A Short Course in Environmental Ethics
An Autobiography of your Relationship with the
By Keith Douglass Warner OFM, with David DeCosse
To start a journey into environmental ethics, begin with what
you know. One of the best ways to become aware of what you already
know about environmental ethics is to write an autobiography of
your relationship with the earth. Ethics is a matter of connecting
head and heart. But too often ethical reasoning becomes detached
from our experience, emotions, feelings, and deepest if unacknowledged
commitments. By telling the story of the history of your relationship
with the earth, you can better reflect on why we value the natural
world as we do. And by reflecting on these deeper commitments
of the heart, you can better refine our ethical reasoning about
The great American environmentalist Aldo
Leopold said in Sand County Almanac that "we can be ethical
only in relation to something that we can see, feel, understand,
love, or otherwise have faith in." In light of Leopold's
comment, we invite you in the course of writing this autobiography
to think of the earth in imaginative, personified terms. Has your
relationship with the earth been a relationship with a friend
or stranger? Or sometime friend and sometime stranger? Using Leopold's
terminology, ask yourself the following questions. How do you
"see" the earth? Is it beautiful or ugly or somewhere
in between? What do you "feel" about the natural world?
Do you feel joy or sorrow, pain or pleasure about animals or sunsets
or white-capped waves? Do you "understand" the natural
world and how its components are related? Or are its ways foreign?
Do you "love" the earth - or do you feel alien from
it? Do you care for its well-being, feel for its suffering, want
to heal its wounds? Or does thinking about the earth in such terms
seem inaccurate and far-fetched? And, to use the last of Leopold's
terms, do you have "faith" in the earth? Perhaps this
is a religious faith? Or perhaps this is faith in the sense that
you count on the earth to provide well for your life? Or perhaps
the earth is faithless, a fickle friend at best? The first step
in writing the autobiography of your relationship with the earth
is to jot down responses to these questions.
The next step is an exercise in gathering additional information
out of which to shape your autobiography. In this step, you should
jot down responses to the following questions:
What is your most significant experience of nature? An experience
undertaken in the course of work or recreation or other? Are there
one or two experiences of an encounter with the natural world
that stand out in memory? Close your eyes and remember the sights,
smells, and feelings of being in a place where you felt intimate
with nature, and then write up notes that explain why that place
on that day allowed you to relate to the Earth in a special way.
How has your relationship with the earth been affected by your
family history? By the experience of your parents, grandparents,
and forebears? By how they came to own and to use property? Did
your family go on camping trips? Or did your family hunt? Did
your family teach you to care for the Earth and its creatures?
Was your family vegetarian and, if so, why? Has an environmental
crisis ever affected you or your family?
Has there been a book, movie, song, or course you have taken that
has affected deeply how you think about the earth? Has religion
played a role - positive or negative - in how you experience your
relationship with the earth?
What have been some of the most significant economic, social,
cultural, or political developments that have affected how you
experience the earth?
With Steps One and Two complete, you now have the raw materials
from which create the autobiography of your relationship with
the earth. Think over the notes that you have jotted down. Reflect
on what is most significant, on patterns, on what most moves you.
Take special note of the question of motive: Why, more than anything
else, have you come to value the earth as you do? There is no
right answer to this question. You may value the earth a lot or
not much at all. And how you value the earth may well change in
the future. But the goal now is simply to tell your own story,
whatever that is, of why you have come to value the earth as you
do. With the question of motive especially in mind, then, please
write a 5-page autobiography of your relationship with the earth.
After finishing your autobiography, consider the following questions:
- What have you learned about how you have come to place a
value on the natural world? Did anything surprise you in your
- What, more than anything else, is the basis for the value
you put on the natural world? And what is the basis for how
you view environmental issues?
- Are you satisfied with the story of your relationship with
the natural world? Are there aspects of your thinking that
you would like to work on?
- Please read aloud to a friend or classmates a key passage
from your autobiography.
Keith Warner, OFM, is the Assistant Director for Education,
Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University
David DeCosse is the Director of Campus Ethics Programs at the
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics
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