GEOG2661 Social Ecological Systems

Reading List

Discovery module overview

Module Summary

Module Summary

Sustainability has three main components: social, economic and environmental. Social-ecological systems are where these three components overlap. The module has five topics: Justice in Natural Resource Management, Rights and Values in Ecosystem Services; Hierarchy in Property Rights; Human Impact in the Natural Environment; Scarcity and Conflict in the Natural Environment. Each topic is available as a 2 week, course on the FutureLearn platform. Each topic is introduced with a summary of three relevant principles. The principles are then placed into context in case studies, followed by a debate on a topic related to an area of research. As it is based on a series of fundamental principles that are used as a platform to explore the topics in greater detail, the module is accessible to students from a wide range of backgrounds with an interest and knowledge of the environment. The teaching is supported by short videos on each of the principles, with longer videos on the case studies and debates. This frees the module from timetable constraints and provides a learning resource that can be used at any time. Classes will use the principles to explore topical examples in seminars.
A proportion of the digital material for this module is hosted on the FutureLearn platform. Students enrolled on the module will need to create a FutureLearn account in order to access this material.


The module has three main objectives:

  • 1. Introduce a series of fundamental principles that are important for understanding sustainability in social-ecological systems.
  • 2. Demonstrate how the principles are applied in case studies.
  • 3. Apply the principles to topical sustainability issues.


Topic 1. Justice in Natural Resource Management.
Principles: 1. John Rawls’s Theory of Justice. 2. Institutional economics and transaction costs. 3. Problems of aggregating social preferences.
Case study: Climate change and the conundrum of future generations.
Debate: Natural resource management in Nepal.
Topic 2. Rights and Values in Ecosystem Services. Principles: 1. The nature of values. 2. Coasian bargaining. 3. The precautionary principle.
Case study: The collision of values between organic farming and genetically modified crops.
Debate: Ecosystem services.
Topic 3. Hierarchy in Property Rights. Principles: 1. Hunter gatherers vs agriculturalists. 2. Hierarchy of property rights. 3. More people less erosion.
Case study: The history of Tanzanian forests.
Debate: The language of nature.
Topic 4. Human Impact in the Natural Environment.
Principles: 1. Causality and patterns of diversity. 2. Internal dynamics vs external drivers. 3. Mathematics of human ecology.
Case study: Ecocentric vs anthropocentric perspectives.
Debate: Population dynamics in practical conservation management.
Topic 5. Scarcity and Conflict in the Natural Environment Principles: 1. Coming economics of spaceship Earth. 2. Scarcity and conflict. 3. Environment as a weapon of war.
Case study: Water and peace.
Debate: Effects of conflict on the environment in Lebanon.

Learning Outcomes

  • 1. Knowledge of the fundamental principles and key people who formulated them.
  • 2. Ability to describe how the principles are applied.
  • 3. Ability to apply the principles in range of settings.

Assessment and teaching

Assessment and teaching


Assesment type Notes % of formal assesment
In-course MCQ Series of MCQs throughout the module. 20
Total percentages (Assessment Coursework) 20


Exam type Exam duration % of formal assessment
Unseen exam 2 hr 0 mins 80
Total Percentage (Assesment Exams) 80

Private Study

Independent online learning:
The module has a series of high quality digital assets that have also been successfully used in two massive open online courses (MOOC): Fairness and Nature, When Worlds Collide; and Fairness and Nature, Social-Ecological Systems. The first MOOC has been run three times on the FutureLearn platform and received much acclaim from the participants. The second MOOC follows the same format and will be run in February 2016.
The three core elements of the module i.e. the principles, application of principles to case studies and debate of a topical issue using the principles, are all captured in videos used in the MOOC. In addition there are a series of supporting podcasts. Six hours online learning has been allocated to each of the five topics, giving a total of 30 hours. Online learning will include scheduled online group discussion. This works well in the MOOC and provides a rich learning resource.
Private study:
Core texts are allocated to the digital assets. These consist of classic papers and, where available, Nobel prize speeches for each of the principles (some of the speeches are also in video). The case studies are supported by a series of papers and reports. The debates are supported by research papers mostly by the staff teaching the module. For each seminar the students will be required to read background documents in order to inform themselves of the topical issue to be discussed in class. Ebooks are also available for the each of the topics. A total of 56 hours has been allocated to reading the papers and documents, and to exam revision.

Progress Monitoring

  • - MCQs at the end of each course/topic will be used to monitor student progress and understanding. These are used successfully in the MOOC throughout the ‘learning journey’. Two hours has been allocated to this activity.
  • - Student progress will also be monitored in the seminars.

Teaching methods

Delivery type Number Length hours Student hours
Class tests, exams and assessment 2 2 4
Seminar 10 1 10
Private Study Hours 56
Independant Online Learning Hours 30
Total Contact Hours 14
Total hours (100hr per 10 credits) 100

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