Jason Morris's picture
John Muir Day: Develop a moral compass for the planet
Jason Morris
April 21, 2012 - 6:00am

When I first walked in John Muir’s footsteps as an environmental educator more than a decade ago, I felt the power of his words: “that wildness is a necessity; and that [parks] are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

Born on this date in 1838, he argued that we must experience nature in order to preserve it, and with that message, Muir is the best-known proponent of the “knowledge-attitudes-behavior” link that commonly guides environmental education programs today. This model rests on the assumption that knowledge about the environment spurs positive attitudes, which in turn leads to more responsible environmental behavior.

“Most people are on the world, not in it.”  —John Muir

At NatureBridge, the end goal of our Core Educational Framework is creating responsible environmental behavior, but is knowledge enough to change behavior?

Our children and our planet need more. We must build and nurture relationships with nature through exploration, knowledge, and ethics.

In a recent paper “Framing a Philosophy of Environmental Action: Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and the importance of community” published in The Journal of Environmental Education, authors Lissy Goralnik and Michael P. Nelson assert that environmental educators should help students extend their moral boundaries to include nature. Ethics are key to behavior change.

"It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation to the land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land, and a high regard for its value." —Aldo Leopold, environmental ethicist

When NatureBridge students experience a national park for the first time they find a sense of “Wow!” The beauty of waterfalls pouring over granite, the smells of fresh mountain air, and the sounds of a rushing river. This discovery of the natural world empowers them to think about their existence in nature.

Where the real impact hits is when we begin to teach the water cycle, to measure water quality along that river, and to see how our everyday actions impact this place. That is when we begin to build an environmental ethic that can set students up for a lifetime of better choices. That is when students come to understand that they are not on the world, they are in it.

As Leopold writes: “Individuals are a member of a community of interdependent parts. His instinct prompts him to compete for his place in that community, but his ethics prompt him to also cooperate.” (Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 203)

We must expand the way we view community to include nature, so that when we teach conservation, we teach how to protect not just our neighborhoods. Our sense of community must include the natural world, too.

“The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land. … A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land.  Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal.  Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.” —Aldo Leopold

When we feel responsible for something, whether it be people, animals, plants, our community, or all of Earth, our moral compass awakens to help us make better choices. Choices Muir and Leopold would both be proud of.

“Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” —John Muir


Don Hynes's picture

Good work Jason, both in writing and important thought. The understanding you express here should be at the core of our education as human beings around the globe.

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