Q&A faculty spotlight: Joel Wainwright

January 5, 2023

Q&A faculty spotlight: Joel Wainwright

Joel Wainwright

Joel Wainwright is a professor of geography whose areas of expertise include political economy of development, environmental and agrarian change, and social theory. Professor Wainwright received a BA in environmental studies from Bucknell University in 1995, an MA in 1998 and a PhD in 2003, both in Geography from the University of Minnesota.

Please describe your current research/creative activity or area(s) of interest. 

I am a Marxist studying the political economy of capitalist society. My last book, Climate Leviathan, examines how the world’s political economy is likely to change because of rapid climate change. After that I pivoted to write a new, critical history of Belize (Central America). My next book will be a study of Karl Marx’s writings in the light of Charles Darwin’s explanation of evolutionary processes. Taken together, these works are trying to provide a solid foundation to explain the present global crisis through a lens that we might call ‘Marxian natural history.’

What undergraduate classes do you teach? Why do you think a student should take these classes and, if appropriate, why would they be of interest to students majoring in other disciplines?

I regularly teach three undergraduate courses, each with a distinct focus:

  • Geography 3701, “The making of the modern world.” A critical history of the present. Our guide is Kojin Karatani. We use his theory of history to explain how the world came to be organized in the form of capitalist nation states.
  • Geography 3597.03. The formal title is “Environmental citizenship,” but I call it “Climate justice” because this is really a course on the politics of climate change and the theory of climate justice.
  • Geography 5700, “Geography of development.” This is a course on the political economy of capitalism and potential strategies to address the extraordinary patterns of inequality that rend our world.

Although I teach in the Department of Geography, each of these courses blend multiple disciplines, spanning philosophy and history to the natural sciences, plus of course political economy.

What aspects of your teaching give you the most satisfaction?

When my students ask good questions.

What book would you recommend? 

Going to college used to mean spending lots of time reading and discussing books. That literary side of college life has declined considerably over the past few decades. I strongly encourage students to break away from their devices and commit to spend more of their time reading (above and beyond their assigned readings for classes).

Here are a book few suggestions. I recommend Asad Haider’s Mistaken Identity, a brilliant analysis of race and politics in the U.S. Asad is a young person who grew up in Pennsylvania and so his approach is readily understandable for young people in a place like Ohio. In a more historical vein, I love Giovanni Arrighi’s Long Twentieth century. A brilliant analysis of the history of capitalism. For students who — like me — grew up without any sort of education about the modern history of China, I recommend Rebecca Karl’s one-volume summary, China’s Revolutions in the Modern World. Finally, a list like this should include one work of fiction, so I will recommend the magnificent novel Long live the post horn! by Vigdis Hjorth.

What is the most interesting place you have visited? 

I have lived for several years in the Toledo District of southern Belize. Toledo is my muse — a place of great challenges but also a source of great inspiration. I also have particularly fond memories of my time living in Chiapas, Mexico, and Seoul, South Korea.

Learn more about Professor Wainwright's work, email and office location on his department page.

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