that to tackle environmental problems, climate change must be understood in relation to colonial histories. Sessions will focus on extractivism, pollution, the Anthropocene and more.


1. Connected Sociologies of Pollution

Dr Su-ming Khoo

Pollution is a difficult, but essential topic for understanding how colonialism results in inequality, exploitation and injustice. Pollution embodies unjust distributions of harm, connecting structures of thought concerning law, land, resources, knowledge and waste to bodily realities of illness, injury and death, which are distributed in unjust and discriminatory ways.

This brief lecture draws together and connects colonialism, pollution, environmental harm, with some broader reflections on industrialism, war, extermination, racism and wilful ignorance.

This lecture takes Olof Palme’s speech at the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment as its starting point. The idea of ‘ecocide’ is examined from its origins in war crimes to peacetime injustices that result from ‘economic logic of pollution’, a colonial logic of resource accumulation and harmful waste.

This lecture suggests that a decolonial approach to pollution is needed to counter depoliticized, violently unequal and dehumanized understandings of the Anthropocene.

2. Palm Oil: The Grease of Empire

Dr Max Haiven

Palm oil is in an estimated 50% of supermarket products: the processed and prepackaged foods we eat, the soaps and detergents and cosmetics we use, the medicines we take and many more produces besides. It is so ubiquitous because it is cheap, but what makes it cheap?

As many environmental, labour and human rights non-governmental organizations have shown, the conditions under which the fruits of the oil palm are cultivated, refined and manufactured are horrific, leading to shocking deforestation and exploitation especially in Southeast Asia and Latin America.

But to truly understand, and to confront, the horrors of the palm oil industry we must look to its longer colonial history. In the wake of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, British traders found in this West African crop a lucrative commodity, one that would literally and figuratively grease the wheels of the industrial revolution.

Palm oil is also central to the history of commodity capitalism, the (racist) history of advertising and the development of imperial weapons. Equipped with this history, we can better imagine what it might take to meet the challenge of palm oil in our present day. Consumer activism is not enough. We must cultivate a new relationship to one another and to the earth.

3. Extractivism and Social Movements

Dr Andrea Sempértegui

“Extractivism” broadly refers to the removal of great quantities of natural resources (hydrocarbons, minerals, or agricultural products) which are then exported and processed abroad. At the turn of the century, the global energy and commodity boom increased state dependency on extractivism and gave the concept new and broader meanings.

In this session, we will examine different approaches to the study of extractivism with a focus on social scientists working on and from Latin America, a region that has experienced a dramatic expansion of extractive projects with negative socio-ecological impacts.

With this regional focus, we can understand extractivism as a situated and yet global phenomenon, which has shaped the colonial-capitalist system and which is linked to different forms of state development, capitalist accumulation, spoilage, and resistance.

Moreover, by focusing on Latin America, we will learn how Indigenous, environmental, and feminist movements have not only contributed to the critical analysis of extractivism. They have also generated visions for post-extractive futures amidst environmental degradation and global warming.

4. Plastics and Toxic Colonialism

Prof Alice Mah

Plastic pollution gained global public attention in 2017 and 2018, following extensive media coverage of marine wildlife ensnared in plastic in the oceans. Since then, the plastics crisis has been overshadowed by the climate emergency as an existential planetary threat, despite the intensifying scale of the plastics problem.

This session examines how the plastics crisis goes hand in hand with the climate crisis, with related yet distinct connections to environmental justice and colonialism. It challenges dominant framings of plastics as miracle-but-menace for society (linked to societal dependence), and of plastic waste as the responsibility of individual consumers (rather than plastics producers and governments).

We will explore key themes of “toxic colonialism” across the plastics lifecycle, from production to consumption, waste, and green technological “solutions”. To conclude, we will reflect on the need for systemic change to tackle the toxic roots of the interconnected plastics and climate crises.

5. Food Shortages: Causes and Policy Implications

Prof Pritam Singh

The lecture examines the short term and long term causes of food shortages, and suggests economic and environmental strategies that the governments, households and individuals need to adopt to deal with different kinds of food shortages.

6. A Green New Deal?

Harpreet Kaur Paul

The connection between economic justice and climate action has been captured by narratives for a Green New Deal, particularly in the UK and US. In this session, we explore the extent to which these narratives address global injustices that have created the climate crisis, and which continue to expose those least responsible to the greatest climate harms.

7. Climate Change, Migration, Race

Dr Andrew Baldwin

Climate change is often said to be a pending form of injustice because it stands to force millions of people from their homes. This idea is now so widely accepted, we hardly ever stop to think about what it means or how it might be challenged.

In this short lecture, I develop an argument that challenges the taken-for-granted assumption that climate change is a problem of migration. Building on the ideas of Edward Said and Dipesh Chakrabarty, the argument is that the figure of the climate migrant/refugee stands today as a unique form of racial other—the other of climate change—that western humanism has had to invent in order to adapt to climate change.

The lecture provides some theoretical background to the argument, it identifies some of the racial tropes that construct the figure of the climate migrant/refugee as other than human, and it demonstrates how the political discourse on climate change and migration can be understood as a form of racial rule called ‘racial futurism’.

8. Political Ecology: Reflections from the Global South

Prof Mitul Baruah

Political ecology as an area of academic enquiry is relatively new. The history of it in the Anglophone world can be traced back to the 1980s, pioneered by, among others, Michael Watts’ (1983) groundbreaking work on the Sahelian drought, Piers Blaikie’s (1985) work on soil erosion in Nepal, and Blaikie and Brookfield’s (1987) seminal work on land degradation.

Within such a short span of time, however, there has been a meteoric rise in political ecology literature both in the western academia and the Global South. Matching political ecology’s rise in popularity has been its thematic and theoretical eclecticism.

This session is not an attempt to present a comprehensive survey of the political ecology literature. Rather, it is a close exploration of the historical genealogies of the field, and an overview of its key characteristics, thematic foci, and new directions. Based on a case study from the Brahmaputra Valley in northeast India, the session will also highlight the importance of political ecological enquiry in the Global South.

Overall, this lecture addresses the political economic contexts of environmental transformations, as well as the ways in which our understandings of and relations with nature are materially and discursively bound up with notions of culture, identity, and power.