SOCY 4047 Topics in Environment and Society: Plants and Society

Instructor: Althea Godfrey

Plants created the benevolent conditions for life on Earth but are often forgotten in conversations about biodiversity. We rely on them for the air we breathe, the food we eat and clean water. This course investigates the way different cultures, past and present, have used plants and the soil, the definitions that render them as inferior, and the way these definitions change. Societies have forged surprising relationships with plants: spiritual, medicinal and economic. The production of plants as food, fiber or luxury has supported slavery, created prosperity and led to financial ruin. We question home and industrial use of chemicals, conventional growing techniques and the social definitions that support this use. We relate the prevailing treatment of plants and the soil to sustainability, in the U.S. and abroad. Environmental challenges began as social issues, the result of history, beliefs, institutions and power structures that produced the technology and consumption norms that influence or determine production methods, worker rights and the way we treat natural areas and other species. Do dominant ideas about plants, ongoing economic growth, green technology, human rights and the elements of happiness lead toward or away from that goal?

After this course, students will:
1) Recognize the complexity of environmental issues and their inherent social element.
2) Identify the interrelationship of personal, local and global in environmental problems, including social justice, conflict, and the health of the biosphere.
3) Recognize that government policy guides the extraction of national resources with policy on environmental standards. That policy is influenced by extraction proponents (business and industry) and its opponents (environmental organizations).
4) Apply sociological tools to evaluate human relationships with plants and the natural world, including the ways the environment is used to support human need, economic and national goals.
5) Develop interpersonal and research skills. Recognize one’s personal capacity for knowledge, reliance on hierarchical thinking, and the power of social norms.
6) Demonstrate informed citizen decision-making and advocacy.


Weekly Reading Quizzes 20%
Weekly Discussion Posts and Responses 20% (extra credit possible)
Semester Project 50%
Final 10%

Semester project: Three short papers create the groundwork for a final paper or video presentation focusing on a particular plant or ecosystem issue.
Final: Formal letter advocating a position e.g. advocating for the federal legalization of hemp, change to federal timber policy, pine beetle research, genetic modification limits/expansion, pesticide policy

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Monday – Friday
8:00am to 5:00pm


We are located at the corner of University Avenue and 15th Street in a white brick building.


1505 University Avenue
University of Colorado Boulder
178 UCB
Boulder, Colorado