Environmental Ethics: Ethics for a Damaged Planet

3-week session | June 3–20
Monday/Wednesday/Thursday, 8–10 a.m.
3 credits

Online course


Frederic Neyrat
Associate Professor and Mellon-Morgridge Professor of Planetary Humanities, Department of English

Course Description

“Anthropocene,” “Capitalocene,” “Plantationocene”: new words abound to describe a global situation in which developed human societies are recognized as a major geomorphological force — but what are the ethical consequences of such power?

Since Descartes, human beings have been cast as “masters” (and “possessors”) of nature. The problem, as philosopher Hans Jonas has argued, is that it’s difficult for human beings to “master their mastery,” that is to say, to control their technological and industrial power. Yes, human beings have the power to do wonderful things, they can improve health, they can preserve what has to be protected, but they can also destroy biodiversity, turn climate into a global danger, and deeply damage the planet.

Exploring this duality of human technology, this course focuses on key concepts in philosophy in order to consider what models of ethical responsibility might allow for the just treatment of human beings, nonhuman life, the weather, and in the end the planet. We will also consider how affect crosses with philosophy: how might the wonder and horror we feel in response to cascading environmental problems impact — in good or bad ways — efforts toward just or wise environmental philosophy?

With thinkers H. Arendt, R. Braidotti, P. Crutzen, A. Harrison, D. Haraway, H. Jonas, I. Kant, D. Luciano, M. Malm, A. Mbembe, E. Lévinas, F. Nietzsche, M. Nussbaum, L.R. Rand, M. Rees, L. Sideris, P. Singer, K. Whyte, we will question our responsibility vis-à-vis the Blue Marble, human beings, non-human forms of life, and outer space (astroethics).

We will also see that ethical responsibility becomes meaningless if we do not consider the reality of environmental racism: a real planetary, post-anthropocentric perspective requires acknowledging how racism shapes, consciously or unconsciously, the representations of otherness standing at the core of ethics.

Drawing on the concepts introduced during each session, we will explore films and documentaries (The Overview Effect, Wall-E, Grizzly Man, Ghost in the Shell 2, Ad Astra) to assess their capacity — or incapacity — to inform the planetary ethics that we need.

Fulfills Environmental Studies


Counts Toward

Sustainability Certificate

UW Designations


Humanities or Social Science