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Rational Choice and Environmental Problems

Module titleRational Choice and Environmental Problems
Module codePOL1042
Academic year2016/7
Module staff

Dr Lorien Jasny (Lecturer)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

Recent human activity is causing unprecedented stress on the natural environment. This module examines the intersection between individual choice and contemporary environmental issues through the lenses of rational choice theory. Rational choice theory, simply stated, combines concepts of self-interest (broadly defined), individual preferences, and rationality to rigorously understand human behaviour. You will explore the promises and pitfalls of using rational choice theory to understand key elements of environmental politics and policy, from the social causes of environmental problems to the decision to cooperate on global environmental issues. You will be introduced to core theoretical concepts in lecture and then see these concepts in action through a series of in-class exercises and simulations. This module will also provide you with a practical tool for evaluating strategic situations by introducing you to the basics of game theory. There are no pre-requisites for this module and no prior knowledge of environmental issues, rational choice theory, or game theory is required.

Module aims - intentions of the module

This module has three primary aims. The first aim is introduce you to rational choice theory in the context of contemporary environmental issues. You will learn to use the main tenets of rational choice theory to gain insight into the causes of environmental problems and, importantly, to evaluate potential solutions to these problems. You will also learn to critically evaluate the rational choice perspective, carefully assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the approach when applied to environmental issues. The second aim is to provide you with a gentle introduction to game theory. As you will see, game theory provides a useful way to understand the predications of rational choice theory, while also providing an effective tool for evaluating strategic situations. The third and final aim is for you to gain in-depth knowledge of an environmental issue of your choice. Here, you will be expected write an essay on an environmental problem that interests you, while applying the concepts and tools discussed in class.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. apply rational choice theory to understand and evaluate environmental problems
  • 2. summarize and critique rational choice theory’s proposed solutions to environmental challenges
  • 3. demonstrate knowledge of key contemporary environmental problems

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 4. describe the history and key assumptions of rational choice theory
  • 5. critically evaluate topics such as social dilemmas, collective action issues, and externalities
  • 6. demonstrate knowledge of the ways in which formal and informal institutions promote behaviour that is “better than rational”
  • 7. isolate and evaluate the limitations of rational choice theory as a model for understanding politics

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 8. apply basic game theoretic tools to strategically evaluate situations
  • 9. demonstrate basic knowledge of cost-benefit analysis, discounting, and time-horizons
  • 10. demonstrate oral and written communication skills

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

Whilst the module’s precise content may vary from year to year, it is envisaged that the syllabus will cover some or all of the following topics: 

  • Human behaviour and contemporary environmental problems
  • Rational choice as a “model” for human behaviour
  • A gentle introduction to game theory (and why it’s useful)
  • Environmental issues, complexity, and models of bounded rationality
  • Social dilemmas and "the tragedy of the commons"
  • Externalities as a basis for environmental policy
  • Rationality, environmental activism, and political behaviour
  • Rational choice and global environmental politics

Learning and teaching

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching Activity1812 x 1.5 hour lectures
Scheduled Learning and Teaching Activity1010 x 1 hour tutorials
Guided independent study122Reading, preparation for in-class simulations, exam preparation, basic game theory tutorials, and essay preparation.


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Discussion in lecture and simulationsThroughout scheduled learning and teaching activities1-10Verbal
Position brief (group)1,0003,5,10Written
MEA simulation debrief (individual)5001-3, 5-8, 10Written

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay502,000 words 1-10Written
Examination501 hour 1-10Written


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Essay Essay (2,000 words)1-10August/September assessment period
Examination 1 hour examination 1-10August/September assessment period


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Kenneth A. Shepsle (2010). Analyzing Politics: Rationality, Behavior, and Institutions, 2nd Edition. (New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.) 

Elinor Ostrom (1990). Governing the Commons: The evolution of institutions and collective action. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press) 

Avinash K. Dixit, David H. Reiley, Jr., Susan Skeath (2009). Games of Strategy. (New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.) 

James Connelly, Graham Smith, David Benson, Clare Saunders (2012). Politics and the Environment: From Theory to Practice, 3rd Edition. (New York, NY: Taylor & Francis) 

Nick Hanley, Jason F. Shogren, and Ben White (2001). Introduction to Environmental Economics. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press) 

United Nations Environment Programme (2012). Global Environmental Outlook: Environment for the future we want. (Valletta, Malta: Progress Press Ltd.) 

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2013). Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Summary for Policy Makers & Chapter 1. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press).

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

environmental issues, environmental politics, rational choice theory

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


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