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Global Challenges 2: Earth




Admission Requirements

This course is compulsory for all first-year students.


The Earth can be split into four main geobiological spheres, i.e., the lithosphere, the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the biosphere, which are closely interrelated. Human beings live on Earth as an integral part of it. We are short-stay occupants and are affected by its internal, surface, and atmospheric processes. More importantly, we also profoundly alter the Earth with our activities impacting on local to global levels and contributing to climate change, biodiversity loss, erosion, flooding, and depletion of other resources. To govern the Earth efficiently, and use and manage its natural resources
with less waste, there is a need to have a clear understanding of this planet, the interlinkages among the different “spheres” and responses to human activities. Likewise, societal mechanisms and processes influence human actions and need understanding to come to sustainable solutions.

This course is concerned with understanding of the geobiological spheres and associated cycles, the inextricable links between the living and the non-living world, the way in which forces of nature shape our daily lives, how and why humans exploit resources and nature, and the actions that are taken to live in greater harmony with the pulse of the Earth. This understanding will help to assess and decide whether and how human beings can influence and change the course of our history, when bringing major global issues into focus later on in this course.

In this course students will learn about the main processes on Earth, its geobiological spheres and associated global cycles (e.g. water, nutrients, and carbon). Furthermore, they will learn about societal mechanisms and processes explaining why and how humans interfere with the Earth’s environment and how this leads to the environmental problems we are confronted with. Students will also learn how to quantify relevant issues quickly.

Course Objectives

After completion of the course students will be able to:

  • think holistically about sustainability

  • make quick, back-of-the-envelope calculations related to environmental issues

  • qualify and quantify environmental problems

  • quickly assess the order of magnitude of solutions to complex environmental problems

After completion of the course students will know:

  • the characteristics of the main geobiological spheres and associated global (elemental and/or material) cycles, their interaction and response to human activities causing environmental problems

  • the societal mechanisms and processes that underlie main environmental problems

  • various approaches to achieve a sustainable earth

Mode of Instruction

The two-hour seminars are composed of different activities in alternating plenary and group work sessions related to the weekly themes (some themes are still subject to change):

  • Geobiological spheres and associated global cycles

  • Biodiversity and nature conservation

  • Climate change and water

  • Renewable energy

  • Poverty and Natural Resource Management

  • Material flows and basis of society

  • Dynamics of Land Use, Life and Visions of Nature

Activities during bi-weekly seminars include:

  • preparation and conduct of an oral presentation on a topic related to weekly theme

  • preparation and conduct of a multi-stakeholder debate

  • making of assignments including a minimum of two and a maximum of three of the examples listed below:

  1. preparation of a short report on film or documentary shown in class
  2. preparation of a short report based on an excursion or a debate
  3. preparation of a critical review on assigned literature
  4. preparation of a strategy plan related to urban mining
  5. preparation of a report with plan for ecoduct or wildlife corridors


Assessment: participation in discussions
Percentage: 10%
Deadline: Ongoing Weeks 1 – 7

Assessment: Participation in a multi-stakeholder debate (individual assessments)
Percentage: 10%
Deadline: Ca. half-way the course

Assessment: Oral presentation of maximum of 20 minutes (individual assessment)
Percentage: 20%
Deadline: Weeks 1 – 7; each week, 1 – 4 students will give a presentation (depending on class size)

Assessment: Assignments (2 or 3) in the form of a short analytical report (max of 2750 words; group assessment)
Percentage: 30%
Deadline: Weeks 2, 4, and 6 (in case of two assignments: Weeks 4 and 6)

Assessment: Exam (individual assessment)
Percentage: 30%
Deadline: 21 December 2012


Required literature

Textbook: Living in the Environment – G. Tyler Miller Jr., S. Spoolman, 17th ed., Brooks/Cole Publ. 2012; ISBN# 9780538735346
(it concerns here the copy that is freely available on the internet, in pdf format:
http://www.gfxtra.com/ebooks/116430-living-in-the-environment-principles-connections-and-solutions-17th-edition.html )

Other reading materials

Readings for assignments and presentations will be made available electronically via the course website on blackboard.

Contact Information

See website CML ( http://www.cml.leiden.edu/ ), under staff D J Snelder and H de Iongh

Weekly Overview

  • Geobiological spheres and associated global cycles

  • Biodiversity and nature conservation

  • Climate change and water

  • Renewable energy

  • Poverty and Natural Resource Management

  • Material flows and basis of society

  • Dynamics of Land Use, Life and Visions of Nature

Preparation for first session