Indiana University Bloomington

H205: Theory of the Earth and Sustainability

H205 THEORY OF THE EARTH AND SUSTAINABILITY (3 cr.) NMNS Examination of how solid earth processes and resource utilization have affected the earth’s ecosystem. Inferences from properties of earth materials. Fossil fuel and global warming. Ice ages. Evolution and extinctions. Sustainability re-examined. For non-science majors.

Description: Theory of the Earth broadly defined, i.e., how the earth works in its entirety, encompasses all human knowledge. This course will be limited to the processes of the solid earth and their effects on its atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. (PDF)

For the purpose of this course "sustainability" is defined broadly as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" from the IUB Office of Sustainability (PDF).

The aim of the course is:

  • (1) to understand relevant processes operating and molding the solid earth, their rates and their influence on the evolution of the ecosystems through time
  • (2) to comprehend the scales of these processes
  • (3) to assess the use of fossil fuels and their "non-renewable" properties.

The course does not infer or impose any moral judgment; it neither advocates activism nor encourages laiszez faire or status quo.

The course will require quick in-depth understanding of plate tectonics, volcanic exhalation, weathering processes including biodegradation, sedimentary processes, origin of fossil fuels, and sudden disruption of geological processes.

Logistics: Classes will meet twice per week. Lecture/discussion will be the emphasis on Tuesdays and lab/discussion/debate will be the emphasis on Thursdays. Regular attendance, studying assignments before class, interaction within groups, and participation in debates are assumed.

Class Schedule:

  • TR GY 436 11:00 a.m.–12:15 p.m.
  • Tuesdays–mostly lecture and discussion
  • Thursdays–mostly discussion, debates and lab
  • Enrollment: Limited to 20

Grading will be on an "A F" scale; "P F" will not be permitted and an "I" will be allowed only for medical reasons and extremely extenuating circumstances. Examinations are Open Book Open Notes.

  • Two Examinations –50% (mostly on geology)
  • Four Position Papers –40% (mix between geology and sustainability)
  • Debates –10% (mostly on sustainability)


Principal Text:
Grotzinger and others: Understanding Earth (2006; 5th Ed) abbr. GJPS
Prothero and Dott: Evolution of the Earth (2002; 6th Ed) abbr. PD

Additional assignments from:

  • Feynman: Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman (Bantam ed., 1986)
  • Kuhn: The Structure of Scientific Revolution (1962)
  • Popper: Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (1962)
  • Other: Newspapers, Google, Wikipedia; specific e-reserves

These are on Reserve in the Geology Library

Please Study the Assignments in a Global Context

“STUDY” means a lot more than quick reading for an impression.
Please Study the Assignments in a Global Context before the Class.
Student Participation is Essential in all Discussions
(especially Thursdays).
All Examinations are OPEN BOOK OPEN NOTES


Week 1 Boundary conditions of “Theory of the Earth” and “Sustainability”
T Aug 31

Study:  GJPS: Pages 1-17; Feynman: Pages 191‑198 (MUST)
Introduction; course outline; "what, where, when, how, & why" in science and in this course; paradigms; conjectures and refutation; Kuhn vs. or andPopper. Taking stock:  how does the class view “geology” and “sustainability”? Defining baseline knowledge.

Th Sept 2 Study: GJPS: p. 45-61; and Discussion: How do minerals, rocks and fossils fit into “geology” and “sustainability”? Why is time important?
Week 2 Rocks, Minerals, and Fossils
T Sept 7 Study: GJPS: p. 45-75 Processes of formation and preservation of rocks, minerals, and fossils.
Th Sept 9 Study: GJPS: p. 241-265 Discussion: What does life do to life? Position Paper I Assigned
Week 3 Igneous Rocks and Processes
T Sept 14 Study: GJPS: p. 77-91 Processes of formation, emplacement and exhumation of igneous rocks.
Th Sept 16 Study: GJPS: p. 271-282 Discussion: Is igneous activity the cause or an effect of plate tectonics? (see p. 11 of GJPS)
Week 4 Igneous Processes – Plate Tectonics I
T Sept 21 Study: GJPS: p. 19-42; 91-97 Plate movement and resultant configuration of life-habitats. Fundamental difference between oceans and continents and their survival.
Th Sept 23 Study: GJPS: p. 271-293 Discussion: Survival of oceans and continents; examples from the geologic past. Does decompression melting at spreading centers pose a chicken and egg dilemma? Position Paper I Due (10%)
Week 5 Weathering Processes – relevance to the current generations
T Sept 28 Study: GJPS: p. 347-366 This is a difficult chapter. Concentrate more on pp. 362-366. Position Paper II Assigned
Th Sept 30 Study: GJPS: p. 371-382 How does the ‘rock cycle’ (see GJPS pp. 66-68) relate to this week’s study? Discussion and debate: Position Paper I
Week 6 Enrichment and depletion of atmospheric and oceanic components because of weathering and igneous processes - relevance to future generations
T Oct 5 Study:GJPS: p. 485-501; 522-528 Importance of glaciers and their records
Th Oct 7 Study: GJPS: p. 366-368; and (this website).

Discussion: Do the temperature variations that are recorded in the graphs in the study assignments cover the extremes that the earth’s surface has experienced in the last 4.56 Ga (Ga = giga anni = billion years)? What if the temperatures dipped even lower or climbed even higher at different times of Earth history? How can we search for such records?

Week 7 Sedimentary Rocks
T Oct 12 Study: GJPS: p. 101-111; 114-116 Inferring processes and environments of origin from the properties of products, i.e. sedimentary rocks.
Th Oct 14 EXAMINATION I (25%)
Week 8 Sedimentary Processes – Geological Time Scale
T Oct 19 Study: GJPS: p. 180-183; e-Reserve (Faul 1966; pp. 33-38) Radioactive decay; absolute ages; cost; reliability
Th Oct 21 Study: PD: p. 75-88 Discussion: Utility of relative age; evolution and biostratigraphy. Position Paper II Due (10%)
Week 9 Earth Processes – Plate Tectonics II; relevance to future generations
T Oct 26 Study: PD: p. 131-160 Edges and interiors of plates; habitability an resources. Position Paper III Assigned
Th Oct 28 Discussion and debate: Position Paper II
Week 10 Coal – origin
T Nov 2 Study: GJPS: p. 126; e-Reserve (Pitt-Millward, 1979; pp. 1-16) A rock of organic matter with no mineral!
Th Nov 4 Study: e-Reserve (Stach, 1975; pp. 47-53) Discussion: How long does it take nature to bury many forests and wetlands to make coal?
Week 11 Coal – mining and burning; relevance to current and future generations
T Nov 9 Study: GJPS: p. 551-567 Lecture notes: case histories; necessities in modern US life.
Th Nov 11 Study: GJPS: p. 551-567 Discussion: Coal in the context of plate tectonics and the theory of the earth.
Week 12 Petroleum – origin, migration, trapping
T Nov 16 Study: e-Reserve (Tissot and Welte, 1978; pp. 217-222) Lecture notes: Varieties of traps.
Th Nov 18 Study: No new assignment. Discussion: Does the theory of the earth or plate tectonics predict trapping? Or, is trapping an exception and beyond common rules of the game? Position Paper III Due (10%)
Week 13 Petroleum – extracting, refining, distribution; relevance to future generations
T Nov 23 Study: GJPS: p. 551-578 Position Paper IV Assigned
Week 14 Human needs from the above; relevance to current and future generations
T Nov 30 Study: GJPS: p. 551-578 Discussion and debate: Position Paper III
Week 15 Defining sustainability – geologically, realistically
T Dec 7 Comparison of time scales
Th Dec 9 Final Debate (5%) Position Paper IV Due (10%)

Instructor: Abhijit Basu; Email:
Office GY 521 Ph. 855-6654
Office Hours: TWR 9:30-10:30 a.m.


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