BIOL 510 The Biology of Sustainability

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Welcome to the BIOL 510 webpage for the Fall 2021 iteration of the course which is entitled: 

The Biology of Sustainability: Linkages between Indigenous philosophical perspectives and the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals 

This ecology course is aimed at identifying and critiquing potential mechanisms by which our civilization could most effectively move toward more sustainable living.  Biology can explain current environmental sustainability issues, but is also at the fundamental root of their underlying causes – human behaviour.  Therefore, the biology of sustainability incorporates biogeochemical, ecological, economic, social, genetic, and philosophical features and constraints.   Each iteration of the course will focus on a unique specific thematic question related to at least some of those components.      

The principal question that the 2021 course will address is:  What specific insights can Indigenous ways of knowing and relating to nature provide that would help our society achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals?

This course is for final year undergraduates and is specifically aimed at enhancing their capacities for critical thinking, intelligent open discussion, group work, and independent learning.  Emphasis will be on interactive discussions and student-led seminars in which participants will have ample opportunities to explore, analyze and synthesize scientific information, to learn how the scientific process works, to speak and write effectively, and to develop their understanding of the philosophies underlying human behaviour and how they relate to global change issues, and the sustainability of our current civilisation. Students will lead informal seminar discussions on some component of this theme that is of particular interest to them.

The 2021 iteration of this course will be largely focussed on reading and discussion of biology professor Robin Wall Kimmerer's 2013 book Braiding Sweetgrass. Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, but will also include other course theme-associated readings and activity exercises/workshops.


Learning outcomes:

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

  1. Explain and contrast Indigenous ways of knowing with Western science approaches
  2. Describe the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and their unique significance
  3. Discuss and critique the similarities and differences in fundamental philosophical concepts between Indigenous cultures and Western science that specifically relate to the Sustainable Development Goals
  4. Formulate clear, original, challenging, and concise thematic questions from course reading materials that are likely to lead to focussed and intellectually-probing seminar group discussions, student-led seminar topics, and short essays
  5. Critically assess the constraints (ecological, economic, social, behavioural and political) that underlie society’s current responses to environmental and social sustainability issues 
  6. Develop and present a cohesive, original, synthesis essay on the potential value of incorporating Indigenous ways of knowing to promote more sustainable living across our society
  7. Use the learning achieved in this course to develop lasting personal solutions for coping with, and constructively responding to, the major environmental and social sustainability issues of the 21st century.


Professor: Paul Grogan

Seminar times: Mondays 13.00; Wednesdays 11.30
Location: Room 3110 Biosciences building

Calendar: Sessions are 1.5 hours


15% Active participation in discussions (questions, comments, suggestions)
15% Seminar written questions
30% Seminar
40% Synthesis essay (10% outline; 30% final submission)






September 13th
(Monday 13.00)

Course introduction



September 15th
(Wednesday 11.30)

Sustainability: What can Biology tell us about our future, and how ought we to live? (I)

Discussion: Video (Surviving Progress)


Surviving Progress (Documentary film)

September 20th
(Monday 13.00)

Sustainability: What can Biology tell us about our future, and how ought we to live? (2)



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

September 22nd
(Wednesday 11.30)

The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals: What exactly are they, what is their historical development, and why are they considered so fundamentally significant?


Kates, R., et al. 2005. What is Sustainable Development? Environment 47(3): 8-21

Sachs, J. 2012. From Millennium Development Goals to Sustainable Development Goals. Lancet 379: 2206-2211.

September 27th
(Monday 13.00)

Personal Land Acknowledgement



Introduction to Indigenous Ways of Knowing


Webinar recordings:


What does the Earth ask of Us? Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer (Nov. 12th, 2020)


Rethinking our Science: Blackfoot Metaphysics Waiting in the Wings. Reflections by a Blackfoot.  Dr. Leroy Little Bear (April 20, 2021)

September 29th
(Wednesday 11.30)

How does language change our perception of the natural world?

Amrutha Pogaku

Kimmerer, R.W. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapters 1-3

(Skywoman Falling – The Gift of Strawberries) 

October 4th
(Monday 13.00)

What can we learn from goldenrods and asters?

Emily Pentz

Kimmerer, R.W. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapters 4-6

(An Offering – Learning the Grammar of Animacy)

October 6th
(Wednesday 11.30)

If Western society were a matriarchy, would we be faced with a global climate crisis?

Leanne Jung and Gabriella Sali

Kimmerer, R.W. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapters 7-9 

(Maple Sugar Moon – A Mother’s Work)

October 11th
(Monday 13.00)

Thanksgiving holiday – No class    
October 13th
(Wednesday 11.30)
Reading week break    
October 18th
(Monday 13.00)
No class    

October 20th
(Wednesday 11.30)


No class  


October 25th
(Monday 13.00)
Moving towards more sustainable living: What should the end goal of a "quality" education be? Katelin Dewmyn

Kimmerer, R.W. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapters 13-15 

(The Three Sisters – The Teachings of Grass)

October 27th
(Wednesday 11.30)


Can conscious consumerism be reconciled with the Honourable Harvest? Cameron Allen

Kimmerer, R.W. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapters 16-17

(Maple Nation: A Citizenship Guide – The Honourable Harvest)

November 1st
(Monday 13.00)
Can non-human persons influence our democracy? Mallory Sirimanne

Kimmerer, R.W. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapters 18-20

(Becoming Indigenous to Place – Sitting in a Circle)

November 3rd
(Wednesday 11.30)


What would be the best way to stimulate an emotional relationship with the land such that it motivates positive change towards more sustainable living? Roshael Chellappah and Victoria Archer

Kimmerer, R.W. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapters 21-23

(Burning Cascade Head – Umbilicaria – The Belly Button of the World)

November 8th
(Monday 13.00)
How can Self-Sustaining Old Growth Forests Transform Modern Society’s Windigo Thinking?

Emily Ball and Ashley Padvaiskas

Kimmerer, R.W. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapters 24-26

(Old-Growth Children – Windigo Footprints)

November 10th
(Wednesday 11.30)


What are the qualities of stories that make them so effective at promoting restoration of land and our relationship to it? Elianna Hanna and Kiana Catarino

Kimmerer, R.W. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapters 27-28

(The Sacred and the Superfund – People of Corn, People of Light)

November 15th
(Monday 13.00)
Can the sustainability perspectives described in the book “Braiding Sweetgrass” be realistically implemented within our society today, and if so, how? Anna Bremmerman 

Kimmerer, R.W. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapters 29-32

(Collateral Damage – Epilogue: Returning the Gift)

November 17th
(Wednesday 11.30)

How can reciprocity between the land and humanity be restored if our need for self-gratification is primal?


Essay outline due at the beginning of class Wednesday, November 17th

Samantha Gillen

Kimmerer, R.W. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Chapters 10-12 

(The Consolation of Water Lilies – Epiphany in the Beans)

November 22nd
(Monday 13.00)

Essay preparation – No class


Paul available for one-on-one consultation  
November 24th
(Wednesday 11.30)

Voluntary outdoor nature/gratitude activity in City Park


Essay preparation – No class


Paul available for one-on-one consultation  

November 29th
(Monday 13.00)

Synthesis I


December 1st
(Wednesday 11.30)

Synthesis II

Final Essays due by 11 am Wednesday, December 1st



Final class photo
Final class photo: (from right) Gabriella Sali, Mallory Sirimanne, Samantha Gillen, Leanne Jung, Katelin Dewmyn, Ashley Padvaiskas, Emily Ball, Amrutha Pogaku, moi, Victoria Archer, Anna Bremermann, Roshael Chellappah, Elianna Hanna, and Cameron Allan. Emily Pentz and Kiana Catarino were not present for the photo.
Outdoor nature gratitude activity
Nature Gratitude Activity in Kingston's City Park (November 24th, 2021).


Last Updated: 16 November, 2021

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