John Nolt—a self-described nerd—began his career in the Department of Philosophy teaching philosophical logic.
However, like Marvel comic characters, such as Spider-Man, have shown us over the years, some nerds can live two lives. That is exactly what Nolt did for five years before he decided to merge his love for teaching with his love for the environment.
“I got to the point where I thought I was either going to have to give up my tenured job and go fulltime as an activist or figure out some way to have my passion integrated with my work,” says Nolt, professor of philosophy and interim co-head of the department.
He introduced the environmental ethics course to the College of Arts and Sciences in the early 1990s and has been teaching it ever since.
Nolt did not grow up as an activist sitting on protest lines or signing petitions. He did not find activism in college as many often do. He found activism after the birth of his daughter.
“It all began with her,” Nolt says. “A strange thing happened. I found myself feeling depressed.”
For months, Nolt wondered what was going on, why he felt depressed, and eventually realized he was angry about the world his baby girl was going to grow up in and knew he had to do something, anything.
“I saw all the environmental destruction and degradation of places I knew and loved,” Nolt says. “That’s when I decided to become an activist.”
Nolt spent his early years working on a variety of community issues from wetlands and wildlife preservation to toxic waste and nuclear issues. After he developed the course on environmental ethics, his focus shifted to climate change.
“All the roads I investigated seemed to lead to climate change,” Nolt says. “I just couldn’t avoid being drawn to that topic. It was the biggest, most long-term, most global environmental problem of all.”
While establishing the environmental ethics course in the College of Arts and Sciences was a great way for Nolt to integrate his passion for the environment with his philosophy background, it was a bit more difficult than he anticipated.
“Before I got into environmental ethics, frankly, I had not thought deeply about ethical issues,” Nolt says. “Switching to environmental ethics was a radical change for me because I had not had the background in ethics. It’s something I had to grow into.”
He started with one class of about 25 students. Today, the department offers several sections of the environmental ethics course at the undergraduate level and various related courses at the graduate level, including courses on animal ethics and intergenerational ethics with a focus on climate change. Nolt also does occasional guest lectures for courses outside the department.
“I think the importance of environmental ethics for the College of Arts and Sciences is largely the same as its importance for philosophy – it expands traditional thinking about ethics in three different directions,” Nolt says.
The first direction, according to Nolt, is the concern for human beings in the future.
“Traditional ethics was not much concerned with future people dealing with issues like climate change,” Nolt says. “That’s a huge issue and a huge area of concern.”
The second way environmental ethics expands ethical thinking is related to animals.
“I’ve done a lot of thinking about the extent to which we should alter our behavior to take into account the welfare of animals,” says Nolt, who has also collaborated with Professor Joan Heminway in the College of Law to present a seminar and a national conference: Animals, Ethics, and Law.
Finally, environmental ethics expands ethical thinking with respect to life in general – the natural world, which includes non-sentient beings and all living things.
“My own view is biocentric,” Nolt says. “I think we should take into account all life in making decisions about how we live on this planet, which is something traditional ethics never looked at. It opens up huge areas of thought and investigation.”
Nolt is well known in the field both nationally and internationally because of his extensive writing, publishing, and presenting. In 2015, he published his most recent book, Environmental Ethics for the Long Term: An Introduction.
Outside of the classroom, Nolt has also made his mark and received the College of Arts and Sciences 2016 Lorayne W. Lester Award for his outstanding service as a champion for environmental ethics at UT and the East Tennessee region. Additionally, Nolt and his wife try to live as sustainably as possible in their everyday lives. Nolt bikes to campus. They live in a solar-powered house and are frugal when it comes to energy use.
“We really try to do the best we can,” Nolt says. “We’re not there. We never will be quite there, but we’ve made a lot of strides over the years and that’s part of my story.”
Originally published in Higher Ground, April 20, 2017.