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date: 16 January 2018

Earth Ethics for Education

Summary and Keywords

Education needs an ethical orientation that can help it grapple better with global environmental issues such as climate change and decreasing biodiversity, something called earth ethics. The term ethics is used in an unusual manner, to mean a normativity more basic than concrete norms, principles, or rules for living. The idea of earth is also used in an unusual way, as a kind of concealing, a refusal to disclose itself, while at the same time, constituting a kind of interference with the familiarity of the world. The idea of earth plays on the contrast between living on earth and living in the world. The latter involves the familiar concerns and actions of culture and work, of politics and economics. Earth ethics becomes a call to responsibility coming from the earth—a call to let the earth and earthlings be, to acknowledge their refusal to answer our questions or fit easily into our worldly projects, and to recognize their continuing mystery as beings with their own intrinsic worth.

The idea of earth ethics is developed through attending to a set of human experiences. First is an experience of gratefulness toward the earth. This gratefulness not only reveals our finitude, but also our indebtedness to the grace-filled support the earth continually gives us for our worldly projects and concerns. This reveals earth as our home, a dwelling we share with other earthlings. This reveals earth’s fundamental fragility. What seems solid and dependable from a worldly perspective shows up as vulnerability from an earthly viewpoint. The experiences of gratefulness to and fragility of the earth gives rise to feeling a call to responsibility, the core of earth ethics. Earth ethics is a call of responsibility to the earth, one that grows out of our debt of gratitude and the earth’s fragility. It is this normative call that might guide education in its grappling with environmental issues.

Keywords: responsibility, climate change, earth, world, curriculum, economics, Heidegger, phenomenology


The planet is suffering. For decades now, the scientific community has been warning us about global climate change and its effects, including more severe weather, melting polar ice, sea level rise, decrease in biodiversity, and prolonged droughts (Pachauri & Mayer, 2015). Rather than merely local or regional, these are the effects of global changes. And, they suggest, human activity has contributed significantly to this growing environmental crisis. The earth is in trouble.

Education is an ethically charged set of social practices. However, much of educational theorizing and practice does not address this ecological emergency, focusing on other matters.2 Yet, the environmental crisis’s increasing severity, not merely in the future but already in the present, is something that education needs to grapple with, as a central part of its purpose. The contrast between living on earth and living in the world is used to suggest that while education currently operates as if it only inhabits a world, it needs to function also by recognizing that we are cohabitants of the earth. And this requires an ethical orientation to guide this. That is, education needs not merely “worldly ethics” (Myers, 2013) orienting how we live in the world but also “earth ethics” (Oliver, 2015) to orient our living together as earthlings.

The term ethics is used in an unusual manner here. The term typically refers to explicit norms to live by, such as rationally self-legislated principles, calculations of happiness, or formations of virtues. But, drawing on philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, ethics means a kind of “normativity without norms” (Perpich, 2008, p. 126). Here ethics describes an interpretation of a primary orienting relation of obligation. Affective and precognitive at its core, it is the sensibility of being moved, feeling like a call or summons to responsibility. This is not yet a set of norms to live by but an underlying normativity that seeks to orient us through its felt obligation (see also Joldersma, 2014). In earth ethics, earth is the site of this call to responsibility.

We Live in the World

There is no doubt that we live in the world. But this term will be used in a specific and perhaps unusual way here, following philosopher Martin Heidegger’s somewhat peculiar distinction between earth and world (Heidegger, 1971, 1996; Oliver, 2015).

What Is a World?

A world, in Heidegger’s way of looking at things, is a horizon, namely, something that opens up ways of thinking and acting for humans, giving possible paths to pursue their everyday practical interests. Used in this way, the term world does not designate an objective “what is”—say, an objective description of reality—but rather a frame or backdrop against which things and actions take on meaning. We could say, slightly more strongly and perhaps somewhat strangely, that a world lets these things come into presence. Only as meaningful and significant do we notice things, and only in the context of meaningfulness do we work at our practical tasks and further our interests. A world thus is a territory of meaningfulness. Calling it a horizon helps us see a world’s orienting character, framing possible significant relations, and thus providing possible paths of action to enact our everyday concerns and interests. A world, we might say, is what gives us the ability to make our way about our everyday life, constituting our familiar and meaningful surroundings within which we enact our human projects.

The world is something comprehensive, orienting the work that we do for pay, the leisure activities we engage in for relaxation, the volunteering we undertake for communal good, and the solitude we seek to get away from all the hustle and bustle. It may be easier to understand the world by giving particular examples of more specialized worlds embedded within it. We often experience particular horizons that frame sets of meaning for particular networks of social practices. Chasing a small frozen rubber disk around an ice surface with long sticks while having thin blades strapped to one’s feet only makes sense in the context of a set of meanings that include competition, teams, rules, and strategies—which we can collectively call the world of hockey, itself framed by a larger collective horizon of meaning we call the sports world. The sports world is a set of significances that humans inhabit. The world of academia, in a second example, is a set of social practices with particular standards of excellence, including peculiar ways of writing and talking. We have many such specialized meaning horizons: the worlds of business, politics, school, and religion, to name a few. But they all are part of the world, a primary horizon that opens up meaningful ways of thinking and acting, and forms a meaningful surrounding for our concerns and interests, including the specialized worlds we might more immediately recognize.

The Economically Inflected World and Educational Reform

The economic world is often interpreted as an important specialized horizon in our lives. Our economic interactions—whether that be individual ones of buying clothes or going to work and collecting a paycheck, or whether that be collective ones of our interlocking global economic system with its free trade zones, employment statistics, and consumer patterns—are meaningful because of an orienting world. We can talk about economics as a horizon that frames these particular social practices and societal dynamics, giving them meaning and significance. The economic horizon opens up possible meaningful ways of acting—buying consumer goods, working for a wage, driving to a store, differentiating a business from a nonprofit, or being a hedge fund manager.

But the economic world is functioning more and more as a set of comprehensive meanings that frame more and more our individual actions and collective social practices. The world is becoming economically inflected, involving an orienting horizon of meaning-shaping relations, including the values of mastery and control over nature and of looking at the natural world around us as economically useful for human ends. Our comprehensive world, increasing economically inflected, orients our understanding of nature as that which is potentially useful for our economic purposes. This set of meanings occludes nature’s other possible values, including as something of worth in itself or arising on its own, connecting all value to economically practical interests and projects. This goes not only in terms of the elemental materials of nature but also manufactured entities we own that we formed out of those elements. As part of the (economically inflected) world, they are disclosed in terms of their usefulness, as tools. Stoves and fridges, clothes and shoes, shovels and lawnmowers, cars and boats, smartphones and tablets, are all equipment whose presence is felt not as things with intrinsic value, but in terms of their usability for our practical interests and projects. In this sense, the world is increasingly dominated by an economic inflection; our primary horizon that opens up our deep ways of thinking and acting is increasingly formed through an economic horizon of meaning, as the dominant understanding of all our worldly concerns and interests.

Recent political policy talk and action concerning educational reform have been framed by this world. Political and business leaders have repeatedly declared education to be in crisis (Spring, 2013). The U.S. report from the 1980s, A Nation at Risk, blamed education for lack of economic readiness of the next generation. Later, the policy of No Child Left Behind was driven by economic fear that the United States would fall behind other countries. In the United States especially, public schooling is denigrated by politicians and business leaders, who say that it is “broken.” Students, it is charged, will not be ready to participate in the 21st-century economy, because they don’t have the basic skills or expert knowledge required for becoming a contributor to our changing economy. The solutions offered range from high stakes testing to privatizing through charters and vouchers to value-added measures of teacher effectiveness. Educational language has changed from terms such as participation, democracy, and equality, to values such as personal responsibility, excellence, and accountability (Olssen, 2008). These are all framed by an economically inflected world.

Worldly Critique of the Economic Shift in Education

Of course, not everyone associated with education accepts this interpretation and its offered solutions. Many educational theorists have thoughtful and thorough critiques of interpreting education through an exclusive economic lens. Gert Biesta, for example, argues that the broader language of education has been disappearing, replaced by a narrowing discourse of “learning” (Biesta, 2006, 2010). The learning discourse puts the emphasis on self-learning, measurability, and accountability. His critique is not only that we’ve moved from trying to measure what we value educationally, to valuing what we can easily measure, but also that we’ve moved from a democratic sense of accountability to students and parents to a managerial if not forensic understanding of accountability, to those up the chain of the hierarchy (principal, superintendent, state educational bureaucracy). Similarly, Trevor Norris criticizes the intrusion of consumerism into education (Norris, 2011). He worries about the privatization of schools, via the charter movement (for example), and its commercialization via outsourcing high-stakes testing to for-profit companies like Pearson. Both Biesta and Norris (as well as many others) turn to participatory democratic approaches to preserve if not enhance the good aspects of education as a public good that not only benefits persons (students) on an individual basis, but also our society on a communal basis (e.g., Noddings, 2013).

The alternatives offered by theorists such as Biesta and Norris, as well as activist organizations such as Teachers for Social Justice, are guided by non-economic pathways of meaning. They advocate possible social practices and changes to education institutions that are framed by political-democratic meaning-horizons, making visible alternative ethically charged visions of human flourishing and what constitutes a good society (see, e.g., Hansen, 2007). These critiques are framed by visionary images of how life ought to be lived together equitably, how we ought to live together in ways that honors humans in their flourishing. These visions often entail the desirability of participatory democracy, economic equality, and social diversity. In doing so, these alternatives are framed within a different meaning-giving horizon, and thus challenge the dominant economic inflection of the world.

But We Also Live on Earth

There is no doubt that these alternatives of the framework of life’s basic meaningfulness have much to offer as a corrective to the dominant economic voice in educational reform. Their alternative visions reintroduce questions of equality and justice, suggesting that human flourishing requires more than just economic survival, but rather a better vision of how being human involves living together in the world. It is proposed that good as they are, they miss a fundamental responsibility, one that will be developed in the contrast between earth and world.

Although a political-democratic meaning-horizon is an attractive alternative to an economically inflected world, it does not yet account for the fact that we not only live in a world, but also on earth. It’s not that these are wrong-headed visions of human flourishing, or that these critiques of current educational reform are by any means wrong. Rather, the concern is that all of the critique and alternative envisioning of human flourishing remains within the meaning-horizon called the world. Their shortcoming is that we don’t merely live in the world—we also live on earth. The alternative visions offered by theorists like Biesta and Norris are not wrong but incomplete; their visions of living well in the world do not take into account centrally enough the fact that we simultaneously live on earth. These critics’ attempts to move us toward democracy and social justice remain ensconced in worldly horizons. But as worldly beings we are also, and perhaps more fundamentally, earthlings. This is not a quarrel about whether there is a societal crisis involving education—indeed, there is! They are right that the recent decades of economically inflected critiques of educational practice do not identify that crisis accurately. But yet, their critiques do not recognize that in our time, arguably the largest though often unstated crisis implicating not only society but also education, is environmental or ecological.

Education’s Responses to Climate Change

More specifically, global warming—or more aptly, global climate change—is a massive, long-term, crisis of planetary proportions that will have a grave impact on many social institutions and practices, including formal education. Further, this crisis has arisen, at its base, because of our exclusive worldly focus. And education, too, is not only affected by the crisis; rather, it contributes to the problem through its current structures and social practices, in part by having primarily a worldly focus, economically inflected or not.

When it makes the news, climate change is often equated with increasing global temperatures—“it’s been the hottest July on record”—or about rising sea levels and melting polar ice. Indeed, these are justly alarming. But they are merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg bearing down on us. As sea levels rise and ocean waters warm and dilute, ocean currents change, affecting climate and weather patterns globally. As global temperatures rise, weather events get more extreme—more intensive rain or snow over larger areas causing more extreme disruptions, stronger and more numerous tornadoes happening earlier, longer and more extreme heat waves and extended droughts over larger areas. Hurricanes are getting stronger and tornadoes more massive. And less spectacularly but just as devastatingly, earlier spring temperatures causes mismatches between migrating birds and their insect food along migratory paths, predatory animals such as grizzly bears move into habitats further north, and forest defoliation worsens because of increased insect populations. And our global food supplies, largely based a monoculture way of farming and increasingly concentrated economically through vertical integration of corporations, are increasingly in jeopardy as extreme weather events—earlier spring droughts, mid-summer torrential rains, intensified heat waves—go beyond the conditions in which the crops were designed to thrive. The irony is that our food supply increasingly relies on an increasingly narrow supportive range of climatic conditions while the practices of industrialized food production undermine those very conditions. Such is the environmental crisis that we are now facing (Pachauri & Mayer, 2015).

This is the planet education now inhabits. It’s not that formal education, or the agencies that shape it, have turned a total blind eye to the environment, including climate change. The U.S. Department of Education (USDE) has an action plan for addressing climate change, in which it outlines ways of adapting to climate change in order to fulfill its current mission (USDE, 2014). Similarly, the United Nations organization UNESCO, which has for decades promoted Education for Sustainable Development, has more recently sharpened this approach with “Climate Change Education” (CCE) (Heiss, 2010). More comprehensive than just adding a subject to the curriculum, CCE seeks to address and mitigate the impacts of climate change on humans, especially those of school age, and to suggest ways of acting so that we can have more sustainable development. Others have suggested adding a new subject to the school curriculum—climate change (Delpero, 2016). And truly, there is more than enough to study were these to become a reality in schooling. They would open up curriculum space dedicated for students to learn about the interconnections and ramifications of global climate changes. This could be an awareness-raising theme in the curriculum, as well as a place for thinking toward possible ways of addressing this crisis.

However, by and large they nevertheless are still ways of attempting to incorporate something new into existing educational structures, minimizing the idea that institutionalized education itself might need to re-evaluate not only its economic self-interpretation, but its exclusive worldly focus. For example, one of the USDE’s three stated worries is that climate change can negatively affect its mission of “promoting student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness” (USDE, 2014, p. 2, my emphasis), along with ensuring equal educational access for each student. This is primarily an economic concern. The worry is limited to the way that weather disasters such as Hurricane Katrina might adversely affect schools and learning environments as schools help students position themselves for a global economy. More positively, they wish to provide “well-rounded education” (2014, p. 6) for students as well as encouraging more students to enter the STEM fields. UNESCO’s approach is more comprehensive but stays also within current social frameworks. A central goal is “building green societies” (Heiss, 2010, p. 3) through educational goals that include enhancing interdisciplinary practices, science education, disaster reduction education, and technical/vocational education (2010, p. 5), as well as encouraging schools to develop “climate change-related modules” for the curriculum. Although these efforts are certainly to be lauded, they nevertheless remain located structurally in what is called living in the world. Worldly projects and interests remain central in these approaches (and more specifically, typically these approaches remain with an economically inflected world), only mitigated by climate change concerns. But they do not yet reveal the depths and implications of living on earth for education.

What Is Earth?

As education is shaped more and more by the frame of an economically inflected world, it increasingly seems to ignore our earth’s peril. Heidegger’s distinction between earth and world can help sharpen this (Heidegger, 1971). His is an admittedly unusual way to use that everyday word earth, for it designates for him a fundamental hiddenness or refusal that interferes with the disclosures of meaning central to a world. Living in the world is about horizons that disclose the meaningfulness of practical projects: work, play, relationships, and so forth. Earth, by contrast, is another form of meaningfulness, indicating a hiding or shrinking away from worldly manifestations of meaning, a kind of fundamental hiddenness that accompanies the world’s disclosures. Earth names disruptions of worldly meanings, limits, and disturbances—as such, it feels like an unknown tacit depth. Introducing earth into the picture is suggesting that making our way about in the world always relies on something that remains hidden from a worldly vantage point, something that is only tacit or indirectly present in our worldly endeavors. This means not only in our interactions with our built environment but also with what we typically call nature.

Earth’s Refusal and the Curriculum

One way Heidegger depicts this hiddenness is as earth’s refusal to answer the questions we demand of nature. For example, framed by our economically inflected world, we demand answers of nature to give us power and mastery over it. Think for example about the extraction of oil from the oil sands of Alberta (Canada) or the fracking for natural gas in Oklahoma (United States). Each of these processes are worldly endeavors of wrestling from nature “her secrets,” as the renaissance thinker Francis Bacon put it long ago. The resultant worldly disclosures can be called productive knowledge of nature, and the image of nature associated with such knowledge we can call productive nature (Foltz, 1995). For example, “asking” a tree how many board feet of wood it contains transforms it into productive nature. Even if we don’t yet cut it down, its value and meaning are narrowed to being a reserve of lumber for our future productive economically inflected worldly interests. Collectively, productive nature, including the potential natural gas supplies through fracking and oil production in the oil sands, can be thought of as so much standing reserve, to use Heidegger’s interesting term. Viewing nature through our economically inflected worldly meaning-horizon leads to demanding from nature its productive secrets. Nature is reduced to economic worldly potential. It may be true that nature is more than merely standing reserve, but such excess remains hidden from our worldly framing, in which we think productive nature is its full meaning; this is especially so when our economically inflected worldly horizon is taken to capture fully our reality. However, from within the world, this hidden excess functions as a kind of refusal, a refusal to be the total answer to our worldly questions framed by economic interests. Earth’s refusal is thus a shadowy side of productive nature. For Heidegger, earth shows up as the excess that remains hidden from view when we reduce nature to standing reserve.

Much of the knowledge, including skills and attitudes, central to our curriculum and instruction in formal education is in the form of productive knowledge. Skills and information geared toward readying the student to become part of the globalizing economy shape education’s commonplaces (Joldersma, 2014). Teaching is geared toward making this knowledge as transparent as possible, so that it can more easily be learned. Testing, and specifically high stakes standardized testing, reinforces the idea that teaching should be geared toward productive knowledge, where objective knowledge is reduced to being merely a support for productive knowledge. Learning, similarly, is then equated with the acquisition of productive (and supporting objective) knowledge, where learning is equated with successfully being able to reproduce such knowledge. And the successful graduate of formal schooling is one ready for the global economy. With this understanding of teaching and learning, the curriculum is envisioned as being composed of productive (and objective) knowledge as represented in mass-produced textbooks and other curricular materials. The three educational commonplaces—teaching, learning, curriculum—mutually reinforce for the educational participants the idea that nature is revealed without remainder as productive (and objective) nature. As institutionalized social practices, they presume there is no excess, nothing beyond this. Education’s role in disseminating productive knowledge production shows that education is deeply shaped by the horizon of an economically inflected world.

Earth Juts into World

But Heidegger further develops the idea of earth by suggesting that earth juts into world. Kelly Oliver points out that jutting is a kind of interference or disruption, showing up variously in our worldly endeavors (Oliver, 2015). Earth’s refusal indirectly shows up as a set of limits. A limit is a barrier that cannot typically be exceeded, or at least not without negative effects, something we see everywhere in ordinary life. There are limits to how much we can eat or drink, how fast we can run, or how long we can go without sleep. We have limits to the complexity of math problems we can calculate in our heads, what sorts of buildings we can erect, or how much we know about nature. Limits are everywhere. Many of these we acknowledge, but some seem to recede to the vanishing point, making them seemingly disappear, at least out of our minds. In particular, as a society we don’t typically think much about the limits of our productive knowledge about nature, instead treating such knowledge typically as all-encompassing. We might think that the current holes in productive knowledge are not limits as much as temporary blind spots that do not affect what we already know. And thus we confidently act on our current productive knowledge as if it were complete, and we have unqualified mastery over nature for our worldly projects.

However, earth juts into world. Safe inert liquids like PCBs that we used to spread on gravel roads for dust control turn out to be carcinogens. Mosquito and malaria control with the miraculous chemical DDT turns out to wreak havoc on species further up the food chains, undermining the stability of dynamic ecosystems. And totally harmless carbon dioxide produced in burning cheap and abundant fossil fuels turns out to undermine the relatively stable global climate dynamics. In each case, our human productive knowledge, intrinsically geared to solving a practical problem and serving a worldly interest, is treated as knowledge of nature without remainder. These are not examples of incomplete or inferior science; rather, they are the result of trusting that our scientific approach, by giving us powerful productive knowledge, has given us a complete picture of nature. In each case the productive knowledge of the day has retrospectively shown itself to have stark limits, that there turns out to be a significant remainder outside the space of knowing that was put to work in the world. That remainder is in each case a hidden excess, something that exceeded our productive knowledge in the world. The way humans gain knowledge of that excess is typically indirect, when something jutted into the world, interfering with the way productive knowledge was put to practical worldly use. The jutting ought to undermine our confidence in such knowledge’s completeness. More generally, earth’s refusal takes the form of disturbing the control and mastery promised by productive knowledge of nature. Restricting our curricular knowledge of nature in education to purely productive, as information about standing reserves, ought to be unsettled by earth in its jutting.

Climate-change science is not primarily about developing productive knowledge. Rather, we should think of it as providing us with a peek at some of the excess that is missing from productive knowledge by filling in some of the more complete picture of nature. Climate science in this sense is a hermeneutic endeavor, helping us reinterpret nature in its fullness, beyond our economic inflection (see also Joldersma, 2009).

Economically inflected educational reform has not typically been attuned to this. Rather than infusing an increased if not overriding humility and cautiousness about our productive knowledge claims for worldly projects, we have instead more often doubled down to develop more complete productive knowledge of nature. But as the prior examples indicate, this doesn’t account for the fundamental truth that we can never completely foresee the way that what we do can be undermined by something beyond our productive knowledge. In schooling, for example, instead of acknowledging that what constitutes knowledge and curriculum is a limited and partial understanding of reality, our economically inflected educational reforms have overwhelmingly narrowed the curriculum to enact more effectively the dissemination of a narrow but powerful band of productive knowledge. Although there are more than enough troubling examples of earth jutting into world, rather than acknowledging this, economically inflected curricular reforms have more often doubled down in seeing ourselves primarily as living in the world, rather than also, or perhaps more fundamentally, living on earth. It remains to be seen whether the global and comprehensive character of climate change may force us to reconsider this, to finally have to recognize that we first of all live on earth. But it is not clear that it is prudent to wait for such a calamity. Rather, it may be judicious for education to recognize now that we actually always live within limits, and that our task as educators is to help envision how to live well within the carrying capacity of the planet. Acknowledging this more explicitly in education would be a step toward learning how to live as earthlings with other nonhuman earthlings, even as we rightfully continue with our individual and collective worldly endeavors.

Earth’s Reliability and Support

One concrete avenue toward such acknowledgement is by embracing an unobtrusive but important experience of the way that earth shows itself in the world, namely, through its continual, tacit support. This can perhaps be illustrated most easily with the tools we use as we carry out our worldly projects. Heidegger makes the somewhat startling claim that the “essence” of equipment such as a hammer is not its usefulness. Rather, what is essential to it as a tool is its reliability. Of course, we don’t typically focus on—or even notice—its reliability in our using it. For example, driving to work can only be successful if the car is trustworthy, the road sturdy, and the weather favorable, none of which we typically notice until the car stalls, the pavement gets impassibly rutted, or the weather turns too nasty for safe navigation. When those things occur, it seems as if something has been withdrawn, and in that withdrawal our attention has been diverted to what up to then was tacit, and thus remained hidden. That “something” can be called “reliability.” The car’s reliability, for example, is its unnoticed trustworthiness that supports its function as a vehicle to transport us in order that we can successfully carry out our worldly project of getting to work. The unnoticed reliability of our worldly equipment—from simple tools to sophisticated technologies—is a manifestation of what Heidegger calls earth. Earth shows itself in the trustworthiness of the equipment we make use of for our worldly projects: chairs, tables, pens, buildings, heating systems, roads, signs . . . the list is long. Only when they fail do we typically notice earth’s presence in this manner, and then only obliquely, as an absence of something we took for granted. That is, a central feature of earth is its hidden support, the unnoticed sturdy ground tacitly supporting our worldly affairs. This is not as noticeable as the experienced limits and disruptions associated with jutting of earth into world, but nevertheless the tacit support is clearly noticeable in its withdrawal.

What earth’s tacit reliability shows us more generally is the world’s groundedness, to use an earthy metaphor. The firm ground that allows us to undertake our worldly endeavors is earth’s faithfulness. This goes beyond tools and equipment. Earth’s reliability includes the ecologically interconnectedness of nonhuman living creatures and their connectedness to supportive nonliving materials and dynamics. This speaks to the trustworthiness of nature in its materials and organization, forming elemental support for planetary biotic life in its dizzying array of diversity. And this support also includes the organization of the elements constituting humans as bodily creatures (Morowitz, 2004). Because earth is also the reliability that sustains humans in our emergence, earth also names our fundamental dependence as physical, biological creatures on the planet’s fundamental dynamic systems—the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere—no different from any other life form on the planet. This means at minimum that we need to understand ourselves fundamentally as interconnected, not only with other humans, but equally with other living beings. We are interconnected not only through the natural elements such as minerals, water, and air, but in all the dynamic conditions that make living possible. As earthlings, humans are primordially relational, something that is more primeval than our inhabiting worlds. To live on earth is to have an identity centered in our relations to other living beings and the environments in which we bathe (Oliver, 2015). This means that earthly reliability is profoundly the condition for the possibility of our worldly endeavors including, of course, schooling.

Our Gratefulness to Earth’s Enjoyable Support

Although our awareness of earth’s reliability may not be explicit in our worldly pursuits until it is withdrawn, we might also catch sight of it, albeit still indirectly, through our experience of enjoyment (Levinas, 1969, p. 130). There is a positive experience we can identify as enjoyment that is central to our independence as we go about our worldly projects. The warmth of the sun on our face as we go for a walk on a bright spring morning, or the tastiness of the first bite of freshly baked bread at a lunch meal are perhaps stereotypical examples. But it also shows in the satisfaction of a nail pounded in, a brisk run taken, a phone called placed, an article written, or a test completed. Enjoyment in these accomplishments reflects a kind of basic independence, constituting our worldly agency. However, basic enjoyment also shows, simultaneously, connection to something outside ourselves even as we have a relative independence from it. In turn, this connection reveals another aspect of enjoyment, namely, dependency on something outside of ourselves, a kind of bathing in earth’s plenitude (Levinas, 1969, p. 131). This suggests that part of the experience of enjoyment is the oblique awareness that it isn’t automatic or in our total control, and thus that it can disappear as quickly as it arises, an implicit feeling that it is contingent rather than necessary. It can disappear, even though it presently continues its support. As beings in the world, the enjoyment we feel includes an oblique understanding that seemingly at any time something might undermine that independence. Enjoyment, therefore, indirectly reveals an underlying radical dependence we have, which suggests a relation to earth: beyond our independence as worldly agents, we have a deep dependence, as earthlings, on earth’s generous reliability. The earth in its sustaining, giving rise to our enjoyment and relative independence, is a kind of deep graciousness.

Earth’s gracious reliability thus is tacitly experienced as a gift, something freely given, the gift of earth to world.3 Earth’s trustworthiness that gives rise to the possibility of enjoyment in our dependencies suggests, albeit perhaps obliquely and tacitly, that a feeling of gratefulness for this freely given support is appropriate. It might not be too strong to call this a debt (Llewelyn, 2004, p. 104). As we freely take up our worldly projects, we are already in earth’s debt. Living on earth means centrally a primordial owing, having a debt of gratitude for earth’s gift of freely given, its contingent reliability. The enjoyable dependency that manifests itself in our embodiment thus can thus rightly give rise to a feeling of gratitude, the sentiment of owing.

Earth’s Fragility and Lament

Gratefulness implies recognizing that earth’s support is freely given, a felt assurance of trustworthy reliability is experienced as welling up continuously from some hidden depth. But the experienced contingency of this enjoyable reliability means simultaneously a felt possibility of demise and damage. Earth’s sturdy support for our worldly projects is simultaneously fragile for us; its disturbance and disruption make our lives vulnerable, as well as that of all living creatures. Therefore, a tacit dimension of our debt of gratitude is the oblique awareness of the vulnerability of earth’s support, also for basic biotic life on the planet. Vulnerability is thus part of earth in its concealedness. And, as current climate science illustrates, earth’s dynamic stability has been disrupted and disturbed, its reliability in supporting life has been damaged and its trustworthiness undermined, by our worldly projects. Recent extreme flooding in the southern United States or severe droughts in East Africa are good examples of how climate change is disturbing the conditions, not only for our human worldly living, but also for nonhuman biological life. Climate science heralds the way humans have aversely contributed to global climate change, indirectly disclosing earth’s reliable support for life on our planet. When what we are rightful grateful for, and to which we owe a debt of thanks, shows itself not only as fragile and vulnerable, but also as disrupted and damaged, lament and grief is an appropriate response. Anthropic climate change in nature, as revealed by climate science, discloses the fragility and vulnerability of the atmospheric conditions for life, showing directly the precariousness of life on earth. Grief is a response to the loss of someone or something that matters. As an affect, it embodies recognizing something is not right. Grief is therefore an appropriate response to our undermining earth in its supportive stance, mourning that its trustworthy reliability to support biotic life has been damaged and deserves better, albeit perhaps through means that we have a difficult time imagining (Willox, 2012). Perhaps such grief needs to become more central in our educational practices, as recognition of our debt of gratitude to earth’s gracious but contingent support.

Perhaps the central element of such grief in education, about earth’s vulnerability and damage, can be thought of as our response to what metaphorically we might call earth’s lament, as if earth itself was groaning with a call for renewal (Zuidervaart, 2003). Earth’s lament would then be our experience of earth’s refusal to go along with the destruction of the conditions for biotic life through our worldly interests. As lament, it would affectively signal earth’s resistance to being transposed into our earth-destructive worldly projects. It is as if our attempting to force nature to tell us its secrets for our productive purposes is met with earth’s lament, a withdrawal of support, a struggle against revealing its secrets. As such, earth’s lament would be a call for education to take a particular stance toward earth, something that forecloses our fatalistically accepting our damage of earth’s freely given support.

Earth Ethics

Earth ethics is not merely another worldly ethical orientation to guide our practical economic projects and interests. Rather, it signals something different, perhaps more fundamental. An earth ethics for education is a call to a deep responsibility, prior to our worldliness, addressing our earthiness. The combination of our debt of gratitude and earth’s lament calls education to recognize the limits in our productive capacities of control over nature, and that our worldly agency through mastery and productive nature for our human projects cannot be absolute but is contextualized by a call to responsibility toward the earth. Earth ethics, as a “normativity without norms,” is a call to education to heed a responsibility to the earth; this call is ethical in being felt as an ought, normativity in the form of an appeal to protect earth’s freely given support for our worldly interests. As earthly, it rouses education to be moved by earth’s vulnerability in supporting biotic life, to take a stand with respect to earth in its refusal, toward allowing nature to be itself rather than being forced completely into being perceived as worldly standing reserve. More concretely, it calls education to interpret climate change through this ethical orientation, revealing, albeit enigmatically, a fundamental earthly call to responsibility to work out what it might mean to live within nature’s limits.

Our Responsibility to Earth’s Call

Our increasingly powerful technologies, ones that shape not only local and regional conditions but global ones, mean an increase in our collective responsibilities as humans (Jonas, 1984). This does not mean that each person’s life has the same destructive effect, for certain human populations and lifestyles, individually and socially, are more responsible for climate change, than others, and those least responsible are often the ones most severely affected. But these unequal distributions do not dispel our general responsibility as it arises out of our recognition that human and nonhuman life as we know it is in more and more danger because of humans’ increasingly powerful effects on life’s conditions. Our responsibility is directly connected with this collective power. The increased reach of our economically led technological power for fossil fuel extraction and burning to maintain our economic growth means an increase in the scope of our responsibility. The global effect of our power implies an equally global responsibility, one that reaches beyond any self-interest, to say “yes” to earth. An earth ethics is thus the call to global responsibility through feeling the vulnerability and harm to earth’s life-giving support. It calls education to respond to earth’s limits with responsibility based in gratitude.

Education’s Response to Earth’s Call

In this development of an earth ethics of responsibility, education has remained an implicit companion all along. Previously it was suggested that schooling currently is enacted largely as a worldly concern, that its narrowing of the curriculum and high stakes testing shows it’s being ensconced more firmly in an economically inflected world. What counts as educational is economically inflected, with the curriculum as predominantly productive, namely, intent on revealing nature in its productive mode, and students as economic beings readying themselves for labor and consumption. In this view, teachers are representatives of productive knowledge, the disciplinary knowledge in which they might have become an expert—biology, chemistry, history, literacy, mathematics, music, physical education, English-language learning. This means that what is taught and learned, are worldly ways of maximizing our grip on nature as productive in order to have maximum control over our interests and projects, framed often within our economic world. Productive knowledge involves grasping, cognitively separating it from its context, delineating it in previously familiar concepts, transforming what is encountered as foreign into something completely knowable. Cognition, viewed through the metaphor of grasping, is transforming our experience of nature into productive knowledge. Conceptualizing is a form of controlling nature by transforming its strangeness into what is productively knowable. Students, in this world, are rational self-interest maximizers who will thereby be ready for occupations and consumption in our changing economy. Curricula composed of productive knowledge become a basis for asserting the freedom of mastery and control, to pursue projects and interests, in that world. In recent years, this has become increasingly clear, as official school curriculum aligns itself increasingly with the economic world. Education’s role according to this narrow horizon is to help students maximize control as workers and consumers within an economically inflected, worldly meaning-horizon.

In that context, earth’s lament emerges for educators as a counter-demand. In contrast to the demand of revealing nature in its productive mode, as so much standing reserve, this lament is a call to education to let the nonhuman be itself, to stop reducing it to mere standing reserve. It is a call from earth for education to participate in its refusal to be completely mastered, an appeal that nature is also, or perhaps first of all, to be respected as something strange, as unfamiliar—as other. It is a refusal to allow the curriculum to be exclusively formed in terms of grasping and conceptualizing nature, a refusal to allow curricula to completely be representations of nature in the familiar concepts of an economic horizon. Through its refusal to be fully revealed, earth’s lament arouses educators to identify themselves as more than worldly humans, but fundamentally also as earthlings. For an educator to be an earthling is to experience the call of responsibility that emerges from earth—an earth ethics.

Educators are called by this ethics to not only be representatives of worldly (productive) knowledge, but also to reimagine themselves as fundamentally connected to, and dependent upon, earth. This suggests that grasping should not be the only, and perhaps not even the primary, way of experiencing nature. Rather, to be fundamentally connected suggests that the curriculum should also be oriented by the immersive experience of enjoyable dependency (see also Joldersma, 2008). This names a horizon of meaning unsuspected by the world, namely, that learner and teacher are bodily creatures immersed in, and constituted out of, earth’s generous, freely given support. Enjoyment itself bears witness that students’ and teachers’ experience of nature is not merely as productive, but earthly. To recognize this experience is for educators to feel the dependent contingencies that underlie our worldly independence. The joy of enjoyment shows not only our (relative) independence, as agents in a world, but also our status as dependent earthlings.

This gives educators an angle to relativize the curriculum’s productive knowledge. A first step might involve uncovering a deeper meaning of productive knowledge, suggesting that at a level more basic than the profit motive and a growth economy, worldly productive knowledge is the result of protecting ourselves from the possible deleterious forces that might threaten to undermine our human flourishing. Productive knowledge, at that basic level, is connected to surviving, coping with nature’s contingent support. Such coping is affectively inflected, a worry about the future, an anxiety about nature’s contingency, a shadowy side of its gracious reliability. This gives educators a deeper way of viewing a curriculum composed of productive knowledge. At a basic level, the curriculum reflects ourselves not only as worldly agents, but in such agency as dependent earthlings, with worries and cares about survival and flourishing. Productive knowledge gets its deepest meaning from the contingency of earth’s generous, freely given support. This suggests that as educators we might frame our discussions of productive knowledge, including ourselves as economic agents in the world, with conversations that our very being as humans centrally involves owing thanks, exploring our debt of gratitude to something that resists our understanding. This is, obliquely, a witness to earth’s loveliness in its generosity, whose possible demise in its support is always possible. Although we cannot escape our worldliness, to be merely earthlings, this sort of reflection reveals a more earthy world.

Further, earth calls educators to acknowledge that we share the planet not only with other humans, but also nonhuman earthlings. And that means that, although we may know much factual information about them, they also resist our grasping. This means not only that our productive knowledge is limited, but also that while we humans don’t share a world with nonhumans, we nevertheless do co-inhabit the earth. Earth calls educators to help students recognize that earth’s other earthlings refuse to conform to our expectations and concepts, but arise independently of them. This means acknowledging that we not merely live in the world, but dwell on earth. Dwelling on earth is an unchosen cohabitation in which earth is our home, a place within we are enmeshed rather than something we own. This gives a context for our responsibility of nurturing earth’s conditions for life. Being at home on earth may be in strife with being an economically productive member of the world. Dwelling on earth means protecting it by letting it be earth, allowing our nonhuman cohabitants to arise and live independently of our (economic) worldly interests (Oliver, 2015).

Touching Earth

This understanding of earth ethics exposes a deepened self-understanding of ourselves as bodily earthlings. Through such deepening, we can pivot more directly toward another experience of nature, outside of our grasp, one that makes visible more directly our existence as embodied earthlings. As something outside of grasping, it doesn’t transform what is foreign into the familiar, it doesn’t make nature into something productive to be experienced. Rather, it seeks to access nature in its self-arising (Foltz, 1995). The metaphor of touch might be a way to help us think about this alternative way of interacting with earth that isn’t grasping, one that fits with dwelling on earth. Whereas grasping is a way to demand answers and solutions to our worldly interests, touch is more restrained and tactful, a way of listening to earth.4 Touch has an ambiguity and plurality that make it a better way to experience earth as supportive for our lives, indicating that earth’s generosity isn’t a necessity but a continual promise. Grasping is typically accomplished through our handiness; the hand is exquisitely tailored for gripping. And in doing so, it certainly does touch what it grasps. However, touching is a relation that literally exceeds our grasp—although we typically also think of hands for touching, in truth anywhere on our skin surface can involve touch. Further, our awareness through touching is never just a single kind of experience, like color might be for seeing or loudness for hearing—touch is multivalenced, and doesn’t even require contact (Linden, 2015). Touch is a bodily way to experience nature in its self-arising and reliable support in a way that grasp cannot comprehend. An interesting example is Roger Gottlieb’s plant-journal assignment in his course Earth 101, in which he has students sit with four times a week, and journal about, one particular plant, for a semester (Palmer, 2006, p. 221). Rather than generate productive knowledge, students felt touched by the plant, generating something beyond their grasp—awe, wonder, and concern. Awe of earth’s generosity is an immediately felt response to something amazing yet not comprehended, and wonder follows with open questions radiating outward (Gallagher, Janz, Reinerman, Trempler, & Bockelman, 2015). As educators we need to find ways of having students touch the earth, perhaps both figuratively and literally, and orienting such touch to encourage feelings of awe and reflective questions of wonder.


In summary, as educators we need to embrace for ourselves and our students an earth ethic. This means, at its simplest, dwelling on earth, namely, succumbing to our responsibility to care for nature in its fullest form, its self-arising. With respect to our changing climate, it means embracing the earthly call to preserve as best we can its reliable integrity, stability, and beauty (Foltz, 2001; Leopold, 1986). This is not merely adding another subject in the school curriculum, but embracing another ethics, one that acknowledges ourselves as earthlings. It means recognizing earth’s call to preserve the conditions that have constituted us as earthlings. This might profoundly unsettle education.


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(1.) Earlier versions of some of the ideas in this article can be found in two other essays, Joldersma (forthcoming, a), and Joldersma (forthcoming, b).

(2.) There are notable exceptions, including Martusewicz, Edmundson, and Lupinacci’s ecojustice emphasis (2011), Sterling’s sustainable education idea (2001), and Bowers’s ecological approach (1993).

(3.) Some of the ideas in this and the following paragraphs were first developed in my essay (Joldersma, 2009).

(4.) I first developed the idea of tactful touch in Joldersma (2005) and applied this to the curriculum in chapter four of my book (Joldersma, 2014).