Geographic Perspectives on Sustainability and Human-Environment Systems

Social Science Perspectives


Geog 30 is, among other things, a social science course about the natural environment. At first glance, this might seem a bit odd. If the environment is a natural phenomenon, shouldn’t the study of it be more of a natural science?

Natural science is unquestionably important to understanding the natural environment. But, as we hope becomes clear in this course, social science is very important too. Here are some reasons why.

Human impacts on the environment. Human society has very large impact on the natural environment. We are changing the makeup of Earth’s surface and atmosphere, depleting a variety of natural resources, changing the global climate, and even causing many other species to go extinct. These impacts are unprecedented in the entire course of Earth’s history. Natural science can help us understand the nature of these environmental impacts, but social science is needed to understand why and how human society is causing them.

Environmental impacts on humanity. Just as human society impacts the environment, so, too, does the environment impact humanity. Indeed, the environment has played a large role in the contours of human society throughout its entire history. Today, as the environment changes from human activity, these environmental changes are coming back around to impact humanity, often quite profoundly. Understanding how the environment impacts society requires social science.

Environmental policy. Given the importance of the impacts of humanity on the environment and the environment on humanity, society’s policies towards the environment are also important. This includes our policies on how we impact the environment and policies on how we respond to environmental conditions and changes in these conditions. The word “policy” here should be interpreted broadly to include the policies of governments but also the policies of businesses, schools, non-profit organizations, and even households and individual people. Understanding the environmental policies found throughout these portions of human society requires social science.

Geog 30 covers all of these ways social science is important to the environment. In the process, we’ll learn some core social science perspectives, many of which also appear in social science disciplines outside geography, such as economics, history, political science, and psychology. One advantage of studying the environment in a geography course is that geography is a diverse discipline that is very comfortable with including ideas from other disciplines. Indeed, some of the content for this course comes from natural science, the humanities (in particular ethics), and the design-oriented disciplines such as architecture, business, engineering, and policy. Different academic disciplines bring different perspectives, but, ultimately, the disciplines are all studying the same world. Our goal is to understand the world and society’s place within it. We will use whatever perspectives can help us achieve this.