What traits make the best environmental citizens?

“In situations where people are talking about very tough issues, such as climate change and sustainability, there are certain virtues people have that help those deliberations go better,” said Kyle Whyte, assistant professor of philosophy. “The public will have to increasingly deal with such issues so it’s important the educational system is preparing people to participate well with those who have different views.”

But that’s not a focus of most environmental education programs, found Whyte and co-researcher Matt Ferkany, visiting assistant professor of teacher education. Their study was published in the journal Philosophy of Education.

While the researchers said their list of traits isn’t complete, the most successful deliberators possess virtues that make people feel included and engaged, while producing results. The top 14 traits:  friendliness, empathy, courage, temperance, sincerity, humility, self-confidence, persistence, attentiveness, dependability, fairness, generosity and patience.

“These virtues are based on the nature of the problems we face – problems that are collaborative in nature and for which there is widespread disagreement about solutions,” Ferkany said.

Take self-confidence. In many conversations, people don’t value their own contributions and worry others won’t respect their ideas, Ferkany said. But a good deliberator believes, without arrogance, that his or her contributions can advance the discussion.

Or take friendliness. Congenial people are open to differing opinions. And temperate people can shut down an argument gone wrong without losing their cool. 

Teachers and schools can provide opportunities for exercising such virtues, Ferkany said.  For example, if a school touts the importance of sustainability, it could include students in the planning of organic menus. To promote self-confidence, schools should make all students feel important by offering activities appealing to many interests.

Another way: experiential education, in which students gain experience through actual dialog.

This fall, Whyte participated in a Sustainable Michigan Endowed Project grant led by Dale Rozeboom, professor of animal science. The project brought together students from animal science and MSU’s Student Organic Farm to discuss “ethical farming and food practices.”

At the end of the semester, after all students visited both the MSU swine farm and the organic farm, they met to discuss sustainable pork production. They came from different worlds – those training to  run conventional agriculture businesses and those training to become organic farmers – but concluded that everyone wanted to produce a good product and earn a living,  while protecting the health of the pig and the environment.
“Because the problems are so complex,” Whyte said, “citizens need deliberative and collaborative skills to deal with environmental and agriculture matters.”


Michigan State University has been working to advance the common good in uncommon ways for more than 150 years. One of the top research universities in the world, MSU focuses its vast resources on creating solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, while providing life-changing opportunities to a diverse and inclusive academic community through more than 200 programs of study in 17 degree-granting colleges.

Contact: Kristen Parker, University Relations, Office: (517) 353-8942, Cell: (517) 980-0709, [email protected]; Kyle Whyte, Philosophy, Office: (517) 432-1034, [email protected]; Matthew Ferkany, College of Education, Office: (517) 353-6470, [email protected]