Cultivating Environmental Virtue

Cultivating Environmental Virtue

by Stuart Davis, Principal, St Leonard's College

Earth provides enough to satisfy every person’s needs, but not every person’s greed.

– Mahatma Gandhi

Whilst I am hopeful that Gandhi’s statement was founded on strong scientific evidence, my personal ignorance in relation to the language of climate science and the most challenging environmental issues leaves me without the foundations to challenge or validate his statement in a meaningful manner, which is irresponsible.

Confucius declared that the calling of things by their proper name is the beginning of wisdom, and it is evident that wisdom is not only lacking in educators such as myself, but in organisational and political leadership across the world. Paul Hawken, in his book Drawdown, informs us that the term ‘global warming’ was coined by geochemist Wallace Broeker in 1975 and relates to the surface temperature of the earth, which is common knowledge. He also informs us that climate change refers to the many changes that will occur with increases in temperature and greenhouse gases, which is where I suspect my real ignorance becomes evident. I have yet to develop a comprehensive understanding of the multitude of forces that both positively and adversely impact on the many different forms of life and determine which, of the multiplicity of solutions offered, will best sustain and enrich our world.

In sharing our 2019 College theme – Cultivating Environmental Virtue – I seek to offer an invitation to our community to develop a deeper understanding of environmental issues and thereby influence our thoughts and our actions. The term ‘Cultivating’ is intended to reinforce that it is not about thrusting ideas upon others, but about sowing seeds that will germinate and grow to maturity.

The Scottish poet Samuel Smiles, captured this approach in his wonderful verse:

Sow a thought, and you reap an act;

Sow an act, and you reap a habit;

Sow a habit, and you reap a character;

Sow a character, and you reap a destiny.

As a learning community, the notion of sowing a thought to reap a destiny must remain our raison d’être.

As with so many issues, my inspiration to challenge my thoughts and actions emerges from my responsibility and affection for the wonderful young people I am privileged to help nurture and prepare for the world beyond school. As an educator I am in strong agreement with John Wood, the founder of Room to Read, in the belief that: “World change starts with educated children”. If we are to realise our College Vision – ‘An education for life’ – we must each develop the capabilities to transmit the wisdom of how to inhabit a world and a limited environment with wisdom, with respect and with virtue.

How people view the environment has changed over the centuries and modern day environmentalists would most certainly challenge Aristotle’s assumptions that “Plants are created for the sake of animals, and animals for the sake of men”, considering them to be out of touch. The same would not be true of his concept of eudaimonia, which means happiness, human flourishing and the living of a beautiful life, as this would align perfectly with a modern day focus on sustainable practices. This conceptual approach aligns with Virtue Ethics which identifies the quest to develop deep understanding and to live a life of moral character. Aristotle believed that we acquire virtue through practising qualities such as courage, integrity, justice and temperance and he believed that by refining virtuous habits, people will likely make the right choice when faced with ethical challenges. I believe we would all benefit from asking ourselves more regularly what place ethics have in our daily lives, and thereby developing a clearer understanding of how our actions impact on the environment.

Those who hold religious and faith beliefs will see the world as a gift from God, which challenges us to pass on this gift, both material and spiritual, so our children can live well and, in the fullness of time, be able to gift it to their children. The spiritual gift will only be understood if we nurture the capacity to transcend self-interest and live with a positive purpose. This will require us to develop in them the tools and the motivation to think outside of the realm of self-interest that limits the actions of individual people, individual communities and individual nations. Only in this way can our young people embrace their responsibility to act for the good of all humankind and all life.

I suspect that if our very youngest students in ELC and the PYP were asked to engage in a conversation on the environment and consider the big question “What kind of world do you want to leave to your children?” they would, as great minds balanced by great values are apt to do, reveal a multitude of simple responses.

We want a world:

that’s free of pollution,

where everyone has access to clean water,

with quality healthcare,

where food supplies are secure,

where all life is supported and protected against extinction,

where people have learned sustainable methods of agriculture and development.

The strengthening voice of world youth movements through social media and actions such as climate change strikes, reveals a real determination to attack the ignorance, apathy and self-interest demonstrated by local and national governments in Australia and around the world. If our young people are to offer alternative ideas to leadership we must develop in them a stronger understanding of the science of climate change, which is inspired by global consciousness and equipped with the moral fortitude to engage in ethical practices. Given their remarkable emotional intelligence, I believe that the wellbeing of our young Leonardians will be enhanced by engaging them more deeply in determining the important actions that will improve the world in which they live.

Effecting change in an arena where the most powerful countries are the largest pollutants and whose actions are driven by political and economic self-interest will be difficult. Bringing to life those elements of landmark policies and agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement will be daunting and require great optimism, but this is often true of the most important challenges. It will require the development of ‘global citizenship’ skills that will enable them to operate effectively in an increasingly complex and diverse world, with a premium on collaboration and interdisciplinary work, a capacity to consider multiple perspectives on shared problems, all whilst moving across language and cultural boundaries. An understanding of the role that emerging and sophisticated technologies can play will also be critical.

It is evident that we must change the way we relate to the environment if we are to change the way we treat it. I believe our College community is mutable, which requires us to invest in education and infrastructure to bring comprehensive behavioural change. These investments will assist us to embrace our shared responsibility to develop a deeper understanding and awareness of how we might live ethically as true global citizens who can think beyond our local and national identity and interests.

In her book, Lost Lake, Sarah Addison insightfully shared the provocation “You can’t change where you came from, but you can change where you go from here.”

I would like this provocation to balance our perspective as we contemplate our theme: Cultivating Environmental Virtue. Many of our current and former practices may not have reflected environmental virtue, but our focus is on the future and effecting the changes that will result in us all demonstrating greater ethical virtue. This calls us to focus on the positive actions that have already begun and the many more that will follow. I look forward to sharing our ‘evolution’ in the next edition of Network.

To finish, a fun story that reflects my awareness of my own potential hypocrisy.

Mother: “Mahatma, please tell my little boy to stop eating sugar.”

Gandhi: “Come back in three days.”

Three days later…

Gandhi: “Stop eating sugar!”

Mother: “But why was it necessary for us to return after three days. Couldnʼt you have told my boy to stop eating sugar when we first visited?”

Gandhi: “I could not tell him then because three days ago I was also eating sugar.”


*Article first published in the April 2019 Edition of Network, the magazine of the St Leonard’s College community.