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MPhil: Environmental Humanities

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The MPhil specialising in Environmental Humanities comprises two core courses, which are compulsory, plus two electives from the approved list.

Core courses

Course Credits
Earth, Ecology, Humanities Course description 26
Researching the Anthropocene Course description 24
Minior Dissertation  98

All courses HEQSF Level 9


Course Credits
Advanced Development Theories Course description 12
African Environmental History* Course description  24
Biodiversity and Climate ChangeS Course description 15
Capital, Politics and Nature*S  Course description 30
Climate Law and GovernanceL Course description 15
Critical Perspectives on the Bio-Economy Course description 23
Cultural Criticism, Non-Fiction and the Essay: Creative Writing Workshop  Course description 24
Decolonial Theory*H  Course description 24
Environmental Conflicts Course description  24
Environmental Documentary* Course description 24
Environmental Law for Non-LawyersL Course description 15
Film and the Environment* Course description 24
Geography of Development and the Environment*S  Course description 30
Introduction to Climate Change and Sustainable DevelopmentS Course description 23
Race and Relationality in Afro-European Literature*H Course description 24
Science, Nature, Democracy Course description 24
Society and Natural Resources Course description 12
Water, Society, EcologyH Course description 24

All courses HEQSF Level 9, unless marked *HEQSF Level 8. Cross-faculty electives offered through other faculties: Faculty of Humanities, Faculty of Law, S Faculty of Science.

Course descriptions

Advanced Development Theories

Course convenor: N Mabandla | Course code: SOC5010F

The course examines influential theories of development and their relationship to colonialism and global capitalism. The course emphasises historical context and ethnographic approaches for understanding the contemporary period, particularly the postcolonial developmental state.

African Environmental History 

Course convenor: Assoc. Prof. L van Sittert | Course code: HST4016F

This course examines Africa within the discipline of environmental history. It reviews a series of linked themes covering the period from pre-colonial to contemporary African history. Themes covered include environment and pre-colonial state formation, the colonial environmental impact, hunting, conservation, the colonial history of environmental science, colonialism and environmental catastrophism, development and environment and history of environmental impact assessment.

Critical Perspectives on the Bio-Economy

Course convenor: Prof. R Wynberg | Course code: EGS5058FS

Located at the interface of fast-changing genetic and information technologies, and the juncture of a range of social, environmental and ethical concerns, the so-called bio-economy has changed fundamentally ways in which biodiversity is used, conserved and commercialised. Although often touted as a panacea for energy crises, livelihoods, environmental remediation and food security, critical questions have been raised about who stands to benefit, the involvement of local communities, and economic and political drivers behind the bio-economy "push". Using a political ecology framing, this interdisciplinary course aims to introduce key theories that situate the bio-economy and to deepen understandings about the nature of emerging debates. These range from contestations about genetically modified crops, and 'biopiracy' charges of patenting biodiversity and traditional knowledge, through to the potential of agroecology as an alternative agricultural future. The course aims to deepen critical thinking around these questions, and to inspire a scholarship that explores possibilities for socially just and environmentally sustainable approaches, with a particular focus on the Global South. The course involves both theory and practice, drawing on research mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa. Students will be expected to read set texts, to watch set videos, and to prepare seminars. The course includes a short field trip.

Cultural Criticism, Non-Fiction and the Essay: Creative Writing Workshop 

Convenor: Assoc. Prof. H Twidle | Course code: ELL5046FS

This is a writing-intensive seminar for both ‘academic’ and ‘creative’ writers – a division that we will try to unravel in interesting ways as we explore how critical, academic and intellectual work can take shape in more creative forms and public voices. We will use contemporary essays, creative criticism and literary non-fiction to generate our own writing tasks. Students will also be required to write two stand-alone essays (on subjects of their own choice) and to keep a semester-long reading journal. Some writing exercises might include: reviewing imaginary books; using ‘found’ materials and tracing the lives of objects; working within artificial constraints; linking image, music and text; walking in the city and representing space; interviewing and telling the stories of others; researching biographical profiles and portraits; writing art and music journalism; exploring filmic, photo and documentary ‘essays’. The primary aim of the seminar is to prepare students to write for a wider audience than that of conventional academic writing, and to allow them the space to experiment with ‘voice’ in this sense. It aims to foster a public kind of criticism, and to train students to become reviewers, cultural commentators and arts journalists both within and beyond the 21st-century academy. 

Biodiversity and Climate Change

Course convenor: Dr L Gilson | Course code: BIO5003Z

This course module provides an overview of long-term climactic change over geological, glacial-interglacial and millennial timescales. It will consider the interactions between climate change, evolution and plant distribution up to the present day, and consider species responses to climate change, including effects on physiology and distribution. Niche modelling and its application in the conservation of birds will be discussed. Dynamic Global Vegetation Models will be explored, as will the interactions between climate, disturbance and land use change. The impacts of climate change on ecosystem services for example water availability, food security, energy and coastal resources will be discussed.

Capital, Politics and Nature

Course convenor: Assoc. Prof. M Ramutsindela | Course code: EGS4016S

In this course we analyse how nature has been used as a source of informal and formal power (politics). Profound changes in such power structures led to the quest for property regimes and institutions that are more appropriate for the defence of nature. Against this background, we discuss how capitalist interests, as encoded in private property regimes and attendant ecotourism ventures, have gained an upper hand in nature conservation. Furthermore, those interests have expanded beyond narrow property regimes to embrace bioregionalism, hence the revival of transfrontier conservation areas (TFCAs) as a model for conservation in the 21st century. All these are captured in the various topics covered in this course.

Climate Law and Governance

Course convenor: Prof. J Glazewski | Course code: PBL5046S

The phenomenon of climate change poses major challenges to the international community of nations, the African continent, and the South African body politic. Meeting these challenges requires among other things an inter-disciplinary approach and finding interconnectedness between the natural and social sciences. This course will provide postgraduate students with an insight into principles of international law, regional law and South African national law of relevance to climate change. Key content covered in the course includes: an introduction to basic international and domestic legal principles and institutions; environmental governance systems and theories; and an introduction to various branches of the law relevant to climate change such as energy law, planning and environmental impact assessment law; natural resource law (biodiversity, protected areas, water and marine living resources), pollution laws (marine, fresh water, land and air pollution) and fiscal law (in the context of climate financing).

Decolonial Theory

Course convenor: TBA | Course code: AXL4206S

This course considers the growing body of thought from Latin America under the heading ‘decolonial theory’, and exemplified in the works of Walter Mignolo, Arturo Escobar, Enrique Dussel, Santiago Castro-Gomez, Nelson Maldonado-Torres and Anibal Quijano. This work has been significant in framing an approach to questions of knowledge, coloniality and globalisation that attempts to re-write the script of modernity (as colonial modernity) and that provides rich conceptual resources through which to re-think familiar issues. The course takes a key-word approach. Each two-week block considers a distinct set of key words or concepts and texts that introduce and discuss them. They include Coloniality (of power/knowledge/being); Geopolitics of knowledge; Colonial globality and global designs; Border theory and colonial difference; Modernity (colonial modernity, peripheral modernity, transmodernity); Global designs and the local; The Indigenous Movement and postcolonial ethnicities. Approaching decolonial theory from the perspective of the Cape, the course asks: How might a critique based on South/Latin American historical experiences translate to African contexts? How does it speak to the particularity of knowledge production and colonial engagement in the Cape? How does it connect with contemporary African Studies debates addressing questions of knowledge and epistemology? 

Earth, Ecology, Humanities

Convenor: Assoc. Prof. H Twidle | Course code: ELL5042F

The environmental humanities is the term for a dynamic and growing field in universities across the world, one promoting interdisciplinary scholarship that explores how we understand the relations between humans and the environment in all areas of cultural production. It ranges from social justice movements to the creative arts, from questions of scientific modelling to the language of government policy. In this course, we will ask how a critical, politically aware environmental consciousness of the South might be brought forth in the public sphere. What, after all, do we mean when we speak of the environment? This seminar considers the rich and difficult terrain where questions of ecological thought and environmental science interact with the humanities: with sociology, anthropology, history, imaginative writing, film, critical theory and the creative arts. This is a co-taught course, with modules including but not limited to: Environmentalism, public science writing and narrative non-fiction; Slow violence, development and the challenge of deep time; Imagining the deep ocean; The militarisation of conservation; The commons debate; Landscape and the gaze; Visual art from Arcadia to Apocalypse; Art and extinction; Capitalism in the web of life; Carbon democracy questions of infrastructure; The political economy of food in the global South; Petro-cultures and the oil encounter in West Africa; Extraction and the poetics of resistance; Film and environment in a new age; Environmental narrative and the media.

Environmental Conflicts: Special Topics

Course convenor: Assoc. Prof. L van Sittert | Course code: HST5005S

Environmental Conflicts: Special Topics offers the opportunity to develop an in-depth understanding of contemporary conflicts around the environment. To do so, it will draw on contemporary scholarship across a wide range of disciplines in the Humanities, Law, and Health, Life and Earth Sciences, and engage researchers, activists and stakeholders in campus dialogues. Its goal is to seed new research interests in the humanities by opening up public and transdisciplinary conversations on critical issues relating to decision-making in ecologies of households and cities, and at national and global levels. The seminars will draw on a range of printed and electronic sources, experts, policy debates, student seminars and field visits to enrich our understanding of these issues.

Environmental Documentary

Course convenor: Dr I Rijsdijk | Course code: FAM4015S

This course consists of an analytical and historical examination of environmental and ecological documentary and a fieldwork component. We will examine some of the major works of and trends in Environmental and Ecological Criticism, ranging from Thoreau, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson through to David Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth and debates around climate change. The course will emphasise how the environmental movement has interacted with and influenced wildlife documentary, particularly in South African productions. Students will be expected to read widely in environmental literature and watch a wide range of film and television documentary. For the fieldwork project, students will prepare and present a project for approval. Ideally, the project should involve group work producing a trans-media project in collaboration with a UCT or local environmental group or students. Students will be able to work in various forms of documentary from print to photography to video or sound and should produce a project that draws on the strengths of various media. The final project should be a substantial piece of work that will be published online.

Environmental Law for Non-Lawyers

Course convenor: Prof. A Paterson | Course code: PBL5045S

The inclusion of an environmental right in South Africa's Constitution has led to the emergence of many environmental laws and court decisions in the past 15 years. These developments are of key relevance to those working in the environmental sector including developers, consultants, biologists, zoologists, planners, sociologists and anthropologists. This course provides students undertaking postgraduate studies relevant to the environment with an insight into relevant principles of international and domestic environmental law. Key content covered in the course includes: an introduction to basic legal principles and resources; constitutional aspects (environmental rights, access to information, administrative justice and access to courts); framework environmental laws; land-use planning laws (planning law, environmental impact assessment and protected areas); natural resource laws (biodiversity, water and marine living resources); and pollution laws (fresh water, land and air pollution).

Film and Environment

Course convenor: Dr I Rijsdijk | Course code: FAM4036S

This course examines several debates concerning the representation of the natural environment in narrative fiction and documentary film. Taking the ecocritical debate that has grown in scope and intensity in literary criticism since the early 1980s as a departure point, the course will investigate the value of this discourse and its applicability to films that either explicitly or implicitly use the natural environment as a key component of the film narrative. Equally important is the analysis of the films in terms of film language, and the extent to which film produces original representations of environmental debates that characterise the current age. In this second aspect of the course lies the history of the natural environment in film (its place in well-established and popular genres like the Western, for example), as well as the representation of people in relation to the nonhuman environment in environmental documentary. The course includes a practical exercise in which students will produce a visual artefact that applies the idea of the course to local situations.

Geography of Development and the Environment

Course convenor: Assoc. Prof. S Oldfield | Course code: EGS4033F

This course explores theoretical and empirical work on development and environment in the third world. First, the course aims to provide students with a sense of the evolution of development studies as a discipline, enabling students to link particular development debates with different theoretical bases. Second, the course aims to make sense of the major debates that lie at the heart of development and environment studies and policy in geography, examining in particular: political economy, post-structuralism, and post-colonialism. The course emphasises critical reading, writing and discussant skills. The course can accommodate ten students.

Introduction to Climate Change and Sustainable Development

Course convenor: Dr M Norton | Course code: EGS5031F

This course provides a broad, integrated, knowledge on key issues in climate change and sustainable development, making students conversant across the spectrum of climate change issues and history. Topics covered include: sustainable development; the climate system, anthropogenic forcing and climate system response; African climate variability and change; international climate change legal frameworks, negotiations, and politics; the economics of climate change and climate change financing; the concept of climate compatible development. The course is lecture, seminar and group- work based. Each section of the course will involve basic framing lectures, supported by either an essay exercise or a group work exercise and seminar.

Researching the Anthropocene

Course convenors: Prof. L Green | Course code: AXL5414S

The term “Anthropocene”, taken up by geologists to describe the era in which the effects of collective human action have become “significant on the scale of Earth history”, compels a rethinking of the divides between the human sciences and the natural sciences. The implication: not only are conceptual divisions between society and nature to be rethought, but that new approaches to research are needed to speak to the challenges of comprehending the interconnections of human life, earth systems, and species. This course offers an introduction to research methods that are needed in order to bring these interconnectivities and parts and wholes, into public life and decision-making. Building on current conversations across the south on the engagement of decolonial literatures and the post-humanities, this course explores the research methods proposed by leading scholars in these fields.

Race and Relationality in Afro-European Literature

Course convenor: Dr P Moji | Course code: ELL4036F

This elective engages with black phenomenology outside the habitual American and African contexts, through a study of Afrodiasporic narratives set in Europe. Noting the 'silent racialisations' behind the European dogma of colour-blindness, the course problematises categories such as 'migrant' vs. 'Afro-European' by the examining different constructions of race on the continent, which are often contingent on different colonial histories and waves of migration The course is equally weighted between literary and theoretical texts, with students being exposed to narratives in or translated into English from diverse geographical locations alongside theoretical texts that explore race, relationality and black geographies. Students acquire the principles of analysing translated texts, comparative approaches to literary critique and develop conceptual ease with a phenomenological approach to narrative.

Science, Nature, Democracy

Course convenor: Prof. L Green | Course code: AXL5408F

This course focuses on the relationship between science and governance, drawing on current debates in science studies about the mediation of different versions of nature, truth and world in a democracy. Whether those concerns arise in relation to different disciplinary knowledges, the interests of capital, religious or indigenous movements, or between scientists and parliamentarians, the production of evidentiaries and procedures for verification are a central concern in decision- making in contemporary public life. The course explores the unstable knowledge terrain where state, science, publics and capital meet, with the goal of developing insight into the mistranslations and incomprehensions that occur, and to explore options that might resolve them. Building on emerging work on scholarly diplomacy in the scientific humanities, with a particular interest on science studies in the south, the course focuses on emerging strategies of mediation, equivocation, translation and contestation that are part of democratic processes and activism.

Society and Natural Resources

Course convenor: M Pressend | Course code: SOC5011S

This course examines the intersection of society, natural resources management and development practice from a social science perspective. The course links an academic training in developmental sociology to the needs of non-profit organisations within the environmental sector in Cape Town. As part of the course, students undertake a short-term review of NPOs, government agencies or private sector organisations located within the Cape Town metropolitan area as a means for them to develop an understanding of the ‘real world’ challenges in policy and practice.

Water, Society, Ecology

Course convenor: N Solomon | Course code: AXL5417FS

This cross-institutional course aims to improve student understandings of social and ecological dilemmas around water, and water-related infrastructures. The goal is to support graduates capacity to think with liquid flows around hard surfaces; urban chemistries; multiple species, and the historical-political legacies of infrastructure and design, in order to work towards “planet- compatible”, justice-based infrastructure interventions. This course also probes how we can build better collaborative practices across North-South divides – i.e. ones that are alert to histories of inequality and questions of environmental justice. It thus includes comparisons and discussions about ongoing relations at human-land-water interfaces in different hemispheres. To this end, the course is both transdisciplinary – to prepare students to reach beyond traditional disciplines – and hemispheric –to facilitate, in a teaching context, a stronger understanding of north-south concerns and dialogics. 



Academic requirements

Students must have graduated (minimum of 65% GPA) with either:

  • An Honours degree or equivalent in literature, fine arts, philosophy and / or social sciences, or
  • A relevant Honours degree (or equivalent) that has given them a background in the creative and performing arts, sciences, planning, engineering, economics, education, or law.

Academic requirements

The UCT online application can be found on UCT: Application and registration 

Please include with your official UCT application the following documents in addition:

  • CV
  • Transcript
  • Cover letter describing why you wish to study in this area
  • Description of a research interest or specific project that links with Environmental Humanities South, 750-1000 words
  • Details of three referees, i.e. name, telephone number, email address

Applications will be evaluated competitively by a selection committee.