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Environment: journeys through a changing world

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Our world is changing fast – we’re experiencing pressure from climate change, growing demands for finite resources, impacts of pollution and waste, biodiversity loss and the extinction of many plants and animals. This module shows how people seek positive solutions to environmental challenges at home and in Africa, China, the Amazon and the Arctic. It introduces you to subjects from the natural sciences, social sciences and technology to develop your understanding of environmental issues and sustainability concerns. You don’t need any prior environmental knowledge to study this module, just an interest in the future of our planet.

What you will study

Are you interested in global environmental issues and sustainability; how living and non-living things interact; how humans are changing the planet and are now responding to the difficult challenges this brings? If you’re looking for a single module that offers a general introduction to studying the environment, then this is the module for you. It provides the ideal foundation for a range of environment, science, social science and technology qualifications or you can study it on its own.

Our interconnected world is changing so fast that people have to work hard to understand and address the environmental issues generated by rapid economic and technological development. Studying this module will enable you to explore how and why different parts of the world are changing; and how people, plants and animals are living within their changing environment. The module will show you how people are striving to manage and protect the many features of the world that we all share. It will help you to make sense of some of the stories that you hear and read about in the media, from biodiversity loss and wildlife extinctions to plans for new greener cities. By the end of the module, you’ll be more able to follow the debates about sustainability and our environment, and play an active part in addressing some of the great environmental challenges of the day.

Studying this module will provide you with the knowledge and skills to help you become more informed about both the causes and concerns of environmental change. It will take you to some of the most fascinating but also important parts of the planet in terms of understanding environmental change.

The module has six blocks – each block focuses on major environmental concepts illustrated by the places you’ll examine.

Block 1: Setting out from Home
This block is an introduction to the module and to studying. It will start as a personal journey that will equip you with powerful ideas about the place of humanity on a dynamic planet. It will sketch out how we’ve come to understand the most pressing issues of biodiversity loss and climate change. We’ll ask you to carry out your own carbon footprint exercise and consider individual action to reduce your footprint. Using the framework of ‘I/we/they’, we’ll introduce actions at all scales to understand environmental issues and responses – and develop your understanding later in the module.

Block 2: Arctic Approach
This block explores the Arctic – a place that has long fascinated scientific researchers, artists and adventurers. It will help you explore different ways of seeing and knowing about environmental change. We think of the Arctic as an early warning system for global warming and climate change. This block will give you a sense of the different ways in which the scientists who now work there – and the societies who have been living there for centuries – investigate, communicate and experience environmental change.

Block 3: Nile Limits
The Nile river basin is a diverse area of many contrasts. This block explores some of these contrasts and the interdependencies between people and their environment. These can give rise to unintended consequences or conflict, which are also prominent themes. You’ll consider relationships through three important topics. The first focuses on water, including the use of water as a resource. The second focuses on the environmental, social and economic impacts of a fishing industry. The third focuses on wildlife conservation and the mountain gorilla, exploring the tensions between balancing conservation with local community development.

Block 4: Amazon Life
This block uses excerpts from the BBC series I Bought a Rainforest to explore the global and local importance of the Amazon region. You’ll develop an understanding of the Amazon’s ecosystems and the services it provides, including its role as a carbon store and as home to some the world’s richest biological diversity. You’ll also consider some of the complexities inherent in trying to protect the Amazon’s rainforest and the challenges facing its Indigenous people.

Block 5: China Rising
The block begins with the geography and political history of China. It brings up to date the economic story of the scale and speed of change in China, including urbanisation, consumption and the rise of the middle class. This block focuses on a few key social and economic issues pertinent to an environmental perspective – particularly in energy and resource use and the transformation of agriculture and diet. You’ll explore environmental degradation and responses to it, including recent shifts towards reducing energy consumption and increasing energy from renewables.

Block 6: Cities and Towns
The majority of the world’s population is now urban, with most people living and working in cities and towns. This block will help you to make sense of urban areas, and understand the importance of cities and towns in responding to climate change (and other changes). Urban areas rely on the movement of natural resources, people and goods. They are epicentres of resource use and producers of waste and pollutants. They need effective water, energy and transport systems to be healthy and workable. You’ll explore ideas and actions that different levels of society can take – revisiting the framework of ‘I/we/they’ – to help make cities and towns more resilient, liveable and sustainable.

You will learn

By studying a range of subjects, drawn from the natural sciences, technology and the social sciences, you’ll become more aware of the contributions each discipline makes to our understanding of environmental issues and concerns. You’ll also explore how people from these different fields bring together their various perspectives to help understand the many interactions between the environment, organisations, and human cultures and values. This sharing of different approaches can lead to new ways of thinking about environmental problems, balancing alternative interpretations and conflicting interests, and generating new solutions.

Entry requirements

This is a key introductory OU level 1 module. OU level 1 modules provide core subject knowledge and study skills needed for both higher education and distance learning, to help you progress to modules at OU level 2.

Environment: journeys through a changing world is an interdisciplinary introduction to environmental issues and you do not need any prior environmental knowledge to study this module. It offers a great deal of help with study skills, such as taking notes, writing essays and basic scientific and numerical expressions. By the end of the module, you will be expected to be working at the level required of first year undergraduate students. We would like to encourage students from as wide a range of backgrounds as possible to study with us.

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

What's included

You’ll have access to a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • course-specific module materials
  • audio and video content
  • learning activities
  • assessment details and submission section
  • online tutorial access
  • access to student and tutor group forums.

You’ll also be provided with a printed essential guide and six printed module books, each covering one block of study.

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

Throughout your module studies, you’ll get help and support from your assigned module tutor. They’ll help you by:

  • Marking your assignments (TMAs) and providing detailed feedback for you to improve.
  • Guiding you to additional learning resources.
  • Providing individual guidance, whether that’s for general study skills or specific module content.
  • Facilitating online discussions between your fellow students, in the dedicated module and tutor group forums.

Module tutors also run online tutorials throughout the module. Where possible, recordings of online tutorials will be made available to students. While these tutorials won’t be compulsory for you to complete the module, you’re strongly encouraged to take part.


You can find the assessment details for this module 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 U116 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: journeys through a changing world (U116) starts twice a year – in January/February and October.

This page describes the module that will start in October 2024 and February 2025.

We expect it to start for the last time in February 2029.

Course work includes:

7 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment

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