POL S 301 A: Topics in Political Theory

Meeting Time: 
TTh 10:30am - 12:20pm
ECE 025
Joint Sections: 
Karen Litfin
Karen Litfin
Topic: The Political Ecology of Death

Syllabus Description:

Political Ecology of Death in the Planetary Era

What we will study

Every living organism dies, as do ecosystems and species, thereby perpetuating the “circle of life.” Because life feeds on life, death is indispensable to the healthy functioning of ecosystems and even evolution itself. One species, however, has developed the capacity to anticipate (and therefore dread) death and commandeer other species in service to increasing its numbers and its material consumption. With industrialization, anthropogenic species extinctions and ecosystem collapse, once limited to local and regional scales, became planetary. Humanity is now operating well outside the planetary boundaries that characterized the Holocene, the interglacial “sweet spot” during which civilization emerged. The implications are profound: not only are we facing the end of “nature” as something separate from human culture, we are also facing the possibility of civilizational death.

We will therefore ask ourselves: what are the political and ecological consequences of how individuals and societies approach death? While death is a fact of life, questions of who lives, who dies, who decides, and with what consequences are also political ones. Our discussion will therefore be informed by themes of justice, equity, power, authority, and political agency. At the same time, because mortality is also an intensely personal reality, we will deepen our self-inquiry through poetry, videos, contemplative practices, introspection, and action. 

We will explore the following topics:

  • Secular, religious, spiritual and indigenous perspectives on death
  • Ernst Becker's “denial of death” thesis and more recent terror management theory
  • The political and ecological consequences of various “immortality projects”
  • The relationship between waste and death: linear vs.regenerative economics 
  • The mass extinction crisis
  • How cultural attitudes about ecology and death inform the treatment of animals
  • Pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and ecocide
  • Indigenous peoples, ecology and cultural survival
  • Grief, hope, meaning, and political agency in the planetary era

What You Will Learn

If you engage yourself dynamically with this course, including grasping content from lectures and readings, participating actively in class, writing thoughtful papers and blog posts, and creatively contributing to a group action project, I expect that you will improve your depth of understanding and skillfulness in many arenas, most especially the following:

  • Analytical and critical thinking skills about some of the most important issues of our day, including climate change, biodiversity
  • The capacity to integrate cognitive, emotional, and somatic self-awareness in the face of challenging questions
  • Your ability to articulate ideas and feelings about these issues, both in writing and conversation
  • Your ability to listen to, understand, empathize and collaborate with others who do not necessarily share your opinions and beliefs
  • Reflecting upon your sense of meaning in the face of both personal mortality and ecocide
  • Enhancing your sense of citizenship and political agency in the planetary era.

Course requirements 

  • Intensive reading on the political ecology of death (100-150 pages/week)
  • Active participation in discussions and contemplative practices

    • Please bring your full and engaged presence to class, having read the associated materials
  • Contributing to our course blog (four required posts)
  • Weekly meetings with your “study/action group” towards a community service or political action project
  • Your contribution will be evaluated by your peers
  • Short paper on your action project in light of course materials
  • A final paper synthesizing your learning

This is a preliminary list of assignments and may change by January.


Catalog Description: 
Study of topics in political theory.
Department Requirements: 
Political Theory Field
GE Requirements: 
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Last updated: 
August 2, 2019 - 9:08pm