A Philosophy for Teaching and Living in a Just Environment

Paul Jeffries, Philosophy Department/Environmental Studies Program, Ripon College, March 2013

My approach to teaching about environmental justice is, in large part, affected by the context in which I teach. Ripon College is a small (about 1000 students) liberal arts college in northeast Wisconsin. I am the chair of a three-person Philosophy Department and as one of the interdisciplinary faculty team that makes up our Environmental Studies Program. Every two years I teach a required course for our Environmental Studies major, a co-listed course on Philosophy and the Environment. A second course I teach that sometimes has a section on environmental ethics is my Human Rights course. With such a small Philosophy Departmental faculty, we have limited ability to offer specific topics courses given our need to offer courses required for our major and minors. To date, I have not had the opportunity to offer a specific course that focused exclusively on the theme of environmental justice.

My academic interests, both in my teaching and research, revolved the study of theoretical and applied ethics. My PhD is in philosophy, but I also have an MAR in theological ethics. The fundamental conviction that I bring to my work with students is that philosophy is an activity, so my class rooms tend to focus more on discussions rather than lectures. Through my interaction with my students, I try to cultivate in them the skills and insights to discern arguments in different forms, to assess them, and to use the insights gleaned from these activities to craft sound ethical approaches to their personal and professional lives. Another important element to my general teaching philosophy is that I try to help students see how the concepts, arguments, and rival perspectives on the topics we study are grounded in traditions of philosophical inquiry. The topics we explore in philosophy do not emerge out of thin air. They have histories and those conceptual evolutions are sometimes critical in trying to make sense out of the current intellectual frameworks that affect our thinking and actions.

As I noted above, I teach about environmental justice in the context of a more general Philosophy and the Environment course, offered at the 2xx level primarily for sophomores and juniors (there are no perquisites). Typically I use an anthology that covers both theoretical and applied issues related to the environment. In the early part of the course, we examine some of the theoretical foundations for understanding the concepts used in discussions about the environment, as well as some of the philosophical and ethical theories that are relevant to thinking ethically about the environment. Some of these theoretical topics engage questions like: What does it mean to call something "natural?" Does nature and/or natural phenomena have value, and, if so, what kind of value is it? Do ethical obligations emerge from our understanding of the value of nature? What is the moral status of animals? Do they have "rights?" What are some approaches to environmental ethics? What does it mean to "pollute" the environment?

The second part of the course focuses more on questions of application. We cover topics like food ethics, climate change, economic considerations (both in terms of causing environmental degradation and of being possible solutions), and spirituality and the environment. It is in this section of the course that I have a one to two-week section on environmental justice. Given the introductory nature of the course, we read a sampling of essays that address environmental racism, global environmental/developmental justice, indigenous people's environmental rights, ecofeminism, and international law (in relation to advancing environmental justice). Our discussions of these issues focus on the concepts and ideas that are relevant to these frameworks, exploring how they illuminate forms environmental injustice while also providing possible remedies to rectify past environmental injustice. Some of the concerns with international rights and international legal structures are also addressed in my human rights course, where we consider the extent to which a human rights approach along with considerations of international law can be tools to protect against and overcome forms of environmental injustice.

Beyond the class discussions on our readings, I also try to interject more personal reflections, especially in relation about how our choices have environmental consequences. For example, after showing a clip of a 60 Minutes clip of where some of our e-waste goes in China, I then consider how "e-wasteful" our cultural practices are (cell phones upgrades, computer upgrades, computerization of our industrial infrastructure and production, etc.) Sometimes we have taken up the issue of the availability of clean water. Again, while there are international implications to this justice issue, there are local applications. Most local streams in our area have excess nitrogen due to agricultural practices. How do we rethink such activities, including over-fertilized crops or our concern for the "perfect lawn?" This past fall I took my class to a local farm (a local organic certified community supported agricultural "CSA" operation) to see how different farming practices can be both economically effective and environmentally sustainable. Equally important is the dietary value of eating fresh, locally grown food. This experience was quite eye-opening for several of my students, especially some of the ones who come from farms throughout the area. The next time I offer the course, I will likely also take the class to a local CAFO dairy operation, in part as a contrast with the CSA and as a means to get students to consider the justice issues related to how these operations are located. This is a kind of environmental justice issue for rural communities in the U.S. and around the world.

In keeping with this effort to encourage more personal reflections and practical applications, I regularly share with my students about various strategies and practices that my wife and I have adopted because of our concern for environmental justice. I am a firm believer in the power of stories to expand a person's moral imagination. So, for example, I tell students about how we lived without a care for eleven years in the Twin Cities. I challenge them to consider the implications to the environment if China and/or India's populations had the same population/cars ratio as the US. And if this would be problematic, what should we do to change our dependence on vehicles? I tell them that I had more miles on my bike last year than I did my car (which, admittedly was a recently inherited "second car" that serves mainly as an emergency back up for when our 20 year old car dies). I also talk about how one might live more simply to free up resources to redress some of the environmental injustices people around the world encounter. Again, I suggest that they could (should?) regularly financially support food, development, or water organizations serving international communities suffering from environmental injustice.

I am certainly concerned about issues of environmental justice and incorporate them into some of my courses. Nevertheless, I am convinced that there are many other ways and resources for achieving this goal. I look forward to learning from the rest of the workshop participants as we try to creatively expand our pedagogical strategies for teaching about environmental justice.

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