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Sustainable development: Big Issues New Answers

Vak 2013-2014


The course approaches the subject of sustainable development from four different angles, each treated in a separate module. The first angle is that of the regional level, addressing the question why some civilisations prove sustainable while others perish. This module emphasises the use of natural resources, such as food and water. The second module looks at the intrinsic value of the human environment, i.e. nature’s richness. What is ‘biodiversity’, what is our culturally determined attitude towards it and what policies are effective? The third angle addresses the issue at a global scale, that of ‘System Earth’, focusing on climate and flows of matter. The fourth module is more directly geared towards action, focusing on economic and innovation aspects. How can citizens and governments apply the available knowledge to work towards a sustainable world? What part can be played by economic instruments, in addition to legislation? Throughout the course, we will look at general theories and the ‘classics’ of sustainable development.

Module 1. Societies and Land use: Collapse or renewal?

In the three weeks of this module, you will examine the ups and downs of civilisations that were forced to change due to lack of resources. Did they perish or did they achieve a new state of equilibrium? The module focuses on the factors of population growth and food supply. At the same time, it looks at the way ideas about sustainable development have grown in our present-day society and introduces you to some key concepts and methods used in this discipline. The module uses a cyclic mode of learning, and its approach is relatively ‘literature-based’, that is, it involves reading quite a few original texts.

Module 2. System Earth and Climate Change

The module introduces you to a view of the Earth as one large system, characterised by huge cycles of matter and energy and large-scale processes, including climate. This is the system James Lovelock called Gaia. The Earth supplies raw materials and services that sustain human life. Humans influence the cycles and use the materials and services supplied. This module explains how the cycles are affected and what limits there are to the available resource supplies. It discusses methods like simple stocks and flows models, as well as the dynamics of biogeochemical cycles.

Module 3. Economy and Technology

This module focuses on methods to identify, and possibly counteract, the effects that human economic activities have on the global environment. It discusses questions like: is selling milk in cartons really more damaging to the environment than selling it in glass bottles; how can you take a product’s entire lifecycle into account and how can you calculate this? Are there enough resources available to allow all humans on Earth to enjoy a level of affluence similar to that in Europe by 2050? What instruments are available to steer the economy in a sustainable direction, and what are the impediments and limitations to their use? The module discusses methods like economic valuation of natural resources and environmental effects, lifecycle analysis, materials flow analysis, sustainability indicators and historic research.

Module 4. Biodiversity: meaning, views, policy and practice

While communities depend on nature, nature also has its own intrinsic value. This module first considers what biodiversity is, and what its use is for humans. It then discusses the various views on biodiversity in philosophy and in religions like Christianity and Islam. These views partly determine the shape of national and global policies on nature and the environment. The module uses a cyclic mode of learning, involving lectures, literature studies, answering questions presented in the literature, and preparing for a debate with the well-known Dutch philosopher Bas Haring on the question whether biodiversity has an intrinsic value.

Attainment objectives

After completing this course you will be able to:
1. formulate your own initial and current views on sustainable development and to indicate what aspects may have changed or confirmed your views;
2. identify and explain the way different human civilisations have responded to the problems of sustainability;
3. describe the significance of biodiversity for humans and its intrinsic value, explain the different views on biodiversity and indicate their relation with nature conservation policies;
5. describe the Earth as a system of cycles and processes and prove that you have acquired knowledge about the system’s indicators;
6. describe the way humans influence the Earth’s cycles and point out the limits to the available resources and the consequences to society;
7. describe methods – and their shortcomings – to valuate natural resources and environmental effects;
8. use economic, population and technology developments as a basis to outline the development of global pressure on the environment and the efforts that will be required to reduce this pressure;
9. describe the meaning of lifecycle analysis and materials flow analysis, and apply these instruments in a simple case study;
10. use historical and other information to describe what is holding back a rapid transition to a sustainable economy.

Teaching methods and exams

Each of the above perspectives will be addressed in a predefined cycle of learning activities, inspired by the model developed by Polya, who says that you should have the courage to change your views, but only when you have good reasons to do so. Group discussions will be used to identify the group’s initial views and knowledge. The subsequent cycle of lectures and tutorial group sessions will tie in with these initial views as much as possible.
All modules are concluded with an exam testing your problem-solving skills and your ability to reproduce what you have learned. In addition, you will be asked to write an in-depth paper (1500 words) on a topic from one of the four modules. The course as a whole will be concluded with an evaluation round to look back at your initial views and to reflect on the way your final views developed. The final mark is the average of the marks achieved in the four module exams and the mark awarded to your paper.


Schedule Sustainable Development: Big Issues New Answers 2013 – 2014