Politics, Society, and a Sustainable Environment

Module 2 courses will not meet the week of spring break,
March 18th – 22nd; note course dates.


Instructor: Dr. Fumiko Sasaki

Fulfills requirement: Environmental Policy, Management, and Finance (EPMF) OR Tools (T)
Day: Monday
Dates: Feb. 25, March 4, 11, 25, April 1 (Module 2, 5 sessions)
Time: 6:10 – 8:10 PM
Room location: TBD
Course number: ENVB 0451 N

Course Description

Environmental disruptions are not always caused by conscious human activity but often result from activities somewhat distant from those commonly identified as disrupting the environment. Such activities are part of social and political institutions, traditions, and customs. On one hand, slash-and-burn agriculture in Indonesia and burning coal to generate power in China are human activities visibly and intuitively harmful to the environment.  On the other hand, dictatorship, corruption, and ethnic/tribal conflict – political activities far from being directed to harm the environment –  can cause environmental disaster.

For example, dictatorship in China led to massive environmental damage after the government forcefully and arbitrarily constructed the Three Gorges Dam that devastated the ecosystem of an extensive area, which was worsened by corruption that diverted funds budgeted to reinforce the Yangtze River embankments, enlarging  downstream flood damage. Similarly, corruption in China invited contamination of soil when inspectors were bribed to forgo poison usage tolerances, creating cancer villages and ecological annihilation. In Yemen, tribal/religious conflict has caused wide-spread famine due to mutual attack to farming lands. As such damage is caused by human-made environmental disruptors, by definition these disruptors are avoidable if there is a change in the human behaviors that give rise to their existence. However, in cases as those described above, it can be very difficult to reduce human-induced environmental damage because decision-makers and others in power are acting for their own benefit.

This course will employ strategic thinking to foster an alternative view—that stakeholders (e.g., decision-makers, constituents, community members, business) have the capacity to understand that minimizing damage to the environment is in fact to their ultimate benefit. This course will focus on how to resolve environmental challenges arising from socio-political mechanisms and will, in practice, employ the following two steps:

  • Step 1: Understand seemingly traditional or institutional, yet changeable, socio-political mechanisms that lead to environmental deterioration; and
  • Step 2: Design innovative, strategic solutions to these issues.

The five classes will be as follows:

  • Class 1: Mechanisms of politics and culture that cause environmental problems, the impact of globalization on the environment, and why strategic solutions are necessary to combat environmental challenges
  • Class 2: Culture against a sustainable environment: mechanisms and case studies (e.g., mass consumption and the great Pacific Garbage Patch, ivory trade and Chinese tradition)
  • Class 3: Corruption against a sustainable environment: mechanisms and case studies
  • Class 4: Governing systems against a sustainable environment: mechanisms and case studies (e.g., Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in the USSR, North Korean famine)
  • Class 5: Discrimination, ethnic, and religious conflicts against a sustainable environment: mechanisms and case studies (e.g., water pollution in Flint, Katrina flood, famine in Yemen)

By the end of the course, students will be well-equipped to identify and analyze the socio-political institutional causes of environmental damage and craft strategic solutions to effect positive outcomes in the future with respect to environmental management.

About the Instructor

Dr. Fumiko Sasaki is a specialist in international relations focused on Asia as well as Japanese politics. At Columbia University, she teaches East Asian Security for the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), is an advisor for the SIPA Capstone Program, and is an Adjunct Associate Research Scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. She also teaches East Asian Security at the School of Advanced International studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. Previously, she was a visiting scholar at The New School. She has been a panelist and speaker on numerous occasions at the graduate schools of Columbia University and Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Sasaki received a PhD and MA in Asian Studies and International Relations from SAIS at Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Sasaki is actively engaged in social activities focused on strategic and innovative solutions for human security issues. As the director of the Community E-Learning Initiative at Distance Education for Africa, she is involved in enhancing education in Africa. As an Executive Director at the Japan Institute for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship (JSIE), she has organized various conferences and workshops that strengthen women’s social participation and entrepreneurship.