11 Billion People: How Long Can the Planet Sustain Humanity?
As an evolved animal, humanity has always interacted with its environment, both through the ecology of its food web and through its modification of its geological surroundings. Yet the human ecological niche, and the breadth of its impact on the environment, has changed enormously through the biological and cultural evolution of our lineage, from our first two-legged ancestor; to the appearance of our own species, Homo sapiens; to the diversification of the hunter-gatherer adaptation at the end of the Pleistocene; to the invention of agriculture and animal husbandry in the Holocene; to the rise of craft specialization, social inequalities, and urbanism with the first state-level societies; and now the globalization of our food, diseases, and culture.
Students in this course will explore how the cumulative effects of our biocultural evolution are putting the sustainability of our current population, now approaching 11 billion, at risk, mostly due to the unprecedented scale of humanity's impact on the Earth's ecosystems. This course investigates the origins, development, and predictions for humanity's ecological niche on the planet through a novel interdisciplinary fusion of the social and environmental sciences to give students i) the ability to see the environmental context of the present in an evolutionary light, as well as ii) the tools to evaluate possible remediation and sustainability approaches to control these problems at the local and global scale. The course provides an interdisciplinary immersion in these issues through combined instruction by anthropologists, archaeologists, historians, environmental scientists, ecologists, toxicologists, and sociologists.
By focusing on multiple vectors of inquiry (i.e., society, economy, technology, environment) which can be considered at different scales (i.e., from past to present, local to global, individual to societal, temporary to long term), students' progress through the course will give them powerful tools to confront the Grand Challenges of our age, the Anthropocene.