Toward an Ethical Understanding of the Environment

  • Michael P. Nelson, Ph.D.
  • Associate Professor
  • Lyman Briggs College
  • Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
  • Department of Philosophy, College of Arts & Letters
  • Co-Founder and Co-Director, Conservation Ethics Group

While environmental and sustainability issues are frequently in the headlines, there is not always agreement about what actions should be taken, or even about how to think about the issues.

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Environmental scientists and environmental ethicists are two groups who share the goal of understanding how we ought to relate to nature, but who employ very different methods and philosophies. And, according to associate professor Michael Nelson, who holds a joint appointment in MSU's Lyman Briggs College, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and Department of Philosophy, there has been little collaboration between these groups. So in 2007, Nelson, along with colleague John Vucetich, an associate professor of wildlife ecology at Michigan Technological University, created the Conservation Ethics Group (CEG), to help address this situation.

Nelson has been interested in environmental ethics since his youth. "I think I've always sensed a relationship between these things, intuitively understood that natural resource issues are inevitably, even primarily, issues of ethics, of justice, of fairness, of harm and benefit, of caring," says Nelson, whose educational and professional pursuits have continued to hone that connection between ethics and nature.

About eight years ago, Nelson was invited to give an environmental ethics talk at a Midwest wolf-stewards meeting in Wisconsin, where he met John Vucetich. Slated to be the final speaker on a panel at the end of the conference to discuss what should be done next in Wisconsin's wolf recovery efforts, Vucetich was expected to give a "science-based" confirmation of the previous panelists' proposals. Instead, as Nelson writes, "John very calmly and very powerfully pointed out that what we were all now grappling with was not was rather a matter of ethics and philosophy." Immediately after that, the two began working on projects together, eventually developing the idea for the CEG in 2007.

Scientists and Ethicists Contemplate Resource Management

CEG's vision has been to create a community of natural resource professionals who are equipped to deal with the ethical aspects of natural resource management. According to Nelson, "We are confronted with such serious and profound conservation challenges, challenges we are perhaps not trained to handle...what sort of decision making process is worthy of us as moral and rational beings? What I really hope CEG can do is demonstrate that there is a better, wiser, more mature, intellectually honest, and responsible way to make such decisions. Ultimately these decisions are ethical decisions, but they require critical ecological and sociological evidence."

"Environmental scientists and environmental ethicists are both really important to resource management," adds Vucetich. In fact, as he explains, "Natural resource management is conservation ethics in action because it's about analyzing propositions that can be expressed as: 'We should (or should not) conserve this particular resource in this particular manner. The real connection [between environmental science and environmental ethics] is the word should."

But there are challenges in bringing together such a community. "It took us a long time just to get to know each other's language—the jargon we use," explains Vucetich. "It took a lot of patience to be able to synthesize how the other describes the issues."

Training, Workshops and Interdisciplinary Scholarship

In addition to providing opportunities for ethical discussions on natural resources and publishing high quality research for both professional and public audiences, the CEG offers training courses on conservation ethics methodology to graduate students and professionals. So far, workshops have been offered to various university graduate programs and nonprofit groups. In fall 2011, workshops will be offered at the University of Montana, and in spring 2012, at Michigan Technological University. Nelson and Vucetich would like to expand these workshops as time allows. According to Nelson, "Thus far we've had really positive feedback on the workshops and the demand has become a bit more than we can keep up with."

The efforts of CEG were recently recognized with the 2011 Phi Kappa Phi Excellence Award in Interdisciplinary Scholarship (EAIS). This award recognizes excellence of a team effort in teaching, research, service, or a combination of these activities. Besides Nelson and Vucetich, the CEG team also includes Meredith Gore, an assistant professor at MSU, and Joseph Bump, an assistant professor at Michigan Technological University, who joined CEG in 2009.

In the future, Nelson and Vucetich are hoping to take the CEG to the next level by creating an Institute for Conservation Ethics, co-hosted by Michigan State University and Michigan Technological University. Embedding the CEG into a university structure would give the Conservation Ethics Group a broader foundation for growing and disseminating new and existing programs. The Institute has been proposed and is now under review at MSU.

In summing up, Nelson says, "What CEG does is demonstrate how you can systematically and rigorously set and solve conservation decisions as ethical decisions. I would be thrilled if that became the legacy of Conservation Ethics Group."

  • Written by Amy Byle, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photograph courtesy of Conservation Ethics Group

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