Contemporary Environmental Challenges

Module code: GY3154
Module co-ordinator: Dr Caroline Upton

Our shared futures will inevitably be shaped by the ways in which we understand and respond to the contemporary environmental challenges that face us. In this module you will explore some of the most pressing of these challenges, through attention to the different ways in which they are conceptualised, experienced and understood.  In doing so you will take a critical approach to core ideas which underpin much contemporary thinking on nature-society relations and investigate these could be challenged and reconfigured. For example, contemporary neoliberal ideas produce particular models and norms of resource rights and ownership, with the emphasis on private, individualised rights.

Through these approaches, nature may be seen as conceptually distinct from humanity and as a tradeable commodity, or as ‘natural capital’.  Visions of ‘sustainable development’ may be bassed on technological fixes and continued growth. We will explore these currently dominant paradigms and the emerging voices of resistance and dissent, paying particular attention to the concept of ‘the commons’, to ideas of degrowth and transition, to new forms of (digital) social organisation, to ‘more-than-human’ geographies and to contested practices around the valuation and conservation of nature.

In exploring ‘the commons’ we will analyse the historical and especially the contemporary meanings of this term, from shared land resources to wider concepts of shared rights and ‘common wealth’, underpinned by collectivity and community. We will look at the ways in which contemporary rural and urban commons are being created and managed; counterpoised against prevailing trends towards the privatisation and enclosure of resources. 

Together, we will think about the idea of ‘transitions’ in relation to contemporary environmental challenges. For example, what do we mean by energy transitions, and how might these resolve our contemporary energy shortfalls?  What is the role of the Transitions Movement in facilitating responses to ‘peak oil’, climate change and low carbon futures? What are the diverse meanings of transition, and to what extent do they necessitate degrowth and present radical challenges to the status quo?

In the second half of the module we will focus on values and valuing of nature, through critical attention to the concept of ‘ecosystem services’ and the ways in which we may assign value to such services – or resist doing so, and the implications of these practices. We will explore these ideas in relation to biodiversity conservation and also through practices of resistance and virtual, online dissent.

This module includes a field visit to a local eco housing development and community, where you will be able to explore the challenges of living and enacting transition through guided tours and discussions with residents.


  • 20 hours of lectures
  • 6 hours of seminars
  • 2 hours of tutorials
  • 6 hours of fieldwork
  • 116 hours of guided indepndent study


  • Essay (50%)
  • Exam, 2 hours (50%)