Green 101: Back to School with Coursera’s Intro to Sustainability

I discovered Coursera while listening to a TED talk about online education by co-founder Daphne Koller. Upon investigation, I realized that, unlike Kahn Academy where all the courses are math and science-related, Coursera has a wide variety of interesting ever-changing courses! I’m going to start with Intro to Sustainability, which starts on Monday…and from there, maybe Modern & Contemporary American Poetry and then Intro to Philosophy


Introduction to Sustainability

Next session: 27 August 2012 (8 weeks long)
Workload: 8-10 hours/week

About the Course

This course introduces the academic approach of Sustainability and explores how today’s human societies can endure in the face of global change, ecosystem degradation and resource limitations. The course focuses on key knowledge areas of sustainability theory and practice, including population, ecosystems, global change, energy, agriculture, water, environmental economics and policy, ethics, and cultural history.

This subject is of vital importance, seeking as it does to uncover the principles of the long-term welfare of all the peoples of the planet. As sustainability is a cross-disciplinary field of study, this foundation requires intellectual breadth: as I describe it in the class text, understanding our motivations requires the humanities, measuring the challenges of sustainability requires knowledge of the sciences (both natural and social), and building solutions requires technical insight into systems (such as provided by engineering, planning, and management).

About the Instructor(s)

Dr. Jonathan Tomkin is the Associate Director of the School of Earth, Society and Environment and a research Associate Professor in the department of Geology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Tomkin directs the undergraduate program in environmental sustainability at the University.

His research aims to uncover the processes of how changing climates, glaciers, and landscapes interact. This study has involved fieldwork all over the world – including the Olympic Mountains, the Swiss Alps, Patagonia and Antarctica. He is the co-editor and contributing author of the college textbook Sustainability: a comprehensive introduction.

Course Syllabus

Week 1: Introduction. Pessimism vs. optimism
Neo-malthusians, J-curves, S-curves and the IPAT equation
Week 2: Population. Demographics and the disappearance of the third world
Demographics, population trends
Week 3: Tragedy of the Commons.
Fisheries, pastures, public vs private solutions
Week 4: Climate Change. The climate of the near future: hot, hotter, or hottest?
Weather vs. Climate, Proxy and data climate evidence, Climate projections
Week 5 : Energy. What happens when we reach “Peak Oil” Renewable energy: is there enough to make the switch?
Peak Oil/Fossil Fuel, Energy survey, availability, and density, EROI
Week 6: Agriculture and Water. Is there enough water and food for the 21st Century?
GMOs and the Green Revolution, water stocks and flows – physical and social constraints
Week 7: Environmental Economics and Policy. Can economists lead the way to sustainability?
Environmental Evaluation, project and policy evaluation, Incentive policies
Week 8: Ethics and Culture and Measurement. The long view
Carbon Footprints, Energy and water efficiency metrics, Sustainability Ethics, Environmental ideology and conservation movements

Recommended Background


Suggested Readings

The course will use a free, online textbook “Sustainability: a Comprehensive Foundation (Theis and Tomkin, Eds.)”. Participants can download the book as a pdf or html file (for laptops and computers) or as an epub file (for tablet readers)


  • Will I get a certificate after completing this class?Participants who successfully complete the course will receive a certificate of completion from the School of Earth, Society and Environment.
  • What resources will I need for this class?Got an up-to-date browser and a decent internet connection? You’re good to go!
  • What is the coolest thing I’ll learn if I take this class?We’ve just passed 7 billion people on the planet – but population growth isn’t the biggest threat to a prosperous global future.

Anyone interested in going back to school with me?

Recycled newspaper pencils from Earth Techling


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