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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. Introduction to Sustainability: past, present and future

In the 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.

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: A. Describe current sustainability challenges, and explain how this is affected by the world’s complex system of cycles and processes; B. Describe important sustainability-related concepts and processes, and use theory, factual knowledge and a system’s perspective to explain the drivers of sustainability challenges, and the interaction between people, planet and prosperity; C. Apply the above knowledge to analyse complex sustainability problems, using various methodologies, and describe different categories of solutions; D. Substantiate and defend statements regarding sustainability challenges and proposed solutions, and present scientific results to a broad audience, both verbally and in writing.

Teaching methods and exams

The course covers 15 ECTS, distributed over 11 weeks (420 hours), starting on 2 September 2019. It is a full-time programme requiring active participation. Contact hours are mostly on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tuesdays and Thursdays are scheduled for self-study (reading literature, preparing assignments and tests) and occasional classes (so always check the schedule).

The final course mark (out of 10) will be a combination of internal Module assessments and two exams.

Timetable and examination dates

The Big Issues New Answers course is from 2 September – 8 November 2019.


You will be enrolled in Blackboard. All the lecture notes, manuals of every single module, assignments, important announcements, the schedule, etc. can be found there.