Why Aesthetics Matters for Environmentalism

Why should we care about making appropriate aesthetic judgements? There are two answers to this question, the first is obvious: Carlson (1981) says “By aesthetically appreciating nature for what it is, we will shape our ethical views such that there is the best opportunity for making sound ethical judgements regarding matters of environment and ecological concern” a very clear and concise point. Aesthetics has in modern times been argued to represent the way humans perceive the world around them – specifically focusing on the relationship between aesthetic object and the human perceiver more so then any focus on the formal properties of the object which consumed a great deal of the conversation about aesthetics. How we each see and perceive the world around us is one of the key factors that inform our ethical decision making – as such it is important that we perceive the world around us in a way which as a society we decide is appropriate and provides and accurate account of what nature is and what it represents in reality, as such this accords a significant emphasis on cognition and understanding of what it is one is actually experiencing when walking into a forest. It is not so much that aesthetics tells us how to act towards nature on an ethical level, although there is little doubt that such experiences can and do impact our ethical structures – but this is not something that is easily quantified, since aesthetics is on some level a subjective experience, all be it an experience informed by social and cultural norms as well as our own cognitive disposition and senses – it is this subjectivity which means that we simply cannot give a universally applicable environmental ethic that is as it were, “discoverable” in aesthetics. Rather there suggestion here we first put forward by Lynch (1996) who points out, “…while the will is silent in aesthetic experience, it most assuredly is not silent about such experiences. It is no accident that we build galleries and museums to house works of aesthetic value”. This second point rests on the idea that the beauty (aesthetics) is as important as truth (facts about the world), and duty (moral judgements) – a trilogy first presented by Plato about the nature of human experience. Without the feeling derived from aesthetic experiences of reality, then facts become little more than snippets of boring information that simply do not, indeed cannot excite our creativity imagination and make us want to know more – while morality simply dissolves into following acts of rigid duty. Without the aesthetic realm Carlson (1979) argues, human beings simply cannot flourish in any meaningful way, for this is the source of our creativity and imagination that helped make many of humanities great accomplishments possible. Lynch (1996), is suggesting here that whatever influence environmental aesthetics has on an environmental ethic, its foundations are most easily found through concepts like vandalism and the destruction of the possibility of having as it were “peak” aesthetic experiences. Which is to say that not all aesthetic experiences are equal, both in terms of their judged value and their ability to excite our imagination and our senses,  aesthetic experiences that can only be found in nature through the magnitude, sublimity and indeed numinous experiences that it can and does inspire in those that are confronted by the reality of wild nature are clearly moved by the experience and if nothing else they will be extremely motivated to  protect that conditions necessary to allow one’s self and others to enter wild nature and seek the sublime reality of the wild. Though we might justifiably suspect that ethical motivations for conservation and protection of wild nature derive already from this interaction with nature, it is not the beauty of the experience as such that captures our imagination but the ability for it to burst far beyond our ability to remain wholly disinterested in the experience. It is on this foundation and from this standpoint that Environmental Ethics ought to begin, but by no means should it end here.


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