ENVR 201: Society and Environment

This course deals with how human activity interacts with and affects the environment, and how our choices as individuals and societies, our political institutions and economic arrangements, and technologies, mediate these interactions and effects.


The course will discuss society-environment interactions and environmental issues in various sectors, including air, water, land, agriculture, forestry, fisheries, transport, and energy, and how issues of politics, equity, and how we value the natural environment are inextricably intertwined in the debates around environmental problems.


The course deals with questions on which people tend to have strong opinions:

What are the causes of human overuse or misuse of our environment?

Are there too many people and not enough resources?

What matters more: population or consumption?

Can technological fixes solve environmental problems?

Can “getting the prices right” solve these problems?

Are there limits to economic growth and/or human development?

Is protest an appropriate mechanism to save the environment?

Can we (and how do we) live sustainably and equitably in a global community?


The lectures will discuss the readings, raising additional questions and adding information about their significance for understanding society-environment interactions. An important function of the lectures is to critically discuss important but often contested concepts such as “sustainability”, “resources”, “carrying capacity”, and “development”. Wherever possible, case studies will be used, to ground our discussions in the lived reality of societies, and to help students gain a deeper appreciation of theoretical concepts. We will discuss environmental issues in various sectors, and in different geographical contexts. This approach will allow us to make connections and investigate similarities and differences between environmental issues in different sectors and contexts, and explore the implications of these similarities and differences for addressing these issues in different sectors and contexts.


Students will be expected to read extensively and carefully analyze the material in the lectures and readings. They will also need to understand interconnections among case studies and analytic issues presented in the lectures and readings.


Be warned that the readings and lectures will not always agree. This reflects the character of the subject, which brings together ideas from many disciplines and stimulates sharp debates concerning environmental issues.


How does ENVR 201 intersect with the other three MSE 200-level core courses?


The Global Environment, ENVR 200, addresses human impacts on global biogeochemistry, and global policy initiatives aimed at controlling them. While we share a concern about human impacts on ecosystems, ENVR 200 focuses more on global biogeochemical effects of industrial activity and international policies aimed at protecting the atmosphere and the oceans. In ENVR 201, we examine a broader range of demographic, socio-economic, technological and institutional processes underlying our impact on essential resources and ecosystem services, and how they can be used and managed in a manner that is sustainable on local and regional geographic scales.


The Evolving Earth, ENVR 202, deals with how our environment evolved and how humans came to have such a disproportionate impact on it. We overlap with ENVR 202, for example, on the subject of human land use and its impacts. However, while their focus is on long-term origins and history, we are more concerned with recent land use, resource management, and how unsustainable practices can be reversed.


Knowledge, Ethics and Environment, ENVR 203, deals with how people in different cultures think about the environment, and thus with the cultural and philosophical dilemmas encountered when people with different assumptions seek a common environmental ethic. The concern in ENVR 201 is primarily with our material relationships with the environment.