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Environmental responsibility: ethics, policy and action

Have you ever wondered how to be a responsible environmental citizen? What it means to be responsible, to make a 'right' decision, or to achieve a 'just' outcome for our natural world that we share? Such questions affect many of us both on personal and professional levels. This module provides a framework for analysis, and innovative tools promoting individual and collective responsibility for decisions and action. You will examine how cultural traditions influence attitudes towards the environment, and develop skills in advocacy, argumentation, debate, evaluating direct action, and constructing and making sense of environmentally related documentation such as briefing papers and viewpoint articles.

Vocational relevance

This module aims to support continual development of skills amongst managers in the public, private and voluntary sectors associated with environmental decision making. Within the UK and internationally there is substantial interest among the many existing and aspiring practitioners involved with environmental decision making for developing skills in constructing and making sense of environmentally related briefing papers and associated documentation, advocacy, argumentation, debate and evaluation.


TD866 is an optional module in our:

This module can also count towards F13, which is no longer available to new students.

Some postgraduate qualifications allow study to be chosen from other subject areas. These qualifications allow most postgraduate modules to count towards them. We advise you to refer to the relevant qualification descriptions for information on the circumstances in which this module can count towards these qualifications because from time to time the structure and requirements may change.

Excluded combinations

Sometimes you will not be able to count a module towards a qualification if you have already taken another module with similar content.  To check any excluded combinations relating to this module, visit our excluded combination finder or check with an adviser before registering.


Module code


  • Credits measure the student workload required for the successful completion of a module or qualification.
  • One credit represents about 10 hours of study over the duration of the course.
  • You are awarded credits after you have successfully completed a module.
  • For example, if you study a 60-credit module and successfully pass it, you will be awarded 60 credits.
Study level
OU Postgraduate
Study method
Distance learning
Find out more in Why the OU?
Module cost
See Module registration
Entry requirements

Find out more about entry requirements.

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What you will study

The module consists of four parts: an introduction followed by three core sections.

Part 1: Introducing environmental responsibility

The first part provides an understanding of environmental responsibility in terms of caring for the environment and being accountable for harm or wrongdoing to the environment. A mini case-study explores these dimensions of responsibility associated with economic and ecological relations between a country from the global South and countries in the global North. The vignette provides an exposition of three interrelated and recurring questions relating to environmental responsibility: 

  • Firstly, what matters? What are the values being privileged or needing to be privileged in any environmental dilemma, and in what way do they relate to other values? 
  • Secondly, who matters in terms of individuals and communities, and how are matters addressed by these different stakeholders? Questions regarding who the stakeholders might be are intimately connected to questions of how particular stakeholders enact their responsibilities. 
  • And thirdly, why should these issues matter in contrast with other issues? What reasons are there for privileging particular interests over others and what political and institutional opportunities are there for challenging the legitimacy of some issues over others? 

Part 1 then briefly summarises three ethical traditions and how these traditions inform particular forms of policy and action. Based on the features of environmental responsibility outlined in Part 1, a heuristic framework is proposed providing a roadmap for the rest of the module as well as providing guidance to environmental responsibility in any ensuing professional or personal capacity. It concludes with an overview of the remaining part of the module emphasising the need to keep open space for re-conceptualising ideas on environmental responsibility.

Part 2: Nature matters

This part focuses more on the ecological (‘natural’) world in relation to human cognition and institutional practice. 

  • What issues of value are at stake – i.e., what matters? 
  • What is this thing to which we profess responsibility? 
  • Is it something to preserve or shape? 

Part 2 delineates environmental responsibility from related subject areas in environmental studies through the attention given to the integral relationship between human and non-human nature. This relationship is explored using the metaphor of ‘conversation’. Drawing on this metaphor and the need to connect more between human and non-human nature, issues of ‘what matters’ are explored from:

  • a caring perspective (i) 
  • an accountability perspective (ii). 

The implications of (i) and (ii) are further examined in the context of contemporary broad based consequentialist traditions underpinning systems thinking and environmental pragmatism as means of improving environmental responsibility. The emphasis here shifts towards practical means for (re)constructing what matters in terms of socio-ecological well-being, and the implications for policy and action.

Part 3: Individual and collective responsibility

The third part focuses more on the human world in relation to ‘nature’ and institutional practice. Who is responsible and how responsibility is enacted, including what conditions must be satisfied if individuals are to be able to take responsibility. More specifically, the part covers:

  • individual responsibility in terms of who is accountable and individuals trying to ‘do the right thing’, including how individual responsibilities and actions accumulate, often in ways that do not address environmental problems as much as they might 
  • rights and contracts based traditions including ethical issues associated with ‘Commons’ 
  • the relationship between individual and collective responsibility and discussion of different kinds of responsibilities operating at different levels and in different contexts - including consideration of some of the ethical assumptions concerning autonomy competition and collaboration and the role of social learning in fostering the multi-level interactions that can enable second-order change (i.e. change that requires thinking and acting differently rather than continuing with ‘more of the same’).

Part 4: Ecological citizenship: social and environmental justice and corporate social responsibility

The final part focuses more on the political, social, institutional contexts of environmental action and thus links ethics to policy. It considers how ethics, policy and action work together and how movements, NGOs, civil organisation partnerships and private-public partnerships can provide the space for enacting environmental responsibility? More specifically, the part covers:

  • central virtues of ecological justice in relation to other virtues (hope, love, wisdom, forgiveness, sadness, courage, obligation etc.) 
  • initiatives relating to notions of corporate responsibility and ecological citizenship measuring up to multiple values and requirements of 'virtue' as well as 'the good' and 'the right' 
  • the politics of new types of citizenship where the framing of ecological citizenship might enable appropriate dialogue between public and the private, local and the global, future and the present, acting and thinking, rights and responsibilities etc. bridging the gap between (a) awareness of environmental injustices and development of environmental responsibility, and (b) civic engagement with ecological citizenship.

You will learn

  • The practical challenges and theoretical underpinnings of environmental responsibility.
  • A common grounding in debates on questions about applied ethics in an environmental context using a range of appropriate sources.
  • To interpret, analyse and develop environmental reports and briefing papers with an ethical dimension.
  • The relevance of ethical standpoints associated with a variety of ethical assumptions, and ascertain the strengths and weaknesses of the standpoints in question.
  • The links between environmental and social justice through a range of environmental topics such as ecological restoration, waste management, food security and individual and collective action.
  • To reflect on the relationship between ethical and political assumptions and values as they are manifest in academic sources, policy documents and public debates on the environment.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. You will be able to contact your tutor by telephone, email and post. There may be opportunities to meet your tutor and other students. You also can keep in touch with other students via an online forum. 

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper. The end-of-module (EMA) assessment must be submitted online using our eTMA system.

The EMA comprises a project which provides an opportunity to apply what you have learnt from the module in a situation of your choice, including work-related situations.

Course work includes

3 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment
No residential school

Future availability

The details given here are for the module that starts in May 2016, when it will be available for the last time. 


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the Module Regulations and the Student Regulations which are available on our Essential documents website.

Entry requirements

This module can be taken on its own or as a module of a qualification. If you are taking it as part of a postgraduate qualification, you must have adequate preparation for study at this level, usually demonstrated by a bachelors degree (or the equivalent) from a UK university.

Your spoken and written English must be of an adequate standard for postgraduate study. If English is not your first language, we recommend that you will need a minimum overall score of 6 and minimum score of 5.5 in each of the four components: reading, writing, speaking and listening under the International English Language Testing System (IELTS). Please see the IELTS website for details.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.


Start End England fee Register
07 May 2016 Oct 2016 £1388.00

Registration closes 31/03/16 (places subject to availability)

May 2016 is the final start date for this course. For more information, see Future availability.

Additional costs

Study costs

There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as a laptop, travel to tutorials, set books and internet access.

Ways to pay

We know there’s a lot to think about when choosing to study, not least how much it’s going to cost and how you can pay.

That’s why we keep our fees as low as possible and offer a range of flexible payment and funding options. To find out more see Fees and funding.

Study materials

What's included

You will be provided with four printed Study guides, one for each part of the module, as well as a copy of The Environmental Responsibility Reader (Reynolds, M., Blackmore, C., and Smith, M., eds (2009)). The printed material also available in PDF format on the dedicated website. 

Supplementary audio and visual material is provided through a DVD, which is also available on the website.

There will also be online activities, including opportunities for you to contribute to online discussions with fellow students on the module.

Computing requirements

You will need a computer with internet access to study this module as the study materials and activities are accessible via a web browser. Any other computer-based activities you will need to carry out, such as word processing, using spreadsheets, taking part in online forums, and submitting files to the university for assessment, are specified in the module materials. If any additional software is needed for these tasks it will either be provided or is freely available.

A Windows desktop or laptop computer running Windows 7 or later operating system is suitable for this module. You will be required to install Microsoft Windows specific software.

A netbook, tablet, smartphone or Linux computer that supports one of the browsers listed below may be suitable. The screen size should be at least 1024 (H) x 768 (W) pixels. If you intend to use one of these devices please ensure you have access to a suitable desktop or laptop computer in case you are unable to carry out all the module activities on your mobile device.

We recommend a minimum 1 Mbps internet connection and any of the following browsers:

  • Internet Explorer 9 and above
  • Apple Safari 7 and above
  • Google Chrome 31 and above
  • Mozilla Firefox 31 and above.

Note: using the latest version for your browser will maximise security when accessing the internet. Using company or library computers may prevent you accessing some internet materials or installing additional software.

See our Skills for OU study website for further information about computing skills for study and educational deals for buying Microsoft Office software.

If you have a disability

Written transcripts of any audio components and Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) versions of printed material are available. Some Adobe PDF components may not be available or fully accessible using a screen reader and musical notation and mathematical, scientific, and foreign language materials may be particularly difficult to read in this way. Alternative formats of the study materials may be available in the future. 

If you have particular study requirements please tell us as soon as possible, as some of our support services may take several weeks to arrange. Find out more about our services for disabled students.