Sustainability Science: Interactions Between Human & Environmental Systems, Spring 2018

Spring 2018 | syllabus

google classroom instructions

We will be using google classroom as our communication platform. Each week there will be a main discussion board where you can ask questions about readings, the structure of the class, or anything else you need assistance with. This is a way for you to connect easily with your classmates and discuss topics or questions you may have throughout the course.

To access our classroom:

1. go to
2. create a google account if you do not currently have one.
3. click the + sign on the upper right corner.
4. select “join class”
5. enter the code given to you; if you forget the classroom code, please e-mail Svenja Wagner.
6. you should now have the classroom available to you every time you log into google without having to re-enter the code

Weekly Readings, Presentations, and Video Lectures

1. The origins of the concept of sustainability science

Speaker: Billie Turner III (ASU)

The introductory session explores the relationship between “sustainable development” and “sustainability science.” It portrays “sustainable development” as an ultimately political issue arena in which people are grappling with the appropriate long term relationships between human development and the natural environment. It portrays “sustainability science” as an emerging field of scholarly inquiry into the origins and nature of the sustainable development problem, and into possible responses to that problem. The session will review competing perspectives on sustainable development and sustainability science, and present the approach taken here as an outline and justification of the topics covered in the course. We begin with a review of the foundations of sustainability science: i.e. modern conceptualizations regarding the interactions between human and environmental systems. We highlight similarities and differences in the key assumptions, variables and relationships that have figured in alternative conceptualizations, and in the central questions that have concerned them. We then turn to a sampling of historical data and future forecasts or scenarios regarding long term trends and transitions in key attributes of human-environment systems. The session concludes with a discussion of the challenges posed by those trends and transitions for policy and the knowledge needed to support it.

Readings 1 | 2 | 3


2. Knowledge systems for sustainability

Readings 1

3. The role of local communities in local management

Communities are increasingly seen as the focus for external attempts to achieve sustainable natural resource management at the local level.  This session raises critical questions concerning (1) the extent to which communities in fact have the means to manage land use collectively;  (2) the inherent conflict between reliance on traditional community norms as the basis for management and the (external) desire to promote  social equality and (3) the evidence that community management is successful. A more nuanced view of the role of communities in natural resource management will be discussed.

Readings 1 | 2 | 3



4. Sustainable development and sustainability science; historical overview and long-term trends

This session presents the conceptual framework for analyzing sustainable development that
we will use throughout the rest of the course. Sustainable development is argued to be
development that entails non-decreasing human well-being, measured in terms of the assets
that contribute to human well-being including 1) ecosystem services and biodiversity, 2)
human capabilities and assets, such as knowledge, education, and health; 3) technology and
infrastructure; and 4) institutions and culture. These various components link the
environmental and social dimensions of sustainable development. The framework helps to
understand the central components of planetary and human assets that contribute to human
well-being and advance sustainable development. The session will introduce the concept of
stock and flows of various assets.

Readings 1 | 2


5. Social-ecological resilience - Tipping points and uncertainty

Coupled human-environment systems frequently display thresholds, discontinuities, and multiple-equilibria. The difficulties that these complex behaviors pose for prediction, adaptation, monitoring and management are profound, and have received extensive attention under the rubrics of “resilience,” “vulnerability,” and “tipping points.” This session will review that literature and its implications for sustainability. It will explore how such complex trajectories found in nature can sometimes be captured in simple differential equations that, when coupled, lead to surprisingly complex non-linear dynamics. How such dynamics can be dealt with in models, monitoring and adaptive management regimes will receive special attention.

6. Ecosystem services, reconciling supply and demand

This session explores the concept of ecosystem services as key asset contributing to human
well-being, sometimes referred to as natural capital. In this session, we review what is
known about the environmental services generated by ecosystems, the ways in which
humans benefit from those services, and the ways in which human activities impact natural
capital and change the future flow of services derived from it. We distinguish between supply
and demand for ecosystem services. The former is determined by the biophysical conditions
such as climate and soils. In contrast, the demand for ecosystem services depends on
stakeholders’ values. We conclude by discussing how land management results from
reconciling supply and demand for ecosystem services.

7. Institutions for managing human-environment systems sustainably

Institutions and culture are the formal and informal rules, norms and expectations that shape human interactions with one another and the environment. We begin with a survey of the particular institutional challenges for sustainable development posed by the need to create or protect public goods (e.g. environmental services, “green” technologies) in the face of multiple externalities and opportunities for free-riding. We then review current understanding of the multiple institutions that societies have self-organized to provide such public goods at local scales, before turning to even more challenging task of designing institutions that promote cooperation in the production of global public goods.

8. IPBES: a framework for sustainability

9. Trade-offs in components of sustainability

We present an approach, developed through the course in previous years, that provides a
sustainability framework derived from a synthesis of economic and ecological literature. It
integrates the ecological mechanisms that underpin ecosystem services, the biophysical
trade-offs that constrain management options, the preferences and values of stakeholders,
and the dynamic nature of these components.

10. Equity and the economy

We will be discussing the interplay of sustainable development, climate change, and
environmental integrity. He will focus on two particular points: (1) the relation between
policy initiatives such as the Sustainable Development Goals and our policy responses to
climate change, and (2) the way in which the idea of harm underpins our concerns over
climate change, motivates sustainable development, and centers our worries over
environmental degradation.