BIOL 411 Global Change Biology - Winter 2021

earth held in hands

Welcome to the BIOL 411 webpage for Winter 2021

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

Lecture times: Mondays 10.30-11.30; Thursdays 11.30-12.30
Tutorial times: Fridays: 10.00-11.30  (- changed after first week from initial scheduled time of 8.30-10.00)
Teaching Assistant: Sarah Gordon (E-mail:; Office: Room 2507)
Location: Online


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
  • 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): 

Day and Time Topic Convenor Reading
January 11
(Monday 10.30)
Course introduction Paul  
January 14
(Thursday 11.30)
Course introduction Paul Global Planetary Boundaries – papers by Rockstrom 2009, and Steffen 2015.
January 15
(Friday 8.30)

Discussion of video, and seminar guidelines

Paul A Life on Our Planet (Documentary film by David Attenborough)
January 18
(Monday 10.30)

Sustainability: What can Biology tell us about our future, and how ought we to live? PART 1

Paul Grogan, P. 2013. Our Anthropocene Future - What can biology tell us? Free Inquiry. February/March issue. Vol. 32(2):16-19.
January 21
(Thursday 11.30)
Sustainability: What can Biology tell us about our future, and how ought we to live? PART 2 Paul  
January 22
(Friday 10.00)

Discussion of video: Surviving Progress


Surviving Progress (Documentary film)

Robinson D., Hill, J et al. 2019. Rethinking the Practice and Performance of Indigenous Land Acknowledgement. Canadian Theatre Review, Vol. 177: 20-30.
January 25
(Monday 10.30)
Discussion of essay guidelines, and what makes a really good essay.  

Three sample essays

Essay guidelines document

January 28
(Thursday 11.30)
Antibiotic Resistance: Are we deluding ourselves in thinking that we are the superior species of our planet, or should bacteria be given that title? Larissa Dusang and Stacey Bondareva Aslam B., et al, 2018. Antibiotic resistance: a rundown of a global crisis.  Infection and Drug Resistance 11: 1645–1658
January 29
(Friday 10.00)
Discussion of video: Quest for Fire   Quest for Fire (film)
February 1
(Monday 10.30)

Climate change: Is moving past human exceptionalism the key to overcoming our global climate crisis?

Sarah Mayo and Christina Pillkahn

Betz and Coley.  Human Exceptionalism: A Cognitive Barrier to Understanding and Engaging with Global Climate Change

February 4
(Thursday 11.30)
Melting polar ice: We have all been told it’s happening, but why is it such a critical global change issue?

Kylie Mews and Sophie Vaillancourt

Macias-Fauria M., and Post, E. 2018. Effects of sea ice on Arctic biota: an emerging crisis discipline.  Biology Letters 14:20170702
February 5
(Friday 10.00)
Discussion of video: Food Inc.   Food Inc. (documentary film)
February 8
(Monday 10.30)
Anthropogenic CO2 emissions: Have we been manipulated into thinking that a bottom-up approach to mitigating CO2 emissions is more effective than a top-bottom approach?

Shoshannah Bennett-Dwara and Hannah Ross

Frumhoff et al 2015. The climate responsibilities of industrial carbon producers. Climatic Change 132:157–171
February 11
(Thursday 11.30)
Climate change: How important is fear in influencing our beliefs and behaviours?

Skye Jamieson and Emily Marriott

Wolfe and Tubi, 2018. Terror Management Theory and mortality awareness: A missing link in climate response studies? WIREs Climate Change. 2018;e566

February 12
(Friday 10.00)
No session    
February 22
(Monday 10.30)
Global Phosphorus Supply: If phosphorus is unsubstitutable in agriculture, why hasn't its depletion been a focal concern for humanity like rising sea ice, or biodiversity loss? 

Nicole Taylor and Jennifer Tindal

Withers, P. J. A., Doody, D. G., and Sylvester-Bradley, R. 2018. Achieving sustainable phosphorus use in food systems through circularisation. Sustainability 10(6), 1804. 

February 25
(Thursday 11.30)
Disconnection from Nature: Is reconnection possible through the integration of different cultural perspectives?

Olivia Reynolds and Brian Pham

Turner N.J., and Clifton, H. 2009. ‘‘It’s so different today’’: Climate change and indigenous lifeways in BritishColumbia, Canada. Global Environmental Change 19: 180–190.

Kimmerer, R. 2013. The Gift of Strawberries. In: Braiding Sweetgrass. Milkweed Editions

February 26
(Friday 10.00)
Discussion of video: The Social Dilemma   The Social Dilemma (documentary film)
March 1
(Monday 10.30)

Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Can the carbon offset approach make an effective contribution to meeting the 2015 Paris Agreement goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050?

Roshael Chellappah and Shana Krol

Herr, D. et al, 2019. An analysis of the potential positive and negative livelihood impacts of coastal carbon offset projects. Journal of Environmental Management 235: 463–479.

March 4
(Thursday 11.30)
Permafrost thaw: Could permafrost degradation and its effects on both ecosystems and Indigenous cultures be used as an effective "Canary in the Coal Mine"? Jessi DiRocco and Andrew Haszko

Schuur, E.A.G., J. Bockheim, et al. 2008. Vulnerability of permafrost carbon to climate change: Implications for the global carbon cycle. BioScience 58: 701-714

March 5
(Friday 10.00)
No online session; Essay outline preparation    
March 8
(Monday 10.30)
Biodiversity loss: Is environmental mismatch an important overlooked cause of accelerated species extinction?

Himali Bergeron-Vitez and Heather Lounder

Zimova, M., Mills, L. S., & Nowak, J. J. 2016. High fitness cost of climate change induced camouflage mismatch. Ecology Letters 19: 299-307
March 11
(Thursday 11.30)
Soil degradation: What are the realistic steps we can take to change society’s views of ‘dirt’, and how can we ensure global soil sustainability?

Jaime Patterson and Rowena Caza

Safriel U. 2017. Land Degradation Neutrality (LDN) in drylands and beyond – where has it come from and where does it go. Silva Fennica 51 (1B) article #1650.

Davidson, E. 2007. Dirt Cheap Soil. (A Review of:  Dirt - The Erosion of Civilisations, by Montgomery, D.) Nature 447: 777-778.
March 12
(Friday 10.00)
Tutorial: Tips on how to write a great essay Sarah Gordon  
March 15
(Monday 10.30)
Consumer behaviour: What potential do social media platforms have to generate positive change in behaviour regarding climate change?

Sophie Wortsman and Gabriel Boucher

Fernandez, M. et al, 2016. Talking Climate Change Via Social Media: communication, engagement, and behaviour.  WebSci '16: Proceedings of the 8th ACM Conference on Web Science. Pages 85–94.

March 18
(Thursday 11.30)

No seminar

Essay outlines due by 9 am
March 19
(Friday 10.00)

No tutorial

March 22
(Monday 10.30)

Loss of functionally critical species: what potential does resurrection ecology offer?

Taylor Chisholm-Myers and Mackenzie Wylie-Arbic Nogués-Bravo D., et al. 2018.  Cracking the Code of Biodiversity Responses to Past Climate Change. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 33(10):765-776
March 25
(Thursday 11.30)
Interactions of tropical deforestation: Why is this land use issue not just a single problem, but a catalyst for multiple global change problems?

Cassidy Grimes and Mitchell MacNeil

Covey, K. et al. 2021. Carbon and Beyond: The Biogeochemistry of Climate in a Rapidly Changing Amazon. Frontiers in Forests and Global Change 4:618401
March 26
(Friday 10.00)
Essay preparation (no online session)    
March 29
(Monday 10.30)
Essay preparation (no online session)    
April 1
(Thursday 11.30)
Essay preparation (no online session)    
April 2
(Friday 10.00)

Essay preparation (no online session)

Final essays due by midnight on Sunday (April 4th)
April 5
(Monday 10.30)
Synthesis I Paul  
April 8
(Thursday 11.30)
Synthesis II Paul Bradshaw et al, 2021. Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future.  Frontiers in Conservation Science 1:615419.  
April 9
(Friday 10.00)
Synthesis III: What Can Biology Tell Us about our Future, and How ought we to Live (5.2)? Paul  
""Class photo
Final session class photo! Roshael Chellappah, Jaime Patterson, Hannah Ross, Nicole Taylor, Jennifer Tindal and Sophie Wortsman were absent for the photo, but also participated in this course.


Last update: 15 April 2021