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UW-Stevens Point marks 50 years of environmental ethics program, the first in the world

April 27, 2023
J. Baird Callicott discusses the longevity of the UW-Stevens Point environmental ethics course during a 50th anniversary event in April. 
J. Baird Callicott discusses the longevity of the UW-Stevens Point environmental ethics course during a 50th anniversary event in April. 

In the fall of 1971, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Professor J. Baird Callicott, whose teaching emphasis was ancient Greek philosophy, volunteered to lead an ethics course exploring human interactions with the natural environment. It was unchartered territory – no syllabus, no textbooks – just his desire to lead the first course.

Five decades later, the world’s first environmental ethics program has informed thousands of students since its origin at UW-Stevens Point. It remains as relevant today. The university held a celebration in April with current and past leaders of the program, including Callicott, to reflect on how Philosophy 380: Environmental Ethics influenced his teaching, scholarship and life-long study.

Callicott, now a retired University Distinguished Research Professor and Regents Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Texas, shared the stage with UW-Stevens Point alumnus Bob Ramlow, founding member of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association. It was Ramlow, then a senior majoring in natural resources, who introduced Callicott to the writings of forester Aldo Leopold in “A Sand County Almanac,” based onobservations of his environment in Sauk County, Wis.

Far from the abundance of well-recognized journals and books on environmental ethics published today, in the early days, academic literature was hard to obtain in the emerging field.

Today, Callicott said, “practically every field has responded to the environmental crisis.”

About 300 students enroll in environmental ethics every year at UW-Stevens Point. It is incorporated into 30 academic programs within the College of Natural Resources and 35 programs outside of the Department of Philosophy.  

“It has the highest enrollment of any course our department offers,” said Philosophy Professor Chris Diehm, current environmental ethics program director.

Environmental problems are really problems about how people relate to the natural world, he noted. “Environmental ethics examines both aspects of that equation: It analyzes people’s beliefs and attitudes and how they influence our relationships to nature. Anything that helps us better understand how and why people relate to nature will help us better address environmental issues. People are always involved in environmental issues, and that’s why environmental ethics will always be relevant to addressing them.”

UW-Stevens Point senior Lillian Johnson, Vail, Colo., is majoring in water resources and soil science as well as philosophy with an emphasis on environmental ethics.

“What I have learned from my environmental ethics classes and professors is that everything is interconnected,” said Johnson. “It is so important to see yourself as part of the environment, not separate from it. It is incredibly important to manage our most valuable resources to meet all the needs of living things on Earth, not just humans.”

Johnson said her studies will give her a different perspective on natural resource management. “Environmental ethics are a framework in how to live your life as low impact as possible, along with working with nature, not against it, to better the Earth for future generations.”

Virtually any discipline can benefit from the study of ethical reasoning, Diehm said.

UW-Stevens Point’s first course in environmental ethics was a response to the initial Earth Day on April 22, 1970. The national environmental movement and growing advocacy efforts were sparked by Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin. In the 1970s, Earth Day at UW-Stevens Point involved impassioned speeches on the need for environmental reforms and day-long activities across campus, said Callicott.   

Leopold’s influence, including his argument for the “land ethic” and its moral code of conduct for people, formed the basis for Callicott’s course. Although the university provided curriculum in conservation and biology, prior to environmental ethics, no instruction addressed the human side and implications for environmental actions. Callicott personally recruited students in the College of Natural Resources to take the course, filling two sections that first semester. “Mostly because they needed it,” he said.

Professor of environmental ethics and philosophy at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, Michael Nelson led the UWSP course from 1993 to 2004.

“I’m just stunned by how influential it was. I have students who are now professors, they use the framework to this day. It really shaped so much of what I do,” said Nelson.

He studied under Callicott and went on to collaborate with him in multiple books and journal articles, reflecting on the human moral responsibility to the natural world. He now teaches a course in environmental ethics and imagination to prepare students to navigate future challenges.

“It shows up in the world in important ways,” Nelson said. “The rights of nature, whether it be discussions of the rights of rivers, grappling with how to live, or other conservation questions. The moral inclusion is always there.”

Now global, the study of environmental ethics is forever tied to UWSP’s Department of Philosophy. Determination to lead the dialogue and evolution of environmental thought will continue to shift just as the relationship between people and the planet continues to evolve.