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Stefania Barca

Guestresearcher 2015-2016, for the theme Degrowth

I am an environmental historian based in Europe, who received her training in Italy and the US, and has developed her research in a transnational perspective across Italy, North America and Brazil. After obtaining my PhD in Economic History (1997) in Italy, I had the privilege of spending a year as visiting scholarship at the Program in Agrarian Studies of Yale University, working with political anthropologist Jim Scott, and a two-year postdoctoral grant at the University of California at Berkeley, working with eco-feminist historian Carolyn Merchant and political ecologist Nancy Peluso. Since 2009, I have been a Senior Researcher, and co-director of a PhD program in Democracy in the 21st century, at the Center for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra (Portugal), a highly reputed international research center that focusses on global social and epistemological justice. There I have founded and co-directed an Ecology and Society Lab, and coordinated the Coimbra team of the European Network of Political Ecology ‘Entitle’.

In my almost 20-year long career as an environmental historian, I have come to realize that, like all history writing – and much of science making itself – Environmental History cannot but be political. I have thus been expanding my research interests in the areas of international political ecology and global environmental justice.

When I started to work on my book Enclosing Water, my scientific interest lay in the history of waterpower as the first energy source of the industrial revolution, but soon enough I realized this was part and parcel with the question of the ‘transition to capitalism’ with its social and ecological contradictions. I analyzed the transformation of water into waterpower as premised on four processes of material and symbolic violence: 1. war/colonial domination (to bring about the ‘liberation’ of nature and labor from feudal control); 2. mechanization of labor (people being forcibly taken out of their homes and put to work under the factory discipline; women’s work being devalued and disempowered in the process); 3. transformation of the landscape (via river enclosures and flooding); 4) naturalization of such new landscape and social order via art and literature. The political emerged as structurally embedded in the story of waterpower as the result of a class struggle – that of the emerging industrial bourgeoisie against the aristocracy for control over nature and labor. A great transformation, in the Polanyian sense, whose ecological implications had to be understood as part and parcel with its social costs.

But the appropriation of water was only one side of the double movement between enclosing and commoning. On the opposite side, even if not entirely visible, was the social struggle to create and defend the commons: the most historically grounded alternative to both capitalist and centrally planned economies, and the object of much radical ecological discourse and social practice today. This led me to think of my work as deeply embedded in ‘the political’, and convinced me of the importance of self-reflecting on the political implications of what environmental historians do. 

I believe this politicization of environmental history requires us to revive interest in the working classes as an historical agent potentially capable of leading the ecological revolution that we desperately need today. This requires that we critically revise the definition of working class in a non-orthodox way, which includes ecological interdependencies, feminist standpoints and environmental justice. I am convinced that neither technology nor technocracy can save us: what we need is a profoundly new vision of human destinies that eliminates once and for all the dominant western-centric and ultimately racist narratives of ‘progress’ and makes space for new, multiple and profoundly ecological visions of what the word should mean to us.

The Degrowth research project at Pufendorf Institute offers me a unique opportunity to think about ‘the economy’ as both a historical construct, and the outcome of a potential reframing process, based on encounterings between feminist political economy, commoning ideas and practices, and class struggles.


Here are a few of my open-access publications:

'Labour and climate change: towards an emancipatory ecological class-consciousness’

‘Making ourselves indigenous. On conservation ethics and the commons’

‘On working-class environmentalism. A historical and trans-national overview’

Enclosing Water. Nature and Political Economy in a Mediterranean Valley (Cambridge: White Horse Press 2010)

‘Environmentalists and workers of the world, unite!’


For a complete profile and publications list, see my academic webpage at: http://www.ces.uc.pt/investigadores/cv/stefania_barca.php

Stefania Barca

Stefania Barca