By a variety of standards it is clear that we live on a human-dominated planet. Between one-third and one-half of the land surface has been transformed by human action; the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere has increased by nearly 30 percent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; more atmospheric nitrogen is fixed by humanity than by all natural terrestrial sources combined; more than half of all accessible surface fresh water is put to use by humanity; and about one-quarter of the bird species on Earth have been driven to extinction, often through destruction of their habitat by humans.

In this elective, we will study how humans have affected the Earth as an ecosystem. Topics will include: human impacts on the global cycles of carbon, nitrogen and sulfur, mobilization of heavy metals, alteration of the hydrologic cycle, and reduction in biodiversity through habitat alteration and the introduction of invasive species.

The course will be run as a seminar with no more than ten students. Each week two students will prepare opening statements that will shape the discussion. The two students will develop their statements based on a set of journal articles. The preparation will be done with guidance of the course director.

 In addition to leading two seminar discussions, each student will prepare four short papers – five pages each – on special subjects related to major topics covered in the ten weeks of the seminar.

Background Readings:

The Biosphere, 1970, 134 pp., Freeman and Company, San Francisco.

Cycles of Life, Civilization and the Biosphere, Vaclav Smil, 1997, 221pp., Scientific American Library, New York

Human-Dominated Earth (A Special Report), Science, Volume 277, 25 July, 1997, pp. 485-524.

The Work of Nature, How the Diversity of Life Sustains Us, Yvonne Baskin, 1997. 263pp., Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Topical readings will be drawn from Science, Nature, BioScience, Ambio, Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics and similar high-quality peer-reviewed journals.


Seminar Schedule:

Week 1 – The Earth as a System - The Biosphere Concept

Weeks 2 and 3 - Industrialization, Agricultural Expansion and the Global Carbon Cycle

Weeks 4 and 5 - Doubling the Amount of Reactive Nitrogen on the Planet – Too Much of a Good Thing?

Week 6 - Have We Solved the World’s Acid Rain Problem?

Week 7 - The Mercury and Cadmium Cycle 

Week 8 - Water, A Poorly Managed Resource

Week 9 – Biodiversity, Effects of Habitat Alteration and Invasive Species

Week 10 – Managing Planet Earth, Is It Possible?

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