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




FINAL PAGE DUE-DATES: Since last Thursday was plan day, page that was due then can be handed in MONDAY 4 DEC.



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

That’s easy; it does matter to us because our lives, our well-being are affected by any changes in the world around us. But deciding what to do about it is another matter.

            What changes might we anticipate? How confident are our predictions?

            Can we do anything about current or predicted changes? What would that require?

            If we can ‘do something about it’, should we? Would we gain enough to warrant the effort?

            Are the changes human-caused or ‘natural’ (whatever that might mean)? Does that matter in terms of whether we should do something about them?

            We can’t be certain about all of the causes of the changes, nor in anticipating future change, nor in predicting the effects of our efforts to ‘do something about it’; how do we react to such uncertainties?

            If it’s desirable to influence these changes, how can we go about planning and implementing management of change at a global scale?

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:

            - The scientific arena: How can we understand the nature, causes, and consequences of observed and predicted changes?

            - The normative/ethical arena: Are these consequences good or bad; should we be attempting to do anything about them?

            - The political/management arena: Assuming we should do something, how can effective action be taken? What are the tools for directing change, and what influences people to take them up?

These same classes of questions must be considered in addressing any question about our interaction with our environment. In this class, we will be considering them in the most challenging of situations – in addressing issues that are inherently global, that can’t be effectively managed without action transcending local or even national scales.

This still leaves us with a huge potential scope, so we must be selective in the issues we address. I am willing to let our direction 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 brining us into terrain that is new to human experience:

            - human population: Global population is increasing almost as rapidly as it ever has; every moment, a new, all-time record is set for the number of humans in existence. Because most habitable parts of the world are already populated, and because economic interactions have world-wide reach, population growth and its consequences are global issues.

            - climate change: Climate has changed dramatically throughout earth’s history. However, nearly all climatologists now agree that we are entering a climatic regimes different from any that humans have experienced. Details are uncertain and consequences are difficult to predict, but the influence of climate on human well-being and natural ecosystem function is fundamental. Climate functions at an inherently global scale.

            - loss of biodiversity: There have been several (perhaps six) episodes of global mass extinction over the last billion years. We are well into another, and it is unique in being primarily human-caused. What does this mean for us, and what can be done about it?

Course Structure and Expectations:

You are responsible for making this class work for you; ‘passive participation’ does not make sense.

I will expect your attendance (and participation in the classroom) 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.

            Readings: The bookstore has three books for this class:

    Elizabeth Kolbert. 2006.  Field Notes from a Catastrophe.Bloomsbury.
    Mark Maslin. 2005. Global Warming: A Very Short Introduction. Mark Maslin. 2005. Oxford Univ. Press.
    David Quammen. 1997. The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction. David Quammen.


            I’ve selected some of these books as general background and reference. However, there will be specific readings assigned from all of them, and there will be readings from a range of other sources that I'll put on reserve or on-line. 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: There will be several writing assignments. They are diverse in format, but all should be the focus of critical, analytical, and integrative thought – not simply rehashing or restatement. I’ll give you more input on these soon.

            1. Weekly pages are an informal forum for critical, comparative, reflective thought springing from class readings. They are not intended as summaries or digests of readings; they should be derived from your own reaction to/thinking about readings -- they can be exploratory, reactive, refelective... BUT, they must be focused in order to say anything in a single page; do not attempt big detailed things, don’t feel that you need to address everything, and avoid a lot of empty structural stuff (long-winded introductions and summaries) and restatement. The only requirement is that your thinking somehow spring from and relate to class readings and that the writing be no more than the equivalent of one single-spaced page (this is a definite limit!).  You will write one each week (due on Thursdays) unless otherwise notified.

            2. Critical review essays concerning your own independent reading. There will be four of these during the term. For these, you should choose some paper, document, or publication concerned with the themes of the class (other than what’s assigned for the whole class). The emphasis is on "critical", meaning I will expect you to do more than restate what you read; you should consider implications, discuss strengths and weaknesses of position, point out inconsistencies, reflect on the forum, assess rhetorical form and purpose, etc. (some of these things – not all of them!). It’s equally important to avoid falling prey to your own predispositions in critical assessment (whether you agree or disagree with reading). The central purpose here is to produce a careful and well-defended analysis of (some aspect of) someone else’s thinking or argument. These essays need not be long -- say 4-5 type-written pages. You might address research papers, magazine articles, news reports, or (if it makes sense) a closely linked set of such things. Web pages may be appropriate, but many are too insubstantial to address easily in this way. AT LEAST ONE should be about a book or material of comparable magnitude.

            3. As an alternative to LAST TWO of the critical review essays, you may choose to pursue a more integrative and in-depth study of some topic, problem, or question within the scope of the class. For this project, I will expect you to read widely, to compare perspectives, and to develop your own summary assessments. The upshot should be a coherent, referenced paper, probably 10-15 pages long. (If you’d like to explore some other vehicle – a web page or something – make a proposal; it may work if it can convey the kind of thinking I’m after). If you take this option, you must bring me a proposal by Monday 6 November.

            Scheduling for Writing Assignments: Written work must be handed to me OR emailed before 8:00 AM of the day following due-date unless you have made prior arrangement. Late papers, without prior arrangement, may not be accepted.


            Weekly Pages will be due each Thursday, beginning 14 September.

            The first critical review essay will be due Monday 2 October

            The second: Monday 23 October

            The third: Monday 20 November

            The fourth (OR alternative big paper): Monday 11 December

Tentative Schedule:

            Orientations and priorities may change, so this schedule is subject to change. Because of flexibility, I’m only roughing out “sections” and offering approximate time windows. Because of time constraints, 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. I’ll give you reading assignments soon.

            Reading assignments will be maintained on a separate web-page.

I. Introduction: (WEEK 1-2)

            - A glance at the problem: global change as a national security issue.

            - What is the nature of nature? What is environmentalism and what is its goal? What’s the problem?

            - Ecosystem principles and function at a global scale; the history of life, the universe, and everything

II. Human Population and Global Sustainability (WEEKS 3-5)

            - Principles of population biology and regulation, ecological productivity and carrying capacity

            - The globalization of food and population issues.

III. Changes in Global Ecosystem Function (WEEKS 6-9)

            - The Greenhouse Effect and global warming: consequences likely and uncertain, options, obstacles

            - Other issues of global ecosystem function: acid rain, ozone depletion, etc.

IV. Diversity and Extinction (WEEKS 9-11)

            - rates, reasons, consequences, options

V. Making Decisions (WEEKS 12-14)

            - How does policy deal with uncertainty? How can global problems be addressed politically?


-- KDW, August 27, 2006