Written by Liz Pacheco, Environmental Science and Policy Program
Kyle Powys Whyte's joining ESPP seemed inevitable. The philosophy professor, who's starting his third year at MSU, has already immersed himself in interdisciplinary collaborations across campus. In addition to his full-time appointment in philosophy, Whyte is an affiliated faculty at the Center for Study of Standards in Society, the Peace and Justice Studies Specialization, and the American Indian Studies Program. For Whyte, these multiple affiliations are integral to his work as an environmental ethicist.
Being an environmental ethicist means engaging with the ethical issues surrounding problems like climate change and sustainable agriculture. This "includes being able to understand moral positions people have on sustainability issues." Like other ethicists, he seeks to evaluate policies and actions using the tools of moral theory and the philosophies of science and technology. Compared with other philosophical approaches that primarily explore human lives, Whyte is concerned with the moral status of the non-human world.
Whyte is a part of a National Science Foundation-sponsored project on the ethical and social aspects of nanotechnology used in animal agriculture. The project is studying the use, as well as the social and ethical implications, of biosensor technologies in food safety for beef and dairy systems. The work includes researchers from philosophy, animal science, veterinary medicine, a nano-biosensors lab, sociology, packaging and agricultural economics.
Another project seeks to improve Tribal and First Nation engagement in cooperative natural resource conservation efforts. This research, sponsored by the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes Landscape Conservation Cooperative program, is of personal interest to Whyte, who is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Shawnee, Okla. The three other investigators on the project are also Native.
A third emphasis of Whyte's research is linking environmental education with democratic education. In other words, students should learn to appreciate the environment and be aware of sustainability issues, yet also be prepared to work collectively with others who have different values, experiences and knowledge bases. The Spencer Foundation has awarded Whyte, along with Matt Ferkany (College of Education), funding to develop concepts, which could serve as the basis for designing and assessing environmental education programs.
While research is important to Whyte, he says that coming to MSU is also an opportunity to help develop the university's interdisciplinary course offerings.
"[I came] here to contribute my part to making MSU a leader in both environmental philosophy and humanities," he says, "[and], more broadly, in sustainability education."
Whyte has helped integrate this academic variety into a new concentration in environmental philosophy. Offered through the philosophy department, the concentration addresses the juncture of environmental themes and ethics. Topics covered include the philosophy of ecology, wilderness ethics, animal ethics, and ethics and development.