Environment and Society: Science & Values

Daniel Sherman
University of Puget Sound


The course uses approaches from the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities to introduce the ways in which human social, political, economic, and cultural systems interact with systems in the non-human environment. The concept of "sustainability" is explored by considering the tension between the limiting principles in our world and competing human values over the question of what should be sustained for the future.

Course URL: See attached syllabus Syllabus: Introduction to the Environment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 54kB Jan16 19)
Course Size:

Course Format:
lecture, lab, discussion and group projects

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This is the required introductory course for the Environmental Policy and Decision Making Minor, an interdisciplinary program designed to help students integrate their major area of study with an understanding of how individual and collective decisions interact with the environment.
Students who minor in Environmental Policy and Decision Making: 1.) Develop an understanding of the multiplicity of values, norms, interests, incentives, and scientific information that influence decisions on environmental issues, 2.) Learn to critically examine the scientific, social, political, and economic contexts for decisions on environmental issues, and 3.) Engage in interdisciplinary dialogue and apply systems thinking to address current and projected environmental problems.

Course Content:

We engage the concept of "sustainability" to explore the tension between the limiting principles in our world and competing human values over the question of what should be sustained for the future.

We will tap into big ideas and methods of inquiry from academic disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. We will gain an understanding of and an appreciation for the strength of focus provided by these disciplines, and the ways in which multiple disciplinary approaches can be layered to better grasp the complexity of the world. This is not an "environmental issues" course. Although we will consider many issues, they serve as the context in which we will engage the essential questions above as well as the big ideas and methods of inquiry associated with a range of disciplines.

Course Goals:

We consider essential questions such as:

What is the relationship between science and values?

  • What is science? What is natural? How do we do science and how do we evaluate evidence?
  • How does the earth work/function through biogeochemical cycles and ecological communities? How do we understand the mutually evolving and continuously adapting nature of these relationships?
  • How do values, meanings, expressions and behaviors regarding the environment compare across individuals, cultures, time and/or geographic space? To what effect?
  • What normative and ethical approaches guide our thinking on what we should sustain and how we should value and treat the environment?
  • How and why are individual and collective decisions affecting the environment made and what are the implications? How do competing values shape these decisions?
  • What are the trade-offs associated with different environmental decisions?
  • How might one influence individual and/or collective values, decisions and actions affecting theenvironment?

Course Features:

This course involves extensive group work on a central project concerning the abundance of wild salmon in the Pacific Northwest in a future with significant climate change impacts. Students produce state of the science reports on salmon in specific Puget Sound watersheds as well as stakeholder and policy reports leading to long term policy recommendations.


The assessment for this course is based on a series of short individual essays (in detail below) designed to spark class discussion, an exam on salmon science & social impacts, and a major group project on salmon recovery in the wake of climate change.

Essay 1: Science and Values

Freeman Dyson and James Hansen are well-regarded scientists who happen to disagree about some aspects of the climate change issue. The purpose of this essay is to provide you with an opportunity to practice identifying both scientific and value claims—and how they intersect.

Part of doing science is constructing models to help us understand the natural world. Perhaps nowhere in science is the role of models more apparent than in climate change. Models are simplified representations of the world that allow us to make predictions about the behavior of systems if the assumptions we make and the parameters we use are fairly good reflections of the process we are modeling.

As you read the articles we want you to consider which of their statements are more or less only about science, which are about values and which combine the two. In your essay identify statements that are scientific and those that are value-laden. Explain what it is about the statement that leads you to that conclusion. For the sake of this assignment, you need not limit yourself to direct quotations of Dyson and Hansen—you may also use the journalists' representations of these scientists' views.

Clearly both Hansen and Dyson are advocates in a policy debate. What are the advantages and disadvantages of having scientists involve themselves as advocates in policy debates? To what extent do you think scientists should become advocates in policy debates? Explain.

Essay 2: What is Nature?

In this class we want you to question and think critically about environmental issues. Many of us become interested in environmental issues because we care deeply about certain issues. Sometimes this passion can lead us to take certain things for granted or ask fewer questions than we might if we were less passionate. This essay provides a second opportunity for us to get acquainted with your writing and provide feedback. In addition, your essays will provide a jumping-off point for discussion.

The words "natural" and "nature" are oft-used in environmental discourse and everyday life. In this essay we want you to carefully consider what is meant by these words in different contexts. How do humans and human-influenced things factor into these descriptions? You have read (and written about) accounts of what highly regarded scientists think about climate change, a chapter from a conservation science textbook and essays by an influential naturalist (Pyle) and environmentalist (Orr).

Part 1: How is the word or idea of "nature" used (implicitly or explicitly) in the different texts? Identify the meaning of nature and/or natural in the different texts and even within texts. What values are embedded in the usage? We would like you to spend the most effort on examining Orr's The Dangers of Education and Chapter 1 of Conservation Science.
Part 2: After examining these texts, explain what you think nature is and why. Consider whether humans and their impacts are part of the natural world and whether you think there is utility in making a distinction between human and non-human impacted things. Use examples as you write.

Essay 3: Systems Thinking

One of the biggest ideas in this class and the EPDM minor is the application of "systems thinking." We want you to work with some fundamental systems concepts so that all of us have a shared language and way of "seeing systems" when we discuss environmental issues and the decisions we make. This essay should get you to understand a range of systems concepts by applying them to a complicated social/environmental context—historic human interactions with the salmon life cycle in the Pacific Northwest. Your essays will be a foundation for our introduction to social systems on Thursday.

The readings by Benyus and Meadows that we will work with in class on Tuesday, along with Peter's recent lessons on Salmon populations and life cycle provides you with a pool of concepts that help us understand systems. Your task in this essay is to retell the chapter by Montgomery about historic human interactions with Pacific Salmon (entitled "Salmon People," pp. 39-58) using some set of these systems concepts. The idea here is to get you to apply abstract concepts to a complicated social/environmental context.

Essay 4: Ethical Frameworks

Given the context of the Makah Whale Hunt.Under what circumstances (if any) should the Makah be permitted to hunt gray whales?

  • First consider what the answer to the above question would be from each of the thinkers in one of these sets below--be sure to detail the points of each thinker that lead you to your conclusions about what he would suggest. Choose one of the sets of thinkers below and represent each of the thinkers in that set.
    • Set 1: Peter Singer, Holmes Rolston, Aldo Leopold
    • Set 2: Gary Varner, Holmes Rolston, Peter Singer
    • Set 3: Stephen Jay Gould, Peter Singer, Holmes Rolston
  • Second make a well reasoned argument yourself in response to this question and reflect on the influence any one or combination of the following ethical frameworks have on your position: 1) utilitarianism, deontological ethics, natural law, and/or virtue ethics.

Group Project Phase I Science & the Current State of the Watershed

  • Describe the watershed (size, main drainages, water flow) and the salmon populations in the watershed (species, stocks, numbers, spawning grounds).
  • What are the main adverse impacts on salmon populations in the watershed? (urbanization, channelization, impervious area, logging, mining, dams, etc.?)
  • What do we know about harvest impacts (both marine and in-river harvest), escapement? What do we know about the number of hatchery fish?
  • What are the historical trends in population numbers and different environmental impacts in the watershed?
  • What are the research needs in your watershed?

Group Project Phase II Policy & Stakeholder Report

Describe the most important policies affecting salmon recovery in your watershed.
Use the science report you just finished writing on your watershed to inform your assessment of what the most significant three current impacts are on salmon abundance.

Describe the policies governing those impacts.

  • what level of government(s) have jurisdiction over the policy decisions on these impacts (federal, state, local, tribal, regional, international)?
  • what agency(ies) have authority to implement the policies you have identified?
  • what are the stated goals of the policies (they may or may not have to do strictly with salmon--it's likely to be a combination of things with broader concerns)?
  • who are the targets of the policies (whose behavior is the policy designed to influence)?
  • what combination of strategies do the policies employ to influence behavior? (incentives, rules, information, rights, powers)
  • To what extent do you think the policy strategies you just described address the salmon impacts you identified?
Identify the most important stakeholder groups in your watershed regarding salmon recovery and provide evidence of their values relevant to salmon recovery.

Given the three most significant current impacts on salmon abundance you identified above--what five groups are most likely to have a stake (interest) in policies affecting those impacts? In other words, which groups would be most likely to take an active role in the politics shaping those policies? (do not limit your answer to only those likely to support enhancements for salmon) Why?

Use newspapers and other media, group websites, public comments recorded in environmental impact statements/environmental assessments or other public records, and interviews to find and report evidence of each stakeholder group's values relevant to the policies in question. (for an example of this sort of research, refer to the reading on the grizzly bears in Yellowstone).

Please note--the important values of these groups are likely not just limited to salmon, but also values that conflict with salmon. Therefore, do not just limit your examination of values to whether or not people like salmon (you might just find that everyone loves salmon)--but what values they have shaping their interests in policies that affect salmon.

Group Project Phase III

You have completed an assessment of the state of your watershed and evaluated the three most critical current impacts on salmon. In addition you have inventoried the stakeholders and policies most important to mitigating human impacts on salmon populations. We have discussed climate change and potential impacts on salmon in Washington (the Mantua article). For this
part of the project you will bring these elements together. Based on your understanding of salmon, policy, stakeholders and climate change impacts, your group will recommend policy changes to mitigate predicted climate change impacts 50 and 100 years in the future.

Written Report (25 pages max.): 12/6/11
Build upon your written work from parts 1 & 2.

Based on reports from the Climate Impacts Group (http://cses.washington.edu/cig/) and other sources what changes are likely in your watershed and how will these impact salmon populations? Identify the three most critical issues to maintaining/restoring salmon populations 50 and 100 years in the future.Explain why you identified these issues as most critical.

In your analyses you will recommend policies to address these issues. Design policy recommendations that are scientifically defensible and politically feasible (given your understanding of stakeholder interests). Explain why the policies you recommend might mitigate these impacts

Clearly identify: the level(s) of government(s) that will have jurisdiction over your proposed policy, the agency(ies) with authority to implement the policy, the targets of the policy, and the strategies you are employing to influence behavior and achieve your goal.

Choices involve trade-offs. What are the costs and benefits of implementing your recommendations? What groups will support your recommendations and which stakeholders will oppose them? How do you think politics will influence the chances of successfully implementing your recommendations?

Testimony: 12 minutes of oral presentation plus questions

Your group will be seated on a panel and offer a 12-minute presentation on: 1) the most significant impacts threatening salmon abundance in your watershed--taking into account climate impacts affecting salmon over the next 50 and 100 years, 2) your policy recommendations to ensure salmon abundance in the face of these challenges.

You will then face pointed questions on your science and policy recommendations by state legislators representing a variety of interests (played by your professors and other students).

Play the role. Your professionalism will affect the effectiveness of your testimony.

See the details on the written report (above) for more direction on your testimony.

Final Reflective Essay

One of the purposes of this class was to develop an understanding of the relationship of science and values in the process of making environmental policy. Take your group's policy recommendations on the salmon climate change issue and identify the roles played by both science and values. Map the interaction of science and values in a policy-making process. Please use specific examples from the process your group followed and the information your group gathered to illustrate your answer.


Introduction to the Environment Syllabus: This is the introductory course in the Environmental Policy and Decision-Making Program. Syllabus: Introduction to the Environment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 54kB Jan16 19)

References and Notes: