black marble 
earth at night: composite from 2 April 2009:
Here are other versions and an interactive one.

GLOBAL CHANGE: Earth Systems in the Anthropocene (BIO 2235)
Sustainability and Security in an Uncertain World

"You can't do simply one thing."
-- Garrett Hardin's "First Law of Ecology"
...."And then what?"
-- Garrett Hardin's first question of ecology.

"When we try to pick out anything by itself,
we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."
John Muir, "My First Summer in the Sierra" 1911

Kerry Woods
,  Dickinson 143, 440-4465,,
    office hours Tues, Wed and Fri 10-12

Class meeting times: Monday, Thursday 8:00-9:50, Dickinson 148


The world is changing. It always has changed, always will. We will never stop change. So what? Should that matter to us?

A growing consensus among earth scientists is that human actions are, increasingly, the dominant driver of changes in earth systems -- thus the term being adopted for our current time in earth history: the Anthropocene.  But, even if this is true, the same questions apply, plus a few.  What aspects of global function are we affecting?  How and how much?  And, again, so what?  Does it really matter?

The last question is easy; it does matter to us because our lives, our well-being are intricately intertwined in earth systems functions and any changes in those systems may well have direct and indirect consequences for human well-being. But deciding whether particular effects are good, bad, or neither is difficult -- and determining what to do about it harder still.

What are the 'earth systems' we're talking about? They are the ones that shape the properties of the outer few km of the planet -- where we live; also known as the 'biosphere'.  But there are many lenses through which we can examine the biosphere's workings.  We'll explore the Anthropocene from the perspectives of climatology/atmospheric science; biogeochemistry and nutrient cycling; ecosystem dynamics, including productivity and diversity of human-managed and 'natural' systems; and human population processes.

Some questions:
Another way of thinking about all of this -- there are three kinds of questions that have to be addressed, three different intellectual arenas that must be entered: These same classes of questions must be considered in addressing any question about human actions, policies, decisions. In this class, we will be considering the special case (and maybe the most challenging one); decisions and actions whose consequences are are inherently global, where our choices affect not just our own lives, and where we can have (potentially) desired affects only through actions transcending local or even national scales.

This still leaves us with a huge potential scope, so we'll be selective about issues. Our direction of inquiry will evolve according to interests and questions that arise over the term, but here are three tightly interlaced themes that I propose as pivots for our discussion. Each has to do with situations where global changes are bringing us, willy-nilly, into terrain that is new to human experience:
Course Structure and Expectations:

You are responsible for making this class work for you; 'passive participation' does not make sense  or make sense.  I expect each of you to pursue information on your own, bring your questions and discoveries to the class discussion, take positions and make arguments, listen to and critique those of your classmates.  I am happy to let the class discussion (within some bounds) follow your interests and initiatives IF you take responsibility for making this happen.

Attendance is essential; I expect you to be in class  unless emergencies or health prevent it. If you know you will be unable to attend, make every effort to let me know in advance. HOWEVER, it is YOUR job to make sure, when you miss class, that you are aware of new assignments, get assignments to me on time, do readings, etc. Make sure you talk to another class member about what went on in class, then come to me with questions as necessary. Excessive absences will affect your evaluation and can be grounds for failure; absences without prior notification or excuse are particularly detrimental. Similar comments pertain to lateness; be on time.

    Evaluation will be based on all aspects of your participation in the class including written work and participation (including presence) in classroom.  For those choosing graded evaluation, approximately 30% of your grade will be based on the short 'abstracts', 40% on the longer critical reviews, and the remaining 30% on a combination of class contribution and other miscellaneous assignments that may come up.

    Readings: Readings will come from many sources.  Assigned readings will be posted through this website (see "Readings" link above).  Some will be relatively technical. However, do NOT think that assigned readings will be sufficient for good performance.  EXPECT to pursue your own background research and readings for all assigned materials.  More on this later.  I have listed three 'assigned' books:

    Mark Maslin. 2014. Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford Univ. Press.
    Elizabeth Kolbert. 2014.  The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.  Holt.
    Paul Hawken. 2017. Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. Penguin

These (all relatively short) will be only a relatively small part of what I expect you to read.   It's not essential to own them (although they're not terribly expensive), but you should have ready access to them.

    TO EMPHASIZE: Much of our class time will be devoted to discussion of readings, so it is absolutely essential that you do them before the class for which they're assigned. Plan now to devote several hours each week to readings for this class; neglect of readings amounts to surrendering your claim to influence the course of class discussion.

    Writing Assignments: There will be a collection of shorter and longer essays.  See the linked page for details.  But note that PASSING THE COURSE WILL REQUIRE COMPLETION OF WRITING ASSIGNMENTS ON TIME.  Evaluation will be based on both substance and style of writing.

Tentative Schedule Overview:

            I emphasize the TENTATIVE: priorities and sequencing may change.  This is just to give you an idea of the way I'm thinking about the class right now.  Time is limited, so there will be many specific topics and issues neglected or dealt with only in passing. If you have topics you'd particularly like to address, let me know.  This will all change.  

I. Introduction: a quick glance at big picture (WEEK 1-2)
            - global change and security/sustainability.
            - What is the nature of nature? When did the Anthropocene begin (if it has)?
            - What are the appropriate goals and priorities of environmental policy/action? WHY?

            - A quick look at ecosystem principles and function at a global scale; the history of life, the universe, and everything
II. Human Population (WEEKS 3-4)
            - Principles of population biology and regulation, ecological productivity and carrying capacity
            - The globalization of food and population issues.
III. Global Ecosystem Function and Food (WEEKS 5-6)
            - Ecosystems and food
IV. Climate Systems: Greenhouse effect, global warming and other things (WEEKS 7-8)
IV. Diversity and Extinction (WEEKS 9-10)
            - Ecological theory of biodiversity; the nature and history of extinction.
            - and does it matter?
V. Sustainability (WEEKS 11-12)
            - return to thinking about goals/objectives and why any of this matters
VI. Making Decisions (and miscellaneous unaddressed questions) (WEEKS 13-14)
            - Planning and policy; where do we need to get to and how do we get there?
            - How does policy deal with uncertainty? How can global problems be addressed politically?
-- KDW,  Feb 2018