BIOL 411 Global Change Biology - Winter 2023

Earth held in hands


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 is our current scientific understanding of the specific biology underlying each of the major global change issues? 
In what ways do these biology-based insights point the way toward potential solutions, and ultimately influence perspectives on our civilisation’s 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/Humphrey 223); 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 exercise 10%  
  • Final synthesis exercise (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??
  • Industrialised food production??
  • Nuclear power, and/or nuclear weapons proliferation??
  • 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






January 10
(Tuesday 11.30)

Course introduction


January 13
(Friday 1.00)

A Life on Our Planet: Discussion of documentary and associated papers



Rockstrom et al.  2009. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature 461, 472–475.

Steffen, W., et al 2015. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Research Article Summary Science 347(6223), 736.

A Life on Our Planet (Documentary film by David Attenborough)

January 17
(Tuesday 11.30)

Food Inc.:

Discussion of documentary and associated paper


Foley, J et al. 2011. Solutions for a cultivated planet. Nature 478: 337–342

Food Inc. (documentary film)

January 20
(Friday 1.00)

Surviving Progress:

Discussion of documentary and associated paper



Bradshaw et al, 2021. Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future.  Frontiers in Conservation Science 1:615419.  

Surviving Progress (Documentary film)

January 24
(Tuesday 11.30)

Quest for Fire/The Day After:

Discussion of films and associated paper


Penn, D. 2003. The Evolutionary Roots of Our Environmental Problems: Toward a Darwinian Ecology.  The Quarterly Review of Biology 78(3): 275-301.

Quest for Fire (film)/The Day After (film)

January 27
(Friday 1.00)

The Social Dilemma: Discussion of documentary and associated paper


Rees, W. 2010. What’s blocking sustainability? Human nature, cognition, and denial. Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy, 6(2):13-25.

The Social Dilemma (documentary film)

January 31
(Tuesday 11.30)

Biodiversity loss: A large-scale issue, but are we really entering a sixth mass extinction?

Bethany Varela and Kira Henders

Barnosky et al, 2011. Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived? Nature 471:51-57.

February 3
(Friday 1.00)

What are the most important traits that distinguish human population growth compared to other species?

Esther Kim and Agnes Urlocker

Bradshaw C. and Brook B. 2014. Human population reduction is not a quick fix for environmental problems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences111 (46): 16610-16615

February 7
(Tuesday 11.30)

Why is western science insufficient in addressing the impacts of land-use changes?

Abby Mathews and Raquel Rufino

Searchinger, T. et al.  2018. Assessing the efficiency of changes in land use for mitigating climate change. Nature 564: 249-253.

February 10
(Friday 1.00)

Nitrogen, agriculture, and our growing population size: Is the convenience of large-scale farming ultimately worth the associated consequences?

Grace Lumley and Lauren Lebre

Tian, H. et al. 2012. Food benefit and climate warming potential of nitrogen fertilizer uses in China. Environmental Research Letters 7: 044020.

February 14
(Tuesday 11.30)

Coral reefs: Can we save what is left?

Nikki Deboer and Kate Lavers

Pandolfi J. et al. 2011. Projecting Coral Reef Futures Under Global Warming and Ocean Acidification. Science 333: 418-422.

February 17
(Friday 1.00)

Pollinator decline is a global change issue: How is it connected to other global change issues?

Emma Waight and Makenna Mclean

Potts, G. et al. 2010.  Global pollinator declines: trends, impacts and drivers. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 25(6): 345-353.

February 20
- 24


February 28
(Tuesday 11.30)

Antibiotic Resistance:Could Big Pharma be the key to solving the problem they created?

Aaron Pagulayan and Asia-Lily Boyd

Ben, Y. et al. 2019. Human health risk assessment of antibiotic resistance associated with antibiotic residues in the environment: A review. Environmental Research 483–493.

March 3
(Friday 1.00)

What does 'nature' mean to us in the 21st century?

Brendan Sheppard and Hannah Moran-MacDonald

Lapointe, M. et al. 2020. Urbanization alters ecosystem service preferences in a Small Island Developing State.  Ecosystem Services 43:101-109

March 7
(Tuesday 11.30)

Freshwater depletion is an increasing global planetary boundary crisis: What are the most promising solutions to keep us in the green “safe operating space” until at least 2050?

Olivia Shintani and Rachel Brayton

Boretti, A. et al. 2019. Reassessing the projections of the World Water Development Report.   Nature Partner Journal Clean Water 2:15;

March 10
(Friday 1.00)

Microplastics: Just how big of a global change issue are they?

Lauren Strathdee, Maddie Lebarron and Sarah Folcarelli

Machado, A. et al. 2018. Microplastics as an emerging threat to terrestrial ecosystems. Global Change Biology 24:1405–1416.

March 14
(Tuesday 11.30)

Is nuclear power the only feasible solution to reduce the environmental impacts of our energy demand?

Avery Desrosiers and Krista Williamson

Pravalie, R. et al., 2018. Nuclear energy: Between global electricity demand, worldwide decarbonisation imperativeness, and planetary environmental implications.  Journal of Environmental Management 209: 81-92

March 17
(Friday 1.00)

Climate change is associated with several amplifying positive feedback loops: which ones can we disrupt?

Giorgia Morris-Cefis and Sarah Brodmann

Kurz, W. et al. 2008.  Mountain pine beetle and forest carbon feedback to climate change. Nature 452: 987-990.

March 21
(Tuesday 11.30)

Urbanisation:Have humans caused all the wrong species to thrive?

Holly Crowson and Sarah Lyons

Aronson, M., et al. 2016.  Hierarchical filters determine community assembly of urban species pools.  Ecology, 97(11): 2952–2963

March 24
(Friday 1.00)

Informal session in active learning classroom for group synthesis media project development

March 28
(Tuesday 11.30)

Informal session in active learning classroom for group synthesis media project development

March 31
(Friday 1.00)

Synthesis I


Grogan, P. 2013. Our Anthropocene Future - What can biology tell us? Free Inquiry. February/March issue. Vol. 32(2):16-19.

April 4
(Tuesday 11.30)

Synthesis II


Scranton, R., 2013. Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. New York Times:

April 7
(Friday 1.00)

Religious Holiday - No class


Class photo
Top row: Lauren Strathdee, Emma Waight, Krista Williamson, Brendan Sheppard, moi, Hannah Moran-Macdonald, Kira Henders, Lauren Lebre, Grace Lumley, Asia-lily Boyd, and Giorgia Morris-Cefis
Bottom row: Sarah Folcarelli, Avery Desrosiers, Maddie Lebarron, Rachel Brayton, Holly Crowson, Nikki Deboer, Kate Lavers, Olivia Shintani, Agnes Urlocker, and Esther Kim.
Aaron Pagulayan, Abby Mathews, Bethany Verala, Mak Mclean, Raquel Rufino, Sarah Brodmann, and Sarah Lyons were members of the group, but not present on photo day. And our TA Dominic Wood took the photo! 


Penn whiteboard notes
Realism: Connecting the highly polarized 'straw man' perspectives offered by Penn (2003) in his paper on the evolutionary roots of our environmental problems (full citation in 'Schedule' above)


Perspectives on nature
4 perspectives along a gradient from the perceived as opposed to actual relationship between Human and Nature


To see materials from previous iterations of this course, use the drop-down menu under the 'Teaching' tab at the top of this page

 Last update: 2 June 2023