Christopher Tracy
James Madison College
Michigan State University
East Lansing, Michigan

The course and students

This is an elective course I taught the summer of 1994, but which was not taught this past summer because of insufficient enrollment. The course met for eight weeks, two hours twice a week, and was designed as an introduction to environmental policy-making. The ten students were mainly sophomores and juniors majoring in political theory or international relations. But one was a life studies major at the University of Pennsylvania and another was enrolled in the environmental program at MSU.

Why Ishmael?

Ishmael brings out the alarming reality of humanity’s future and the world’s future better than any other source I’ve read. The issues and tentative solutions are presented in a much more accessible way than other sources. I wanted students to understand that economic influences shouldn’t be the only criteria for policy-making, and Ishmael presents the best conglomeration of these other considerations — environmental ethics, philosophy, and religion. Quite often, too, certain ideas can be explored more easily through fiction than the more traditional textbook.

Class activity

Because of the small size of the class I taught the course as if it were a seminar, with much interaction and student participation. Essentially, we explored ways in which environmental policy is made. Because this was an introductory course, we were obliged to focus on established modes of policy-making, which entails a significant amount of discussion of cost benefit analysis, economics, and science. However, we also brought in environmental ethics, religion and philosophy, and several other disciplines, and I attempted to have students discover that a variety of disciplines and thought processes shape environmental policy. I assigned Ishmael in particular to aid this far-ranging discussion in terms of considering whether we have preconceived notions of how we as humans relate to the environment. Since students read the book at the beginning of the course, it cropped up again and again during discussions throughout the course. I encouraged students to explore policy decisions through the lens of what might be broadly called environmental ethics, and I believe that Ishmael helped shape the discussion of “alternative” modes of thought a great deal.

Student response

Some students responded to the idea of learning from a gorilla with jesting comments, but a great deal of serious interchange also occurred, both in class discussions and on the final exam. The students genuinely enjoyed the book, and I sensed that it encouraged them to think about issues with a new perspective. For example, when they were writing on global warming for the final exam, all the students went through the cost benefit analysis and covered the other typical current thinking on policy-making. But some, after doing that, continued to write as if they were Ishmael, exploring alternatives and looking at the problem from an ethical, philosophical, and planetary perspective.


I included a long final exam question that drew on students’ understanding of Ishmael and was meant to encourage them to consider how our current policy-making modes of thought (those often driven by economic and/or scientific concerns) might be shaped by our cultural moment. Students were asked to play the role of law clerks involved in a case before the World Court of Justice. (We’ve condensed the question from two single-spaced pages in order to provide a glimpse of what the students were dealing with. ED.)

Sample: Final Exam Question

The World Court of Justice Case #94-8675309

Plaintiffs: The Leavers, members of an environmental interest group/non-governmental organization. Their attorney: the Right Honorable Ishmael. Defendants: The Takers, bureaucrats from a world political body. Their attorney: Dr. Excessive Growth. Justices: J. Blinded B.Y. Science, J. Economic Phil Enmore, and J. Enviro Greenfield.

The issue: The right of “the world” to a balanced and healthful ecology. Plaintiffs seek an order from the court preventing defendants from further logging in “Antreetica,” alleging that deforestation is causing environmental damage and putting at risk the area’s rain forest, rare and unique species of flora and fauna, and its indigenous peoples.

Defendants maintain that plaintiffs don’t have science to support their claims and assert that plaintiffs have no standing to bring this matter before the world court because many of the specifics they cite (dislocation of cultural communities, drought, flooding) are based on future-harm, speculation and/or harm to others.

Write opinions from each justice. Indicate the important facts the justices rely on to reach their conclusions. Set forth the policies and regulations they use as a basis for their opinions. Explain how their perspectives have guided their thinking in reaching their final conclusions. Finally, set forth the conclusion of each justice.

The students, for the most part, readily accepted the challenge, and came up with a variety of interesting responses. One, for example, explained her feelings about how being raised a Roman Catholic may have shaped her notion of nature and the role of humanity in the world. The student sincerely attempted to avoid pigeon-holing organized faith as a negative or positive in the discussion, but rather attempted to objectively consider its influence.

Summing up

I was truly excited about using the book in my course, though I admit that because of time and subject matter constraints, I may not have gotten as much out of the text as I desired. I’ll definitely use it again when I teach this course. I would encourage other teachers to use the book, particularly if more time could be committed to exploring the variety of issues the text raises.