Overview of ESPM 261

This seminar focuses on science-based technologies and their environmental impacts. At the turn of the 21st century, many citizens and practitioners recognize that technologies are central to the search for sustainability in contemporary societies. Technologies have vastly increased resource extraction and consumption, yet can contribute to greater sustainability through the redesign of existing technologies or the introduction of new (or the resurrection of "old") technologies. How can societies move closer to sustainable technological systems? Who needs to be involved? Whose priorities and needs are being met in introducing technologies? Can adverse impacts be prevented through policy?

One approach to address such issues is to work out why, how, when, and where science, technology, and environment may intersect and shape each other. For example, we can learn much about the likely issues that current electric car developments face by studying how previous electric car systems "failed". We can see how renewable energy technologies may depend on changing the norms of energy use within society, by considering the politics of why and how users shape the broader systems surrounding a specific technology such as the automobile. We can identify potentials for technical experts to reform their ways of solving problems, as we may be observing in the recent emergence of green chemistry. And we can gain insight into whether emerging technologies can be designed to reduce their inherent risks by evaluating different models of risk assessment.

The course will begin with five weeks of considering some theoretical approaches to investigating how science, technology, and environment intersect. Then we will briefly consider whether and how participatory democracy in science and technology may be nurtured, and visit regulatory and policy processes for assessing technology impacts on the environment. Next, we will explore important tools for analyzing science, technology, and environment through three case studies of contemporary developments: green chemistry (social movements and metrics), electric cars (competing technological modes and competing solutions), and nanotechnology (risk assessment and anticipatory governance). These case studies combine social science material with technical material to give you a taste of the worlds within which policy-makers and technologists work. We will end with a critical look, using our cumulative learning, at whether and how entrenched technologies can be challenged, changed, or even redirected.

The goals of our course include:

  • To look at theories of why, how, when, and where technologies intersect with the environment.
  • To understand why and how technologies and technological systems (such as energy, transportation, or industrial production) develop along particular trajectories, with resulting impacts on environments and societies.
  • To evaluate tools, policies, and institutions to aid policy-makers, designers, companies, and consumers in helping ensure that technologies are much less likely to harm humans and ecosystems, and are much more likely to be sustainable.
  • To develop the practical skills of graduate students in social science, policy, law, and technology in addressing the intersections between science, technology, and environment.

For the syllabus, please revisit later.

For the Spring 2009 syllabus under the title ESPM 290, please click here.

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