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Sustainability and Collapse in the Middle East

We developed an upper-division, interdisciplinary course that focused on the questions:

  • What do sustainable environmental, cultural, and political practices look like?
  • What are practices that lead to environmental, economic, and political collapse?
  • How do we understand the consequences (immediate and long-term) of decisions made about global resources and of prioritizing competing claims over them?

The course explored these questions in the Middle East broadly. This region is a particularly rich place to explore the topic of sustainability. It faces ongoing threats to its environment, political systems, and heritage.

Keywords: sustainability; cultural resource management; Middle East; water resource availability; refugees; energy; energy policy; antiquities trade; UNHCR; UNRWA; climate change; climate refugees; commodification of culture; Israel/Palestine conflict; Iraq War; Syrian Civil War; history of Jordan; Islamic State; wicked problems; tipping points; economic development; Red Sea/Dead Sea canal; water systems; resources in conflict; anthropocene


Note: Content adapted from original curricular project

This upper-division course focused on the same themes as the on-site seminar in Jordan and expended the geographic focus somewhat to include information about Syria, Israel-Palestine, and, to a certain extent, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey.

The course was arranged thematically. In 10 weeks, it investigated the Syrian civil war; “competitive” heritage sites in Israel-Palestine, and Jordan; modern lessons learned from Nabataean irrigation techniques and environmental management; historical and current refugee crises; and the Red Sea – Dead Sea canal project. Each topic is explored from at least two disciplinary perspectives – environmental, political, or historical/cultural.

Students were required to have completed at least one course in either Environmental Studies, Political Science, or History before taking this class. If a student registered for the class as HIST 395, that student had to have completed the History Department’s research methodology course (HIST 285: The Historian’s Workshop).


Learning Goals

By the end of this course, students were expected to be able to:

Learn to make interdisciplinary arguments 

We defined this goal practically in the class by asking students to engage in work that required them to write from each of the disciplinary perspective that the course engaged (history/culture; environmental studies; political science). You can see this in the unit writing prompts provided below. We also focused on this learning outcome in the final projects for the class. At the 200-level, students worked in interdisciplinary teams to produce solutions to a problem given to them (see Activities). At the 300-level, students had to write individual research papers that incorporated at least two of the three disciplinary perspectives foundational to the class.

Practice analyzing materials from environmental, political, and historical perspectives

This goal was modeled by the instructors in class and practiced through the unit-based writing assignments.

Understand examples of the environmental, political, and social challenges currently and historically faced in the Middle East

This goal was modeled by the instructors in class and practiced by students through the unit-based writing assignments.


Writing Assignment Prompts (See Resources & Materials for Units 2-5)

Unit 1

Due: At the beginning of class on Wednesday, September 28th

Format: Double-spaced, 600+ words (not including footnotes and bibliography)

Citation Style:

ENVS 295/395 students: APA (Purdue APA Style Guide)

HIST 295/395 students: Chicago Footnote-Bibliography (Chicago Manual of Style Online)

PS 295/395 students: Chicago Author-Date (Chicago Manual of Style Online, Author-Date Tab)


Students should respond to the following prompt in at least 600 words, and include a creative title. Despite the relatively short length, a clear thesis and supporting arguments are key to a good paper. Any materials utilized should be cited according to the format listed for your section of the course.

Paper Prompt

Answer the following questions: Should the Middle East be organized into nation-states? If yes, why? In no, why not? Is there an alternative form of organization that might work better? Support your argument with evidence from course readings.


The unit papers are designed to invite reflection upon and better absorption of the material that you have learned during the unit and to practice writing arguments from new disciplinary perspectives.


  1. Is the paper at least 600 words long? Did you give your paper a creative title? (10%)
  2. Is there a clearly identifiable thesis? (30%)
  3. Have you used evidence to support your thesis? (30%)
  4. Have you made supported inferences from the evidence? (20%)
  5. Have you written well (spelling, grammar, citations, style)? (10%)

Dissemination Strategies

In teaching this course, we would encourage adopters to make use of the bibliography and assignments that we developed, though the exact presentation would need to be tailored to the particular needs of the teacher, course, and school.

While we enjoyed teaching the material in this class a great deal, we also recognized that there are several improvements that we could make in teaching the class a second time (which we hope to do). First, we simply included too much material. Teaching this course a second time, we would:

    • Combine units 1 and 2 into a single unit, jettisoning some of the material related to the Nabateans and making the combined unit shorter that the two units in the original course design
      • Combine units 3 and 4, cutting some material, focusing on the Red Sea – Dead Sea project and desalinization projects.
      • Expand unit 5 and modify it as necessary to stay abreast of current events in Syria and the broader region

In addition, we felt that we could have done more to take advantage of the flexibility that three instructors gave us in the class. Teaching the course again, we would:

    • Change some of the 200-level group projects to correlate more closely to material covered in class
      • Find more time for break-out sessions to helps students develop their group or individual research projects
      • Develop assessment rubrics to directly assess learning outcomes for the course rather than relying on departmental assessment rubrics

Resources & Materials

Outcomes and Significance

We found that the course was a challenge for both us and the students. Students felt uncomfortable with the writing prompts from outside of their “home” disciplinary field and they found it challenging to integrate multiple disciplinary perspectives in their final projects. While the multi-disciplinary perspectives worked out relatively well in the 200-level groups, in which students were only taking on a single perspective at a time, it proved more difficult for students at the 300-level. Only the strongest students were able to produce acceptable papers at the 300-level. In teaching the course again, we would set aside more time to work individually with the students to develop their projects, whether individual or group, to help them get more out of their own research projects.

For the professors, we had to adjust to our new roles team teaching a course. While our presentation of material in class was quite strong, we needed to do a better job of communicating results of assignments with one another and making time to develop relationships with students in our groups.

Overall, students were very positive about the class and saw value in both the topic and the interdisciplinary nature of the class. In particular, students noted the value of watching the instructors interact with one another and model the different disciplinary approaches to the issues discussed during class.

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