An Interdisciplinary Reflection on Environmental Ethics: Changing Human Behavior through a Partnership between the Humanities and the Sciences

By Robert S. Ross

In the 2008-2009 academic year I designed, organized, and led Florida State University’s Faculty Luncheon Series entitled “Unity in Diversity: An Academic Community Reflects on Environmental Ethics.” The series featured eight different speakers, four in each of two semesters, and was distinctly interdisciplinary with speakers representing the academic disciplines of oceanography, economics, law, psychology, history, philosophy, religion, and art. The speakers included Florida State University professors Jeffrey Chanton (oceanography), Frederick Davis (history), R. Mark Isaac (economics), James Justus (philosophy), J. B. Ruhl (law), and Anne Stagg (art); and Paul S. Deitchman, a practicing clinical psychologist; as well as Pamela McVety, a biologist and Presbyterian environmental activist. Brief bios for each speaker are included in the anthology of papers from the series which may be viewed at the link,

Gulf oil slick from space. Photo from NASA.
Gulf oil slick from space. Photo from NASA.

Just over one year after the environmental ethics series concluded, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred very close to “home” in the Gulf of Mexico, when for 87 days crude oil spewed unchecked into the ocean, polluting  the water, killing wildlife, and seriously impacting the economy of the region. This tragic event added an alarming punctuation mark to our deliberations on the need for a viable ethic for protecting the environment.

It is imperative for a coherent understanding of our modern world, and indeed for its survival, that the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities communicate in a meaningful way with each other. This is profoundly true for humanity’s ability to address climate change, which is rapidly becoming an issue that threatens to alter life as we know it on planet Earth. To date there has been much analysis and dialogue on this issue, but little in the way of meaningful changes in human behavior toward the environment. The goal of the environmental ethics series was to explore how the insights of the sciences and the humanities, as represented by the various speakers, might be combined in order to change those behaviors, and thus to ameliorate the serious threat that climate change poses for our planet. An extended discussion period after each speaker’s formal presentation allowed participants to integrate the insights of the presenters and to develop a framework for a coherent environmental ethic.

If it were not for the natural sciences it is doubtful that humanity would be having the conversation about climate change. Over a period of two centuries, scientific exploration has shown that certain naturally occurring gases trap outgoing radiation and thus make our planet considerably warmer than it would be otherwise. Significant among these gases is carbon dioxide, and in 1896 Arrhenius published the first calculation of global warming from human emissions of carbon dioxide. In 1938 Callendar argued that carbon dioxide-driven global warming was indeed underway, reviving interest in the issue. In modern times complex numerical models have predicted future rises in global temperatures due to anthropogenic gaseous emissions, and observations to date have largely confirmed those predictions. Scientific findings have provided the foundation for five reports (beginning in 1990) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); these reports have consistently stated that global warming is underway, warned   of its future detrimental effects, and implicated human activity as its major cause. The first speaker in the environmental ethics series, oceanographer Jeffrey Chanton, summarized the alarming trends in our climate. The increased carbon load in the atmosphere and oceans has already led to an increase in the planetary temperature resulting in dramatic decreases in the extent and cover of sea ice in summer in the Arctic Ocean, the rapid retreat of Arctic and mountain glaciers across five continents, and sea-level rises that are expected to reach 15-17 inches by the end of this century. The latter will lead to flooding of coastal areas and the potential disappearance of small island nations.

Even though the natural sciences are indispensable for describing the alarming changes that are occurring in the natural environment, the environmental ethics series concluded that they are not equipped to establish mechanisms for changing society’s behaviors, or to formulate a comprehensive environmental ethic. Almost every year, the natural sciences announce that the previous year was the warmest on record globally and that the coverage of sea ice in summer in the Arctic Ocean has reached historic lows. If these reports cause alarm in the public consciousness, so far they have not proven to be sufficient to motivate a major change in human behavior toward the environment.  The potential to change behaviors in the social life of human groups is deeply rooted in an understanding of the complex structures of politics, international relations, law, economics, psychology, etc., and these areas are the province of the social sciences. The series concluded that the natural sciences are best equipped to tell society what needs to change in its treatment of the environment, while the social sciences are best positioned to inform society about how those changes might be brought about. In the environmental ethics series, the social science fields of economics, psychology, and law were represented.

Economics is often invoked in the climate change debate to argue that it would be too costly to make the changes necessary to slow or reverse climate change. Those who make that argument never seem to consider the cost of doing nothing to address the climate problem. In the environmental ethics series it was important to get the input from an expert in economics in order to gain an intelligent and balanced assessment of the potential role of economics in changing human behavior. Economist R. Mark Isaac immediately focused the discussion by raising the important question of how we may be able to apply a personal ethos of moral behavior toward the natural environment in an economic environment with its complex interconnectedness of production and distribution processes, as well as marketing. He indicated that economists call us to a careful analysis of the very complicated process of environmental protection so that we don’t replace a robust environmental ethic with “bumper sticker” sloganeering. From the economist’s point of view most environmental problems occur because property rights are poorly defined. Economists consider a wide variety of approaches to create property rights and market-like systems. They also engage in bargaining and negotiation among affected parties. In these efforts there is no single quick fix or policy choice that will completely resolve any given problem. A complicating factor is that the information needed to solve a problem needs to be centralized, whereas knowledge tends to be decentralized. There are normally tradeoffs between a decision to protect the environment and other desirable societal goals. Human behavior is not static, and changes in policy designed to protect the environment may have unexpected consequences. Technological systems may also be more complicated than we assume. Further, we may assume that events are in a cause and effect relationship when they are only correlated. In this regard, we may ask if climate change is caused by human activity, or if it is simply correlated with that activity. The speaker concluded that in all these areas, economics as a social science calls us to take seriously the facts of the human dimensions of environmental protection, just as the natural sciences beckon us to take seriously the facts about the physical dimensions of the environment.

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The breathtaking beauty of our planetary home is crucial to the human spirit. Photos via

Ultimately, harm to the natural environment comes about from the collective detrimental practices of the earth’s seven billion inhabitants. In the FSU series, clinical psychologist Paul Deitchman offered hope that the insights of psychology might be applied to better understand and change human behaviors. Changing such behaviors is a very complicated process involving the individual’s socialization, incentives and constraints, as well as basic values, worldviews, attitudes, and beliefs about the environment. Psychology may consider behavioral, cognitive, and social psychological approaches in dealing with this problem. Just as in our relationship to self and to others, our relationship to the environment is enhanced by living a more conscious, deliberate, and reflective life, one that is not primarily driven by reactions to triggers and automatic thoughts and habits. The concept of healing ourselves and healing the earth as parallel processes is the focus of a very promising new area of psychotherapy called “eco-therapy.” Deitchman brought the important message from psychology that human beings can make significant changes in how they behave toward each other and toward the natural environment.

According to law professor J. B. Ruhl the legal concept of environmental justice seeks to ensure that the distribution of environmental harms and benefits remains equitable by considering all issues, regions, races, and income levels. The field developed in the 1990’s and has undergone an uneasy transition since then. Beginning largely as a body of law designed to deal with civil rights violations related to unequal enforcement of environmental protections, particularly for urban minority populations, the field has expanded to include both rural and international populations, and has concerned itself with a broader set of issues that extends beyond the pollution of facilities to the discussion of free trade and global climate change. With these far-reaching changes, the law of environmental justice, in some respects, has stalled as a discreet source of remedy for environmental inequities. Further, it is no longer completely clear exactly what constitutes the body of environmental justice law.

The environmental ethics series concluded that a very significant development within academia that offers perhaps the best hope for changing human behavior is the rapidly growing field of environmental humanities. To solve our environmental problems, a new, vibrant, and functional ethic toward the environment is needed, and it is the humanities that have traditionally articulated humanity’s great wellspring of ethical thinking.  If the natural sciences are best equipped to inform society about what changes are needed in its treatment of the environment, and the social sciences are best suited to define how those changes might be brought about in society, the series concluded that the humanities are best able to engage in ethical reflection to explain why those changes are needed. Scholarship and teaching in the humanities and fine arts are critical in providing an opportunity to examine and rethink how we view the relations between humans and nonhuman nature through forms such as language, literature, rhetoric, art, religion, and history. In the environmental ethics series, the fields of history, philosophy, religion, and art were represented.

Our formulations about what constitutes ethical behavior toward the environment have traditionally been strongly influenced by our concepts of ecology, the relationship of all living things to each other and to the earth. This is an important example of the vital links that can exist between the humanities and the natural sciences. Historian Frederick Davis explained that our concepts of ecology have changed from the “Arcadian,” to the “Imperial,” and to the “Evolutionary” from the early 18th century to the present, leading to changing formulations of environmental ethics. The Arcadian concept of ecology stressed humankind’s intrinsic attachment to the land and advocated peaceful coexistence with other organisms in nature, seen as a beautiful whole created by divine Providence. Almost indistinguishable from this ecological view was an environmental ethic of cooperation with nature, reverence for nature and nature’s Creator, and the value of living a simple, humble life. For complex historical reasons involving the rise of modern western science and a particular reading of the book of Genesis in Judeo-Christian scriptures, the Arcadian view was transformed during the 18th and 19th centuries. The resulting Imperial ecological view was that humankind was superior to the rest of the natural order, leading to an environmental ethic of domination of the earth for humankind’s benefit. Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution by natural selection established the third major ecological viewpoint, in which humankind is seen as an integral part of nature and subject to the same forces of nature embodied in scientific theories and laws, and, as such, is engaged in a struggle for existence in common with all other species. The environmental ethic emanating from this ecological viewpoint is unclear. We can’t cooperate with nature (Arcadian) if we are engaged in a struggle for existence with other species, and we can’t dominate nature (Imperial) if we are an integral part of nature. The environmental ethics series concluded that perhaps our generation’s difficulty in developing a viable environmental ethic is partly due to the loss of a solid and clear link between ecology and ethics, as existed in the Arcadian and Imperial periods.

If biological science is silent regarding humankind’s formulation of a viable environmental ethic, the humanities disciplines of philosophy and religion may make important contributions toward filling the void.  Philosopher James Justus discussed the relative merits and practicalities of two competing human value systems with regard to the environment, intrinsic value versus instrumental value. When nature is viewed as having intrinsic value, the existence or flourishing of nature is considered to be a morally good thing independent of its relation or usefulness to anything else, including to humans. On the other hand, when nature is assigned instrumental value, its value is based on nature’s usefulness to other entities, particularly to humans. Some ethicists have argued that, despite the apparent nobility of the concept of intrinsic value, its application to the inevitable decision making in conservation becomes problematic. For example, intrinsic value should afford all species equal access to the Endangered Species Act. In practice, however, limitations in funding and personnel, as well as political and legal pressures, have forced agencies responsible for making listing decisions to assign priorities to species even though all are considered to be of equal intrinsic value. Comparative value is exactly what conservation decision making requires, according to proponents of instrumental value. Supporters of intrinsic value object to this approach on moral grounds, viewing all entities in nature as “sacred.” It became clear to series participants that there is an essential tension between the emotional appeal of intrinsic value and the sense of pragmatic trade off in values that instrumental ethicists believe is inevitable in conservation decision making.

The religious dimension of environmental ethics was addressed by Pam McVety, biologist, retired administrator in the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and Presbyterian environmental activist. During 2004-2006 she guided the rewrite of the Presbyterian denomination’s energy policy and successfully lobbied for the passage of a General Assembly Resolution calling on 2.4 million Presbyterians to go carbon neutral to fight climate change. In her luncheon presentation, McVety referenced both negative and positive aspects of religion’s impact on the environment. Writing in the 1960’s the historian Lynn White stated that “especially in its Western form, Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.” White stated that the view that all of nature exists for the sole benefit of humans represents a type of “Christian arrogance” that has penetrated the Western cultural outlook and has influenced the deliberations of all those Western institutions that would seek to solve the environmental crisis, even science and technology. But White also wrote that “since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious, whether we call it that or not.”1 As if responding to White, scholarly interest in the relationships among human cultures, religions, and the natural environment developed in the 1960’s, and by the 1980’s and 1990’s religious writings and teachings on environmental ethics started to expand and were given the name “eco-justice” by the faith community, providing an interesting parallel to the previously discussed legal concept of “environmental justice.” In 1986 in Assisi, Italy, leaders of the five major world religions met to define religious obligations to nature. In 1997 Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of more than 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world, became the first religious leader to denounce environmental abuse as a sin against God. By 2000 most mainline denominations were beginning to embrace eco-justice as an important element of their faith. In 2015 Pope Francis issued his sweeping and magisterial encyclical on the environment, “Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis, On Care for Our Common Home.” Francis leaves no doubt about the primary cause of our environmental crisis when he writes:

“But a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly. We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.”2

At the same time Francis articulates the strong message of hope that is the essence of the religious ethic:

“Yet all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start, despite their mental and social conditioning. We are able to take an honest look at ourselves, to acknowledge our deep dissatisfaction, and to embark on new paths to authentic freedom. No system can completely suppress our openness to what is good, true and beautiful, or our God-given ability to respond to his grace at work deep in our hearts. I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours. No one has the right to take it from us.”3

In engaging the environmental crisis, the humanities can bring critical dimensions of intelligence and awareness that transcend purely cognitive knowledge. These include aesthetic sensibility, moral feelings, emotional empathy and imaginative vision.4 The purely cognitive approach of the natural sciences treats the environment as an object, as an entity that is beyond the human who seeks to know it. Yet, we as humans are an integral part of the environment that we seek to know. This makes the contextual and relational, and therefore historical and even personal knowledge of the humanities particularly useful in addressing our environmental problems. Participants in the environmental ethics series were particularly open to the value of German Idealism, as formulated by Hegel and others, for the development of a viable environmental ethic, where the intellect’s passion for truth coincides with the will’s desire for the good, with both of these coalescing in the love of the beautiful. In effect, this seminal idea creates a vehicle for a very profound integration of the sciences and the humanities toward a solution of our environmental concerns.

Pope Francis alludes to the importance of humanity’s experience of beauty as a motivator for behavioral changes toward the earth when he speaks of the “richness and beauty” of the earth, of the “irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty” of our planetary home, and of humanity’s openness to respond to what is “good, true, and beautiful.” As a thought experiment, we may contemplate how we would react if scientists surprised us by saying that we no longer needed to worry about climate change because new technological developments would allow us to survive even with massive global temperature rises.  Carrying the thought experiment further, how would we react if economists also surprised us by stating that even though the planet was in a state of great environmental decline, new economic thinking would allow our global financial systems to survive. Would we not continue to experience an environmental crisis? Even though we would be able to survive physically and economically, we would be living on a planet that had lost most of its beauty. Gone would be the grandeur of the great snow-capped peaks. The solace of deeply verdant forests would be only a sad memory. And the once breathtaking beauty of a blue sky and an emerald ocean would be replaced with an all-encompassing and always depressing grey. Inherent in Pope Francis’s narratives is the recognition that beauty is crucial to the human spirit, and without the vibrant beauty of our planetary home, we would be faced with an on-going crisis of the spirit. The longing to preserve our planet’s beauty can be a very powerful motivator for changing our destructive behaviors toward the natural environment.

The focus on the humanities in the environmental ethics series culminated with a consideration of the aesthetic dimensions of knowledge through an examination of the field of art. Alva Noe has stated that “art is itself a research practice, a way of investigating the world and ourselves. Art displays us to ourselves, and in a way makes us anew, by disrupting our habitual activities of doing and making.”5 Thus, art becomes very important in developing an environmental ethic, which can happen only through heightened self-knowledge and changes to our habitual behaviors.

In her presentation, artist Anne Stagg explained that artists’ powerful relationship with the natural environment, based on keen observation, and their questioning and reexamination of society’s notions of progress, make their input critical for the formulation of a viable environmental ethic. Artists heighten our awareness of our relations to nature and, thereby, they may bring about social change. Through the images of art we are put in touch with the power and beauty of nature and the delicate balance between humans and nature. Artists have reminded us of the absurdity of some of our actions toward nature and of how removed our experiences and perceptions of nature sometimes become. In addition, artists have raised important questions about sustainability, reuse, and mass consumption. The artistic image may be able to move us to a state of awareness and action when our verbalizations fail.

The reflection on the topic of environmental ethics in the faculty luncheon series at Florida State University resulted in a number of insights that have been discussed in this essay at some length. Those insights will now be summarized briefly. Without the natural sciences we would not understand the scope of the damage that we as humans are causing to our bio-physical environment, nor would we have an indication of the dire consequences that are likely to affect future generations. Since climate change is very much a societal problem, the social sciences are called upon to advance, understand, and design strategies for responding to the planetary changes that the natural sciences are documenting. But will we as a species listen to the warnings of the natural sciences and make the difficult and necessary changes to our human institutions, as prescribed by the social sciences? In other words, will the cognitive knowledge of the sciences be sufficient to motivate the necessary changes in behavior? So far the answer to that question is a resounding “no.” Yet, in the face of this apparent inadequacy of the cognitive sciences to promote the needed change for one of the critical issues of our time, daily we hear of the push for more science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) training in our educational institutions. At the same time we hear of the crashing college enrollments in the humanities, and this is used as justification by some college administrators to reduce the funding for these disciplines. This represents a great loss for humanity. The humanities engage our deepest longings and emotions, our most profound hopes for the future, and our most vital sense of the meaning of our lives and of what is most important in our lives. This personal understanding of meaning becomes the foundation of our understanding of what is good, true and beautiful in the world and of what we understand to be the “ethical.” This form of knowledge, therefore, is indispensable in forming a collective concept of ethical behavior toward the natural environment.

The humanities must be promoted equally with the sciences in our educational institutions as we seek to create the next generation of citizens who will be called upon to grapple with the earth’s most pressing problems, including climate change. If we are successful in fostering a partnership between the humanities and the sciences towards solving our climate change problem, this will represent a powerful argument for the importance of a balance between these disciplines in our society at large, and particularly in our educational institutions. It is a curious fact of human existence that crisis often breeds opportunity!


  1. Lynn White, Jr., The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis. Science, 155, 1203-1207.
  2. Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis, On Care for Our Common Home. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 24 May 2015, paragraph 34.
  3. Ibid., paragraph 205.
  4. William Franke, Involved Knowing: On the Poetic Epistemology of the Humanities. International Society for the Study of European Ideas, 2011.
  5. Alva Noe, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature. Hill and Wang, New York, 2015.