An Ecological Approach to Environmental Ethics

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Temple University Libraries]On: 20 November 2014, At: 01:50Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number:1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street,London W1T 3JH, UK

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    An Ecological Approach toEnvironmental EthicsJ. Mitchell O'ToolePublished online: 29 Mar 2010.

    To cite this article: J. Mitchell O'Toole (2002) An Ecological Approach toEnvironmental Ethics, International Research in Geographical and EnvironmentalEducation, 11:1, 48-53, DOI: 10.1080/10382040208667463

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  • ForumAn Ecological Approach to EnvironmentalEthics

    J. Mitchell OTooleUniversity of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia

    This paper serves as an introduction to the Forum on Environmental Ethics. The Forumis built around contributions to the Environmental Ethics Symposium within the 10thPacific Science Inter-Congress, held in Guam, USA 16 June 2001. The contributions tothe Symposium differed in commitment and intent and this diversity has beenenhanced by the addition of several additional papers to this Forum. The papersuggests a view of action as resulting from the interaction between often unexaminedvalues, goes on to comment on the role of values in science classrooms,and applies bothto a general treatmentof Environmental Ethics. The paper then positions the remainingcontributions to the Forum and concludes with a substantial bibliography whichshould prove useful to any readers wishing to dip deeper into Environmental Ethics.

    Values are a Problematical Area in Modern Pluralist SocietiesEthics and values often seem too difficult for secular educational institutions

    in pluralist societies. There is no doubt that explicit discussion of them canprovoke such controversy that cautious managers often resolve to avoid futureopen value judgements. However, this is a futile hope. Values drive the decisionswe make and we leave them implicit at our peril. The interaction of unexaminedvalues have a habit of producing behaviour which we later come to regret(Bracey, 2001; Vincent, 2000).

    1038-2046/02/01 0048-06 $20.00/0 2002 J.M. OTooleInternational Research in Geographical and Environmental Education Vol. 11, No. 1, 2002

    48

    Figure 1 Action is the result of an interplay of values

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  • Much of the conflict and controversy comes from the fact that action resultsfrom interacting values which may not always be consistent (see Figure 1). Thisproduces discomfort which in turn produces anxiety which then can producestrong responses in defence of internal confusion. There is an ecology of valueswhich leads to action. The things people do are often the product of temporaryresults of multi-dimensional tensions.

    Education in particular is a value-soaked undertaking, and this is increasinglyrecognised by those responsible for state-sanctioned schooling (see e.g. Boston,2000; Cavalier & Winder, 1988). The role our schools play in forming the char-acter of those who attend them is also widely recognised (Doyle, 1977; Hill, 1991;Kohn, 1997ab; Lickona, 1998; McHenry, 2000; Ruetschlin, 2001; Sizer & Sizer,1999).

    Science teachers, in particular, have long resisted explicit treatment of ethicalissues. This is somewhat surprising, as they have been more enthusiastic thanmost in their use of Blooms taxonomy and values and attitudes form the heartof his affective domain (Krathwohl et al., 1964: 30). One of the early reviewers ofthis field described her work as searching for a literature (Solomon, 1990:106).

    Explicit discussion of values in science classes began, and continues, as thediscussion of social or controversial issues (Dawson, 2001; Evans & McCann,1993; Pike, 1993; Van Rooy, 1993, 1994, 2000) such as mining (Pedretti, 1999),biotechnology (Nicholas, 2001; Romeo, 2000; Spenceley, 1997) and other interac-tions of science, technology and society (Smith, 1991). Environmental Educationwas one of the first areas to firmly push science teachers in the direction ofexplicit treatment of values (see e.g. DofE, 1990: 8, 6674; Marek & Chiodo, 1994).Issues of value in science are now being more deliberately addressed (Allchin,1999; Reiss, 1999). There has been interest from some predictable quarters(Ashrif, 1998; Fysh & Lucas, 1998; Gauld, 2000; Hill, 1996, 2000; Poole, 1995) butconcern is by no means limited to people writing from positions of religiouscommitment. Gender concerns lead science teachers to consider value issuesdirectly (Ashley, 1999), as does consideration of technological development(Pinkus et al., 1997), the status of science in modern societies (Corones, 2000), itsrole in development (Cross & Price, 1992, Crosthwaite, 2001, Istock & Hoffman,1995), issues of the nature of science itself (Cross, 1999), peoples attitudes to it(De La Rue & Gardner, 1996) and its potential for the promotion of rationality(Knain, 1999; Volkmann & Eichinger, 1999). Those interested in issues of valuesand ethics in science education need no longer search for a literature.

    Environmental EthicsThe environment, and questions surrounding its exploitation and/or conser-

    vation, has been a continuing source of controversial issues for the scienceclassroom. It has also been an area of educational research in its own right (Hart& Nolan, 1999). Ecology has changed the way we think about our place in theworld by increasing our understanding of the connections between the livingand non-living components of the environments which sustain us. There aresome who claim that it needs also to change the values we hold and the ways wemanage the interaction between them (Suzuki & McConnell, 1997).

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  • We are an intrusive species. The first people to live in the geological basin onwhich I grew up reached an understanding with their land, but they did not leavetheir environment unchanged. They changed as that environment changed andthey could do this because they were few and the changes they caused were slow.The present inhabitants of that basin are many and the changes they bring aboutare very rapid. We will change the land we occupy and we need to decide howbest to do so. We need to decide which changes are necessary to minimise unin-tended consequences. Such decisions will be driven by tension between thevalues held by different sections of our complex community. Resolving thetensions can be made simpler if the values driving the different sections are madeclear and rational choice between them is possible. Our community will choosewhich way to act, but whether that choice will be made after free flow of informa-tion and informed debate is less sure. Environmental campaigns depend onforming the opinions of voters and policy makers (Hutton & Connors, 1999) andoften that depends on clever use of scientists and the informationthey produce.

    There is an extensive literature on environmental education and much of itdeals with the connections (and disjunctions) between knowledge, value andaction. A recent review of the field referred to the change towards more positiveenvironmental attitudes among people of all ages after exposure to some form,almost any form, of environmental education experience whether short or longterm (Hart & Nolan, 1999:7). However, this hopeful prognosis raises the distinc-tion between espoused and enacted values. Attitudinal change may well bemerely at the level of espoused value and not have sufficient force to draw theindividuals value web towards change in action. Hart and Nolans usefulsurvey of environmental education research leads them to the same thought.They note a rhetoric-reality gap (Hart & Nolan, 1999: 25) and that some studiesdo not show comfortably positive student outcomes, teacher courses do notalways lead to classroom change, student enjoyment does not guaranteeincreased motivation beyond the classroom, and that disjunctions betweenknowledge, value and action may not be overcome simply (Hart & Nolan, 1999:8, 14, 21, 28). They note the assumption that appropriate information from acredible source and a legitimate opportunity to act will result in action (Hart &Nolan, 1999: 19) does not appear to be well founded.

    Recognition of the complexity of the situation may give us a handle on theproblem we face. People differ but there are generalisations which can allow us toact. Knowledge alone will not change values but knowledge and experience can.Espoused values need not change action but further experience can transformespoused values into enacted ones. This process is made more transparent ifpeople are given the tools to explicitly discuss their values and recognise those ofothers when they are put into action. Much of this work has been done withbiomedical ethics, where the four values of autonomy, justice, beneficenceand non-maleficence have been found to be useful starting points (Beauchamp& Childress, 1994; Engebretson & Elliott, 1995: 94). A recent study of adolescentgirls responses to bioethical dilemmas (Dawson & Taylor, 1999) suggested thatparticipants may have placed greater weight on autonomy than they did uponthe other three values. That adolescents should base their decisions on their owninterests and those of people with whom they identify is hardly a revolutionaryfinding. However, it does give some insight into why changing their knowledge

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  • base may not bring about a change in their behaviour (see also Ratcliffe, 1998).Earlier studies of adolescent opinion regarding biotechnology (reported inGunter et al., 1998) indicated that student exposure to detailed cases which theyare able to discuss in some detail can result in movement towards socially domi-nant positions. This may not give much comfort to those of us who wish ourstudents to move against such positions!

    Specific Interactions of Values in Environmental ContextsIssues involving ethics and values are rarely simple. Environmental ethics are

    often the product of cultural commitments and these can impact on individualsas they act in response to the tensions between their particular differing values.Commentatorsfrom outside the culture concerned need to take care as they try tounderstand the actions taken by particular groups of people. The first pair ofpapers which follows deals with situations in Micronesia and Polynesia,pointing out that actions which may seem inexplicable or unwise to outsidershave their own internal logic. Perhaps we should be readier to listen and slowerto advise. The second pair of papers deals with responses to environmentaldegradation which draw on explicitly religious commitments. The tendency ofacademic ethicists to distance themselves from more unsophisticated beliefswhich are widely held can blind us to the depth of impact of religious belief onvalue ecologies. The third pair of papers deals with the legal frameworks withinwhich environmental decisions are made and the role which coercion, or itsabsence, can have upon the environmental context upon which we all depend.Gentle persuasion may not be enough to protect the common basis of our life andcomfort in the places we live. The fourth, and final, pair of papers looks at theclassroom context, calling for a sensitive response to the cultural diversity ofmodern classrooms and providing a specific example of classroom materialwhich can encourage moral reasoning among students.

    Increased knowledge is not enough to lead to changed action. However, it canform an important part of the insight into experience which does change enactedvalues. Students, and the citizens into which they grow, often act on unexaminedvalues which rest on incorrect or incomplete information. Those of us who workin school contexts have the opportunity to supply better information and to havesome impact on students experiences over a period of years. Those of us whowork in tertiary contexts have less access to our students lives, but the access is ofthe same sort. Those of us who produce the information for others who will makeeffective decisions have particular responsibilities. All of us will benefit if wemake our values explicit and learn to manage the tensions between them. Theethical web need not remain unconscious.

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