Skip to Main Content
UWCSEA Libraries Logo

Environmental Systems and Societies: Topics

List of Topics in ESS

Unit 1 : How do systems work?

Through a study of the internationally renowned Biosphere II project we will begin to define the key terms we will use in the course, and to explore what a system is. This unit includes a brief history of the Environmental movement, and an introduction to environmental values as a system (i.e. how do different groups of people view the environment?).

Unit 2 : How do ecosystems function?  

The fundamental unit of study in environmental science is the ecosystem. In this unit we will look at how ecosystems are put together (ecosystem structure) and how they work (ecosystem function), in order to understand in later units how societies can affect them. Tropical rainforest ecosystems will set these important ideas into context as case studies illustrating these important ideas in a real life context. Tropical rainforests are well recognised for their high biodiversity so we will also examine the issue of biodiversity loss in this unit.

Unit 3 : How do ecosystems change?

Ecosystems are dynamic systems which undergo change. In this unit we will explore some of the changes which occur, and the causes and reasons behind the changes.

Unit 4 : Why should we care about ecosystem conservation?

How do marine ecosystems differ from terrestrial ones? We will look at coral reefs and mangroves - how they function, why they have such high diversity, and how they are threatened by human activities. We will debate the arguments for preserving species and habitats; and explore the role of different organisations in preserving ecosystems, and the different ways in which species and habitats can be conserved.

Unit 5 :  Should we manage natural resources in ecosystems?

In this unit we will examine two contrasting biomes: the tundra and hot deserts. We will use these as the context for an in depth study of environmental resource management issues such as water use, and exploitation of mineral resources in fragile environments and the challenges these issues pose to local communities.

Unit 6 : How big is your footprint?

How much land is needed to supply your resources and absorb your waste? In this unit we will explore the demands that human populations make on their environments. We will begin by looking at population dynamics to understand how societies grow, including the influence of development policies & culture on population dynamics, to begin to see the complex ways in which human societies function. We will then turn to the issue of sustainability and what this means in terms of resource use, and the implications for us all in terms of the choices we make.

Unit 7 : How do human societies manipulate ecosystems to grow food?

This unit includes a look at soil systems; how soils can be degraded and conserved, and the controversial issue of genetically modified crops. In contrast to the abundant food resources in some parts of the world, we will also look at why some areas of the world experience famine.

Unit 8 : To what degree are humans responsible for our environment’s state?

In this final unit we will turn to the issue of pollution in its many forms. We will examine air, land and water pollution at local, regional and global scales, evaluating how we manage pollution, and assessing how our environmental value system will affect the management strategy we choose. 

Yale University Lecture

Linking Biodiversity, Ecosystem Functions, Ecosystem Services; Trade-offs among services ; Ecosystem Resilience & Thresholds ; Ecosystem Services, Human Well-Being, & Economic Valuation