Complex Environmental Systems-Spring 2014

The environment is a classic complex system, composed of multiple interacting “agents,” or variables, that cause emergent behavior. Applying a complex-systems approach to environmental problems such as climate change, landscape evolution, or societal-ecological sustainability can yield valuable insight into risk, potential drivers of change, likely outcomes of perturbation, and whether it is even possible to forecast or manage the system. This is a graduate-level seminar course that will expose you to classical complex systems analysis, along with frontiers in applying a complex-systems approach to environmental problems. You will read about and participate in some of the most lively debates in the field and become acquainted with tools and approaches for applying complex-systems theory in your own research.

The format of this class is primarily reading and discussion. What you get out of this class will be proportional (nonlinearly?) to your participation. On some days we will debate controversial issues, and you will be divided into groups in advance and have an opportunity to specialize and lead discussion in certain arguments. The course is designed by be highly interdisciplinary, and the hope is that new ideas will be seeded by readings in physics, ecology, earth science, and social science, followed by discussion with your peers from various fields. To document these insights and assemble a resource center for your own endeavors, we will be building and maintaining a course website with a blog to which everyone will contribute.

You’ll begin the semester by learning the rich language of complex-systems analysis and immersing yourself in and debating theory. In the second part of the semester you will examine the modeling and analysis tools that are used to apply that theory to real-world problems and data. The semester will conclude with a special-topics focus to examine further how complex-systems theory is applied in the study of climate change, coupled human-environmental systems, and even in your own research area. Other special topics that will be integrated throughout the semester include river networks, desertification and desert vegetation shifts, forest fires, earthquakes, and peatlands.

This year the course discussion forum will be hosted on bCourses. You can still access the Syllabus and Schedule and Resources here, though.