Our World, Our Selves

Tim Walsh, South Seattle Community College

This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


Direct causes of environmental problems are as familiar as they are evident: air and water pollution, solid and hazardous waste, species threatened with extinction, and climate change. But there are less familiar root causes responsible for these headline stories, such as rapid human population growth, poverty, or lack of full-cost pricing. The least known of these root causes involves our ethical relationship to the natural world and the psycho-emotional factors that underpin our actions. In order to hope to create a more sustainable civilization, we have to understand these two root causes. Writing is one of the most effective tools for the exploration and understanding of such concepts.

A problem like water pollution is concrete as well as direct. We can smell that something is wrong at Green Lake or see the fish floating belly up in Lake Sammamish. We can observe the sheen of oil in parking lots after a rain and surmise that that oil is being washed into Puget Sound. More abstract, and more difficult to grapple with, is the attitude that it's all right to have oil and gasoline dripping from cars in the first place, and that it's all right to have those toxins flow into our waterways. We're only dimly aware, if at all, that that is even happening, let alone why we allow it to happen, or that there is another way. That other way, to design systems that promote the sustainability of ecosystems and therefore our own civilization, begins with understanding who we are and why we do what we do with regards to the only world there is, the natural world.

Learning Goals

Students will understand how ethics and psycho-emotional factors influence our relationship to and use of the natural world. Students will read, mark, and summarize text. Students will use writing as a tool to explore the connections between ethics, psychology, and sustainability.

Context for Use

The assignment has several parts involving reading, discussion, and writing and could take about four weeks. The activity could begin early in the quarter or at any other time.

Possible Use in Other Courses: composition; environmental science; philosophy; and psychology.

Description and Teaching Materials

Background Notes For Teachers
"Environmental Worldviews and Ethics"

The Learning Activity

  1. Introduce the concepts of sustainability and ecosystem functioning. Introduce the concepts of environmental ethics and psychological underpinnings. (See attachment "A" for context.)
  2. Have students read "The Land Ethic", by Aldo Leopold, "Walking", by Henry David Thoreau, and "One Acre: On Devaluing Real Estate to Keep Land Priceless," by Joy Williams. These essays are published in Listening to Earth, edited by Christopher Hallowell and Walter Levy, available from Pearson, 2005.
  3. Students can choose one essay to summarize. The summary should be one to two paragraphs in length. The summary should be clear, accurate, concise, and sufficiently complete so that a reader can read the summary and not need to read the original but still not lack understanding.
  4. Students can choose one current environmental problem, preferably within this bioregion, such as the decline of salmon populations, pollution of Puget Sound, nuclear waste disposal, sprawl, invasive species or something similar and discuss it in small groups in terms of one of the ethical or psycho-emotional factors reviewed in class-instrumental vs. intrinsic valuation; habituation; proximity; love; or fear. This is not a purely academic exploration. Students should very much include themselves, their worldviews, attitudes, feelings, and actions, or lack thereof, as they pertain to the chosen environmental problem. Does the problem bother them? Why or why not? How does their response relate to the way they value the natural world? What connections can they see between the actions and statements of others and the various environmental ethics presented in class? How has their awareness of the issue and their ethical or emotional response to it affected their actions? How can they use their inner awareness to influence another person, one way or another?
  5. Following the small-group discussion, students will write an essay exploring the ideas raised in the readings and class discussions. The paper should be about five pages, double-spaced. It should demonstrate an understanding of the all concepts, including terminology: the environmental problem and how it undermines sustainable practices; environmental ethics and psychology, including their own, and how they connect to the existence of the environmental problem; how awareness or shifting of an environmental ethic or psychology can move individuals or the culture toward a more sustainable path.

Environmental World Views and Ethics- Background Notes for Teachers (Microsoft Word 41kB Nov4 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips


References and Resources

The Background Notes for Teachers, see attachment, are intended to provide context and background information for the assignment. Teachers can read the texts cited here in addition to the essays included in the assignment. As valuable, they can rely on their own knowledge, experience, and thinking.