Considering Environmental Ethics: The Center for Ethics in Society, the Doerr School of Sustainability, and Postdoc Ann C. Thresher

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What if we could use geoengineering technology to reverse global climate change rather than having to reduce our overreliance on fossil fuels, lower our consumption of meat and manufactured goods, and worry about deforestation? What if we could solve the problem of invasive species, such as carp, by creating suppression drives — genetic modifications that are quickly inherited within a species — that would eventually sterilize and eliminate carp outside their native habitats, but in the worst case scenario, could accidentally eliminate the entire species?

Who would we need to get permission from to undertake such projects? How might we decide who we are responsible for and who we are beholden to when making decisions that affect the entire planet? And given that we cannot determine precisely what the long-term effects of altering the Earth’s climate or its biodiversity will be, how would we weigh our responsibility to future generations and current populations as we work out the answers? Does nature itself have an intrinsic value that we should account for as we decide whether to design and deploy such technologies?

These are the kinds of questions with which environmental ethics, a subfield of applied ethics in philosophy, engages. Broadly, environmental ethics studies both the conceptual foundations of environmental values, as well as the more concrete concerns that affect the attitudes, actions, and policies necessary to sustain biodiversity and ecosystems.

These are also the kinds of questions Ann C. Thresher — the first joint postdoctoral fellow for the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society and the Doerr School of Sustainability — will be collaborating with faculty, instructors, and students to explore.

Rob Reich, the Center for Ethics’ Faculty Director, explains that the new partnership with the Doerr School is designed to promote a “joint, systematic exploration of the ethical questions manifold in the dilemmas of sustainability we must all confront.” Ethical questions, he contends, “are ubiquitous, arising in every aspect of our lives, from the personal to the economic. They are not just a humanistic concern, they emerge everywhere and in every discipline.”

Building an Ethics of Sustainability
The breadth and scale of sustainability concerns is what prompted hundreds of people to propose ways the university could address these issues. Those proposals eventually resulted in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. As
Anjana Richards, Director of Transition Planning and Implementation as the school was forming explains, “We recognized that Stanford has many  world-class programs, but as we thought  about 21st-century education, 21st-century students, and 21st-century sustainability and climate change problems, we wondered  what we could do as a university and as a community to address these massive challenges in an integrated, strategic way.” The Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability — designed to merge scholarship, educational programs and interdisciplinary collaborations to address systemic sustainability challenges  — is Stanford’s answer.

“Our team, led by Lynn Hildemann, Senior Associate Dean of Education, is thinking about how we can equip our sophisticated students — who are experiencing climate change as physical and existential crises — for the tough jobs and amazing opportunities they will be facing,” says Richards.

When ​​Anne Newman, the Center’s Director of Research, was learning about efforts to launch the Doerr School of Sustainability, she had similar questions. But, given her experience developing and administering the Center’s postdoctoral fellowship programs, she also had ideas. “We’ve been partnering postdocs with scholars from the social sciences, life sciences, and engineering for a number of years.” Given that environmental ethics is a highly regarded subfield within academic philosophy, and the Ethics Center had long been having postdocs teach an environmental ethics class, Newman began talking with Nicole Ardoin, Associate Professor in the Division of Social Sciences and Senior Fellow in the Woods Institute, and Director of the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER), who co-led the Education workstream for the new school transition. “Together,” Newman explains, “we came up with the idea of creating a joint postdoc position shared between the McCoy Family Center and the Doerr School that would focus on environmental ethics.”

“Conservation without moral values cannot sustain itself” — George Schaller
Although nature was the focus of a good deal of philosophy in the nineteenth and twentieth century, the subfield of environmental ethics, in which Thresher is grounded, emerged in western philosophy as a new philosophical subdiscipline in the 1970s. Many environmental ethicists argue that its inception was a response to the environmental crises identified by and communicated to the general public by scientist-writer Rachel Carson in her book
Silent Spring. However, Dale Jamieson, author of Ethics and the Environment: An Introduction, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Studies and Director of the Center for Environmental and Animal Protection at New York University, describes its development even more broadly. He argues that “environmental ethics emerged in Anglophone philosophy as a result of the questions the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s were raising about the morality of war and the constitution of civil rights.” By the 1970s, he asserts, these concerns gathered enough momentum in academic philosophy to help spur “‘the applied turn,’ where philosophers became more interested in how the field could be used to illuminate social values and public policy questions.” Jamieson contends that because the environment cuts across so many disciplines, “it wasn’t until 1979 that the Environmental Ethics Journal was founded and environmental ethics became a recognized philosophical subfield.”

Since its inception, environmental ethics’ primary concern has been studying human’s relationship with nature and the moral value and status of nature and its non-human contents. As a result, many early environmental ethicists, often building upon indigenous epistemologies, developed “a theory of nature’s intrinsic value that encompasses not just humanity and other sentient animals, but nature itself,” wherein nature’s value “takes precedence over other values,” Jamieson writes.

Whatever one thinks about the idea of nature having intrinsic value, environmental problems are social problems, Dorceta Taylor, Professor of Environmental Justice at the Yale School of the Environment, argues. Thus, they challenge our ethical value systems, especially when these problems are as widespread and destructive as the ones wrought by climate change. As a result, in addition to considering the natural environment, environmental ethicists must now ask: What do humans living in the present owe to future generations? How should individual humans live in the Anthropocene? What do we mean by “sustainability” and why is its achievement an ethical requirement in this century? And, as environmental justice advocates point to the disproportionate harm that poor, largely people of color face as the result of the pollution generated by the US and other large economies, ethicists must consider what rich, developed nations with some of the largest carbon footprints per capita owe to poor, developing countries who benefit least and are the most harmed by the excesses of late-stage capitalism.

“Bringing ethical considerations to bear on scientific questions and integrating values into the ways we think about and do science is essential,” says Emily Polk, cofounder and co-director of Stanford’s Environmental Justice Working Group. Like Richards, she believes that combining ethics and science in the Doerr School of Sustainability “can provide the space to think about the potential impacts of science before those impacts are felt.”

Physicist, Philosopher of Science, Environmental Ethicist
To address the interdisciplinary nature of the Doerr School of Sustainability, the postdoctoral search prioritized finding an environmental ethicist who was also grounded in science. “We were looking for someone who had a background in STEM that would be nimble enough to work with natural and physical science scholars to access philosophical ideas,” explained Richards. That intention led the Ethics Center and the Doerr School of Sustainability to Ann C. Thresher.

“I believe Thresher will be a particularly valuable member of the intellectual communities at both the McCoy Family Center for Ethics and the Doerr School of Sustainability,” says Leif Wenar, Professor of Philosophy, Senior Fellow at the Woods Institute, and a member of the Ethics Center's advisory board. “Her degree in physics and publications in the field, her expertise in biological and climate science; and her upcoming book, The Tangle of Science, co-authored with former Stanford professor Nancy Cartwright, means that Thresher has the expertise necessary to communicate with both scientists and philosophers.” Beyond her academic qualifications, Wenar also describes Thresher as “incredibly intellectually sociable.” That is, because she is truly invested in other people’s areas of expertise, Wenar believes that anyone at the Doerr School of Sustainability who thinks their work may be raising ethical concerns can talk with Thresher, and “together, they’ll be able to develop a much better understanding of the ethics of that situation.” This ground-up approach to ethics, Wenar asserts, also means that Thresher is a perfect fit for the McCoy Family Center’s mission of bringing ethical reflection to bear on pressing public problems.

Finally, Wenar points to Thresher’s paper on gene drives to suggest that in addition to using philosophical tools, she brings an engineering mindset to analyzing ethical problems that mirror the goals of the Doerr School of Sustainability. “She approaches problems by saying: here are our goals, here are the design constraints, and here are the risks and benefits of various alternatives. Let's just work through these to find the best option to provide specific policy guidance.”

Echoing Wenar’s support, Rob Jackson, professor of Earth System Science, views Thresher as a much-needed component of the new school. Jackson believes there hasn’t been enough campus-wide focus on ethics, environmental justice, and distributional justice issues. “If we are to succeed at the new school,” he argues, “it's extremely important that students are exposed to and given the formal training Thresher can provide, while they're being inculcated with the importance of technology, startups, and accelerators.”

Bridging Science and Ethics
Having earned undergraduate degrees in both physics and philosophy at The University of Sydney in Australia, Thresher began her Philosophy of Science doctoral work at UC San Diego thinking she would become a philosopher of physics studying spacetime topologies. However, she discovered that “although I enjoy abstract thinking and math, they no longer felt practical enough for me. I believe environmental ethics is one of the most important things philosophers can be doing at this moment, because the tools philosophers have for analyzing big problems — breaking them down into their component parts, finding the base on which everything else rests, determining the fundamental unifying principles, and then putting these pieces back together to construct ethical, actionable next steps — can be applied to the sustainability challenges we all face.”

Thresher, whose environmental ethics work is deeply informed by her background in science, has been using these tools to examine the potential risks and harms of research itself (see her paper in progress, "How Research Harms") and of emerging technologies. She specifically studies geoengineering and gene-drive technologies and evaluates the ways that policy tools, such as moratoriums, government intervention, and self-regulation can and cannot mitigate these threats.

Thresher also points out that the ethical difficulties posed by climate change, especially since we haven’t acted quickly enough, are only going to grow: “The bigger the problems, the bigger the solutions, and the bigger the solutions, the more extreme the risks they tend to pose.” In the case of geoengineering, for example, she argues that it’s difficult to conduct experiments on a scale relevant to geoengineering “without actually doing geoengineering.” This challenge led to the United Nations Framework Convention on Biological Diversity passing a moratorium on geoengineering research in 2010. However, because climate dangers are accelerating faster than the legislative and behavioral actions we’ve taken to address them, even the moratorium’s largely symbolic limits were essentially evacuated in 2016. As a result, oil and gas companies’ funding of geoengineering research continues to rise, which raises a host of environmental and ethical concerns.

“Ultimately,” Thresher asserts, “science tells us what we can do. And while ethics cannot provide absolute answers, by balancing out options in a nuanced way, it can tell us what we should do. Ethics is the bridge between science and policy.”

To help build this bridge at the Doerr School of Sustainability, Thresher sees herself contributing in three ways: One is “collaborating with scientists themselves to help them think about the ethical concerns posed by their research. Two is increasing ethics education in the school, in ways similar to those undertaken by the Embedded Ethics postdoc fellows working with the computer science department. And three is bringing ethics more fully into the sphere of the school, so people are talking about scientific output, policy, and the middle ground — the ethics of their projects.”

On the Ground in the New School
Since beginning her fellowship this past fall, Thresher has been hanging out in labs, listening to scientists talk about their work and asking, “Have you considered …?” Have you considered the potential impacts of your research, how it might be weaponized, what communities and species might be affected? Thresher has found biologists particularly receptive to talking about the ethical issues in their field. For instance, she is collaborating with
Professor Elizabeth Hadley’s lab, whose “mission is to understand, describe, and predict how biodiversity responds to change in the Anthropocene.” Thresher and some lab members are working on creating a feasibility study for bringing Tule elk, once native to the area, back to Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. While the chances of actually reintroducing them are low, Thresher explains that the goal is to research whether such projects are feasible and then to use these findings as a model for similar regional projects. The other related goal of the research is to contribute to the California 30x30 project — conserving 30 percent of California’s lands and coastal waters by 2030. California 30x30 must grapple with complicated ethical issues regarding the tradeoffs between people and nature, questions about our obligations towards the environment, and the balance between humans actively stewarding nature and taking a more hands-off position. “I'll be consulting with the project’s lab members and helping write about the ethics of rewilding — what we owe the elk, the natural environment, and people — as well as what we value in nature, such as biodiversity, 'naturalness,' and the instrumental/economic value of nature to humans,” says Thresher.

Thresher is also working to raise the visibility of ethics education in the Doerr School of Sustainability. She expects to be delivering more guest lectures, teaching courses and helping design syllabi and assignments. In spring 2023, Thresher will be co-teaching the “Ethics and the Anthropocene” course with Professor Hadley.

The final goal of the Ethics Center/Doerr School partnership is to position ethics more centrally within the school’s field of concern. Thresher sees herself as an ambassador who is there to get more people talking about ethics. She believes that “having a huge group of people who want to make a positive difference on the environment all integrated into a single school designed to research not only how to build solar panels, for instance, but how to use ethics to determine how and where to deploy this technology — is a truly phenomenal initiative.”

Ongoing Encounters with Ethics
“Frankly,” Rob Jackson reflects, “sometimes, we need to slow down. There's a tendency for us, at places like Stanford, to think that we have the answers, that we have the technologies, and that the world really needs us to be able to get what we think is the best solution out there as quickly as possible. That can be true, but it's also dangerous, in my view, and ethicists can help us slow down long enough to grapple with the many issues that surround technology.”

Reich’s even broader hope is that “the Center for Ethics can make meaningful, ongoing encounters with ethical questions impossible to avoid, not just at the Doerr School, but in the entire university.” 

Donna Hunter is a freelance writer, editor and tutor living in San Francisco. She has a PhD in English from UC Berkeley and was an Advanced Lecturer in Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric.