Environmental Systems and Societies

Senior school > Curriculum > Environmental Systems and Societies

When I have asked pupils the question ‘what will be the greatest challenge that mankind will face in the next 50 years’ many give the reply ‘climate change’. Young people today are increasingly aware and concerned about the impact that mankind is having upon the planet. 

Through studying IB Environmental Systems and Societies (ESS), pupils will be provided with a coherent perspective of the interrelationships between environmental systems and societies, with an emphasis on sustainability; one that enables them to adopt an informed personal response to the wide range of pressing environmental issues that they will inevitably come to face.

Pupils will be able to study the IB Environmental Systems and Societies course successfully with no specific previous knowledge of science or geography. However, as the course aims to foster an international perspective, awareness of local and global environmental concerns and an understanding of the scientific methods, a course that shares these aims would be good preparation. ESS is an interdisciplinary subject so allows flexibility within the IB programme and prepares students for any degree with ecological content and supports a degree leading to a Biological Science or for those who study Geography.


Entry requirements: No specific subject requirements, just an interest in the world.

During the course, pupils will study eight different topics. An important aspect of the ESS course is hands-on work in the laboratory and/or out in the field.

The course covers the following areas:

  • Foundations of ESS –  Environmental value systems, sustainability and pollution
  • Ecosystems and ecology – Species, populations, biomes, zonation and ecosystems
  • Biodiversity and conservation – Origins, threats and conservation of biodiversity
  • Water and aquatic food production systems and societies – Access to fresh water, aquatic food production systems and water pollution
  • Soil systems and terrestrial food production systems and societies – soil, farming systems, soil degradation and conservation
  • Atmospheric systems and societies – the atmosphere, stratospheric ozone, photochemical smog, and acid deposition
  • Climate change and energy production – Energy choice, energy security and climate change
  • Human systems and resource use – Population dynamics, resource use, solid domestic waste and human carrying capacity

The Final assessment consists of one independent and individual practical study.  This can be based upon primary or secondary data, and is internally assessed. There are also two exam papers, a one hour paper of questions that are based upon unseen source material, and a two hour paper of short data based structured questions and two essays out of a choice of four.

Lucy Bethnell is the Associate Director, Contaminated Land Specialist at Mott MacDonald. “I am passionate about environmental protection and the positive social impact this brings. In my role as an Environmental Consultant at Mott MacDonald, a global multidisciplinary engineering consultancy, I work on a diverse range of projects around the world. My role draws on the subjects I enjoyed at Gresham’s including maths, the sciences, geography and languages. I am a strong advocate for change and adopt a holistic, integrated and collaborative approach to tackle the big environmental challenges we face.

(Crossways/Oakeley, 1998)

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