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Society's Metabolism


Title course: Society's Metabolism

Coordinator(s): Stefano Cucurachi

Other involved teachers: Laura Scherer (Water System), Hauke Ward (Economic Segment), José Mogollon (Agriculture/Food System)

Description course:

What role do humans play in altering the natural functioning of Earth? This course prepares students to evaluate the impact of society’s metabolism on the earth system functioning. This course will introduce students to the Anthropocene, including the various pressures that society’s metabolism exerts on the natural system and its cycles. The main themes addressed in this course include the Anthropocene, Economics of the Anthropocene, Resources and scenarios, Energy analysis, Water, Food System, Societal challenges and governance. An additional focus of this course is communicating science to a wider audience: students will be introduced to various communication techniques and have an opportunity to apply these skills in project work.
Each lecture session of the course consists of an analysis of readings facilitated by the course lecturers, a content lecture given either by the course teacher or by an engaging and engaged invited speaker, and finally a debate and/or class exercises and presentation.
Weekly workshops or tutorials complement the lectures and flipped classroom material. The workshops will focus on science communication and will support students in structuring their project work. At times, course coordinators will facilitate hands-on tutorials to deepen understanding on some course topics.
Preparation before class and active participation in class are fundamental for the success of the course. For this reason, we stimulate discussions in class so that everyone can bring and share their experience, values and opinions with their peers.

Entry requirements

This course is obligatory for students of the MSc Industrial Ecology (joint degree TU Delft and Leiden University).

Learning goals:

After completing this course, students are able to…

  • Describe society’s metabolism and the main environmental impacts related to society’s metabolism, and understand the connections between the potential drivers of resource and energy demand

  • Design effective ways to communicate science to broader audiences

  • Describe interconnections between global sustainability goals

  • Analyze the water, food and energy systems and understand their contribution to society’s metabolism

  • Analyze main resources extracted and used at the global level and examine societal issues related to resource use

  • Analyze economic constructs, theories, and models to reason about the future relationship between economic growth and the environment

Education format:

Every week will consist of a classic lecture on Wednesdays and a mixed-workshop/tutorial session on Thursdays.
Education methods include lectures (including flipped classroom format), debates, presentations, discussions, elaboration of group and individual projects, writing of reports.

Assessment forms:

  • 50% final exam (Take-home)

  • 35% final project (30% group project or an individual paper + 5% final proposal)

  • 10% Individual science communication projects

  • 5% individual participation, based on attendance and active participation at workshops + active participation on Perusall

Weekly schedule

Week 1: Introduction week: Setting the scene on Society's Metabolism: : The Anthropocene, SDGs and the global picture and Earth System tipping points.
Education forms: Lecture, class discussion

Week 2: Economics of society’s metabolism, economic models and scenarios.
Skills to be practiced: Science communication, project proposal development
Education forms: Lecture, workshop

Week 3: Resource system: How economic demand drives resource extraction and impacts, Resource dynamics and scenarios of resource use
Skills to be practiced: Science communication, Peer feedback
Education forms: Lecture, workshop

Week 4: Energy sources of society's metabolism: Energy sources and energy analysis
Skills to be practiced: Peer feedback
Education forms: Lecture, flipped classroom, tutorial

Week 5: Water system: Water demand, use and scarcity; water footprint
Education forms: Lecture, tutorial

Week 6: Assessing the impacts of the food system
Sills to be practiced: Science communication
Education forms: Lecture, workshop

Week 7: Societal challenges and governance
Education forms: Lecture, workshop

Week 8: Recap session, closing conference for project work
Skills to be practiced: Presentation, peer feedback
Education forms: Workshop, discussion

Week 9: no classes

Week 10: Exam preparation

Week 11: Examination