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Ethics in Action: Adopting an Environmental Practice

Originally appears in the Spring 2006 issue

Environmental ethics are the root of environmental education and ground the promise that we can restore and maintain a healthy balance between humans and all other life, including Earth’s living systems. Yet, while environmental ethics courses often address theories of our duty to the natural world, they are less eloquent on the question of what motivates people to act and why people fail to act. Our students frequently say that they feel overwhelmed by their sense of environmental crisis and that they perceive their own actions as insignificant, a feeling that causes apathy and inaction. Many environmentalists interpret this inaction as humanity’s inherent selfishness or shortsightedness. We reject this fatalistic worldview. Instead, we choose to believe that inaction often stems from the simple fact that, feeling overwhelmed, students do not know where to start. We have created an experiential assignment that allows college students to explore these questions of motivation and at the same time enhances their motivation to act. Because the question of motivation applies to all ages, and the answers that the students discover are personal ones, the assignment would be appropriate for K–12 students as well.


In this assignment, students are asked to modify a current habit and/or adopt some regular action that they think will improve the health of their environment or the Earth. We have run the assignment for different periods, ranging from a few weeks to several months. The assignment has two purposes. First, it encourages students to reflect on the relationship between their habits and their values and allows them to discover how easily they can adopt an action that they believe will improve the health of the Earth. Second, by showing them the effectiveness of their actions, the assignment demonstrates to students that they personally can make a difference.

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John P. Engel teaches in the Department of Environmental Studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, and advises graduate students at Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona. Daniel Sturgis teaches in the Departments of Philosophy and Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado.