ast spring, I visited with a potential student from Hawai’i who had discovered our small, public liberal arts college in the Rocky Mountains by cross-referencing schools that taught political ecology with the alma maters of his favorite professional football players. During our video call, I questioned what he was seeking in his pursuit of “political ecology” as a field of study. The phrase circulates in academic journals and pops up in activist movements, but rarely surfaces in course catalogs among majors like “Environmental Studies” and “Geography.” The student had taken a so-titled course at a regional campus, and its focus on how social systems of power and economy shape the environment instilled a belief that meaningful change in the human relationship to nature must be addressed through interdisciplinary approaches and a commitment to social justice. Subsequent Internet searches led to me and my efforts to develop a political ecology pedagogy (no, we do not have a political ecology major) as a “radical pedagogy” that integrates justice, social change, and knowledge production into the speaking, writing and creating activities of the classroom (Jarosz 2004).

As this youth recognized, the deep interdisciplinarity of political ecology renders a useful approach for studying the complex, multi-scalar environmental issues of the modern era. Deep attention to power relations, particularly as they shape science and knowledge systems, along with fierce commitment to social justice, guide students towards actions that are imperative responses to a rapidly changing global environment. Understanding these complexities and identifying the actors and situations that create disjuncture is critical in both political activism and teaching (Katz et al. 1998). Indeed, education, like political action, rests upon identifying and navigating such contradictions (Jarosz 2004). Though the structures of higher education—semesters and schedules, classrooms and class time, assessment and evaluation—tend to suggest that what happens in a college course is somehow separate and exempt from a so-called “real world,” classrooms are places for politics. Learning and teaching are political acts. My goal as an educator is to create classes that retain the protective spaces for risk and experimentation afforded by institutional structures, but fiercely resist the notion that the actions and activities of a course do not shape social systems, are not activist, and transmit but do not create knowledge.

Despite its utility for understanding environmental issues, there are few mechanisms for teaching political ecology at the college level. Meek and Lloro-Bidart (2017) contend that the limited spread of the subject in higher education is due to the lack of appropriate pedagogies for political ecology. Using A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado in the classroom offers a pedagogy that effectively engages the interdisciplinary, place-based, multi-modal learning that makes the study of political ecology possible. Further, environmental programs that pursue political ecology pedagogies—in my case a professional-oriented Masters in Environmental Management degree—often still struggle to include the study of less tangible relationships between nature and society (Perramond 2010). Rivers, wildlife, forests, energy, food, and climate have forms that lend themselves to measuring, tracking, and counting, as well as assessing, regulating, and managing. Less visible are the environmental histories, corporeal experiences, and power systems that permeate socio-ecological systems with material effect. A People’s Atlas of Nuclear Colorado works insistently to make those environmental pasts and presents both visible and political.

Building a radical pedagogy around the Atlas engages students in knowledge-making, both as an act of individual learning and as an act of civic participation. Students in my graduate-level Environmental Politics and Policy course were invited contributors to the Atlas, responding to a prompt to enter the Colorado landscape and/or the socio-political landscape of nuclear industrialization, to see, study, and question, and then to share their knowledge through the proffered digital format. The structures of the academic classroom offered space for fear and skepticism (“Help! There are no local sites pertinent to me”), as well as discomfort with form (“I’m not an artist/writer/designer”) or lack of form (“How many words should this be?”). Their end products, developed through involved coaching from the Atlas team, ranged in scope and approach more than any semester-long assignment I have given. Some entries were deeply personal, while some told others’ stories deeply. Some relied on the visual, while some over-relied on long histories and chronologies. In the end, some entries were published, while others wandered from the focus of the Atlas or struggled to meet basic criteria for inclusion. Typical student struggles with deadlines, short semesters, writing level, and grade orientation persisted, but those students who came to the academy in search of participatory scholarship that connected them to communities beyond the classroom could explore key questions about environmental politics by building their own contributions to a dynamic guide to their geographic region. The strength of working with the Atlas was the pairing of unending possibilities of form with the provocation to look at place through a new, often unfamiliar lens.  

Situating nuclearism within a policy course enhanced students’ ability to understand environmental issues as political, a foundational tenet of political ecology. The Atlas demonstrates how nuclear legacies resist management, complicating future professional identities for these Environmental Management students, while opening dialogue around nature and control. Studying unfamiliar forms of nature, so evidently modified by humans and situated in one’s immediate landscape, illuminates how the social entangles the environmental. Further, the nuclear case compellingly illuminates the formative relations between science and the state, the power of expertise, and the emergence of a cultural identity rooted in the belief in control of nature (Perramond 2010). Studying such unfamiliar and unanticipated environmental formations invites the theory and methods of political ecology.

The tool of mapping is particularly centered in the Atlas project, inviting students to situate themselves within a place and then create a guide through that landscape for others. By participating in the citizen-produced Atlas, not only do students learn how systems of power and authority are embedded in quotidian acts like map-making, but they access their own creative power as citizens, and indeed as students. Such “neogeographies” distribute the power of the map maker to the public, producing knowledge while mobilizing action and forming political subjects (Elwood and Mitchell 2013). The generative work of the Atlas is creating citizens who see themselves as shaping Cold War legacies, a critical step towards activism and an opportunity to recognize knowledge-making as civic action.  

While creating their Atlas contribution, citizen-students unearth invisible legacies in the land, bodies, and stories of place. Indeed, a suitable pedagogy for political ecology may be one where the classroom disappears altogether, immersing students in their landscape. There, as citizens, they might learn how to look questioningly at many scales and in many geographies to create new and transformative knowledge, even when those spaces are rife with contradictions, complexities, and politics. How do we create a major field of study in that?


Elwood S and Mitchell K (2013) Another politics is possible: Neogeographies, visual spatial tactics, and political formation. Cartographica: The International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization 48(4): 275-292.
Jarosz L (2004) Political ecology as ethical practice. Political Geography 23(7): 917–927.
Katz C, Osborn B and Blomley N (1998) Lost and found in the posts: Addressing critical human geography. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 16(3): 257-278.
Meek D, and Lloro-Bidart T (2017) Introduction: Synthesizing a political ecology of education. The Journal of Environmental Education 48(4): 213–225.
Perramond E (2010) Atomic borderlands: Teaching the (end of) the Earth. Transformations: The Journal of Inclusive Scholarship and Pedagogy 21(1): 99-111. Available here.

Melanie Armstrong is an Associate Professor in the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources and Director of the Ruckelshaus Institute at the University of Wyoming. She studies how social systems are built around shifting ideologies of nature, drawing theory and methods from fields of political ecology, environmental history, and science and technology studies.