‘Real hunger’ creating demand for environmental philosophy

Descriptions of the West’s top programs.


In response to escalating environmental crises such as climate change and forest decline, many colleges and universities across the West are developing a variety of on-the-ground action-oriented degrees. Students who seek to shape future landscapes, cities and infrastructure can take advantage of an array of programs that range from land management to environmental policy, sustainable business to wildlife biology. Yet a growing number of environmentally -minded-- students are gravitating toward one of academia’s oldest fields: philosophy.

Courses in environmental philosophy and ethics push college students to ask the broadest and most basic questions about the underlying social causes of current crises. What deep-seated values in our society discourage the acknowledgment of ecological limits? What ethical frameworks might lead us toward a more sustainable future?

“Among young people, there is a real hunger for dealing with these kinds of questions,” says Philip Cafaro, professor of philosophy at Colorado State University. “The baby boomers were about having everything. They were looking for win-win solutions. They found lots of successes, of course, but an ecologically sustainable society has not been one of them.”

Can environmental philosophy and ethics programs spur younger generations to build a sustainable society? Students, faculty and universities seem to think so. Colorado State University is just one of dozens in the West now offering degrees and certificates in environmental philosophy at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Many more colleges and universities offer at least some environmental ethics coursework within their philosophy or environmental studies departments.

Environmental ethics courses are filling up more quickly than ever before, and not just with philosophy geeks. Students from a variety of fields, including biology and geoscience, are enrolling in increasing numbers. “Students are realizing that to only understand hydrological processes is useless without also understanding the broader social and ethical issues that have produced them,” says Lisa Floyd-Hanna, professor of environmental studies at Prescott College.

The following list highlights some of the West’s most robust environmental philosophy programs. Though far from comprehensive, it reveals the wide array of philosophical offerings now available to students regardless of major. Perhaps we’ll all sleep a little better at night knowing a more ethically minded workforce is on its way.


In order to prepare future scientists to conduct research and inform policy in an ethical manner, Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences (newcollege.asu.edu/mns/degrees/naturalsci) has designed a BS in environmental sciences which requires all students to enroll in environmental ethics and policy courses. The program prioritizes the “connectedness of disciplines” while encouraging students to take advantage of top-tier research facilities. Another perk? With the help of the Western Undergraduate Exchange (www.wiche.edu/wue), students from most Western states can attend for reduced tuition.

With an academic culture deeply rooted in both interdisciplinary and environmental studies, Prescott College (prescott.edu) offers fertile ground for would-be environmental philosophers. Courses include “Religious Ethics and Environmental Activism” and “The Idea of Nature.” Students can enroll in the more traditional full-residency environmental studies program at the undergraduate level or can instead earn their self-directed undergraduate or graduate degrees through the school’s unique limited-residency program. Why contemplate the future of nature and humanity in a fluorescent-lit classroom when you could do it while climbing a mountain, paddling a river or actively helping communities become more sustainable?

The 2011 Prescott College winter wilderness orientation in the Grand Canyon.
Courtesy Prescott College Archive

Though Santa Clara University does not offer a degree in environmental philosophy, it does provide a wealth of resources for its undergraduate students through the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics (www.scu.edu/ethics/). The Center offers an environmental ethics fellowship to fund student projects that address the ethical implications of particular environmental challenges. Past projects have questioned the philosophical underpinnings of sustainability, solar power accessibility and agriculture, among other issues. The center also publishes articles, blogs and podcasts that address urgent challenges in applied ethics, including a 12-part short course on environmental ethics available for free online.

Students enrolled in The Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California Santa Barbara can earn an interdisciplinary doctorate or master’s in environmental science and management (MESM). Students interested in ethics benefit from the program’s affiliation with the campus-based Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion, and Public Life, which organizes internships and lectures. Other resources include the UC Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology and the Center for Energy and Environmental Economics.


Colorado State University’s Department of Philosophy (philosophy.colostate.edu) offers one of the West’s oldest and most robust environmental philosophy programs. Undergraduate and graduate students can select from courses including bioethics and society, ethics of sustainability, and philosophy of natural sciences. Despite the abundance of offerings, student interest outpaces available seating: “I am dealing with emails from a dozen students right now who are trying to get into a course that is already full,” says environmental philosophy professor Philip Cafaro. With its campus located in Fort Collins within sight of Rocky Mountain National Park, students are encouraged to engage with the land as well as the academic community. After reveling in the high country, they can “contextualize their euphoria” with full-time faculty member Katie McShane, whose past research includes finding the most effective ways to articulate a sense of wonder within larger environmental policy discussions.

Also at the base of the Rocky Mountains, the University of Colorado Boulder offers multiple opportunities for students interested in environmental philosophy. The Philosophy Department, a leader in the field of applied ethics, offers a graduate certificate in environment, policy and society. Meanwhile, the Environmental Studies Department (colorado.edu/envs) provides students with master’s or doctorate programs with an ethics-heavy “theory and values” concentration. No matter which program they choose, students stand to benefit from the close ties between the departments. The university also hosts the Center for Values and Social Policy (colorado.edu/philosophy/center), which supports research, organizes conferences and sponsors lectures on the relevant applications of ethics.

CSU philosophy professor Philip Cafaro takes graduate students on a hike in the Red Feather Lakes area of the Roosevelt National Forest.
Courtesy Philip Cafaro

Scholars at the University of Idaho can earn a master’s in environmental philosophy through the Philosophy Department (uidaho.edu/class/philosophy). Since 2013, the program has been home to a student-published ethics journal titled The Hemlock Papers. Students can also present their research at the annual Inland Northwest Philosophy Conference, organized this year by Boise State University and Washington State University.


It doesn’t take long at the University of Montana to abandon the stereotype of philosophy students hiding out in the library. Missoula prides itself in being the closest urban center to any wilderness area in the United States — only a short drive to the largest contiguous wilderness area in the Lower 48. Don’t want to take that much time away from your studies? Mountain bike trails leave directly from campus. The Philosophy Department (cas.umt.edu/phil) offers a master’s in environmental philosophy along with coursework for undergraduates. The program requires students to carry out a three-credit internship with a local nonprofit. (Fortunately, Missoula boasts one of the highest per capita rates of nonprofits in the country.) The Environmental Studies Department (cas.umt.edu/evst) also offers a number of ethically oriented courses, including “Ethical Issues of Ecological Restoration” and “Greening of Religion.”

Students do research on grazed land as part of a class on “Ethical Issues in Restoration Monitoring” at the University of Montana.
Courtesy Daniel Spencer


The University of Oregon prides itself on one of the strongest interdisciplinary environmental studies programs in the nation, with over 100 faculty members across a wide number of departments, so it is not surprising that it also possesses one of the strongest environmental philosophy programs as well. Doctoral candidates in the environmental sciences, studies and policy program (envs.uoregon.edu/graduate/doctoral) can choose philosophy as their focal department. The two departments also collaborate to produce the journal Environmental Philosophy, one of the premier peer-reviewed journals in the field. Coursework features historically marginalized ethical perspectives including deep ecology, ecofeminism and indigenous philosophy. The program also manages the environmental leadership program, which places its students in local nonprofits, businesses and governmental agencies.

Oregon State University’s Department of Philosophy offers a master’s in applied ethics with an emphasis in environmental philosophy. The program requires students to actively analyze and engage with ethical issues in the field, providing opportunities to do so through the Phronesis Lab for ethics research. For students with a more literary bent, the university also hosts the Spring Creek Project for Nature and the Written Word.

One of the only universities in the nation to offer a bachelor’s in environmental ethics and policy, the University of Portland (college.up.edu/envscience) uses a Catholic theological framework that emphasizes social justice to address the underlying ethics of its academic offerings. Located in the famously progressive city of Portland, the university offers access to a wide variety of environmental nonprofit organizations. Steven Kolmes, chair of the Environmental Studies Department, says that students flock to environmental ethics courses, including next semester’s “Ethics in Sustainable Food.”


University of Oregon students gather stories to promote stewardship of the McKenzie River, Eugene’s only water source.
Courtesy Aylie Baker

Students seeking a master’s of arts or science or a doctorate- in philosophy and applied ethics can find plenty of opportunities at the University of Utah (philosophy.utah.edu/graduate). The program works closely with the College of Business, College of Law and School of Medicine to allow its students to pursue multiple degrees concurrently. It also offers a joint program with the Institute of Human Genetics, located on campus. With 19 full-time faculty (not all of them specializing in environmental ethics), the department boasts small class sizes and close interaction with instructors.


In order to serve undergraduates who are not majoring in philosophy but still want a strong foundation in environmental ethics, the University of Wyoming has created an environmental values minor. Faculty in the Philosophy Department (uwyo.edu/philosophy) see it as a way to provide “a vital link” between the humanities and the natural and social sciences. Coursework explores the “aesthetics, culture, ethics, and policy” associated with current environmentalism. The school’s location in Laramie, population 30,000, allows students plenty of extracurricular opportunity to contemplate the aesthetics of the nearby Laramie Mountains.


Philosophy students from the University of Wyoming gather at Table in the Wilderness camp near Centennial, Wyoming, to study stoicism for the annual Stoic Camp. While the camp is not a lesson in environmental ethics, students get the opportunity to explore the outdoors while considering the relationship between themselves and nature.
Courtesy Department of Philosophy, University of Wyoming


At the University of Victoria’s School of Environmental Studies (uvic.ca/socialsciences/environmental), located in beautiful Victoria, British Columbia, students seeking their bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate can choose from three interdisciplinary research areas: ethnoecology, ecological restoration or political ecology. Undergraduates can also minor in the human dimensions of climate change or conduct research through the intergovernmental Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, which is hosted by the university.

The University of Alaska Anchorage’s Philosophy Department (uaa.alaska.edu/philosophy) has created a certificate in applied ethics for undergraduates interested in entering any number of professional career tracks while seeking working knowledge in ethics. Though the certificate program is not devoted solely to environmental concerns, in the course of their studies students can enroll in upper-level environmental ethics courses for engineering, business and law. With the long winter nights and sub-zero temperatures — and a campus shared by dozens of moose — students might be glad to spend hours contemplating the big questions inside the comforts of the gorgeous UAA/APU Consortium Library.

Even though the University of North Texas is located a few degrees east of the 100th meridian, its environmental philosophy offerings deserve a place in this list. The Department of Philosophy and Religion is home to the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Ethics as well as to the Center for Environmental Philosophy (cep.unt.edu), a nonprofit that provides a number of online resources for anyone interested in the field. Graduate students can earn a master’s or doctorate in philosophy with a concentration in environmental ethics.

On a hike during the annual International Society for Environmental Ethics meeting philosophers experience the wind and the earth like low-laying alpine plants.
Courtesy International Society for Environmental Ethics

The International Society for Environmental Ethics (enviroethics.org) also provides online resources for students, faculty and the general public. Since 1990, the organization has facilitated discussions between environmental philosophers around the world. It also manages an online bibliography with over 16,000 entries.

Ready to tackle the big questions yourself? The Center for Humans and Nature (humansandnature.org) has created an online forum for scholars and armchair philosophers alike. Three times a year, the center poses a new “Question for a Resilient Future,” in order to spark constructive public dialogue. -Recent questions include: How far should we go to bring back lost species? Does hunting make us human? And what does the Earth ask from us?

John Nolt, from the University of Tennessee, and Umberto Sconfienza, from Tilburg University, listen to a talk at the annual International Society for Environmental Ethics meeting.
Courtesy International Society for Environmental Ethics

There are many other environmental philosophy programs out there — too many to list. If you know of one that merits attention,

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