Environmental and Economic Injustice Print

Laura Stivers, Dominican University of California

Laura Stivers is associate professor of ethics and Chair of the philosophy and religion programs at Dominican University of California. She developed the teaching strategy outlined below at her previous position at Pfeiffer University in North Carolina, where she taught for ten years. Stivers has authored Disrupting Homelessness: From Charity to Community (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2011); coedited Justice in a Global Economy: Strategies for Home, Community, and World (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 2006); and published several articles in the areas of economic, environmental, and feminist ethics. She holds degrees from Saint Olaf College, Pacific School of Religion, and the Graduate Theological Union. Her writing, teaching, and community involvements address issues of economic and environmental justice. In addition to academic pursuits, Stivers spends summers searching for fields of wildflowers and kayaking around river rocks and winters gliding on skis and camping at the beach.

Seeing is Believing

Miles of torn-up mountain, dump trucks with car-sized wheels, coal dust-covered windowsills, torrential mudslides, and intimidation from coal companies — we experience the devastation of Kayford Mountain in West Virginia as we participate in a walking prayer vigil/protest. Wanting to learn more about the environmental and economic injustices happening within a few hours of where I live and seeking a way to engage students on a deeper level in my “Environmental Philosophy and Ethics” course at Pfeiffer University, I contacted groups organizing against mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining. Put in contact with a former Presbyterian pastor-turned-organizer and the environmental nonprofit organization Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), I planned a three-day service-learning trip for my students (and my children). 

The first evening we helped CRMW prepare for its weekend teach-in for college students. The following day we split up into two groups with one group preparing for the teach-in and the other group painting the home of a grandmother who was caring for four grandchildren. Three of these children attended the local elementary school that sits 400 yards from a massive toxic waste storage facility (e.g., sludge dam) and 150 yards from a coal silo, which funnels powdered coal into waiting unit trains. The next day we drove up to Kayford Mountain to speak with Larry Gibson, an organizer nicknamed “Keeper of the Mountain,” and to participate in a prayer vigil/protest. People from the community who have been negatively affected by mountaintop removal and those who have organized to stop it spoke at different intervals on our walk towards the precipice overlooking the half-torn-up mountainside. In the service my students shared one thing they would do to use less energy, offered a symbol to represent their environmental action, and asked others to make a similar vow. I am now hanging my laundry out to dry and my daughters are regularly turning off lights.  

While I had hoped to make this service trip a mandatory part of my course, a high number of students with demanding sports schedules and work hours made such a requirement unrealistic. Thus, apart from a section on environmental racism and classism, I did not take class time to prepare students for the trip. After the trip, however, the students who went presented a slide show and reflection on their experiences both in chapel and at a local church. In our class they also made a presentation during the ethics section on energy. And the following semester several of them even helped me design a workshop on environmental racism for our university’s Bonner Scholars (a service-based scholarship program). Even more exciting, several of the students met to start a campus environmental group.

While not all of the students in my course went on this educational trip, all of them did participate in service. Since there are no environmental organizations in the vicinity of our university — located in rural North Carolina — for sustained service over the semester, I chose instead to have my students, in three separate groups, develop creative workshops for students in the charter high school on our campus. My students used engaged pedagogy to teach an ecological perspective in relation to food, energy use, and waste. For the sake of space, I will reflect on the West Virginia service/educational experience, although I think a mix of engaged learning pedagogies in a course is beneficial.

My original motivation for incorporating service-learning and experiential learning into my course stemmed from our university’s emphasis on service-learning in the curriculum. Since ethics courses are well suited for service-learning, I decided to take up the challenge. We were urged to assign a minimum of fifteen hours of service in our courses, preferably with a community partner, and structure some in-depth reflection on the service, both through assignments and/or discussion in class. As I mentioned above, meeting some of these requirements in a place with little environmental activism made traditional service-learning impossible. Nevertheless, the experiential learning and service I incorporated into the course met my pedagogical goals and confirmed some of the benefits claimed by the teaching and learning literature.

One of my first goals was for students to gain a deeper understanding of the connection between environmental and economic injustice. In class I cover theoretical material and have the students engage case studies that link the two, but the connection often remains abstract until students have a visceral experience. My students got such an experience when they wiped black coal dust off the elementary school door with their hands, saw the polluted murky water that came out of a family’s water heater, heard the stories of numerous people out of work (mountaintop mining needs fewer workers than underground coal mining), and witnessed the scarred landscape and multiple sludge dams in one of the most beautiful places in the United States. The service-learning literature emphasizes the benefit of connecting theory to praxis. Working and praying with activists who are organizing to save their own communities from wholesale environmental destruction made the philosophical readings and the religious inspiration for prophetic justice real for the students. This benefit of service-learning as a pedagogy was confirmed in the theological reflection the students did on their service in light of course readings.

A second pedagogical goal was for students to consider seriously the possibilities of an ecological worldview and environmental sensitivity in their own lives. While grades in my courses are not based on agreement with my worldview and sensitivities, I do not pretend to teach this course from an impartial standpoint. While many of the students who opted to go on the service trip already had an ecological orientation, if I could make the trip a requirement in the future, I believe students would increasingly adopt these possibilities.

The teaching and learning literature argues that service-learning promotes more active democratic engagement in society (Lisman and Harvey 2000). The changes my students made personally in their lives, their environmental engagement within the university and in the broader community, and the career goals they have pursued since graduating (e.g., law school and internships to fight MTR; seminary and field placements with congregations engaged in social justice) all demonstrate that service-learning encourages broader democratic participation in society.  

A third pedagogical goal of all my ethics courses is for students to understand the problems with charitable service approaches that do not address the roots of particular injustices. My students could have simply gone to West Virginia and painted houses for people on welfare (as we did). Had my students stopped there, stereotypes about people who are poor might have been reinforced (the grandmother was taking care of her grandchildren because the mother was in jail for drug use). Only by hearing the stories of hardworking coal miners, seeing underfunded schools situated next to toxic waste dumps, staying in barely insulated houses, and experiencing the lack of decent job opportunities, did my students realize that there were larger systemic factors causing poverty in West Virginia. Students also made the connection between their overuse of energy and the destruction of lively communities in their own backyard. 

In the last ten years scholars have begun to focus on academic service-learning experiences with a social justice orientation (referred to as “critical service-learning”). A lot of educational service continues to be charity-based, however, with little critical analysis of the ways in which service can often be disempowering for those served, especially if no effort is made to address inequality (of both power and wealth). My expectation is that service with adequate classroom reflection can help students to analyze critically the way power and oppression operate in our society, and from there to envision prophetic solutions to poverty, environmental destruction, and other forms of oppression, not simply solutions that reinforce the status quo. I am aware, however, that critical service-learning proponents argue that promoting social change requires that colleges and universities have students involved with long-term community partners who are working to address real community needs (see Eby; Antoci and Smith Speck; and Devine, Favazza, and McClain). 

While stopping environmental destruction will require radical policy changes in the United States and globally, these changes will not occur unless individuals and groups undergo a paradigm shift that leads them to demand policies that support economic justice and environmental sustainability. There are many college students who have undergone such a paradigm shift, but in my experience the majority of students are simply focused on getting a piece of the American Dream of material abundance and career success (as measured by salary).

While my course was a philosophy and not a religion course, I regularly have a high percentage of religion majors enroll. In half of the course we cover environmental theory and the other half we address ethical issues related to environmental destruction. Students can get a bit overwhelmed, both by the philosophical theory, the interdisciplinary nature, and the amount of expertise needed to comprehend different environmental issues. Finding concrete and experiential ways to motivate passion on the issues and to instill a thirst for learning more and connecting to theoretical resources is crucial.

I realize not all scholars who teach religion and ecology are trying to promote environmental sensitivity and action in their student’s lives. I would not be surprised, however, if that is not an unstated goal for many. If this is a goal and instructors want students to connect theory and life in a deeper way, then service-learning and/or experiential education that exposes students to the real-life messiness of environmental decision-making is crucial. This trip helped my students to think about the complexity of the issue and to understand different standpoints. They met community members who despite the environmental destruction were supportive of even more mining. For them mining was a way of life and had been for their ancestors who first came to this place. It was also their only means of livelihood. For them, economic development and jobs trump environmental sustainability, even though they realized the two were connected.

My students also met a number of college environmental activists at the weekend teach-in who were supportive of environmental justice but did not once get off their activist horses to really talk to, not to mention get to know, the local people. Most impressive for my students were the people they met who came to environmental activism out of love for their community, culture, and geographical place. These people had a deep faith in a God of justice and compassion who is angered and saddened to see creation, both earth and all living creatures, destroyed and oppressed in such a manner. No lecture of mine could give the students these kinds of insights into an environmental issue. 

Had we more time and had it been a possibility, I would have liked to have had students meet with elected state representatives (who are overwhelmingly supportive of the coal industry) and a representative from at least one of the coal companies. In my course we covered a range of philosophical stances in relation to the environment, namely developmentalist, preservationist, conservationist, and radical ecojustice perspectives. Hearing from people representing different perspectives would have given my students a chance to identify the values implicit in each and critically assess for themselves the merits of each. If the course had been a religious studies course, I would have wanted students to hear from different faith perspectives on the issue as well. While different denominations were represented at the prayer vigil, this venue did not allow for students to hear individual reflections on faith and theology in relation to environmental activism.

Ideally I would have also liked to have created a partnership between my university and the environmental organizations protesting against MTR. Unfortunately I only teach this course every other year and did not have the time to develop a sustained partnership with these environmental groups.   

While there are many ways to incorporate service-learning into an environmental ethics course, I found that an educational trip that includes service and helps students see the connection between economic and environmental injustice to be invaluable. I advocate finding a place close to the students’ own location so that they do not have the excuse that such injustice only happens elsewhere. Exposing students to environmental and economic injustices in their own locale can open their eyes to the ways various oppressions intersect and can motivate them to adopt a truly ecological worldview.



Devine, Richard, Joseph A. Favazza, and Michael F. McLain. From Cloister to Commons: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Religious Studies. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education, 2002.

Eby, John W. “Why Service-learning Is Bad” (March 1998). Retrieved August 2010.

Johnson, Brian T., and Carolyn O’Grady, eds. The Spirit of Service: Exploring Faith, Service, and Social Justice in Higher Education. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing, 2006.

Kivel, Paul. “Social Service or Social Change?” (2006). Retrieved August 2010.

Mitchell, Tania D. “Traditional vs. Critical Service-Learning: Engaging the Literature to Differentiate Two Models.” Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning (Spring 2008): 50–65.

O’Grady, Carolyn R., ed. Integrating Service Learning and Multicultural Education in Colleges and Universities. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2000.

Ward, Harold. Acting Locally: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Environmental Studies. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education, 1999.

Syllabus - Environmental Philosophy and Ethics - Stivers