Fall 2009

The Value of Nature


Jan E. Dizard (Section 01)


Our impact on the environment has been large, and in recent decades the pace of change has clearly accelerated. Many species face extinction, forests are disappearing, and toxic wastes and emissions accumulate. The prospect of a general environmental calamity seems all too real.

This sense of crisis has spurred intense and wide-ranging debate over what our proper relationship to nature should be. This debate will be the focus of the seminar. Among the questions we shall explore will be: What obligations, if any, do we have to non-human animals, to living organisms like trees, to ecosystems as a whole, and to future generations of humans? Do animals have rights we ought to respect? Is nature intrinsically valuable or merely a bundle of utilities for our benefit? Is there even a stable notion of “what is natural” that can be deployed in a workable environmental ethic? We will investigate these and related questions with readings drawn from literature, philosophy, the social sciences and ecology.

This seminar requires students to closely read essays by scientists, social scientists, philosophers, and non-fiction nature writers.  We will be self-conscious about the different ways writers in each of these genres characterize “nature.”  The literary scholar, Raymond Williams, in his seminal work Keywords (Oxford University Press, revised edition, 1976) observes “Nature is perhaps the complex word in the language.”  (219)  We will explore why this is so.  In the process of unraveling the complexity of nature, we will pay attention both to how we share and contest views of nature in class discussion.  There will be several short writing assignments as well as four or five longer essays which will require appreciating the many ways of valuing nature.

Fall semester.  Professor Dizard.


2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2007, Fall 2008, Fall 2009, Fall 2010