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11 Billion People: How Long Can the Planet Sustain Humanity?

The earth is finite (an open system for energy but closed system for matter matter), thus its ability to provide resources for biosphere and to absorb waste is also finite (Figure-1, Motesharrei et al. (2016). Resource utilization and waste generation is directly related to the human’s population, need, affluence and demand (Van Timmeren et al. 2012). Humans, from its first two-legged ancestor in Pliocene to the appearance of Homo sapiens, have interacted with their environment and changed enormously the human ecological niche and the breadth of its impact on the environment. But, they also have adapted to adversities via technological developments (from stone-age hunters and gatherers to the information age of modern Homo sapiens) that have kept in pace to meet the ever increasing human population and their affluence. As the technologies (including the digital technology of 21st century) are becoming more complex, their energy demand is increasing proportionally, resulting in overexploitation of resources and accumulation of toxic waste (including global warming gases) into the environment, an unsustainable trajectory. Unless a serious corrective action is implemented, the planet may not sustain 11 billion people, the expected population by the end of 2020.

Students registered in this course will investigate the past, present and future of humanity’s ecological niche on the planet. They will explore the environmental context of the present in an evolutionary light, as well as, the tools to evaluate possible remediation and sustainability approaches to control the problems at local and global scales. By focusing on multiple vectors of inquiry (i.e., society, economy, technology, environment) which can be considered at different scales (i.e., 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, i.e., the Anthropocene.