Everyday Things

In my post of Tuesday afternoon, I made brief mention of an exercise in my environmental ethics class involving a pencil:

In my environmental ethics class, I gave each of six groups a single no. 2 pencil – a classic yellow Ticonderoga, as it happens – and asked them first to write down everything they already knew about no. 2 pencils or could find out from physically examining and using the object itself. Then I told them to go to the ‘net to find out what else they could learn.

I should put this exercise in context.

The fearful truth of the matter is that I am inventing the idea for my environmental ethics course as I teach it.

I put together the syllabus with the idea that I would focus most on the development of what I have elsewhere called systems imagination: perceiving and responding to the world around us as caught up in complex, intertwined systems that operate across various scales.

I have noted in the past that a conventional approach to teaching environmental ethics seems to do little to develop students’ feel for the systems on which a rich understanding of our shared environment seems to depend.

So, what if I were to leave aside, at least at first, the standard books and papers in environmental ethics and metaethics and instead focus on everyday things and the ways they connect to other things through natural, social and technological systems?

That was my hunch: if I start with simple objects and get students investigating them, their implication in systems, and the ways those objects and systems intertwine with the lives and projects of other people and other living things, we’d come around to the main ethical questions as a matter of course.

The pencil exercise was something of an improvisation, a first experiment in systems imagination.

As I continue to develop ways of helping students expand and enrich their imaginations, there is one conventional source in environmental ethics on which I will rely: Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac.

I won’t have my students read Leopold for the conventional reasons. though. For the course as I am developing it, the action isn’t in “The Upshot” or in “The Land Ethic” itself, but in the Almanac and the Sketches: Leopold exhibits a well developed feel for systems and the ways in which humans and other living things are caught up in them.

I’ll have more to say about Leopold very soon.

My hunch about systems imagination, as it develops into a pedagogical technique, is likely also to carry over into engineering ethics: engineers are set out to design new things, new systems, new patterns; the lives and projects of other people are caught up in those new connections, as well as in the design process itself. The antenna case I discussed on Tuesday, and the cyclotron case from last semester, hinge on just those kinds of connections.

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