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Online course

Environmental Challenges: Human Impact in the Natural Environment

Complexity in nature arises from a myriad of simple interactions. How can this lead to an unpredictable dynamism?


  • Access to the course for its length + 14 days, regardless of when you join (this includes access to articles, videos, peer review steps)
  • Access to quizzes and assignments
  • No access to course tests
  • No certificate


  • Unlimited access to the course, for as long as it exists on FutureLearn (this includes access to articles, videos, peer review steps)
  • Access to quizzes and assignments
  • Access to course tests
  • A Certificate of Achievement when you complete the course

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Environmental Challenges: Human Impact in the Natural Environment

This course is part of the Environmental Challenges program, which will enable you to explore how people and nature interact, and earn 10 credits from the University of Leeds.

Why join the course?

Complex patterns in ecology are not always causal and predictable. Populations have their own dynamics that can be independent of external environmental conditions. In this course we look at the way that natural systems are organised; although living systems are complex, there are also some fairly constant patterns and relationships.

This course explores three approaches to the causality and dynamics of environmental systems, and how humans are involved and affected by these systems world-wide. It also includes an introduction to correlation and the limitations of statistical testing.

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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 secondsShould humans be considered an integral part of the natural environment, or are we somehow separate from nature? Much scientific research in both the social and natural sciences has been directed at trying to tease apart the relative roles of internal dynamics from external drivers, but it's quite perplexing to make the division. Inevitably, there's a bit of both. But the important point to recognize is that there doesn't necessarily need to be a reason for everything. Sometimes, and probably quite a lot of the time, things just happen.

Skip to 0 minutes and 48 secondsI'm Professor Jon Lovett, Chair in Global Challenges at the University of Leeds. My role here is to guide you through this course. We start by exploring three basic principles-- causality, internal dynamics versus external drivers, and the mathematics of human ecology. These principles will then be applied to a case study where we consider whether non-human animals and other natural objects have legal rights similar to those given to humans. We close the course with a discussion about the mathematics of natural dynamics, calling on experts from Natural England and Pennine Prospects, we consider the impact of land management on our natural environment. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and joining your discussions on the course.

What topics will you cover?

  • Understand the concept of causal relationships and how climate can determine vegetation type.
  • Appreciate the difference between the climax concept of vegetation succession and the individualistic concept.
  • Recognise that biodiversity is not distributed evenly over the Earth, but is clustered into centres of diversity.
  • Understand that many individual interactions can lead to apparently chaotic fluctuations.
  • Gain an awareness of the 1/f power function and how it can be used to transform apparently random fluctuations into a straight line.
  • Introduction to the classic Nicholson’s blow fly experiment that demonstrates density-dependent population dynamics.
  • Understand that climate-driven events in human history, such as those of the Greenland Vikings and Mexican Mayans, were significantly influenced by social factors.
  • Recognise that there are established physical relationships in nature such as allometric scaling.
  • Gain an awareness of relationships between wealth and human social structures including the Pareto wealth distribution and environmental Kuznets curve, and the problems associated with their validity.
  • Understand the difference between ecocentric and anthropocentric positions.
  • Appreciate the arguments for legal rights for non-human species.
  • Gain an awareness of the practical aspects of converting natural complexity into decision making in natural resource management.

When would you like to start?

  • Date to be announced

What will you achieve?

  • Explore the question of causality as it applies to vegetation and climate.
  • Discuss density-dependent population dynamics, where many individual interactions can lead to apparently chaotic fluctuations.
  • Explain mathematical rules in nature and human social systems.
  • Develop mathematical understanding of correlation and the limitations of statistical testing.

Who is the course for?

The course is suitable for anyone with a general interest in nature and environmental decision-making; no previous knowledge or experience is required.

If you are working in environmental management, or wish to learn more about it, this course is designed to support you as a professional. By completing all aspects of the course you will have achieved 14 hours of CPD time.

Endorsed by

accredited by

Who will you learn with?

Jon Lovett

Jon Lovett is Chair in Global Challenges in the School of Geography at the University of Leeds and works on institutional economics.

Rob Pheasant

I am a Lecturer in the University of Leeds' School of Geography and am interested in strategies that seek to mitigate the environmental impact of cities, by reconnecting them to their hinterland.

Who developed the course?

As one of the UK’s largest research-based universities, the University of Leeds is a member of the prestigious Russell Group and a centre of excellence for teaching.

Accredited by The CPD Certification Service

This course has been accredited by the CPD Certification Service, which means it can be used to provide evidence of your continuing professional development.

Buy a personalised, digital and printed certificate and transcript

You can buy a Certificate of Achievement for this course — a personalised certificate and transcript in both digital and printed formats, to prove what you’ve learnt. A Statement of Participation is also available for this course.

Certificate of Achievement + transcript £69.00

Statement of Participation £39.00

Estimate prices in preferred currency

Charges to your account will be made in GBP. Prices in local currency are provided as a convenience and are only an estimate based on current exchange rates.