Sustainability and Resilience in History


About this course

How did the Maya civilization collapse? Why did the bubonic plague kill over one third of 14th century European population? How long can current rates of global population be continued? This course introduces students to the fascinating field of environmental history, focusing on the tensions between economic growth, resource scarcity and environmental degradation in the distant past as well as in present-day societies. The course pays ample attention to the transition from pre-industrial to industrial modes of production and the environmental consequences thereof - the making of the anthropocene. We draw analogies from the collapse of ancient civilizations to contemporary environmental problems, such as global warming and mineral resource depletion. The course also specifically addresses the various strategies that historical civilizations have developed in order to survive climate change, deforestation, soil erosion or other ecological threats to human livelihood. Finally, the course addresses the emergence of present-day environmental consciousness in the wake of modern urbanization, industrialization and unprecedented demographic growth.

This course is open to all students. It can also be followed as part of the mini-program ‘Sustainability Transitions in Past and Present’, which is organized in collaboration with the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) and Utrecht University (UU). Sustainability transitions pose some of the most urgent challenges to societies today as well as in the (distant) past. Transitions in energy systems, in food production, in the use of natural resources, or in the change from agrarian to urban and industrial societies always play out in longer spans of time. Students who participate in this mini-program analyze sustainability transitions of various kinds in a temporal framework. By comparing methodological and theoretical approaches, students will learn to disentangle the complexity of sustainability challenges and to synthesize various perspectives. As part of this mini-program students follow the WUR courses ‘Sustainability and Resilience in Historical Perspective’ (RHI) and ‘Sustainability Transitions: Concepts, Issues and Indicators’ (ENP), and on top of that they select one course from both the TU/e and UU. For more information on the Alliance between the WUR, TU/e and UU, see: For more information regarding the mini-program and the courses offered by the TU/e and UU, see:

Learning outcomes

After successful completion of this course students are expected to be able to:

  • explain the core themes of environmental history;
  • reflect on the long-term relationship between economic growth, resource scarcity and environmental damage;
  • assess contemporary environmental problems in a long-term historical perspective and understand the critical distinction between pre-industrial and industrial modes of production;
  • explain the core issues in recent public debates on the limits and opportunities of global economic growth in the 21st century;
  • report on an independent scientific investigation.

Link to more information

If anything remains unclear, please check the FAQ of Wageningen University.


  • Start date

    2 September 2024

    • Ends
      25 October 2024
    • Term *
      Period 1
    • Location
    • Instruction language
    • Register between
      1 Jun, 00:00 - 4 Aug 2024
These offerings are valid for students of TU Eindhoven