Water Development: A Philosophical and Ethical Issue

Dexter Perkins, University of North Dakota


This is a seven part module that deals with water development. The goal is to get students thinking about water development in terms of its appropriateness, and to get them to think about competing value systems. It is ultimately about ethics and philosophy,not about practicality or utility, but students -- especially undergraduate students -- sometimes have trouble figuring that out. If you you elect to use all seven modules, this is a multi-week project. But, individual parts will stand alone if need be.


This can be used in courses of all sizes and levels. It is also appropriate for adults of all ages. The lessons learned will, of course, be different depending on the audience. It is all about thinking -- the more sophisticated a person's thinking and reasoning is -- the more they will understand the lessons that are being offered. But, everyone should get something out of this, and it is only through practice that people hone their thinking and reasoning skills.

I have used this in my Environmental Issues class, and another instructor used it in our Surviving on Planet Earth class.

Class size: More than 50 students

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

How the activity is situated in the course
This is a major project that takes place near the end of semester after we have discussed many different environmental issues. But, it could also be used as the first introductory project. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I am inclined to do that next year.


Content/concepts goals for this activity
There really are no content goals.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity
Analysis, thinking and reasoning -- these are the heart of this exercise.

Other skills goals for this activity
This project can involve a significant amount of writing. And, a key is the use of evidence to support arguments/opinions.

Ethical Principles Addressed in this Exercise

AS one reviewer said about Encounters With the Archdruid:

"So the real issues relate to what is natural? How should lands be used? What role do humans have in using, caring for, being part of the land and can we do so responsibly?"

This pretty much applies to this water development teaching module, too. Perhaps wit something about ethics, values, and morality added.

Description and Teaching Materials

Students read chapters and watch videos -- and then answer questions. They write some short answers and some longer ones. After that, we discuss their answers in class. They are graded on both their writing and the contributions to class discussions.

Teaching Notes and Tips

I have found a few keys:
  • First, students must stay on task. They must do the work in a timely manner and that means some instructor nagging.
  • Second, students must be reminded that superficial answers and opinions are worth very little. They need to be encouraged to think and reason and try to give meaningful answers.
  • Finally, I have several times realized that many of my students really have little concept of what ethics is. And, their thinking and reasoning skills are, in some cases, just not very well developed. So, I have to make sure not to expect too much from some students without providing them a great deal of guidance and encouragement.


This is one of those activities where the students will tell you if it was a success or not.

References and Resources

This exercise references two excellent books:
  • Mark Reisner's 1986 Cadillac Desert.
  • John McPhee's 1971 Encounter with the Archdruid.

This exercise references two excellent video series/videos:
  • 1977 four-part video series Cadillac Desert
  • 2014 documentary DamNation