CSTPR has closed May 31, 2020: Therefore, this webpage will no longer be updated. Individual projects are or may still be ongoing however. Please contact CIRES should you have any questions.

The Problem Orientation: ENVS 5720/PSCI 7026

Course Requirements


This is a class with heavy reading discussion demands. It is important to stay up to date with readings and be prepared for vigorous and productive discussions. Complete all readings before the session. 

participation 30 pts
mini-assignments (5 pts each, 2 times during semester) 10 pts
weekly reading responses (5 pts each over 12 weeks total) 60 pts

individual project (proposal – 25 pts; term paper – 50 pts, term paper presentation – 25 points)

100 pts
TOTAL: 200 pts


Sessions will largely be structured as roundtable discussions. It will be difficult to cover all readings and discussion themes sufficiently in the session times allotted, so our time together is just a starting place.


Each person enrolled in the course is expected to engage critically with the issues that are discussed.  This requires that everyone be consistently engaged and present in each class through discussion and questions about the class topics and materials. I must note here that if you accumulate more than three unexcused absences during the semester, you will not be able to pass the course.


Session preparation and participation in the class discussions will be vital to the collective success of the course.  An important requirement will be that everyone come to each session ready to contribute with notes and comments you have assembled based on the readings, from both the formal ‘weekly reading responses’ prepared, and notes from the other readings. Clearly, consistent and constructive participation in class discussion helps in a number of ways.  Of note, while challenging and enhancing your engagement with the material, it also provides a series of working notes from which you can draw for your individual project while it improves your grade as well as the general classroom atmosphere.

Weekly Reading Summaries

In the twelve noted weeks below, course participants will provide two-page responses, including summaries and 3-4 discussion questions for the articles or chapters you pick. I will bring a sign-up sheet for these readings and summaries selections in the preceding week. Please circulate these summaries to the group in the text of the email and by attachment (in Word or PDF) via email at envs5720@lists.colorado.edu 24 hours before our session.

Approach the chosen reading with a critical eye, possibly drawing on aspects of these general prompts:

  • What is/are the main point(s) or theme(s)?
  • What is/are the author’s/authors’ central thesis?
  • How are goals articulated, (past or present) trends described, conditioning factors analyzed, future trends projected and alternatives designed/evaluated?
  • How (well) does the reading address important facets of the course theme(s)?
  • Where are possible weaknesses in the author’s arguments?
  • Do you agree with the author’s assertions, theories, ideas, problem orientation? Why/why not?

Mini Assignments

These will be explained in class. These will be due February 5 (week 4), and March 10 (week 9).

Term Project: proposal, paper (and presentation)
This term project is designed to so that everyone can creatively and uniquely apply theoretical and academic tools of problem orientation and political ecology to a contemporary environmental policy challenge. Throughout the course, draw on the readings and discussions to develop your term project. As such, the project is best considered as a term-long effort, rather than an end-of-April task.  There is no shortage of possibilities for policy topics that draw from economics, politics, society, culture and the environment.

Project proposal
By February 24 (week 7), you will need to select an environmental policy problem or issue on which to base your term project, and submit a project proposal in class. I encourage you to be very specific with your problem definition. The proposal will outline the environmental policy problem/challenge, and focus on the groups/actors involved, along with connected challenges, power struggles and oppositions therein.

These proposals will be limited to 3000 words (including annotated bibliography) where you focus on the problem, rather than policy recommendations and solutions (that will be taken up in your final term paper). You will need to include an annotated bibliography of at least 8 relevant readings that you plan to draw on for the term paper. Note your word count on the proposal you hand in.

Individual project term paper
The term paper will be due by the start of the final exam scheduled for our course, Sunday May 3, 4:30pm. These term papers can be emailed to me (as a PDF or Word document). They should be approximately 8000 words (including references). In the paper, incorporate the outline of the environmental policy problem/challenge, the groups/actors involved, and connected challenges, power struggles and oppositions as you did in the proposal. Then focus on trends, conditioning factors and projections that shape what will become your informed policy recommendation on the particular environmental policy challenge.

In total, the structure and flow of your paper will derive from the Lasswell problem orientation tasks described below. Note your word count. At least 20 references will be needed to make this paper a success (up to 20% of the total references may be web-based). 

Individual project term paper presentation
Term project presentations will be delivered in our final session on Tuesday, April 28, (week 16) as part of an ongoing ‘Ode to Lasswell presentation festival’.

These will be limited to 10-12 minutes each, with 3-5 minutes to follow for questions/discussion.
The overall term project should work through the five distinct but interrelated tasks involved in analysis of any policy problem, developed by Harold Lasswell:

Clarify GOALS. What are our/their values and objectives? What do we /they want to achieve? Why should these values be given priority over other values in dealing with this issue? What do those general values or principles mean in this particular context?

Describe past and present TRENDS with respect to those goals. Where are we/they in relation to where we/they want to be? What is the magnitude of the problem? Is the problem getting worse or getting better? Is it a problem or a crisis?

Analyze CONDITIONING FACTORS affecting those trends. What are the causes of the problem? Why is the problem getting better or worse? What human/other actions make those trends move in desirable or undesirable directions? 

Consider PROJECTIONS of probable future trends. What are the probable future outcomes under current policies? Is the problem likely to get better/worse? What are the best case/worst case scenarios?

Interrogate the DESIGN and EVALUATION of ALTERNATIVES. How are statements regarding ‘what should be done’ formulated? What action(s) will lead most effectively to the desired/sought after outcomes? What policies will be best for whom (and sub-optimal for others) over the long run? Why is a particular policy option considered as ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than alternative policies?

The course readings and discussions each week will loosely follow this Lasswellian movement through policy analysis. You’ll see that this semester we’ll gravitate to the subject of climate change, a high-profile issue in 2015. Within each of the five themes/tasks, we will ground questions in a case study:

CASE #1: conceptions of nature & wilderness
CASE #2: population, poverty, consumption & the environment
CASE #3: capitalism vs the climate
CASE #4: decarbonization & climate change
CASE #5: (de)constructing climate futures

The combined steps (proposal, proposal presentation, paper, paper presentation) for the term project are designed for you to think systematically and creatively about the environmental policy problem/challenge and ultimately produce a policy recommendation for dealing with the selected issue, and group/actors with whom you primarily identify (also addressing alternative perspectives). The objective is to articulate your original, creative, independent considerations of the problem you have chosen. I recognize that the time limits constrain your ability to collect substantive data, and to conduct comprehensive and detailed analyses of every different perspective/aspect of the problem by late April.

Thus, the ideal way forward through the project is to select an environmental policy problem/challenge you care about, and also one that has been the subject of many published studies and public discussions. In most cases, this will likely be policy challenges of national and/or international scale, where existing approaches to grappling with the challenge has been contentious and controversial for some time.

This means that while it may be tempting to take up a new or local policy issue for this project, it may be too difficult to confront it satisfactorily by the semester’s end. However, the term project also must be approached with an open perspective, rather than an exercise in simply repackaging what you already know, or merely rationalizing your already existing preferences.