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The Spirituality of Environmental Ethics
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The Spirituality of Environmental Ethics: A Podcast and Curriculum
By Sue Knight

Podcast Link: The Spirituality of Environmental Ethics
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Course Description: This course is designed to teach moral reasoning skills and introduce students to general systems of moral philosophy through the study of environmental issues that have spiritual and ethical implications. Part of the coursework is intended to help create a warm and supportive classroom community, both socially and spiritually, while being academically and intellectually challenging and developing a deep appreciation and respect for the planet.



Teacher's Notes:
As is the case with all courses, teachers should be aware of and sensitive to their own schools’ mission statements. Most schools advertise that—in addition to high quality academics— they have a focus on building character, or developing leaders, or developing the spirit, or fostering the development of specific “core” values like respect, empathy, integrity or compassion. These mission-stated goals provide excellent avenues for structuring discussions throughout this course, with a possible culminating focus during week 18.

Emphasize moral reasoning and community building:
1. Provide a setting for challenging learning and creative argument where all parties are more interested in finding the truth or solving the problem than in being “right”. Seek a true learning community that fosters moral growth, promoting both high standards and support of others. Encourage students to engage with helping to define these terms: this helps develop meaningful autonomy. Teach the class to be self-monitoring, and allow the students chances to safely acknowledge the pain of becoming self-aware.

2. Experiment with discussion format to foster strong and trusting relationships: 1) Each participant can speak up for him/herself only after first restating ideas and feelings of previous speaker accurately, and to that speaker’s satisfaction. 2) Instead of asking a participant, “What do you think?” ask “What does [another participant] think?” [Nucci Appendix A]

3. Emphasize that course goals are far deeper than academic goals, and that students may feel compelled to change or challenge their world views.

4. Seek situations where environmental ethics can truly be tested at school. Where can students problem-solve to reinforce their evolving values?

5. Define “moral point of view” as one that considers all sides of an issue and chooses a commitment to fairness, justice and well-being, not just to the interests of a particular individual or group

6. Experiment with variations on small group work: groups of five coming to group decision; explore Quaker “consensus” model; hold structured discussions versus debates.


Week 1:

Choose an opening day(s) exercise(s):

Set the spiritual tone. Use questions from Pathmaps [Pathmaps Appendix B] and let students, drawn from a hat at random, address and/or record answers as it feels comfortable; save selected questions to revisit: do any “big issues” or “big problems” come out? For example, are larger truths of which we live in denial revealed? Make it clear that as a class there is now a chance to explore larger truth(s).

Set the environmental ethics tone. Select an “environmental issue” (or medical ethics issue, or business ethics issue: there are many hybrids) chosen by students from whatever is in the news (focus on local community). Dissect: what is moral response/solution? (and what does that mean?) What is least/most moral response (and meaning?) What is the ethical issue at stake? For whom is the solution the most fair? Keep track of solutions as proposed by class on butcher paper--let ideas about these solutions evolve throughout the course.

Week 2:

Look at [environmental, moral, ethical] issues arising from application of pure knowledge:
  • National defense: Los Alamos, A- and H-bombs
  • Gold extraction: Cyanide heap leach mining
  • Enhanced food production: Fossil fuel-based chemical fertilizers
  • Efficient transportation: Internal combustion engine
  • Energy: Fukushima

Look at narratives of some complex environmental issues:


“Second Coming” by David James Duncan
Presenting the argument to remove four obsolete dams on the Lower Columbia, saving salmon. Why should the spirit care? “When migratory creatures are denied their life-giving migration, they are no longer migratory creatures: They are kidnap victims, held hostage for a ransom of unconscionable dams. The name of the living vessel in which wild salmon evolved and still thrive is not "fish bypass system," "submergible diversionary strobe-light," or "barge." It is River.”

“Truce Holds on the Platte River”
Contested river system: water for people, farms, sandhill cranes; "We’re trying to invent a way of governing ourselves on a different political basis," he says, "and that political basis is a watershed."

“Lessons for the Colorado River from Drought-Stricken Australia”
International model for living within limits, buying water [back] for environment, funding science - 

Chesapeake Bay [water quality issues]/Clean Water Act 1977



"Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository"
In 1982, Congress established a national policy to solve the problem of nuclear waste disposal: a federal law called the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. Congress based this policy on what most scientists worldwide agreed is the best way to dispose of nuclear waste. The Act made the U.S. Department of Energy responsible for finding a site, building, and operating an underground disposal facility called a geologic repository. In 1983, the U.S. Department of Energy selected nine locations in six states for consideration as potential repository sites. This was based on data collected for nearly 10 years. The nine sites were studied and results of these preliminary studies were reported in 1985. Based on these reports, the president approved three sites for intensive scientific study called site characterization. The three sites were Hanford, Washington; Deaf Smith County, Texas; and Yucca Mountain, Nevada. In 1987, Congress amended the Nuclear Waste Policy Act and directed U.S. Department of Energy to study only Yucca Mountain.

Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) – controversy over terminal location, function:
"Oregon LNG terminal plans reverse from importing to exporting gas" The Oregonian, July 2011
"Obama praises natural gas, but is there enough to satisfy national demand?" High Country News, Feb 2012  

Mountaintop Removal Mining

Cape Wind offshore wind farm

"The circular logic of energy independence" High Country News, Dec 2011
"American Energy Policy, Asleep at the Spigot," New York Times, July 2008
Despite the fact that this article was published in 2008 and some of the economic specifics are not current, its value lies in its timeless explication of the fact that “…the real source of the problem is…parked in our driveways.”

Ethanol, et al
"Deep Economy" by Bill McKibben ;
News about Biofuels in New York Times 

Fracking – “The Whole Fracking Enchilada” by Sandra Steingraber

Politics and Policy:

Excerpts from “A Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, 1962

Growth and Planning:

Examine the city/town plan for your location. What does it reveal about intention? Community? Resources for the future?

Flora and Fauna:

Endangered Species Act: what is the value of [a] life? What is the context within which the Act (1966, 1969) was passed?

Culture and Communities:

NIMBY – “How Big is Your Backyard?” by Paul Larmer
list of 5 issues

Climate and Pollution:

Local Superfund site(s)
Clean Air Act 1963, 1970

Mining and Agriculture:

Look at approaches to/history of US Farm Bill(s)

Open-pit mines

Pebble Creek Mine (proposed), AK


Recreation Fee Demonstration Program (USFS)/user fees

User conflict: BLM and ATVs

Center for Ecoliteracy also provides a great archive of articles about additional issues here:

Weeks 3-5:

Teach [four] major normative schools of ethics:

Mill – Utilitarianism [Mill Appendix C]

Kant – Deontology [Kant AppendixD]

Aristotle – Virtue [Aristotle Appendix E]

Rawls – Justice [Rawls Appendix F]

Addition: Communitarianism – who decides values of community and what are they?

Teach perspectives of three environmentalists:

Rachel Carson – (1907-1964) wrote Silent Spring re harms of synthetic pesticides; marine biologist, often seen as advancing global “environmental movement”; awarded Pres Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter

Aldo Leopold – (1887-1948) A thing is right when it preserves integrity, stability and beauty of biotic community. It is wrong when it does otherwise. We are obligated to soil, plants etc as all are members of interdependent community.

John Muir – (1838-1914) Scottish-born American; founder of Sierra Club; “Father of National Parks”; from biographers: “Muir exemplified archetype of our oneness with the earth”, and his mission was “…saving the American soul from total surrender to materialism.”

Teach perspective of one group of Native Americans:

Okanagan way [Okanagan Way Appendix G]

Summary: 8 sample tool kits so far offering ways to decide what action is right

Weeks 6,7:

Have students apply one of the above views/methods of resolution to an issue from weeks 3-5 in class debate and/or some kind of critical consensus project (framed as respectful argument from a given normative ethical point of view).

As a stretch, encourage everyone to take on a point of view they do not favor and be true to it; that is, practice empathy.

Weeks 8,9:

Introduce two new rubrics for ethical problem solving and repeat the exercise from Weeks 6,7, focusing on a different issue.

Rubric 1: from Janet W. Tanner, Adjunct Professor, Center for Applied Ethics, Fairfield University, Fairfield, CT

1. Get the facts

- What benefits and what harms will each course of action produce; and which alternative will lead to the best overall consequences?

- What moral rights do the affected parties have, and which course of action best respects those rights?

- Which course of action treats everyone the same, except where there is a morally justifiable reason not to, and does not show favoritism or discrimination?

- Which course of action advances the common good?

- Which course of action develops moral virtue?

Rubric 2:
from Dancing with Systems, by Donella Meadows. Also found in Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World, by Stone, Michael K. and Zenobia Barlow (Sierra Club Books, 2005) 
[The Dance Appendix H]

1. Get the beat
2. Listen to the wisdom of the system
3. Expose your mental models to the open air
4. Stay humble. Stay a learner.
5. Honor and protect information
6. Locate responsibility in the system
7. Make feedback policies for feedback systems
8. Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable
9. Go for the good of the whole
10. Expand time horizons
11. Expand thought horizons
12. Expand the boundary of caring
13. Celebrate complexity
14. Hold fast to the goal of goodness

Extension: Have students develop their own rubrics for ethical problem-solving: what guides their decision-making? Share these in a non-critiqued session or two.

Week 10:

The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for Creation and the Common Good, An International Pastoral Letter by the Catholic Bishops of the Region

Pastoral letter
[Pastoral letter Appendix I]

Q: What would students’ own faith traditions have them do?

This Compassionate Life Podcast (TLC) - Goodrich Part 1: In part one, Charles addresses flies, bees, aphids – scorned creatures all – and responds to questions about instinct, forgotten places and “security and adventure.”

Download Goodrich Classroom Guide for Teachers

This Compassionate Life Podcast (TLC) - Colwell Part 1: Linda prefaces this episode with a story about food being alive, and then questions our disconnect from our food system as well as the truism that most of us don’t know where our food comes from any more. She characterizes what she sees as a spiritual dimension to eating, epitomized by a 2008 pilgrimage she led to Transylvania called “Theology of the Table”, and sheds new light on the term “food activist/ism.”

Weeks 11-13:

Read the book Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit, by Daniel Quinn (1995)

Possible approaches to teaching the book:

1. Rethink assumptions of the creation myth

2. Debrief Leavers vs. Takers (agrarian revolution)

3. Look at anthropocentrism (Ishmael) vs. biocentrism (Leopold). At what point does the history of the world become anthropocentric? What causes this shift?

4. “The Leavers are the hunter-gatherers, those who lived a nomadic existence at the mercy of the world. They did not control their environment, but instead lived day to day with the understanding that they were neither the center of the universe nor the crowning jewel in creation. The Takers represented the agriculturalists, those who make the realization at some point in human history that they must control the environment in order to develop a truly human way of life. This is the “turning point of human history” when humanity developed a distinctive way of life: not dependent upon moving about to find their own food, but rather capable of farming and settling down in one place. As a consequence humanity began to expand and develop its own story.” Are you/do you want to be a Leaver or a Taker?

5. Taker Thunderbolt is a craft in which Takers embark on a civilization flight at a turning point in human history (agrarian revolution) 10,000 yrs ago. Flight is “successful” so far, but the ground is fast approaching. So Thunderbolt has succeeded, but the impact on ecology and planetary systems threatens the future success of such a flight (metaphor for arc of human race). What would students do if they were on the flight? Who is the pilot? Would it be possible to abandon the flight or change its course?

6. Should humans be above a “peace-keeping law”? Humans are subject to physical laws like gravity – so what is a “natural”, “universal” law? Is it partly/all a spiritual law? What does this mean?

7. Leavers live in the gods’ hands, subject to the whims of nature. What occurs in the community of life when one species chooses not to live in the hands of the gods? Does this species see itself as Divine? Does working with the community of life allow evolution to continue?

Week 14:

Anthropocentrism vs. understanding of place, of non-human inhabitants of place and their importance.

What does stewardship mean? Of human spirit? Of nature/natural spirit? Ask students to find local examples of on-the-ground stewardship of place--what is the deepest meaning of this work?

Teach students how to “…devise strategies for restoration based on nature’s own operating instructions.” Are these instructions spiritual?

What is sacred about the world?

This Compassionate Life Podcast - Goodrich Part 2:In part two, Charles seeks out spiders and gives the vulture a voice, and responds to questions about restoration, which he views as "restory-ing," and the relationship between science and philosophy.

This Compassionate Life Podcast - Pyle Part 1: In part 1, Bob asks us to train our attention on other organisms, and responds to questions that address the “movement of water over territory” and the “extinction of experience.”

Download Pyle's Classroom Guide for Teachers 

Week 15:

"The Last Man" Thought Experiment.
1973, Richard Sylvan (then known as Richard Routley) proposed a science fiction thought experiment that helped to launch environmental ethics as a branch of academic philosophy: the “Last Man.”  
You are the last human being. You shall soon die. When you are gone, the only life remaining will be plants, microbes, invertebrates. For some reason, the following thought runs through your head: Before I die, it sure would be nice to destroy the last remaining Redwood. Just for fun.

- What, if anything, would be wrong with destroying that Redwood?
- Destroying it won’t hurt anyone, so what’s the problem?
- Does it have non-instrumental (aside of what it can be used for), intrinsic value?
- Does nature have its own inherent value?
- Is the world here solely for the use of humans?

What should be our attitude toward nature? Is it possible for nonhumans to have the sort of moral standing that humans have? (anthropocentrism) Can people be seen as separate from nature? Is our knowledge tied to our behavior?

This Compassionate Life Podcast - Pyle Part 2: In part 2, Bob draws a startling comparison between the “nature writing” of Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire and Jay McInerny’s Bright Lights, Big City. He answers questions about his passion for butterflies and Darwin’s concept of a “tangled bank.”

Week 16:

Return to some issues (on butcher paper) from Week 1: Should environmental problems be evaluated from a biocentric perspective (focusing on the value of living beings and species), an ecocentric perspective (focusing on the relationship of species and ecosystems), or an anthropocentric perspective (focusing on the interests of future human generations)? Or none of the above?

This Compassionate Life Podcast - Colwell Part 2: Linda presents a case for a healthy “civic environment” as one that includes community spaces like gardens or school gardens, or other natural areas, that teach us about relationships. She describes how gardens, and gardening, instruct, and links this concept to the issue of who should own our food and the seeds from which our plant food comes. She concludes by responding to a question about finding balance, and understanding how a food system is part of that balancing act.

Weeks 17/18:

Return to application of pure knowledge (for [human] good): Science does not teach us to care. Should it?

- (Los Alamos) Is policy a sacred issue?
- Knowledge acquired in schooling: learning as “deep soulful nourishment” based on local, biological, interpersonal and ecological relationships
- Do we seek smaller truths and live comfortably in denial of larger ones?
- Do we live in a culture of real affection? Biophilia?

These final two weeks provide an excellent opportunity for students to synthesize the semester’s work, and to do so making as many connections as they can. For example, a school whose mission statement says it wants to “create ethical leaders for the 21st century” or “concerned citizens for a global world” might engage students in a final discussion or project that entails articulating how such a leader or concerned citizen would address the world’s needs in a way that the school might be consider indicative of the ideal graduate. Or ask students to articulate why and how the human relationship to non-human is [sacred], has spiritual dimension, and deserves elevation and consideration.

Additional suggested print/media resources:

- My Dinner with Andre, a film by Louis Malle (1981)
- High Country News (social/environmental issue coverage)
- Orion Magazine: Nature, Culture, Place (ways to think about solutions, the world)
- Bioneers Radio Series, Education for Action: Reinventing Everything
- Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Character – The Unsettling of America, by Wendell Berry
(Appl Eth Append J p 112 – idea of danger of “specialists” (important essay)

- Guide for the Perplexed, by E.F. Schumacher (1977)
- Constructing a Life Philosophy: Opposing Viewpoints, by David L. Bender (1985)
- Mary Evelyn Tucker’s work and new film, Journey of the Universe (2011)
- William Sloane Coffin's work, especially The Heart is a Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality (2011)



Appendix A Larry Nucci’s Guidelines for Classroom Discussion

Appendix B Pathmaps

Appendix C John Stuart Mill

Appendix D Immanuel Kant

Appendix E Aristotle

Appendix F John Rawls

Appendix G Okanagan Way

Appendix H The Dance

Appendix I Pastoral letter



Sue Knight graduated from CSEE member school, George School, in 1981 and then earned her BS in Mechanical Engineering from Yale in 1985. She taught physics and math at CSEE member school, Oregon Episcopal School, for 12 years, and general studies and science at Portland Jewish Academy for two years. During that span she also volunteered in a number of public school programs, and currently volunteers at her neighborhood public high school where she’s immersed in hands-on applications of CSEE’s outstanding character development work. 



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