University of Minnesota syllabus for HSEM 2624H “Sustainability or Collapse? An Interdisciplinary Overview of the Human Predicament”


“Sustainability or Collapse? An Interdisciplinary Overview of the Human Predicament” 


 “Humans, Our Environment and the Future: A Survey of Opportunities and Constraints”

Instructors: Dr. Nathan John Hagens, Dr. Kathryn Draeger

This class will provide students with a broad exposure to various first principles relevant to human society, sustainability, and the future.  An exemplar of liberal arts education’, the class integrates many subjects matter disciplines related to humans and our environment.  Global climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, overpopulation, overconsumption, limits to growth, and rising human inequality are all here and on the horizon.  Though we will explore the current environmental and energy science of these impacts, we will also spend about half the term exploring the human behavior and demand side of our environmental situation – what drives us to consume and compete, how we value the present more than the future, how our neural wiring can become hijacked and addicted to modern stimuli and consumption, and how we possess many cognitive biases that cause us to sweep these problems under the rug for another day.  It is expected that by semesters end, students will attain an introductory level understanding of the core constraints and opportunities facing human systems as we strive to live more sustainably on the planet.

An intensive series of reading, lectures and discussion will cover primary/summary literature in: systems ecology, energy and natural resources, thermodynamics, history, anthropology, human behavior, neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, environmental science, sociology, economics, globalization/trade, finance/debt with an overarching goal to give students an understanding of how the modern human ecosystem really functions, and what are the opportunities and constraints facing us in the 21st century.  Most class sessions will include lecture, group discussion, and exercises. There will be panels and mock debates where students argue and defend one side of a major global environmental issue, partially to become familiar with the salient scientific points and partly to observe and reflect on the human psychology and cognitive biases involved in the debates.  Attendance and classroom participation will be an important component of the students grade.  In lieu of a midterm there will be periodic quizzes based on the readings, as well as some creative writing assignments. In lieu of a final exam there will be a group project pertaining to some aspect of sustainability applying the concepts learned in class.

Note to students: the main ‘benefit’ to you from taking this class will be the knowledge and understanding of how our human economy functions.   The instructors are expecting this to be a unique learning experience and it is geared towards students who are ambitious, curious, engaged and eager to learn.  As educators, we have observed that consilience, the integration of multiple fields to arrive at a new viewpoint, provides the most rewarding objective at the core of this seminar.   This class will not provide a lot of  ‘answers’ but will provide a framework that will enable you to ask better questions about environmental/social problems and apply the energy/behavioral concepts in multiple situations throughout your life.

While synthesizing about 15 academic disciplines, the class will be organized under the following five sections:

Week 1 –Student surveys about the future, Overview lecture for the topics to be covered during the course.

Selected readings –Chapter 1-5  A Short History of Progress –Ronald Wright



Key questions:  What is the earth’s carrying capacity?  What are latest projections/science on climate change and ocean acidification. What is an externality and why do we have them?  What is the 6th great extinction?  What is the human impact on net primary productivity?

Key concepts: systems ecology, climate change, ocean acidification, biodiversity, externalities, throughput, carrying capacity, & related concepts.

Selected readings –Farley/Daly Ecological Economics Chapter 1-5

Environmental Science  Cleveland and Kaufmann



Key questions:  Why is energy the most important commodity in our economies?  What advantages and disadvantages do fossil fuels have relative to renewables?  What is the difference between net energy and gross energy?  Can growth continue with less/lower quality energy? What is the status of modern fossil fuel/forest biomass/renewable resources?

Key concepts – thermodynamics, energy as core driver of growth, fossil fuels, EROI, net energy, renewables, energy quality, and related concepts. J

The Oil We Eat (Richard Manning)

Energy Transitions Past and Future

A Net Energy Parable – Why EROI is Important

What you need to know about Energy – Board on Energy and Environmental Systems (BEES)

Hubbert, M.K., 1993. Exponential Growth as a Transient Phenomena in Human History, in: Daly, H., Townsend, K. (Eds.), Valuing the Earth: Economics, Ecology, Ethics. MIT Press, Cambridge, pp. 113-125.


Some key questions: how did we arrive at 7 billion hominids?  How did hominids arrive at all?  Why do we compete for relative vs absolute fitness? Why do we try to ‘keep up with the Joneses’?  Why do we become easily habituated to certain standards of living?  Why is China/India trying to keep up with America?  Why do we care so much about the present vis-à-vis the future?  Why are we so confident in our viewpoints?  Why do we care so much about our friends and are so willing to blame other demographics?

Key issues: evolutionary drivers of behavior (sexual selection, status, novelty, addiction, steep discount rates, conspicuous consumption), cognitive biases (self-deception, cognitive dissonance, loss aversion, etc.) Multi-level selection, ultra-sociality, hunter gatherer studies, inequality etc.

Some selected readings:  – The Evolutionary Roots of Resource Overconsumption

Andreas Chai and Graham Bradley and Alex Y. Lo and Joseph Reser, 2014.  What time to adapt? The role of discretionary time in sustaining the climate change value-action gap.

E.O. Wilson. 2004. On Human Nature. Selected readings.

Wilkinson, R. and K. Pickett (2009). The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger. New York, Bloomsbury Press.

Dr. Peter Whybrow – Why We Are Biologically Ill-suited to the riches of modern America

Human Nature and Sustainability – Bill Rees –


Some key questions:  What is money? How does it come into existence? What are key assumptions in macroeconomics and how do they fare on a full planet?  How do debt and energy interrelate? How does microeconomics mesh with our evolved behavioral drivers?

Key issues: Trade, globalization, comparative advantage, Liebig’s law, and related concepts.

Selected readings: Twenty Important Concepts I Wasn’t Taught in Business School

Vohs, K.D., Mead, N.L., Goode, M.R., 2006. The Psychological Consequences of Money. Science 314, 1154-1156.



Some key questions:   How does all this fit together in modern economy?  what should humans aspire to?, Could we have a trillion humans live during the next 100,000 years?  Will a world in 2100 with billions of healthy humans but with dead oceans and forests be considered a success?  What are the implications of an end to growth? What can individuals, communities, regions, nations do to prepare for a world with ‘less’ instead of more each year? What are the most important projects for young  science minded citizens to initiate? What does a unified theory of knowledge look like?

key issues: tragedy of the commons, wants vs needs, hedonic psychology, intergenerational equity, GINI coefficient, Buddhist economics, consilience, resilience

Some selected readings:

Consilience –E. O. Wilson

Fleeing Vesuvius – Overcoming the Risks of Economic and Environmental Collapse  -Douthwaite

Immoderate Greatness –William Ophuls

Meadows, D. (2009). ” Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System.” Solutions 1(1): 41-49.

Nate Hagens:  Nate has a PhD in Natural Resources from University of Vermont (2010), and MBA w Honors from the University of Chicago in Finance (1992) and a BBA in International Business from UW Madison (1987).  He worked on Wall St at Lehman Brothers and Salomon Brothers and closed his own hedge fund in 2003 to pursue interdisciplinary knowledge about the bigger picture, which is modern society. Nate was lead Editor for the popular energy and sustainability web-portal for several years.  Currently Nate is the US Director for Institute for Integrated Economic Research (IIER) and is on the Board of Post Carbon Institute, The Institute for Energy and Our Future and The Bottleneck Foundation.  This 1 hour lecture would serve as rough overview of class content, adjusted to college undergrad audience

Kathryn Draeger, PhD, is an adjunct professor of Agronomy and Plant Genetics and the statewide director of the U’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (Regional Partnerships).  Dr. Draeger’s MS is in Soil Science and PhD in Water Resources Sciences (2001).  The Regional Partnerships are a unique program, nationwide, formed by the Minnesota legislature in the late 1990s to build community-University partnerships to test and apply sustainability principles.  Kathy was a MacArthur Scholar at the U and recipient of a Bush Fellowship. In 2008 statewide director Kathy Draeger relocated her family to Big Stone County to practice what she preached in sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, and rural revitalization. Governor Dayton appointed her to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency board as the agricultural representative for the state in 2012.  A few recent publications include:

Kapuscinski, A., Schmidtt Olabisi, L.,  Johnson, K., Jordan, N.,  Dana, G., Bawden, R., Draeger, K., Reich, P., Stenquist, B. (In Revision).  Learning Systems for Sustainability: Knowledge for action in an uncertain world.  Ecology and Society.

Johnson, K. A., G. Dana, N. R. Jordan, K. J. Draeger, A. Kapuscinski, L. K. Schmitt Olabisi and P. B. Reich. 2012. Using Participatory Scenarios to Stimulate Social Learning for Collaborative Sustainable Development. Ecology and Society 17 (2): 9. [online] URL:

Stedman Smith, M., P. McGovern, L. Kingery and K. Draeger. 2012. Photovoice in the Red River Basin of the North: A Systematic Evaluation of a Community-Academic Partnership.  Journal of Health Promotion Practices.  September 2012. Vol 13, No.5. Pp. 599-607.

Schmitt Olabisi L.K., Kapuscinski A.R., Johnson K.A., Reich P.B., Stenquist B., Draeger K.J. (2012) Using Scenario Visioning and Participatory System Dynamics Modeling to Investigate the Future: Lessons from Minnesota 2050. Sustainability. 2010; 2(8):2686-2706.

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