Environmental Philosophy


Environmental Philosophy

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 Wind turbine in Welsh forest, Stuart Allen


Session & Location:

Summer Session 1, DIS Copenhagen

Type & Credits:

Elective Course - 3 credits

Major Disciplines:

Environmental Studies, Philosophy, Sustainability



Faculty Member:

David Possen - dpo@dis.dk or use the Canvas Inbox


Monday through Friday with some exceptions; see detailed schedule below 




Course Description

To understand the current climate crisis is to ask the question of man’s responsibility towards nature. In Environmental Philosophy, we explore this question through critical study of the philosophical tradition, introducing a distinctively Scandinavian outlook on environmental challenges and sustainability. To deepen this local outlook, we embark on field trips across Denmark's eastern island of Zealand. Here we examine firsthand how Danes act on their sense of responsibility for humanity’s impact on the environment.

While our classroom work delves deep into classic works of European philosophy, we relate our findings continually to current discussions of sustainability and to the ethical implications of our modern-day lifestyle. This contemporary focus is reflected in our two Summer 2023 field study destinations: a sustainable and self-sustaining farming commune in Western Zealand; and an integrated wind farm, harbor, and coastal nature reserve system in the Eastern Zealand towns of Køge Bay. Guest lectures from Denmark’s community of environmentalist thinkers and historians of ideas further highlight the importance and contemporary relevance of our inquiry. 


Course Objectives

By the end of this course, you will be able to 

  • identify the major beliefs, commitments, and ideologies at play in current environmental policy debates, and thus be able to see through and behind mere slogans;
  • perceive how common policy arguments and positions fit into the broad historical arc of environmental thinking — and appreciate the centrality of the anthropocentrism debate to this arc;
  • articulate your own views on core environmental policy questions with clarity and a sense of how they fit into the existing tradition and debate;
  • understand the distinctive role that Scandinavian thinkers and societies have played in the global environmental movement’s recent history.

To understand the current climate crisis is to ask the question of man’s responsibility towards nature.  In this philosophy course, we work with this question through a critical study of the philosophical tradition, providing a Scandinavian perspective on environmental issues and sustainability in relation to the philosophical discourse, and relating these findings to current discussions of sustainability and the ethical implications of our modern day lifestyle.

Environmental Philosophy at DIS is composed of three modules. In Module 1, we turn to America, birthplace of the modern environmental movement.  Following a tour of the American tradition of philosophical environmentalism - from Thoreau to Rachel Carson - we consider several live flashpoints in American environmental policy, such as the troubling legacy of interaction between conservationism and racism, and the policy implications of radical animal rights activism.

This grounding in American environmental philosophy equips us to devote the rest of the course to a closer look at European environmental thought. Module 2 begins with an examination of the non-Western roots of much of what is called "European" or "continental" thinking. We then consider what major thinkers of the continental tradition - including Spinoza, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger - teach about our place in the natural world and our responsibilities toward it. The centerpiece of this module is Hans Jonas's The Imperative of Responsibility, the book that launched the modern sustainability movement on the basis of an existentialist understanding of the ecological crisis drawn from Heidegger.

In Module 3, finally, we scrutinize the specifically Scandinavian and 21st-century perspective on sustainability and ecological health set forth by the influential Deep Ecology movement, and examine how Deep Ecology principles are lived out in practice in Denmark today. We end with a course-wide debate on the merits, viability, and future of Scandinavian deep ecology against the backdrop of both the European and American traditions of environmental philosophy.


Course Requirements and Grade Components

Our readings are short and pithy. Students are expected to come to class ready to discuss and debate them in detail. While on field studies, students are expected to take active part by asking questions and taking mental notes for later reference. Students are graded on this participation. The participation mark makes up 20% of the final grade.

The first writing assignment is a two-page response paper due at the end of Week 1, and pertaining to one of our Module 1 authors. The response paper is graded pass/fail; among its uses is to generate personalized advice on the final paper (see below) to be written at the end of term. The pass/fail mark on the response paper accounts for 10% of the final grade.

An group take-home, open-book midterm at the close of Module 1 is designed to ensure that every student has acquired a sufficiently deep familiarity with the American tradition of philosophical environmentalism to flourish in Modules 2 and 3. The midterm is conducted during the first half of Week 2. It contributes 25% of the final grade.

Following Module 2, students are expected to write a term paper of medium length (6-8 pp.) on a topic inspired by our readings in Continental environmental philosophy. This paper contributes 35% of the final course grade: 10% for a required "Term Paper Survey," in which the student provides an outline of the proposed paper in advance, and 25% for the completed term paper.

The remaining 10% of the final grade is based on students’ preparation and performance in the course-wide debate on deep ecology, which is held each semester on the last day of class.



Robert D. Bullard, “Neighborhoods ‘Zoned’ for Garbage,” in Bullard, The Quest for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2005), pp. 43-61.

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1962), pp. 3-12, 70-83.

Susan L. Cutter, “Race, class, and environmental justice,” Progress in Human Geography 19:1 (1995), pp. 111-122.  

Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Scepticism, ed. Julia Annas and Jonathan Barnes (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 1-22.

Luc Ferry, The New Ecological Order, tr. Carol Volk (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 59-90.

Warwick Fox, “Transpersonal Ecology: ‘Psychologizing Ecophilosophy,’” The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 22 (1990) 1: 59-76, 89-94.

Stephen M. Gardiner, “A Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change, Intergenerational Ethics, and the Problem of Moral Corruption,” Environmental Values 15 (2006), pp. 397-413.

Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” trans. William Lovitt, in Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), pp. 3-35.

Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, tr. Hans Jonas and David Herr (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp. 1-24.

Søren Kierkegaard, “The Care of Self-Torment,” in Christian Discourses, tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), pp. 70-80.

Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic,” in A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (New York: Ballantine Books [Oxford University Press], 1986 [1949]), pp. 237-263.

James Lovelock, The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate in Crisis and the Fate of Humanity  (New York: Basic Books, 2006), pp. 135-145. 

John Muir, “A Near View of the High Sierra,” in The Mountains of California (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books), pp. 38-58.

Arne Næss, “The Deep Ecological Movement: Some Philosophical Aspects,” in Philosophical Inquiry 8:1-2 (1986), pp. 10-31.

Arne Næss, Ecology, Community, and Lifestyle, tr. David Rothenburg  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 163-183, 193-212.

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, tr. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1974), pp. 167-182 (§§109-125).

Derek Parfit, “Energy Policy and the Further Future: The Identity Problem,” in Douglas Maclean and Peter G. Brown, eds., Energy and the Future (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Allanheld, 1983): 166–179.

Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Basis of Morals,” in The Two Fundamental Problems of Ethics, tr. Christopher Janaway (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), pp. 219-244 (§§19-20).

Peter Singer, “All Animals Are Equal,” in Animal Liberation (New York: HarperCollins, 2009 [1975]), pp. 1-24.

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, “It’s Not My Fault: Global Warming and Individual Moral Obligations,” in Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Richard B. Howarth, eds., Perspectives on Climate Change: Science, Economics, Politics, Ethics (Burlington: Emerald Group Publishing, 2005), pp. 221-253.

Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” The Atlantic Monthly 9:56 (1862), pp. 657-674.


Academic Regulations  

Please make sure to read the Academic Regulations on the DIS website. There you will find regulations on: 


DIS - Study Abroad in Scandinavia - www.DISabroad.org


Course Summary:

Date Details Due