Environmental Ethics Lesson Plans – STEM for Humanity

By Ariel Sykes, Assistant Director of the Ethics Institute

Below are two sample lesson plans on environmental ethics. There are links to each lesson plan in a word document format for easy downloading or printing.

Exploring Values & Virtues within Environmental Ethics: Sustainable Food Systems

Lesson material developed from material by Healing Earth & Loyola University

  • Introduction: When we talk about ethics, we think about what is important to us and why. This is what we VALUE.  Then we reflect on whether how we live and act are aligned with what we say is important. This is called developing our VIRTUES. Today we are going to explore what types of values and virtues might be important for environmental ethicists to have (and for people who care about the environment to have).
  • Personal Reflection: This can be done as a journal activity or full group discussion
    • When you think about environmental issues that we face today, what comes to mind?
    • Why do you care about the environment?
    • What types of rules or behaviors or actions do you think people should follow in order to protect the environment?
  • (Optional) Evaluating our Actions: Ask students to calculate their carbon footprint (they can focus on an area like food or you can allow them to do the whole thing, making educated guesses). “A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are generated by our actions. The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons, one of the highest rates in the world. Globally, the average carbon footprint is closer to 4 tons. To have the best chance of avoiding a 2℃ rise in global temperatures, the average global carbon footprint per year needs to drop to under 2 tons by 2050.”
  • Values: The guiding principles and goals for how we (re)design our food systems:
    • Care for the Planet (animals and plants)
    • Looking out for the Common Good (short term and long term)
    • Protecting Human Rights
  • Virtues: The characteristics that ethical food growers and consumers should practice regularly and consistently:
    • Gratitude: The acknowledgment of living and nonliving things that sustain life on Earth, and the fostering of living-practices that demonstrate our thankfulness (and dependency) on the environment.
    • Courage: The ability to stand up to external pressures to do what is easy or cheap, as well as internal pressures to do what is in your personal short-term best interests. To speak and act even in the face of powerful people and organization, even when personal sacrifices are needed.
    • Justice: The desire to treat everyone fairly can motivate us to act and develop systemic solutions that alleviate the suffering and promote the flourishing of marginalized and disempowered groups (both present and into the future)
    • Respect: To act and speak in a way that acknowledges everyone’s dependency on a healthy environment in order to live and flourish (both human and animal).
    • Self Control (temperance): The ability to understand how our choices impact others and the environment both short and long term, so as to refrain from actions that harm the long-term viability of the environment. To work actively to change our habits that contribute to environmental degradation. To know when to speak up and what to ask for so that change, even if incremental, is possible.
    • Generosity: To find ways to give back to the environment and causes that support a healthy planet. To support people and communities in need as they face environmental challenges.
  • Values in Action: Students will identify environmental practices and/or organizations that help support one or more of the values central to environmental ethics. They will then share their research with the class.
  • Virtues in Action: Students will work individually or with partners to develop examples of how a person can use their assigned virtue to support the environment.
    • Give an example of where you think a person would need {insert virtue} if they were trying to be environmentally conscious / act ethically toward the environment?

Case Study: Ethical Responsibility in Climate Change

Climate change is a truly global phenomenon, however it has differing impacts on different people both short and long term. Climate change has impacted people’s ability to have safe shelter, access to clean food and water, and ability to move freely. Many activists point to how climate change is feeding inequalities and creating new forms of injustice. For example, those countries who have historically omitted the most greenhouse gases are not the ones who are experiencing the worst impacts of climate change at the moment. Developed and affluent countries have the resources to support adapting to climate change and helping their citizens who are gravely impacted by climate change related weather events like flooding, drought, and hurricanes/tornados. Additionally, future generations will likely experience the worst impacts of climate change that were a result of previous generations’ actions and inactions. Many young people are speaking up and pushing for change, but are hitting resistance from local, national, and global policy makers. There is disagreement about what types of changes are necessary, as well as the pace and scale of these changes. Climate change raises the question of ethical responsibility both in the short and long term for countries, industries, communities and individuals. There are examples of global and national social contracts to help fight climate change, such as the Paris Climate Accords and the United States EPA Clean Air Act. There are also examples of industry social contracts such as Carbon Credit / Carbon Neutral programs and LEED energy building certification. There are also things that state and local communities do such as bring your own bag and water bottles, recycling and composting services, and re-use donations programs for gently used items.

Questions for Discussion:

  • What do you know about the examples from the case study? Quickly research to learn more about:
    • Paris Climate Accords
    • EPA Clean Air Act
    • Carbon Credit / Carbon Neutral Programs
    • LEED energy certification
    • Local Composting & Recycling Programs
    • Local Policies around plastic bags
  • When thinking about the types of ethical obligations surrounding climate change, we must ask what types of responsibilities each stakeholder has (short and long term)?
  • Should our duty to act against climate change be based on our past actions, power, resources, location (and/or something else)? 
  • Should anything be done about those who do not work collaboratively towards this effort? 
  • What types of social contracts do we still need to fight climate change?