Earth Dynamics: Climate, People and History
Fall 2014 and Winter 2015 quarters
Earth’s environment has been shaped by human activity for hundreds of thousands of years, since early humans discovered fire. More recently, since Earth warmed out of the last ice age, humans developed agriculture and stable societies enabled the rapid development and self-transformation of cultures. Agricultural activities began to emit greenhouse gases and to change Earth’s air, water and land. People changed as well and began to document their activities, ideas and reflections.
Millennia later, modern human societies use fossil fuels and modify landscapes with such intensity that Earth is unlikely to experience another ice age. Both contemporary industrial and ancient subsistence practices are part of the same long story of how human beings have used and shaped the environment and, through it, ourselves.
This program will examine how changes in the Earth system facilitated or necessitated human adaptations or evolutions. To Western eyes, until perhaps 150 years ago, the Earth’s resources seemed virtually inexhaustible. Organized human thought and activity unleashed unprecedented powers which reshaped the Earth. Life expectancy increased; arts flourished. The ideas of Enlightenment thinkers and the energies they harnessed seemed to promise unlimited progress.
Yet some wondered if progress might have a dark side. They developed critiques of the practices changing how people produced food and materials, traveled and warmed their homes. What can we learn from their voices in the historical record, given what we now know about global warming and other anthropogenic impacts on Earth systems?
We’ll ask how human practices changed not only local environments but large-scale global processes. We’ll note patterns of interaction between people and Earth over time. We'll study natural as well as human drivers of climate change, including Sun-Earth interactions, volcanoes and greenhouse gases. We’ll consider the changing role of science in providing the understanding required for people and planet to thrive together. We’ll examine whether/how modern consumer societies are uniquely positioned to hasten and/or slow the dangerous direction in which modern resource use is driving our planet’s ecosystem. Is global warming a disaster, an opportunity or both? How do we adapt now, in the face of the most dramatic change to the Earth system in human history?
Our work will include lectures, discussions, workshops, labs, quantitative homework, expository essays, responses to peers’ essays, teamwork and field trips.
Fields of Study
Preparatory for studies or careers in
Location and Schedule
Offered during: Day