Prof Susskind says:
I'm a bit distressed that we didn't make the first core subject seem more important
to you. In the rest of the country, in the sustainability curricula that have already been
adopted, ecology is a centerpiece. MIT hasn't had a basic
ecology course available to undergraduates. Our approach is to embrace some
of the ethical issues concerning the responsibilities of humans for the stewardship
of the natural environment.
I don't know a whole lot about ecology. I think I had negative feelings about the words "ecology, ecologist, and conservation biology." I think there is probably a dissonance, though, between general usage of the word and academic usage of the word. In general usage, I think ecology has some negative connotations. It is often used to demonstrate that any living system is so complex that humans should never modify the natural environment since we never know the full extent of the consequences. While this idea is sometimes popular with the usual environmentalist crowd especially in developed countries, it has a different meaning for developing nations, especially rapid developing nations where conservation (of the rainforest, for example) sounds like a good idea, but it's impossible as long as people resort to logging the rainforest to improve their standard of living.
Now, I doubt that the class would have an antidevelopment message, but this is what I think of because of the mention of "conservation biology," although maybe I just don't even know what that is.
Regarding embracing ethical issues in the class, I would caution against putting too much focus on ethics. Most people who take the class would probably already agree that humans should not irreparably harm the environment, whether because of a moral obligation or because it ultimately threatens our own survival as a species. I think at some colleges it could be good to put more emphasis on ethics, but a lot of MIT students are cynical about talking about ethics and responsibilities in those terms. I think it's easier for a lot of us to think of things in terms of optimization of efficiency or utility or quality of life.
I think there is a subset of MIT students who are not activists or environmentalists but are interested in having a more fulfilling career that positively contributes to the natural world while still increasing quality of life for people. I think I'd be interested in
- tools for studying ecology rather than analyzing particular ecosystems
- tools for measuring human impact
- how ecology can help humans design better (biomimicry? perhaps this does not really count as ecology. I don't know)
- how human designs can work with ecological systems instead work against or completely separately from
- I don't really know what "population ecology and human demography...along with a review of important bio-physical cycles and the ways in which humans are affected by and shape these cycles" means, but they sound good.