It’s Not Too Late to Build a Better World


It is almost a cliché to say the world is facing cataclysmic crises—of governance, of the environment, of inequality in wealth, opportunities, and capacities. Many reformers confront big challenges like these with proposals that essentially tinker at the margins and stop short of exposing deeper causes of the crises or contemplating the real opportunities for a better future. This Focus cluster gives students opportunities to go beyond stale assumptions and engage with theories and practices that promote justice rather than greed and cooperation rather than exclusion—opportunities to think expansively about bold solutions to the crises we face and ultimately how to promote human flourishing on a grand scale.

Today we live in a world dominated by one story—a story of growth, extraction, and exploitation.  It is a story, however, that merely represents one of many possibilities for our future as a planet. The Build a Better World Focus cluster investigates ways of thinking and being that both expose and move beyond the singular extractivist logic of modern societies. Working with a rich trove of historical and contemporary knowledge in the worlds of science, the arts, technology, and political economy, our rotating courses explore a wide range of alternative stories, experiences, and visions, ranging from Indigenous practices to the newest findings of post-growth care economies or the work of environmental and racial justice activism.  Our courses are discussion-intensive and include deep readings, research opportunities, interactions with the larger community, and—most importantly—thinking in new and exciting ways about the most pressing problems facing our world.   

In this Focus cluster, students will ask: what will it take to move the world away from dystopia and towards a future that foregrounds justice, ecological sustainability, and human flourishing?


Public Policy 171FS/Ethics 182FS/History 170FS/Economics 182FS - Beyond Denial - A Thriving Future (CZ, EI)

Dirk Philipsen

Dirk Philipsen, Associate Research Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy; Associate Research Professor in the Department of History

What are the roots of the climate crisis or unparalleled inequality?  This course explores big ideas that envision a radically different future, one that provides for the common good within our given biophysical limits, including discourses such as post-growth, wellbeing, and care economics; eco-feminism; eco-anarchism; decolonization; ecological justice; and commoning.  A reading and discussion intensive course that uses an interdisciplinary approach and includes elements of research, individual and group presentations, as well as a writing requirement. 

Documentary Studies 179FS/ Public Policy 189FS/ Ethics 179FS - Documenting Youth Movements for Environment and Racial Justice Since 2010 (EI, R)

Wesley Hogan

Wesley Hogan, Research Professor of the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute; Research Professor in the Department of History 

Immersion in the dangerous and contentious history of youth activism in the US since 2010. Using oral history, archival research methods, and cultural production, students explore methods for researching documenting and creating narratives of youth social activism. Historical and contemporary youth campaigns explored in this course include those to end racial profiling and mass incarceration, prevent environmental destruction, improve public education, advocate for undocumented families, create safe spaces for GLBTQIA youth, and champion reproductive justice. All of these movements have expanded the legal, narrative, and practical understanding of human rights in US and global frameworks.     

Public Policy 179FS/Ethics 178FS - Neoliberalism and Popular Culture (SS, EI)

Nick Carnes

Nick Carnes, Creed C. Black Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy; Associate Professor of Political Science; Professor of Sociology

Neoliberalism is a philosophical framework so intrinsic to contemporary US politics that it can be difficult for Americans to articulate, contemplate, and critique. In this course, we will define neoliberalism, evaluate how it is reinforced and critiqued in popular culture, and discuss alternative social and political worldviews.

History 137FS - Minor Utopias: Everyday Approaches to a Better World (CZ, EI, R)

Jocelyn Olcott

Jocelyn OlcottProfessor of History; Professor of International Comparative Studies; Professor of Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies

This FOCUS seminar begins with a consideration of small-scale endeavors by ordinary people to create communities that reflect their values. After spending first half of the semester learning about past efforts to create minor utopias, students will research examples of minor utopias that interest them. Finally, the seminar will work together to develop a shared framework for a minor utopia, addressing questions such as: how resources will be developed and shared, how care will be provided to those who need it, how the community’s values will be communicated and enforced, and how the community will address violations of those norms.