BIOL 411 Global Change Biology

Earth held in hands

Welcome to the BIOL 411 webpage for Winter 2023

This advanced undergraduate level course will focus on the biology underlying the major global change issues that our civilisation currently faces (e.g. land-use change including deforestation, biodiversity loss, invasive species, climate change, nitrogen pollution, antibiotic resistance).  Strong emphasis will be placed on specifically highlighting the interconnections across all hierarchical organisational levels in Biology - from molecule all the way up to biosphere. The course will specifically address the following questions  – What can Biology tell us about the patterns and mechanisms that have led our civilisation to its current environmental predicament? In what ways do these biology-based insights influence our perspectives on the future?

Learning outcomes:
By the end of this course, the student should be able to:

  1. Explain and contrast the major global environmental issues that our civilisation faces.
  2. Identify and organize the principal interactions among the major global change issues that ramify their impacts by developing and applying an over-arching conceptual framework.
  3. Describe the patterns and causes of previous civilisations’ rises and falls to appraise our current global environmental predicament within an historical context.
  4. Summarize the impacts of western ‘progress’-based, individualist, and capitalist ideologies on humanity’s relationship with the rest of the nature, and contrast those with the more holistic ideologies of indigenous and eastern cultures.
  5. Use concepts such as Progress trap, Global Planetary Boundaries, The Anthropocene, Deep Ecology, Socio-Ecological Stewardship, and Complex Adaptive Systems to discuss, evaluate, and critique potential solutions for addressing individual global change issues.
  6. Identify and analyze the fundamental biological root causes of our civilisation’s current environmental predicament, and use that assessment to develop lasting personal solutions for coping with, and constructively responding to, the major global change issues of the 21st century.

Professor: Paul Grogan

Session times and locations: Tuesdays 11.30-1.00 (MacCorry D201); Fridays 1.00-2.30 (Ellis Hall 226)

Teaching Assistant: Dominic Wood (; Office: Room 2507)


Provisional Assessment plan:

  • Participation in tutorial discussion (based on intellectual depth and relevance of contributions, not quantity) 15% 
  • Written questions provided in advance of each tutorial (based on intellectual depth and originality)  20% 
  • Group seminar  25% 
  • Outline of final synthesis essay 10%  
  • Final synthesis essay (peer marking) 30%    


Provisional seminar topics:

  • Introduction – conceptual frameworks
  • Land-use change – patterns, drivers, and impacts
  • Carbon Cycle and Climate Change
  • Antibiotic Resistance and Virus epi/pandemics – rapid evolution of human pathogens
  • Nitrogen Cycle – too much of a ‘good’ thing
  • Phosphorus Cycle – humanity’s absolute need – peak phosphorus
  • Biodiversity – 6th extinction; invasive species
  • Freshwater extraction – growing demand, limited supply
  • Ocean acidification – cause, thresholds, and biological impacts
  • Atmospheric contaminants – mercury, nitrogen, .....
  • Human population size – the elephant in the room
  • Anthropogenic Electromagnetic Radiation??
  • Success stories: Ozone; Acid rain; ??
  • Case study: Climate change and other recent perturbations in the Arctic
  • Historical perspective – ‘The Short History of Progress’; Progress-traps
  • Indigenous and other non-western cultural perspectives on humanity’s relationship with the rest of nature – Perspectives and Implications
  • Emerging perspectives on sustainability: Socio-Ecological Stewardship, Complex Adaptive Systems, Well-being
  • Deep Ecology and other Environmental Philosophies
  • What can Biology tell us about our Future?
  • Synthesis

Schedule (to be updated throughout the course): 


Last update: 6 January 2023