Environmental Ethics
and Public Policy
Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Lessons of Nature

Ernest Partridge


These concluding remarks from The Gadfly's lecture at the New Jersey School of Conservation (October , 1998), include some "borrowings" from one of my earliest publications, also titled "The Lessons of Nature," in The Journal of Environmental Education, (1973).  The complete lecture (not read in full), "Wapalanne, a Glance Back and Guidelines for the Future," is also at this website).

That which can best be learned in the
outdoors, should there be taught.

(L. B. Sharp).

In a celebrated and oft-quoted letter, Wallace Stegner writes:

Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams... So that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong to it.(1)

Just what will we have lost? Nothing, replies Martin Krieger, in his notorious paper, "What's Wrong With Plastic Trees?" After all, we are "plastic people" -- that is, infinitely malleable. We can adopt to anything, and like it:

My guess is that there is very little wrong with [plastic trees]. Much more can be done with plastic trees and the like to give most people the feeling that they are experiencing nature. We will have to realize that the way in which we experience nature is conditioned by our society...(2)

If Krieger is right, then perhaps Governor Byrne should have shut down this School in the early eighties. And you know I don't believe that!

In rebuttal to Krieger's de-naturalized humanism, we presented the biophilia hypothesis of E. O. Wilson - the contention that, in the words of Hugh Iltis, "like the need for love, the need for nature, the need for its diversity and beauty, has a genetic basis." The biophilia hypothesis is compellingly plausible. If true, it tells us that a human life entirely detached from nature suffers an experiential amputation. Moreover, biophilia bears profound educational implications, for it supports the contention that an artificialized education comprised of abstract and isolated facts, confines the understanding and the imagination. To illustrate this point, consider something as ordinary as a rock.

When tossed on a table in a geology lab, the student will appropriately attack that rock with an iron nail and a piece of glass to determine its hardness, then a couple of drops of HCL to test for calcium, following which he will reach for other diagnostic chemicals, then take it to a water tank to measure its specific gravity, and so on. If he is a competent student, he will correctly identify its mineral content. If he aspires to become a mining engineer or even a concert pianist he will likely have spent the hour most profitably, for he will either have moved closer to professional competency, or will have been "liberally educated" in the methods of scientific analysis.(3)

But let him encounter the same rock where it was found - on a mountain ridge, or by a brook, or on a talus slope at the based of a cliff. Once he has applied the nail, glass and acid, the student might then explore the natural contexts of his discovery, whereupon he will become more than a student of geology. What formation did the rock fall from? What are the immediate neighbors of that formation? Where did they come from? How? When? How do the materials in this rock affect the soil, the plants, and the wildlife of the area? How does the mountain from which it came alter the prevailing weather conditions? How have the wind in his face and the water by his feet carved the mountain to this shape? In the laboratory, the student will duly mark the word "sedimentary" and, if asked the ago of the specimen, will put down some digits with several zeros after them. At the site of the discovery, he sees the ripple marks of an ancient sea near the mountain top. Or he looks a thousand feet up a sheer cliff that has been cut by this little river, calm enough now that the can see the trout poking at the bottom. In a book, time and space are abstracted and coded into numbers. In nature, they may be encountered in close interrelationship and with profound implications. Time is manifested in the spatial depth of this canyon. Space is measured by the time the light of that star began its journey to our retina. The immensity of time and space are personal to us in the wilderness: as personal as hiking across or paddling through a canyon. As personal as gazing at the starlight in the moonless mountain night sky.

The rock, encountered where it lay for millions of years, belongs to no department. With it, from it, one feels the immensity of geological time; but one also learns of weather, of plants, and of resources. One sees nature as a community in which a change in one part changes the whole.

Science has enormously and permanently expanded our knowledge of nature. It is a lens and an analytic grid which makes sense of that which, encountered naively, is full of sound and fury, yet signifying nothing. Aldo Leopold makes the point vividly when he contrasts the modern scientist's encounter with nature to that of Daniel Boone, who's reaction to the outdoors

depended not only on the quality of what he saw, but on the quality of the mental eye with which he saw it. Ecological science has wrought a change in the mental eye. It has disclosed origins and functions for what to Boone were only facts. It has disclosed mechanisms for what to Boone were only attributes.... We may safely say that, as compared with the competent ecologist of the present day, Boone saw only the surface of things.(4)

Science, then, is indispensable to our understanding of nature - but it is not, by itself, sufficient. For science is an artificial construct of technical vocabularies, of theoretical structures and of methodologies. To paraphrase the philosopher, Immanuel Kant, the artifice of science without the natural is empty, while nature encountered without scientific hypothesis (or artistic expression) is encountered blindly. Nature is nothing less than the pre-existing and co-existing reality from which the scientist endeavors to abstract his knowledge. And nature is a reality which the artist proposes to interpret and express;. Homo sapiens is necessarily and at times gloriously artificial. However, as we human beings directly encounter, respond to, elaborate, and glorify our natural dimension and estate, our artifice becomes powerful, profound, and marvelous.

Herein I refer to the simple distinction between knowledge and appreciation. Yet the educational implications of that distinction are clear and compelling, and provide a philosophical foundation for outdoor education. We must restore and enhance our contact with the Earth both by understanding the earth through the sciences, and by appreciating the Earth through direct encounter outside our artificial doors. Knowledge is intellectual, and appreciation is the esthetic, emotional and moral supplement to the knowledge that leads to action. The heavy smoker knows that he is taking a risk: appreciation comes too late, with the diagnosis. We know that the tropical rain forests are disappearing at the rate of an acre a second, but do we appreciate it? The National Geographic will teach us that the Grand Canyon is a mile deep and two-hundred miles long; appreciation comes from sitting on the south rim, feet dangling over a thousand feet of sheer drop, looking across to Bright Angel Canyon. Books will tell us of the eras and periods of geological history; appreciation comes as we leave the rim of that canyon and walk down through the strata of frozen time toward the Phantom Ranch in Granite Gorge. Star Trek's Spock and Data have knowledge, but lack appreciation. Captains Kirk and Piccard have both, and thus they are appropriately in command.

In my environmental ethics classes and in throughout my publications, I discuss the theory of Biophilia -- the theory that we have a genetically coded affinity with natural landscapes. But it was my own biophilic appreciation, nourished during my youth in these New Jersey forests, and later in the rivers of Colorado, the deserts of Utah and the mountains of California that led me to my career and thence to those classrooms and pages. And it was the same appreciation, nourished in that same Utah and California wilderness, that inspired and motivated the founding directors of this School of Conservation.

I rather doubt that any amount of scientific knowledge, or scare stories about the consequences of our environmentally evil ways, will suffice to save our natural world and thus ourselves. If we preserve nature, and with it ourselves, it will be due to our love for it and not simply our need of it. And that love must come from direct encounter.

And so we have at last, but by no means least, articulated what is potentially the most important, if insufficiently valued, of your contributions to Education here at the New Jersey School of Conservation: the humanization and activation of knowledge through appreciation Sadly, the need of our youth to encounter nature directly is increasing, just as the opportunities, the demand, and the places for such encounters are shrinking. We need in the public, and especially among the youth, a constituency for the earth, and for that we need professional educators to lead the youth away from the tube, out of the classroom, and into nature's realm.. "In wildness," wrote Thoreau, "is the preservation of the world."

May your good work, and that of your students and theirs, continue so long as the rivers run to the sea, and there are moral agents worthy of our good Earth.

 Copyright 1998 by Ernest Partridge 


1. Wallace Stegner, The Sound of Mountain Water, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969, pp. 146-7.

2. Martin Krieger, "What's Wrong With Plastic Trees?" Science, February 2, 1973., 453.

3. Most of these final comments are "auto-plagiarisms" from my "The Lessons of Nature," in The Journal of Environmental Education, 5;3, Winter, 1973.

4. Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, 1949, p. 194.


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .