What it Means to be Human

Holmes Rolston, Mayra Monfort and Kenneth Shockley at her home, Dec. 2, 2016
Holmes Rolston, Mayra Monfort and Kenneth Shockley at her home, Dec. 2, 2016

Kenneth Shockley joined the Department of Philosophy as the Holmes Rolston III Endowed Chair in Environmental Ethics and Philosophy this summer, bringing a breadth of experience to ensure a strong legacy for, and to supplement the already substantial strength in environmental ethics at Colorado State University. Shockley’s research focuses on how climate change impacts marginalized communities, and he brings a passion for philosophy, learning, and looking at the world through various perspectives to his work.

“I have an interest in looking at the way vulnerable communities, both globally and locally, are affected by climate change, and how that ties to environmental degradation and our attitudes regarding the environment,” he says.

Shockley’s work closely examines the intersection between development, environmental, and climate ethics through the lens of real-world politics. The crossroads of these modes are explored in Shockley’s classes, giving students an opportunity to think outside their realm of study and their perception of the world.

Dr. Kenneth Shockley at Machu Picchu
Dr. Kenneth Shockley at Machu Picchu

“Increasingly, when we talk about science and the way it is related to politics, we are looking at the way in which human activities are interdependent with the wider world,” he says. “It’s about understanding the world and what it means to be human. If students can think more broadly about the intersectionality between different modes – economic, environmental, societal, political – ultimately they will make better decisions.”

A turning point

As an undergraduate student, Shockley studied philosophy, physics, and mathematics at UW-Madison.   His senior year took him to England, where he studied philosophy and lived in an international house. The year of intensive philosophy work and communing with housemates, mostly non-traditional students from around the world, ignited his curiosity. He began to explore social, governmental and environmental issues from multiple points of view.

“I learned how narrow my vision of the world had been,” Shockley notes.

Intrigued by international cultures and issues, Shockley wanted to create an opportunity to explore his interests further and signed up for the Peace Corps upon his return to the United States. He was assigned to teach secondary physics, chemistry, and math in Malawi. Thinking he’d spend his time in a small village, Shockley filled his suitcases with books to help pass time. Little did he know that this would not be the case.

Shockley was eventually placed in Zomba, Malawi, a large urban center, where he taught at the University of Malawi. This assignment ended quickly due to a faculty strikes with the intent of bringing about wide-spread political change, preferably a change in government.

“Experiencing the politics of the teachers’ strike was a turning point for me, because what they really wanted to do was foment change on a national level,” he says. By participating in a national action so foreign to his own, Shockley began to think deeper about how people interact with their social environment as much as their natural environment.

Appreciating the interconnections

Dr. Kenneth Shockley delivering his inaugural lecture at CSU
Dr. Kenneth Shockley delivered his inaugural lecture this fall  at CSU.

Later in his Peace Corps/Malawi service, a new position in program development and volunteer management helped Shockley understand the social constructs in Malawi and the Peace Corps. One of the projects that still stands out for Shockley was a request to inspect bridges while he was visiting and supporting other volunteers. Upon receiving this assignment, Shockley admits to being confused.

“I knew nothing about bridges, I was no engineer,” he says.  It was then that his supervisor told him, “No, no. You don’t understand. Just go see if the bridge is still there.”

While driving around in a Peace Corps truck noting which bridges had been washed out due to flooding, he realized the weight of the teachers’ strike, the significance of the crumbling infrastructure, and the power of the natural environment to affect both.

“It made me really appreciate the interconnections between the political actions that were taking place socially and environmental conditions on the ground. One of the things environmental ethics requires you to do is take a whole bunch of different considerations together and figure out what to do with the mess,” he explains.

And that mess is Shockley’s motivation. He feels the weight of his work, knowing that the path ahead is not easy. But it is important. Shockley explains, “I don’t want to leave my son with a more impoverished world than I had.”

Rachael Johnson contributed to this story.