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Philosophy and the Environment

Educational Literacy in the Context of Environmental Ethics

Roger J.H. King
University of Maine

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ABSTRACT: I explore the concept of literacy and the role it might play in environmental ethics. One of the goals of environmental ethics is to describe and contribute to the creation of an ecologically responsible culture. The creation of such a culture requires the development of knowledge and abilities that will help sustain such a culture. Since education is one of the key institutions for instilling values and world views, it is important for environmental philosophers to think about the institutionalization of environmental theories in terms of their implications for the environmentally literate person. I argue that attention to literacy is significant for two reasons. First, it provides one way of evaluating the differences between competing environmental philosophies. Second, it raises the important question of what kind of person is required to carry out a particular vision of environmental responsibility. By addressing the issue of education and literacy, philosophers interested in environmental ethics can help create a vision of citizens who have democratically internalized and integrated environmental values and priorities rather than having them imposed from above.

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Environmental ethics presents us with a plurality of different theoretical positions, from sophisticated forms of anthropocentrism to competing views of ecofeminism and social ecology to various versions of biocentrism. The ethical discussions these positions have prompted reveal how difficult it is to extend or revise existing moral traditions in a manner that appears both plausible and socially legitimate to mainstream audiences. Traditional human-centered world views have a strong hold on the minds and habits of action of citizens in Western industrialized societies, as well as in many others. Since the utopian goal of many philosophers interested in environmental ethics is the creation of an environmentally responsible and just culture, it is incumbent upon us to think critically about how various environmental ethical positions might be integrated with and institutionalized within the existing societies we know and experience.

In so far as we frame one goal of environmental ethics to be the nurturing of an ecological culture, we must begin to ask how such a culture can be brought about. Clearly, environmental values and priorities must be institutionalized within a responsible society. But this suggests that environmental philosophy needs to examine the role to be played by education and educational institutions in the development of an environmentally responsible society. Education plays a major role in fostering the abilities and values of citizens. We should, therefore, ask how environmental aspirations ought to affect the goals of education.

I shall use the concept of "literacy" quite broadly to refer to the goals of the educational process. Environmental philosophers need to think through an image of the environmentally literate person as an integral part of doing environmental ethics. There are two reasons for saying this. First, environmental values must become an intimate part of the beliefs and aspirations of individual citizens if environmental responsibility is to grow in democratic soil and not from the imposition of what Andre Gorz refers to as "technofascism." (1) An environmental culture must also be a just culture in which citizens identify with and participate in the process of living a life in sustainable relationship to nature. We must, therefore, be concerned about how environmental values are incorporated into a vision of educational literacy.

My second reason for focussing on the issue of literacy and its links to environmental ethics has to do with ethics itself. One way to ramify and evaluate competing ethical theories about human relations to nature is to ask how these theories might be implemented in existing societies. What kind of person is required to carry out the particular ethical vision? What kind of educational system would be required to develop and sustain such people and give them the resources, motivation, and encouragement they need to be environmentally responsible, as this is understood by the theory in question? At the end of this paper, I shall provide a brief example of how a difference in ethical viewpoint may have implications for a conception of literacy, and how this could help us to evaluate the relevance of the theory.

I have suggested that a conception of literacy is an important part of environmental ethics. But literacy is a problematic concept with a variety of definitions. Recent discussions in the United States have tended to define literacy either in functional terms, as the ability to read and write, or in cultural terms, as the mastering and possession of "cultural capital" needed to claim full membership in educated society. Neither of these approaches is particularly satisfactory for environmental ethics.

In my view, we need what might be called a "utopian" conception of literacy that reduces neither to the minimal functional requirements for living in contemporary industrial society, nor to the acquisition of the mainstream knowledge and aspirations of the cultural elites of already existing societies. From the perspective of environmental ethics and philosophy, the knowledge, aspirations, and dynamics of contemporary society are among the problems to be addressed by education, not the givens to which the educational system must accomodate itself.

As philosophers, our problem is to identify the theoretical framework within which we can think successfully about environmental literacy as an educational goal. The problem initially appears to be a question of knowledge; what do we need to know in order to sustain an environmentally responsible society? But this question is too narrow. I shall argue that a philosophically sound definition of environmental literacy will include more than access to certain kinds of knowledge and cognitive skills. It must help us to understand how to integrate knowledge with other aspects of the human person in an ecologically responsible fashion. Literate individuals must not only know, but they must be able to apply their knowledge in appropriate ways — that is, in the right way, at the right time, and with respect to the right situations, to echo Aristotle.

My assertion that more than knowledge is involved in the description of the environmentally literate person may appear problematic. But it is consistent with the claim of Aldo Leopold, one of the formative figures in the history of American thinking about the environment, that no important ethical change will take place "without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions." (2) If Leopold is correct, environmental literacy as an educational goal should contribute to changes in personal loyalties, affections, and convictions, as well as levels of scientific knowledge. Such an educational goal is utopian in the sense that it sets before us an ideal of integrated human thought, feeling, and action that is difficult to fully imagine, let alone achieve through the schools. It is an ideal that suggests the elimination of the kinds of internal conflict that are a familiar feature of everyday life.

A multi-dimensional conception of literacy also takes into account the emotional, perceptual, and motivational aspects of a person that play a crucial role in our ability to interpret our experiences and arrive at intelligent decisions. As Lawrence Blum has noted, moral judgment in particular presupposes a process of moral perception that both defines the situation at hand and aids in the connection between situation, moral generalizations, and the concrete judgments and choices of the particular moment. (3) This framework can, of course, be extended to include non-moral contexts of judgment as well.

Environmental literacy in this full-blown sense becomes central to an environmental ethics because it draws our attention to the full range of human actions, beliefs, and emotions, and proposes that we seek the appropriate internal as well as external transformations needed for environmental sustainability and justice.

The need for this conception is apparent in the everyday experience of internal conflict in our own outlooks. Conflicts and confusion are no doubt part of the human condition. But the in the context of the environmental crisis, the conflicts we experience between what we know and how we feel and act are particularly dangerous and require philosophical attention. We are well aware that people's speech and action frequently contradict each other. Indeed, I would argue that often what appear to be cases of weakness of will are instead symptoms of conflicting, but unresolved, commitments and judgments. For example, a person believes that automobile exhaust has negative effects on air quality, yet votes against taxes to increase public transportation and against policies that would restrict private use of cars. This individual's knowledge of the scientific facts fails to operate in their personal and political behavior. At the same time, their personal and political choices reflect commitments that are not addressed by their scientific literacy. Similarly, a person who adamantly rejects the animal rights notion of a relevant similarity between human beings and non-human beings may betray this stated belief in their treatment of their pets or in their admiration of the abilities of some species of wild animal. As with the first case, the person here gives verbal judgments that differ from their actions and their actions express commitments that belie their verbal judgments.

My point is not to deny that an environmentally responsible society needs citizens with knowledge about how they affect the nonhuman environment. There is no doubt that some of the harms we have caused to the integrity of natural processes are due to ignorance of the nature and magnitude of our impacts. Better knowledge of materials, species, systems, and causal interdependencies is something that citizens, as well as politicians and professionals, should aspire to obtain. Environmental literacy does not, therefore, exclude this more traditional conception of literacy as knowledge.

But, at the same time, this is not enough. An environmentally responsible society also needs people able and willing to integrate their knowledge with their own expressive and practical commitments, preferences, and aspirations. If individuals remain fundamentally divided within themselves about where they stand on matters relating to the natural environment, sophisticated scientific discourse will not be sufficient to build a sustainable culture. A living culture presupposes the internal engagement of its members in many dimensions. Thus, knowledge must find support and coherence in action and expressive judgment too.

The American pragmatist philosopher, Justus Buchler, gives us one way to formulate the difficulties with a conception of literacy, even environmental literacy, that is restricted to the cognitive, to knowledge and reason. According to Buchler, individuals make judgments that express their commitments and their position in the world in several different modes. (4) We usually associate "judgment" with verbal utterances, but Buchler argues that judgments also take the form of expressive contrivances or performances and actions. In the two examples mentioned earlier, the individual presents us with contradictory judgments, saying one thing and doing another. For Buchler, it is a mistake to privilege the verbal statement as conveying the person's definitive judgment. Instead, we should look for the source of the contradiction in outlook expressed by conflicting verbal and active judgments. It may be that the person is unaware of their conflicting beliefs. Or they may in fact be uncertain where they actually wish to stand on the issue.

Buchler's tripartite division of judgment makes it possible to see how a culture can complicate the educational process and thus the hopes of attaining literacy. Not only may the students reveal conflicting and competing commitments themselves, through their speech, performances, and actions, but teachers and those with authority within the culture at large may do so as well. Thus, spoken adherence to freedom and equality may be accompanied with a demeanor or with overt actions that actively discourage or negate them. Similarly, even sincere verbal assurances of "green" sentiments often accompany actions that are merely environmentally destructive business as usual.

I would like to see environmental literacy formulated as an element of a utopian ideal in which knowledge, expressiveness, and action are consonant with one another. In order to do this, steps must be taken to root out what Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, refers to as the voice of the oppressor, the voice naming values and ideals — reality in general — that is internalized by victims of oppression, but without their participation and in disregard for their interests. (5) In the case of environmental literacy, the "voice of the oppressor" is the voice of the mainstream of an anthropocentric consumer culture that is obsessed with economic growth at any cost. The "internal change" that Aldo Leopold talks about first requires us to combat this other internalized voice. The utopian ideal of an environmentally responsible literacy requires a person who can rid themselves of the internal conflicts that result from this inner voice which speaks in contradiction to scientific knowledge and environmentally inclusive moral aspirations. The literate person will be one who can reconcile their verbalized knowledge with their expressive productions, and with their overt active conduct. But to be able to do this, education must aim for more than just knowledge.

What more is needed for our utopian conception of environmental literacy, then, besides scientific literacy? Let me point to two distinct philosophical projects to answer this question. First, individuals must learn to develop a sense of relatedness to place and to the nonhuman environment. How we alter and shape the natural environment says a great deal about our understanding of our relationship to the nonhuman world. The built environment, in particular, is the product of human contrivance, that is, a human product that reveals our stance in the world. If we are to develop an environmentally responsible culture, we must become self-conscious about the judgments we make through our constructions, our shapings, and our improvements. If, as William James maintained, the meaning of our beliefs is found in the difference they make, then the meaning of our concrete relationships to place is revealed in the differences they make to the place itself as well as to our presence there. Public transportation routes that do not connect richer and poorer communities, zoning laws that permit development of wetlands, commercial development of fertile farmland, pollution of drinking water all reveal the difference our beliefs make about class structure or the value of nature. An ecologically responsible society must understand literacy — the goal of education — as extending beyond the verbal statements of specialized knowledge to the often contradictory manifestations of our beliefs in the products of human enterprise.

Second, I suggest that our relationship to place, together with our cognitive, expressive, and moral judgments must be integrated through new narrative structures that help us to formulate our expectations of how life and its various stages and forms is supposed to work out. Education aimed at environmental literacy must include attention to the need to revise our "naming" vocabulary and our moral narratives about the relationship between human beings and nature. Students and citizens must come to view their personal identities, their community boundaries, their employment aspirations, their recreational pursuits, and their political practices within the context of narratives that describe and portray sustainable relationships with nature. One of the tasks of environmental ethics may be seen here, namely, to articulate new narrative forms, new metaphors, and a new vocabulary for speaking about the world, expressing oneself within it, and acting to modify it. Environmental literacy can only be pursued in the light of these prior philosophical accomplishments, because our conception of literacy inevitably presupposes a particular set of philosophically articulated values and perspectives.

Any attempt to define a conception of environmental literacy — utopian as I have argued that it is — is complicated by the discourse of environmental ethics itself. Since literacy can only be defined relative to a vision of the goals to be attained by such educational achievement, the divisions within environmental ethics make a final analysis of environmental literacy as yet impossible. Clearly, ecofeminists will emphasize different educational goals than utilitarians or deep ecologists. While the knowledge required for environmental literacy may remain relatively constant, the kinds and degrees of educational focus on our expressive and active judgment may very well vary significantly.

Time and the ultimately arbitrary delimitation of spatial boundaries make it difficult to remain satisfied with a fixed conception of intrinsic value or with a fixed set of educational aspirations. As Holmes Rolston has noted with respect to species, ecosystems, human communities, and indeed individual persons exist as temporal flows rather than as metaphysically fixed entities with clearly defined limits and membership. (6) Existing both in discrete forms and as tendencies and potentialities susceptible to chaotic interaction and change, both nature and human beings are dynamic forms not easily fixed without reference to specific purposes and needs.

The implications of this for environmental literacy — that is, for the project of thinking through the institutionalization and internalization of environmental ethical values — are significant. Increasing ecological knowledge, developing a sense of place, re-working the moral narratives that structure expectations and actions are goals that must be understood within a temporal framework. Rather than seeking to fix a specific content, our educational goal must be to acquire the cognitive, affective, perceptual, and practical abilities necessary to insert ourselves actively and sustainably into the temporal flow of existing human communities and natural ecosystems.

At the beginning of this paper, I indicated that differences in philosophical theory would reveal themselves in their implications for education. The particular image I have just referred to, of inserting ourselves into the dynamic flow of an ecosystem or a human community, runs counter to some expressions of biocentrism, just as it runs counter to some expressions of conservativism in the political arena. It is true that conservative theorists of education understand cultural literacy as a kind of insertion into the existing community. The literate person becomes a member of the community by adopting and working with its prevailing ideas and norms. But such a perspective ignores the dynamic character of the community and seeks to prevent future change and evolution that conflicts with the interests expressed by the mainstream.

The biocentrist represents a different kind of challenge. The biocentric path within environmental ethics is a reaction to the traditional devaluation of nature as an instrumental domain. To avoid reducing the value of nonhuman beings and systems to their use value for humans, the biocentrist argues for some form of intrinsic value that distinguishes nature in its own right. From a moral point of view, then, it becomes morally wrong to violate the intrinsic value of nature, especially those aspects of nature that remain wild and untouched by human activity. The logic of biocentrism calls for a hands-off strategy with respect to nature; humans should not insert themselves into the dynamic flow of ecosystems, because to do so is to change, domesticate, and humanize them.

In order to institutionalize the moral values of a biocentric environmental ethics we would need to develop cognitive, emotive, and perceptual skills that would enable us to withdraw as much as possible from active interaction with the nonhuman world. The literate person would be one in whom scientific knowledge was well integrated with expressive and active judgments that minimized or erased the human presence. At the present time, it is hard to see how such a vision of literacy could be institutionalized within our current culture in a just and democratic manner.

Time does not permit a full discussion of biocentrism or its alternatives. Since I have suggested that environmental literacy should enable individuals to insert themselves into the dynamic flow of natural ecosystems in a responsible and sustainable fashion, it should be clear that I am not proposing a biocentric point of view. The contrast of the two positions may serve, however, to underscore the way in which one's ethical theory sets the agenda for one's conception of environmental literacy. It also suggests how we might use the topic of environmental literacy as a way of testing the fruitfulness of various positions in environmental ethics in more detail.

My goal in this paper has been to present a case for thinking about environmental literacy as an element of environmental ethics. It may indeed be one way of reflecting on and evaluating the competing arguments and visions of the many theories currently discussed within the field of environmental ethics. I have argued, in addition, that when we do investigate the concept of literacy, we should acknowledge the dynamic character of individuals, communities, and nature itself. A utopian conception of literacy that holds up a prescriptive goal for the educational process should address not only our knowledge and beliefs, but also our ability to make expressive and active judgments through our creations and our behavior. This goal of an integrated stance in the world is crucial if we are to address the ambivalence, the contradictory impulses, and the confusion we now manifest in our approach to an environmentally responsible culture.

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(1) Andre Gorz, Ecology as Politics (Boston: South End Press, 1980), p. 17.

(2) Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, with Essays from Round River, A Sierra Club/Ballantine Book (Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 246.

(3) Lawrence Blum, "Moral Perception and Particularity" in Moral Perception and Particularity (Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 30-56.

(4) cf. Justus Buchler, Nature and Judgment (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1955); and Toward a General Theory of Human Judgment, 2nd ed. (New York: Dover Publications, 1951).

(5) Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, translated by Myra Bergman Ramus (New York: Continuum, 1983), pp. 27-56.

(6) Holmes Rolston III, "Environmental Values in and Duties to the Natural World" in Ecology, Economics, Ethics: The Broken Circle, eds. Herbert Bormann and Stephen Kellert (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), pp. 82-96.

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