Human Action for World Futures


Human Action for World Futures examines the ways in which human actions have shaped the Earth’s surface throughout history and the ways in which humans can act to ensure sustainable futures for the 21st century and beyond.  A major goal of the unit is to provide students with a broad interdisciplinary view of the means and agencies for and the obstacles to human action in relation to particular global and environmental challenges, as well as practical experience in acting as individuals and in collaboration with others.The unit begins by surveying the fundamental relationships between humans and the natural environment, the negative consequences of past human actions and the positive and negative scenarios that have been suggested for possible global futures. It then examines both agencies for and impediments to change on various levels, and explores the ways in which informed and decisive action can be taken towards an equitable, desirable and sustainable world future.

The content objectives of the unit are that students will:

  • understand the fundamental relationship between human action and environmental systems at a global scale, now and in the past, and the transformation of the biosphere through human action
  • understand the natural and human processes and forces that shape the Earth’s surface and result in continuous environmental changes
  • understand the connection between human action and global futures and build and evaluate future scenarios (such as ‘business as usual/growth’, ‘doom/breakdown’ and ‘transformation/sustainability’)
  • apply these understandings in analysing and responding to particular local, regional and global environmental and social challenges, such as the population explosion, environmental degradation and loss of natural resources
  • investigate the range of technological, cultural, economic and political possibilities for action and agencies for and obstacles to change on individual, social and global levels
  • explore practical ways of effecting change at the personal, social and institutional levels

Specific topics include:

Human action and the state of the planet

How have human actions altered the natural environment over the past few millennia?  What are the possible impacts of current human actions on the future of humanity and on the planet, as a whole? Is it possible to change human action on a global scale? This topic introduces an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the relationship between human action and environmental systems and provides a framework for analysing contemporary environmental issues and their connection to human wellbeing and ecological sustainability.

Human and ecological systems

What are the fundamental relationships between humans and the natural environment and what factors determine the health of both? In this topic, we take a holistic look at the Earth and its inhabitants. Emphasis is placed on how human and natural systems are linked by examining different human and natural ecologies at global and local scales.

Past impacts of human action

Is modern civilisation following in the path of earlier civilisations that collapsed through a combination of environmental destruction, systemic failure and lack of foresight? In this topic, we examine the causes of the collapse of past civilisations and discuss the implications for modern civilisation in the 21st century.

Scenarios for the future

At the crossroads of human civilisation, a number of positive and negative scenarios have been suggested for possible global futures, including the ‘business as usual’ scenario, the ‘new dark age’ scenario and the ‘great transformation’ scenario. In this topic, we survey these scenarios and evaluate their likelihood and consequences at global and regional levels.

Impediments to change

What are some of the individual, social, political and corporate obstacles to global change?  In this topic, we investigate impediments to change on many levels from inherent human limitations, to individual values and emotions, to corporate interests and institutional bureaucracies, and discuss ways of overcoming these obstacles.

Technologies for change

As well as a host of challenges, the 21st century brings new technologies that promise to solve the problems facing humankind, from alternative energies to nanotechnology to genetic modification. In this topic, we investigate and critically evaluate a range of technological solutions.

Changing hearts and minds

The actions of individuals play an essential role in determining the shape and direction of society, but what makes people act the way they do? In this topic, we examine the forces that influence our thinking, values and actions as individuals and explore practical ways of encouraging change at an individual level.

Cultural transformations

How do cultures change? How can human behaviour be transformed on a global level? Great transformations in the past have occurred slowly and unintentionally, as the result of a range of interacting factors. In this topic, we examine the causes of past transformations and explore possibilities for cultural change in the modern world, including the role of social and political movements, and global governance.

Globalisation and the role of corporations

Economic globalisation is the driving force behind many of the changes that are currently occurring, both positive and negative. In this topic, we look at recent ecological trends in corporate policies and behaviour, and evaluate their potential to transform the global economic and financial system.

Models for the future

What could the civilisation of the future be like?  A number of models have been put forward for fully sustainable civilisations that promote human wellbeing.  In this topic, we survey these models and critically evaluate their practicality as roadmaps of the future.

Change in the developed and developing worlds

The positive impact of global change will depend on the extent to which it encompasses the developing world as much as the developed world.   In this topic, we investigate the forces and agencies that can be harnessed to bridge the gap between rich and poor nations.

Making it happen

How can transformational policies be implemented at a global level?  This theme tackles the difficult challenge of putting words into action.  Within this theme, students investigate practical ways of effecting change at the personal, social and institutional levels.

Course summary

What can we conclude about human action and global futures? In this final topic, we bring together the understandings gained from previous weeks to consider the most important ways in which humans can act for world futures.