Course guide 2020-2021

In this course guide, we aim to provide an overview of courses that focus on topics related to the environmental humanities. In case you are interested in following one of the courses, but are not enrolled in the respective study programme, please contact the lecturer to inquire if you are eligible to take the course as an elective. The guide is a work in progress: would you like to include your course here, please contact Sadie (student assistant) at We welcome course descriptions from other Dutch universities.

Bachelor courses

Courses at the Faculty of Humanities at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

History of Water and Environment

Lecturers: prof. dr. P.J.E.M. van Dam, dr. T.A.E.R. Vanneste

Period 5 & 6: open to BA students


Course code L_GEBAGES212

In this course we focus on the complex historical relationship between humans and the environment. It is connected to large global processes
like population growth, industrialization, technological progress, the rise of the nation state, urbanization, and environmental change. We read some classical studies from environmental history on topics like decrease of forests, air pollution and climate change, concepts of nature, and the environmental movement. A major topic is human’s relationship with water.

Humans contributed to large changes in the water environment including creating plastic soup and other types of pollution, desertification, damming of surface water, and large-scale withdrawal of groundwater. How does this affect human societies and the environment? How does tourism lead to creating human-made oases in the USA and the Middle East? How does draining aquifers for making such oases affect long-term chance for agriculture and for surviving chances of indigenous peoples?

Water history has many aspects. Water is an important resource as for drinking water and for production processes (ground water, rainwater) and an important means of transport (canals, rivers, seas). But water can also be a safety threat. How did the Netherlands protect itself against high sea and river waters? How did cities protect the surface water that was the source of their drinking water? Since water is so essential for life, in many cultures it has acquired special meanings (baptism) and controlling water often is an
expression of political power.

We concentrate on the period 1800-2000, when the global population underwent unprecedented growth, cities exploded worldwide and environmental change occurred at an ever higher speed, thanks to the
change to fossil fuels. We compare developments in some global regions,
in particular Europe (Netherlands, England and Germany), USA and Asia
(Indonesia, India and the Middle East). The course content is enriched by and connected to on-going research projects. As a special source we will explore newspaper databases.

Courses at other faculties at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Environmental Archaeology

Lecturer: Dr. S.J. Kluiving

Period 2, BA Archaeology


Course code L_BEBAALG008

Environmental Archaeology covers the interaction between humans and their environment in the archaeological and historical past. Within the course this broad scope embraces research covering a range of environmental specialisms between science and archaeology, and will also be highlighted from a humanities perspective.

What are the main contributing disciplines and what is their respective role in environmental archaeology? What are the biotic and abiotic components of our environmental change in geological and archaeological archives? How to use relative and absolute dating methods in environmental analysis?

The lectures will focus on: 1) the importance of an integrated approach cutting across different specialisms to arrive at a holistic view of a site and its environment 2) concept of reconstructing palaeoenvironments and palaeoeconomies by identifying micro- and macrofossils, 3) future perspective of the Anthropocene.

Key methodologies that will be discussed stem from archaeology, archaeobotany, archaeozoology, forensic archaeology, palynology, geoarchaeology, biological anthropology, as well as more synthetic and theoretical approaches to the past human environment as well as to the future Anthropocene.

Sustainability and Environmental Change

Lecturers: dr. A.J.A. van Teeffelen, prof. dr. J.C.J.H. Aerts, prof. dr. G.R. van der Werf, prof. dr. ir. P.H. Verburg, T.I.E. Veldkamp MSc

Period 1: Open for students from the minor Sustainability: Global Challenges, Interdisciplinary Solutions specifically, but also all 3rd year BSc students


Course code AB_1230

The environment plays a crucial role in supporting societies, for example by providing materials, energy, food, clean air, and clean water. Environmental conditions change over space and time, influenced by both natural and human factors. In this course students learn about the environment’s pivotal role in achieving sustainable solutions for human development. Starting from the key environmental components water, land and atmosphere, we characterize environmental change and how that leads to other environmental and societal changes. Methods to assess environmental change are addressed and students identify for their specific case studies what strengths, opportunities, weaknesses, and threats are associated to the ‘planet dimension’. The course comprises interactive lectures and exercises and is evaluated through an assignment and a written exam.

Minor: Sustainability: Global Challenges, Interdisciplinary Solutions

Coordinator: Dr. Pieter van Beukering 

Start date: 01-09-2019, open to all VU students and bachelor students from other Dutch universities


Sustainability is the grand challenge of our time. This grand challenge urgently calls for the next generation of leaders that move beyond the classical focus on biophysical, economic or societal limits towards interdisciplinary and solution-oriented knowledge, providing realistic, context-specific pathways to a sustainable future. This minor aims to engage students from all backgrounds in issues of sustainability by making them acquainted to the three dimensions of sustainability (i.e. People, Planet, Prosperity) and challenging them to design and develop solutions within their own field of interest (i.e. energy, climate, water, waste, nature, food security). Students are encouraged to step outside of their personal mono-disciplinary comfort zone and learn about the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in the three pillars of sustainability. The students will learn how to identify and combine planetary opportunities that address the grand challenge from other disciplines, into innovative solutions for a more sustainable world.

See also this overview of courses with the Science for Sustainability theme at the Vrije Universiteit

Master courses

Courses at the Faculty of Humanities at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Humanities Research Master, Cross-cutting Theme: Environmental Humanities

The Humanities Research Master at the VU aims to educate humanities researchers who know how to design innovative, imaginative research across disciplines. The MA exists of the following specializations: Critical Studies in Art and Culture, Global History, Literature and Contested Spaces, Linguistics (Human Language Technology & Forensic Linguistics), and Philosophy.

Within their programme, students specialize in a cross-cutting theme: either digital humanities or environmental humanities. The environmental humanities theme is ideal for students who have a drive to explore the social and cultural aspects of one of the most pressing concerns facing the planet: the environmental crisis. The question of how we interact with our natural environment is as much a problem of the imagination as it is of rising CO2-levels. Cultural modes of imagining the relations between humans and the environment impact our ways of interacting with planet earth. Scholars in the Humanities possess key tools to explore past and present entanglements of nature and culture across academic disciplines.

Students who choose this theme are encouraged to connect questions, issues and methodologies to probe pressing environmental concerns from the basis of their disciplinary track in History, Literature, or Arts and Culture. In the first semester of your first year, you begin your specialization with a core course in the Environmental Humanities. Building on the knowledge of the field’s key concepts, debates and methodologies you acquired in that course, you specialize further in the environmental humanities in a tailor-made package of courses and tutorials, combining your disciplinary training and knowledge with the interdisciplinary perspective of this specialization. Courses focus on such topics as the role of literature in shaping a sense of planet in the Anthropocene, sustainable design, or the history and cause of natural disasters (course topics subject to change). The environmental humanities specialization thus teaches students not only to apply their disciplinary methodologies and perspectives to environmental issues, but also to make creative connections to other humanities disciplines. Moreover, it trains a generation of students aware of the value of a broad field in the humanities in exploring pressing environmental concerns.

The Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam hosts the first Environmental Humanities Center in The Netherlands. As a research master student, you will be joining in our interdisciplinary events on such themes as the Anthropocene, nuclear waste, urban health, animal studies, landscape, eco-cosmopolitanism, and more. The Center also invites four students to join its board each year as student members, giving you an opportunity to follow your passion for combining your academic interests with the organization of public events. We have connections to several environmental institutes in the Amsterdam area and beyond, enabling you to pursue a research internship during your two-year programme.The track prepares students for a (research) career on the cusp of nature and culture in academia, in environmental research institutes, museums, cultural centers, or NGO’s.

Causes and Consequences of Environmental Change

Lecturer: dr. V. Seufert

Period 1


Course code AM_1049

At present, unsustainable modes of consumption and production worldwide threaten to alter core functions of the earth system. Anthropogenic climate change and the accelerating loss of biodiversity are two pressing problems that receive much media attention. However, there are many other environmental problems at scales varying from local to
global. These include for example: the spatial and temporal complexity
of land use change; unforeseen effects of contaminants; human protein
needs and disruption of the nitrogen cycle; and the effects of invasive
species on social-ecological systems. In short, more sustainable
development pathways are urgently needed. Identifying such pathways
requires an interdisciplinary understanding and the involvement of
numerous academic disciplines, including the natural and social

Seminar Contemporary Art: From Living Forms to Living

Lecturer: Dr. Sven Lütticken

Period 1 & 2, MA Arts & Culture


Course Code L_KAMAKGS027

Modernist aesthetics often used biological and organic metaphors for art: the artwork as living, breathing form. From the 1960s on, artists started working with living organisms (animals and plants) in the context of an ecological “systems” approach. The artwork no longer mimicked organic growth but took the form of installations that re-presented or intervened in an ecosystem. We will look into artistic practices and theories from the 1960s to the present – from Hans Haacke to Carsten Höller/Rosemarie Trockel and Pierre Huyghe, from Jack Burnham to Donna Haraway.

Place and Planet in the Anthropocene

Lecturer: Dr. K. Steenbergh

Period 1, MA English Literature in a Visual Culture /RMA Literature and Contested Spaces


Course code L_ELMALTK001

In 2000, the Dutch Nobel-prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen suggested that our current geological epoch should be called the “Anthropocene’. Deriving from the Greek anthros(human), the name refers to humanity’s major and lasting impact on the planet and its ecosystems. Geologists are still debating whether they will declare the Anthropocene (see the Anthropocene Working Group).

In the Humanities and Social Sciences, the realization that humankind’s impact is of a geological scale has led to rethinking of the relations between humankind and the environment. What are the social, cultural, historical and political dimensions of the Anthropocene? When did the social and economic developments that led to humankind’s devastating impact begin – what should be the starting date of this new epoch? Are all humans equally responsible for transforming the planet? How is the Anthropocene experienced in different cultures, and do different social, cultural, and economic traditions offer different modes of responding to the Anthropocene?

In this course we explore theories on the role of the perception of our planet and the environment in the Anthropocene, the current geological period named after man’s pervasive impact on our planet. The Norwegian environmentalist philosopher Arne Naess has argued that with respect to humans’ capacity to care for others, “the nearer has priority over the more remote—in space, time, culture, species.” In response, other writers from a range of theoretical frameworks seek to shape a sense of eco-cosmopolitanism, or forms of cultural imagination and understanding that reach beyond the nation and around the globe. In contrast, scholars in the environmental humanities have argued that we should not take a God’s eye view of Earth, but find new modes of interrelating with our planet. In this course, we will analyze a number of literary texts written in English from the perspective of these theories, and examine the role of literature in the shaping of a sense of place and planet in the Anthropocene.

Environmental Policy

Lecturer: O.E. Widerberg

Period 2


Course code AM_468021

This course introduces environmental policy from a political science,
public policy, and international relations perspective. Environmental
policy is understood in terms of governance, going beyond rules and
regulations by national governments. Students will learn the basic
theories and concepts in environmental policy at the local, national and
international level. It also discusses interaction between the various
levels of governance. Besides theory and concepts, the course provides
students with practical analytical tools for analyzing the effectiveness
and legitimacy of environmental policies that can be applied in as well
as outside academia.

Environmental Humanities

Lecturer: Dr. K. Steenbergh, Prof. dr. K. Kwastek

Period 5, open to MA and RMA students in a Humanities programme who are interested in Environmental Humanities


Course code L_AAMPALG018

The Environmental Humanities are a relatively new interdisciplinary field of study which addresses the interrelatedness of nature and culture, and the role of the Humanities in tackling the environmental crisis. Students are encouraged to connect questions, issues and methodologies from different humanities perspectives, such as art and culture, language and literature, history and philosophy, to probe pressing environmental concerns. Combining theoretical perspectives with case studies from art, literature, and history, we will focus on overarching topics such as the nature/culture divide, concepts of the Anthropocene / Capitalocene, relations between decoloniality and ecological thought, and posthumanist approaches to multispecies ethics.

History of Natural Disasters

Lecturer: Prof. dr. P. J. E. M. van Dam

Period 2+3, RMA Humanities and regular MA students with a BA in History, MKDA (Art studies), Literature, Archeology, Ancient Studies or a comparable historical degree.


Course code: L_GEMPGES002

All sorts of authorities discuss how to give priority to the preservation of our planet for future generations. Often discussions focus on sustainability and quality of live. This course will focus on ’nature-induced’ disasters on land and during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, thereby taking for granted that most natural disasters have a human component. Examples of natural disasters with great impacts are the Tambora earthquakes of 1815 in Indonesia and 1923 in Japan, the floods of the Zuiderzee estuary in 1825 and 1916, the tsunami in the Indian Ocean in 2004 and the Katrina flood of New Orleans in 2005.

A wide array of questions will be posed and addressed from environmental, institutional, cultural and socio-economic historical perspectives and environmental humanities. In this course we distinguish two approaches, the management approach, including the history of prevention of natural disasters (Pfister 2009) and the cultural approach, the history of perceptions of natural disasters (Bankoff 2003, Assmann 2008). Managing includes developing social, economic, technological and political institutions and practices for prevention of and coping with natural disasters, all aimed, ultimately, at the improved resilience of a society. A historical question is how do long term developments show changes from traditional coping mechanisms to more ‘modern’ learning and investment in increasing resilience?

Perceptions of disasters may include ideas and memories. Perceptions are important to understand the contemporary explanations of the causes of disasters. In the long run we expect a gradual change from more spiritual or religious explanations to more natural explanations, informed by natural sciences. How does that interact with the perceived possibilities for managing and preventing disasters? Perceptions are also related to memories. How are commemorative narratives about disasters formed? How do they contribute to collective memories like nation building? How do memories contribute to building resilience? (Pfister 2011). This course content is closely related to on-going research projects and we will explore newspaper databases.

Courses at other faculties at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Man and Climate

Lecturers: Dr. G. Ganssen, Dr. S.J. Kluiving

Period 4: Msc Earth Sciences


Course code AM_1057

How did climate during the Quaternary shape the development of Human ancestors during this time period? How have people adapted (or failed to adapt) to marginal and non-marginal environments and to climate change? How can we distinguish between natural versus anthropogenic climate change and what are Future perspectives regarding climate change? These questions lead to looking at climate change on a longer time scale, focusing on the early hominids. It also implies looking at a variety of climate research methods ranging from the natural sciences focusing on the longer time scale to historical climatology focusing at the shorter time scale. In order to be able to distinguish between the natural and anthropogenic of climate change, there is also a need to investigate strategies of adaptation of past communities to climate change, gaining insight in and understanding of their resilience and even of their perception of past climate and weather conditions.

The course is open for Faculty of Science students as well as from the Humanities to foster an open debate on multiple disciplines of man and climate.

Courses outside Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Planet in Peril: Exploring Human Relations with Nature

Lecturer: Norbert Peeters, Leiden University

Semester 2


Course code: 7600HCPPE

In the recent Netflix nature documentary ‘Our Planet’ world-famous British naturalist Sir David Attenborough alarmingly declares: ‘Never has it been more important to understand how the natural world works, and how to help it.’ We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, we must look at ways to address complex environmental challenges such as climate change, loss of biodiversity and pollution at a grand scale. In order to tackle these complex issues, people have often solely looked to natural scientists and engineers for solutions. But what if it is not enough to understand the inner workings of the natural world? Besides understanding how the world works we should also investigate how we view, talk and make sense of world we inhabit. This is where the humanities come into play. The humanities in the broadest sense, from history to literature studies and including political philosophy and law, are well placed to contribute to the debate. Throughout history humans have made sense the world surrounding them through manifold narratives. In this course we will examine the narratives around human relation with nature. We will explore how nature was and is framed and represented in the past and today, and try to imagine alternative narratives for the future. The Darwinian understanding of man’s relation to nature (evolution) f.e. differs significantly from the Biblical one (creationism). At the start of the course students will be introduced to multiple positions about climate change and learn to view nature and environmental issues from different perspectives. Bringing insight from multiple disciplinary backgrounds (history, theology, geography, archeology, education, philosophy, eco-literacy, law) lecturers will take turns to challenge students in their thinking and help them shape a narrative about their own relationship to nature. We will work around four themes: criticising, historicising, imagining, representing. There will be a mix of lectures, seminars (workshop) and excursions to enable students to work through this challenging and creative process.

Climate Change and Environmental Ethics (discontinued)

Lecturer: prof. dr. Marc Davidson

Periods 1 and 2


Course code: 5264CCE12Y

Climate change has been called a ‘perfect moral storm’, since it involves the convergence of a set of global, intergenerational and theoretical problems. In this course, we will zoom in on various of the ethical problems posed by climate change.

  1. When we burn fossil fuels today this will primarily affect future generations. Although most people hold the moral intuition that we have duties towards those who are as yet unborn, it proves to be remarkably problematic to provide a theoretical foundation for such intuitions. We will discuss how various moral theories break down in the intergenerational context. Among other topics, we will discuss Parfit’s ‘non-identity problem’, different interpretations of utilitarianism, and the relation between care for future generations and our need for self-transcendence.
  2. Climate change will not only affect humans, but non-human nature as well. Do we have duties towards other sentient species? Or do we even have duties towards all life forms? What is the characteristic that makes life morally considerable? We will discuss the ideas of Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Kenneth Goodpaster, Paul Taylor and others.
  3. Climate change poses a social dilemma on a global scale. What are our individual duties to reduce our impacts? What are our collective duties? When we agree that we ought to reduce our climate emissions, what then is a fair allocation of responsibilities and costs between the various countries? Are countries responsible for past emissions, i.e. do they have a carbon debt? We will discuss Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, duties for birth control and various views on intra-generational justice, by for example Simon Caney, Darrel Moellendorf and Henry Shue.

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