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Environment: sharing a dynamic planet

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Environmental issues pose challenges. What are the biophysical and social causes of environmental change? What exactly is an environmental issue and why are they often controversial and difficult to resolve? How can we make a difference? You'll address all of these questions as you explore four key global environmental concerns – life, water, carbon, and food – through a rich and interactive set of study materials. As you do so, you'll develop a distinctive way of thinking about environments and environmental issues that draw on the insights of both natural and social sciences to be at once intellectually innovative and practically relevant.

What you will study

The module is organised into six blocks, each of which combine print chapters with online textual, audio-visual, and computer-based interactive materials to offer you a highly varied but tightly integrated learning experience. The aim of this multimedia approach is to provide you with both a feeling for and understanding of global environmental issues as they take effect in particular locations and situations. Blocks 2 to 5 form the core of the module, each one focusing on a key global environmental challenge.

Block 1: Introduction
This begins by introducing you to a key focus of the module – the relationship between earth as a lively place, full of dynamism and change, and earth as a place to live, a place we make home. Through an exploration of issues including climate change, emerging infectious diseases, bio-char production, and global land grab, you’ll discover the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to environmental issues that can do justice to both the biophysical and social causes of environmental change.

Block 2: Life
Next, you’ll explore biological life in its various dimensions, especially the contemporary challenge of how human lifestyles can place biological life at risk. Using the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as an example, you’ll investigate the relationship between biodiversity and economic development. In addition, you will consider whether the role of human activities as a driver of a sixth mass extinction supports the proposal that we have entered a new geological epoch known as the Anthropocene.

Block 3: Water
You’ll consider the challenge of ‘water security’ in this block and how what appears as a reasonably achievable goal is enormously complicated in practice, often leading to controversy and conflict. Using case studies of water scarcity, water pollution, sanitation, and watercourse management, you’ll see that making the right amount of water available at the right quality in the right place at the right time is a massive – and increasingly difficult – achievement.

Block 4: Carbon
The fourth block focuses on the challenge of carbon and how it changes form and location over a variety of timescales from the geological to the everyday. You'll learn how and why much of the carbon that formed coal or oil millions of years ago is now being consumed as fossil fuels; of the contribution this makes to global climate change; and about the resulting push both for low carbon technologies and research into planetary technical fixes like geoengineering.

Block 5: Food
This block addresses the challenge that food poses as a global environmental issue. Now that agriculture has become a key driver of environmental change, it is becoming increasingly clear that different ways of providing food have different environmental consequences. Using examples from across the food chain, you’ll explore the implications of this and also why food has become such a key focus for those attempting to shift our patterns of production and consumption in more sustainable directions.

Block 6: Consolidation
The final block consolidates the module by demonstrating that the knowledge you will have acquired, the skills you will have practised, and the ideas that you'll have traced throughout the module all add up to what we call an ‘environmental imagination’. This is a way of thinking about environmental issues that will serve you well, not only in any further studies but in your broader life as well. Using case studies of ecological restoration, climate-induced migration, and the Transition movement, your environmental imagination is put to work in analysing some of the key ways that people around the world are striving to create better environmental futures.

You will learn

This module offers the opportunity for you to develop both a distinctive, interdisciplinary way of understanding environmental issues in general and deep knowledge of the particular environmental challenges on which it focuses in particular. More broadly, studying the module will also enhance your reading, writing, analytical, multimedia, and communication skills and heighten your ability to be an independent learner. You will learn to:

  • interpret, explain, evaluate, and synthesise data and information in many different forms, from the numerical and graphical through to the textual and audio-visual
  • become familiar with multimedia tools that aid information searching, collection, annotation, and collaboration
  • present your findings in a variety of forms from concise summaries through reports to structured essay-style arguments.

Such skills and attributes are highly valued by employers and can be applied to a wide variety of contexts.

Entry requirements

This an OU level 2 module, and you need to have a good knowledge of the subject area, obtained either through OU level 1 study or by doing equivalent work at another university.

Our key introductory OU level 1 modules Environment: journeys through a changing world (U116) or Introducing the social sciences (DD102) would be ideal preparation.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

What's included

You'll be provided with module books and have access to the module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • module materials
  • audio and video content
  • an assessment guide
  • online tutorials and forums.

You will need

Some of the web activities in this module use the HTML 5 system. In order to display this you will need Internet Explorer 9, the latest version of Firefox or Chrome or other modern HTML 5 compliant browser. If you have a computer with a Windows XP operating system, you will need to install Firefox or Chrome or other modern HTML 5 compliant browser for these activities, as you cannot use Internet Explorer 8.

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS Ventura or higher.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop, as described above.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You'll have a tutor to help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and who you can ask for advice and guidance. We aim to provide online tutorials. Recordings of these will typically be made available.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying DST206 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

Environment: sharing a dynamic planet starts once a year – in October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2024 when we expect it to start for the last time.

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
1 Interactive computer-marked assignment (iCMA)