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Environmental Exemplars


We are currently seeking nominations for environmental exemplars. We define "environmental exemplars" as people who have consistently devoted themselves or their work to addressing, understanding, advocating for, or communicating environmental issues (e.g. sustainability, climate change, environmental justice, ecology, etc.). Although an environmental exemplar does not have to be someone famous, their work will ideally have had some influence on other people – for example, they may have been influential by teaching or inspiring others, or by having a broader engagement with the public (e.g. policy work, giving talks, writing).
We will contact a selection of the nominated individuals, and invite them to take part in an interview. Our goal is to understand more about the nature of environmental motivation – so that we can better understand what is it that motivates some exceptional individuals to devote themselves wholeheartedly to environmental causes.


This project is funded by the John Templeton Foundation, as part of a grant about Moral Beacons. We are building on such classic studies as Some Do Care, by Anne Colby and William Damon, and extending their findings into the environmental domain.
While Colby and Damon investigated moral exceptionality broadly speaking, we think a narrower focus on exemplarity in the environmental domain is timely and important. The threat of human-induced climate change poses enormous challenges across many levels: political, scientific, technological, and practical. It also poses moral challenges. The harmful consequences of climate change will most acutely affect poorer countries, raising moral issues of harm and fairness. They will also more acutely affect future generations, raising questions regarding our inter-generational moral obligations. Environmental issues also raise questions regarding humans’ obligations to non-human animals and natural areas. Because the worst consequences of climate change are still temporally distant, they do not kindle moral passions as effectively as do more proximate concerns. Accordingly, the task of generating sufficient moral concern for this issue presents formidable psychological challenges.
Yet, there are many committed individuals who have overcome these challenges, and who devote their lives peacefully to solving environmental problems. These “environmental exemplars” provide an ideal test bed for understanding moral excellence. Such exemplars exhibit numerous moral virtues, including justice, bravery and commitment, compassion for future generations and non-human animals, and perhaps most strikingly, the capacity to take a long-range moral perspective.
In this three-part project, we investigate the following broad research questions: What motivates environmental exemplars? Do these motivations also apply to more "ordinary" individuals, and if so, how? How do regular people view those who are exceptionally dedicated to the environment?
Our underlying goal is to better understand what motivates exceptional moral concern for the environment and for future generations, and how such concerns fit within an individual’s overall understanding of the world and their place within it. We hope to yield rich theoretical insights regarding the nature of environmental exemplarity, and moral excellence more generally. We also hope to provide greater insight into practical psychological strategies that may generate greater concern for the environment, for non-human animals, and for future generations.