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Sustainable development: Big Issues New Answers



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. Sustainability and Governance: 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. Biodiversity: meaning, views, policy and practice

Societies do need nature for their services (the so-called ecosystem services), but nature has also a value of its own. In this module we first treat biodiversity and its use of the services, threats and positive and negative impacts of urbanization. After that we will look at the philosophical points of view on biodiversity and the place and role of biodiversity in religions. The focus in this module is on how visions and opinions on biodiversity play a major role in the way we value biodiversity, and also in the formulation of nature and environmental conservation policies. After all, the key aspects of conservation biology are repair versus preventing damage to the ecosystems and thus biodiversity. Within the cyclic learning of this module the focus will be on lectures, answering questions to literature, and preparing a debate (prepare critical statements and try to defend those) on the topic of “Faking Nature”.

Module 3. 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 4. 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.

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 the modules will be concluded with an exam, or a combination of an exam and assignments.

Timetable and examination dates

The Big Issues New Answers course is from 31 august – 9 November 2015. The schedule, including examination dates, can be found here.


Students have to enroll in Blackboard. All the lecture notes, manuals of every single module, assignments, important announcements, the schedule, etc. can be found there.