Global Change
An interdisciplinary, inquiry-based approach to natural and social science principles, dynamic systems modeling, spatial data analysis and critical reading activities.



Every day, millions of human and natural activities are altering the planet on which we live. Over the past century, through our ever-increasing population and mastery of technology, we have been changing the global environment at a pace unknown to natural history.  The goal of the material in this book is to offer an introductory, science-based interdisciplinary approach that provides users, regardless of their scientific background or mathematical skills, an opportunity to gain the benefits and insights from a modern and continuously updated scientific description of the changing global environment and the human relationship with that environment.  In the book, we explore the physical aspects of change from the early solar system to life to current events, as related to physical, chemical and biological cycles contributing to Global Change, and we examine the human impacts, through the effects of economic and social systems on the dynamics of a changing planet.  In this book we see that change has always characterized our planet since its formation 4.5 billion years ago, but that several of today’s changes occur at unprecedented rates, creating a unique and potentially catastrophic challenge to humanity.  We also learn that even seemingly small changes can have major impacts, such as the increase in large storms through only slight warming of the ocean-atmosphere interface, large coastal changes through only minor sea-level rise, the role of young people dominating non-western nations through new demographic trends, regional climate adjustments thought seemingly small changes in ocean and atmosphere circulation, and water shortages from growing regional demands and hydrologic shifts.  These and other topics are explored here, taking a critical, hands-on approach to learning.


Structure of the Units


The material is divided into 11 units that explore connected topics of key issues, with a distinctly human-centric perspective. The approach of the text is inquiry-based, starting each unit with the exploration of fundamentals through answering a series of key questions, followed by personal examinations with a variety of hands-on activities. The activities in each unit include systems modeling using the ISEE program Stella™, spatial data analysis using the ESRI program ArcGIS™ and critical reading using essays from articles in State of the World by the WorldWatch Institute.


Through modeling we are trying to understand the future, using the past to ground-truth these quantitative efforts.  Using spatial data, we can explore global patterns of the past and of today, in an attempt to find meaningful correlations and connections.  Perspectives written by an environmental activist organization are used to encourage a critical reading approach. We do not suggest to complete all activities in a single semester course.  Rather, following each unit’s introductory essays or vignettes, the material allows selection of activities that best meet the goals of the instructor and the students, or a mixed approach to hands-on learning that is based on interest and background.


The opening chapter of each unit examines key topics in the form of queries or vignettes that start with fundamental aspects (“Scientific principles”), followed by human dimensions (“Our choices”) and adaptation and sustainability strategies (“Our actions”).  This structure emphasizes the role of feedbacks and integration at the outset of any topical exploration, which is continued in the activities.  This Global Change Loop, which lies at the root of our thinking, is graphically illustrated in Figure 1.1.


Figure 1.1.

The Global Change Loop.  The examination of topics in this text follows a path that starts with scientific principles and how human actions affect change.




This book is intended for students who are interested in understanding the changes that are occurring in the physical and socio-political systems of our planet through human impacts with the environment.  Rather than taking an encyclopedic approach, this text serves as a guide into myriad of connected issues, which offer the user a first introduction to more detailed, disciplinary information.


The purpose of the book is to explore the problems and challenges that humanity faces as it wrestles with the urgent need to develop a more sustainable relationship with the Earth and its resources.  Toward these goals, the material provides a broad understanding of the many issues involved in global change and global sustainability, as well as offers exposure to some of the approaches and strategies for effective economic development and resource management.  The approach is highly interdisciplinary and attempts to seamlessly cross traditional disciplinary boundaries.  As such, the text is not a survey of all areas in the physical and social sciences, but rather tries to informs today’s citizens of the more relevant topics in these fields.  In this manner, it is hoped that tomorrow’s citizens will be prepared to face the environmental and economic challenges of the 21st Century, irrespective of their individual career paths and personal goals.  


Each unit describes major topics in the form of queries or vignettes that explore fundamentals, today’s world and considerations for the future.  Because we emphasize an active learning approach, each unit offers of a variety of activities that involve systems modeling, spatial data analysis and critical reading exercises.  This structure allows users to take a quantitative, spatial or reading approach to the material, or a combination.  The modular approach, both in the exploration of fundamentals and for hands-on activities, allows great flexibility in use and ordering of the material.  Because of the specific progression of topics, from principles to applications and system description to impacts, each unit resembles the approach in more traditional, disciplinary textbooks, except that it presents each topic as a self-contained block.  We believe that this modular approach appeals better to today’s students, while also allowing alternative uses of basic material. Instructors may decide to change the structure and/or content of the text by selecting topics from each unit for a personalized edition, which is further facilitated by the publisher’s electronic version of the book. 


Supporting Materials


Customized manuals for novice users describing the functionality of the Stella modeling and ArcGIS spatial data programs are given in the Appendix. The text of the reading activities is located on the enclosed CD-Rom or can be downloaded with password access from  Instructors can also receive an answer manual for the activities in each unit by contacting xxxxxx.


Thanks to ….


The materials that form the basis of this book reflect the educational efforts of many dedicated current and former colleagues at the University of Michigan; besides the contributors of the text, they are, in alphabetical order, {your name here or on the cover page} Vincent Abreu, David Allan, Mary Anne Carroll, Paul Edwards, Richard Ford, Thomas Gladwin, Tim Killeen, George Kling, Maria Carmen Lemos, Gayl Ness, Perry Samson, James Teeri and Mark Wilson.  Comments by yearly teams of graduate student instructors were central to the development and application of the activities, while our students offered feedback and fresh perspectives.  Derek Robinson gave ArcGIS assistance.  The staff of WW Norton and the encouragement of its editorial team, especially Leo Wiegman, XXX, XXX, are gratefully acknowledged.  The preparation of this book also benefited from the financial support of the Provost office at the University of Michigan and development grants from NASA, the National Science Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.


Last update: 2/1/2008 8:21 AM