By Jack Armstrong
Ethical questions of how resources are allocated between people and nature rarely address those problems in the Midwest.
But two philosophy professors have tackled that gap in scholarship with a new book, “Environmental Ethics in the Midwest: Interdisciplinary Approaches.”
“So much ink has spilled, so many film reels have been used on environmental ethics issues and values in the West Coast,” said Ian Smith, an associate professor of philosophy and religious studies at Washburn University and one of the book’s two co-editors. “Think about all that’s been said about water issues there and water rights in the East Coast. Not a lot has been said about the Midwest.”
The Midwest deserves more attention in environmental ethics literature, said Matt Ferkany, Smith’s co-editor and an associate professor of philosophy at Michigan State University.
Smith and Ferkany address this hole with a collection of eight originally commissioned essays. Published by the Michigan State University Press, the book investigates environmental issues from philosophy, chemistry, social science and Indigenous perspectives. The region is primed for water rights discussion as well. Ferkany said there’s “a unique sense of responsibility for water in the Midwest given the very big place the lakes occupy in the culture.”
The editors wanted their book to feel grounded. Its preface notes “some of the best work begins down in the weeds.” So they included contributors from disciplines as diverse as agriculture and urban planning. Philosophers have a lot to say, but their work is more abstract, Ferkany said.
“To get really on the ground of an ethical issue…you need to have some insight from other people like sociologists or environmental scientists or people who are in urban planning, people who are in agriculture,” he said.
They encouraged contributors to address practical issues with real environmental or social implications, rather than tackling big general or theoretical questions about our relationship to nature. One essay touches on environmental justice in Flint while another discusses climate education for children.
“Part of that is to not just have this volume being taught in an environmental ethics course that’s in a philosophy department, but to have this volume maybe taught in an environmental studies program or an environmental humanities program,” Smith said. “We wanted this volume to be broader and have a broader audience than just philosophy students.”
Creating a book that presented original scholarship and was both accessible and teachable was a challenge, Smith said. They pushed contributors to think about their audience, to explain more complicated terminology or concepts and write for a classroom. This meant words like “utilitarianism” or “environmental pragmatism” needed to be explained, making the chapters longer but the book more accessible.
“I really feel proud of what I think we accomplished, which was toeing that line between original scholarship and something that really can be used in the undergraduate classroom,” Smith said.