Economics and the Environment

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SWBAT critically evaluate the interrelatedness of economics and environmental concerns via a class discussion.

Big Idea

It's impossible to approach environmental problems without acknowledging their relationship to the economic activity of humans.


This lesson seeks to introduce the relationship between economics and the environment, especially how economies withdraw resources from the environment and then deposit waste into the environment.  

The lesson essentially consists of two parts:

1. A pre-class textbook reading and homework assignment focused on close reading techniques, critical-thinking questions, and content vocabulary development.

2. An in class presentation that provides supplementary examples to review the concepts and vocabulary from the chapter along with a class discussion seeking to draw students into more critical examination of the topic at hand and assist in their ability to connect the concepts to their personal experiences. 

The textbook reading comes from Environmental Science: Your World, Your Turn by Jay Withgott.

If you do not have that particular textbook, I would recommend finding a similar chapter or chapters (in this case, an introductory consideration of the relationship between economics and the environment) and modifying the lesson accordingly.  

Alternately, the powerpoint attached to the Direct Instruction section covers most of the same concepts and vocabulary as the chapter.  If you have a shorter class period, you may want to skip the reading assignment and assign the discussion questions as homework.  You could then hold the class discussion on the following day.       

In my case, I assign the textbook reading on the meeting previous to this lesson.  In that way, students will have already covered the concepts on their own and the powerpoint presentation will be less of a lecture and more of an opportunity for students to ask questions and clarify their understanding. 

Connection to Standard:

In this lesson, students will prepare for class by reading and determining the central idea of a text, establish familiarity with relevant scientific vocabulary, and then draw evidence from the text to support arguments and opinions presented as part of their participation in a group discussion.  



Direct Instruction

30 minutes

Like I mentioned above, I assign the textbook reading as a homework assignment to be completed upon arrival to this class period.  The powerpoint presentation is then more of a review and an opportunity for students to ask questions.  

Wondering WHY I use lectures as a pedagogical strategy?  Watch this video.

Wondering HOW I use the Powerpoint to differentiate instruction? Watch this video.

Wondering why I choose to have a reading assignment AND a lecture on the same content?  Read this rationale.

Wondering how you might use this lesson's resources if you don't plan on presenting a lecture? Read this reflection.


When class begins, I ask students to get their homework out and first give them about 10 minutes to discuss the critical thinking questions with their group members.  During this time, I walk around and put a stamp on completed homework and answer any questions that students bring up.  If students bring up a good question or insightful comment, I ask them to please remember to bring that up in the larger class discussion to follow the presentation.  

Affording this time before the presentation allows students to "field test" their answers with a smaller group, increasing their confidence to participate in the larger discussion.  Also, because the discussion is graded by groups, it allows the ideas of individual members to influence the thinking of their peers which may lead to greater insights or even new questions.  Finally, while I walk around, I listen to the nature of student discussions and get a better sense of what kinds of questions may be floating around the room, allowing me to emphasize certain aspects of the lesson or offer more detailed examples to scaffold the instruction.

After I have stamped all the homework assignments, I distribute the note sheet that accompanies the presentation.  As I've mentioned in previous lessons, offering students a note sheet provides a readymade study guide for later and allows students to focus on their thoughts and the concepts being discussed as opposed to focusing all of their attention on copying down copies amounts of notes.   


Please Note: I find it important to really do thorough checks for understanding during this presentation on a few points:

1. The concept of externalities, or costs associated with the production or use of a product that aren't accounted for in the monetary cost of the product is an interesting concept to go into a bit more detail explaining.  The example I used was a plastic water bottle.  I asked students what they do with the bottle when they've finished drinking the water.  Most students replied that they either put the bottle in the trash or in a recycling bin.  I asked if everyone did this and some students admitted to littering occasionally.  I asked what kinds of externalities their behavior might generate.  Some students mentioned that too much litter might lower property values because it makes a place look "ghetto".  Some students mentioned that someone whether the bottle is on the street or in a trash basket, someone ends up having to pick it up, which means someone pays waste disposal workers, a cost that is not likely included in the cost of the bottle.  Some students mentioned that bottles take up space in landfills, and therefore incur utility costs that wind up coming back to taxpayers.  Other students focused more on environmental costs such as damage to marine animals, or to the CO2 emissions and use of petroleum in their manufacture.  Some astute student mentioned that, in California at least, there is a charge added at the point of purchase to anything in a package that can be recycled.  This in turn is paid to individuals that bring the bottles to recycling facilities.  In this way, the "externality" of the labor cost of dealing with the collection of the material actually is included in the cost of the item.

You could probably choose many other consumer items to use as examples to explore the concept of externalities, but I think it's important to do so that students can start to think more clearly on the concept that ecosystems receive the wastes of economies.


2. Supply and demand aren't new concepts to most high school students, but I do like to reinforce the power that consumers have to shape the environmental policies of corporations.  If demand for an environmentally unfriendly product decreases, then corporations are likely to respond by generating a smaller supply of said product (the shift over the past 15 years or so from large SUVs to small hybrids being fashionable is the example given in the powerpoint).  This concept is explored in much more detail in the ecolabeling lesson.



30 minutes

Following the presentation, I let students know that we will wrap up by having a class discussion to review the concepts of the lesson.  Again, depending on your class length, it may be preferable to have this follow-up discussion on the following day.  

The discussion protocol for this lesson:

  1. all groups are required to participate in the discussion and will receive a “participation” grade for the day

  2. groups with more than one member that participate will receive a higher participation grade

  3. groups that participate more frequently will receive a higher grade


These criteria make the group collectively responsible for their grade and accountable to each other. If no one in the group participates, the group as a whole will receive a failing grade.  If only one member of the group participates, regardless of how often, the group can’t receive any grade higher than a C.  


To keep track of participation, I begin by making a map of the class with the group tables labeled by group name.  Since there are four students at each table, as a student from a particular group participates, I make a tally mark in the position of that student in their group.  In this way, I can tally how often the group participates, which members are participating, and how often.  To determine "average" participation, I add up all tally marks and divide by the number of groups, rounding down.  I then use this rubric to determine their participation grades.

If you'd prefer to not give a grade for participation in discussions, see this reflection where I discuss the conditions that arose that allowed me to not to grade for participation but still have meaningful discussions with broad participation.


See this discussion guide for specific strategies for this discussion, but I would bring your attention to two key points from the guide that may affect how you lead the discussion:

1. On the question asking students to give an example of how environmental problems can relate to economics, I’m really hoping to generate a discussion about any number of ways that the environment is linked with economics.  With an open-ended question such as this, I try and hear from as many groups as possible.  If there’s a “logjam” and not many new ideas are coming up, I’ll give groups 1 minute to name an environmental problem, then have each group share out the problem. Once the class has heard them all, they have 2 more minutes to discuss how that problem relates to the environment. I keep the group time quick to keep the groups focused, and to keep everyone’s focus on the whole group discussion.

Examples of environmental science problems and their link to economics that some of my students discussed:

  • Fossil fuels (what are the economic reasons they are used?)
  • Habitat destruction (who benefits economically from this process, surely it isn’t wanton destruction of nature for destruction’s sake)
  • Water pollution (why is it economically easier to pollute than manage your own waste? This also links well with the Tragedy of the Commons, i.e. the benefits go to the individual whereas the costs are shared by everyone)


2. The question about ecolableing connects with a project detailed in the ecolabeling lesson.  It may therefore be helpful to have students either do that project in advance of this discussion, or use discussion of this questions as a segue into the introduction of that lesson.

Essentially, this question allows an opportunity to review the concept of ecolabels and help students to understand that they allow consumers to make informed decisions about the kinds of business practices they support.  In turn, because of the economic principle of supply and demand that we discuss during the presentation, I hope that students can see that as the demand for environmentally unfriendly products and services falls, companies will stop generating such a large supply, thereby producing a net benefit to the environment.