Turning the Lens on Ourselves

It is clear in natural aesthetics that our senses move us in our world view and our perspectives, but in what direction must be guided in some sense towards the reality of nature. With this understanding and with respect to nature, it is so important for many authors such as Carlson (1891) and Rolston (2002) for this experience to be positioned within a scientific lens and scientific appreciation. But not all experiences are going to be pleasant in nature and therefore aesthetics differs so distinctly from our hedonistic pursuit of pleasure, indeed at times it can induce experiences of terror, disgust and ugliness (Brady 1998). As such it is hard to see how a scientific approach alone would compel or demand an aesthetic response at all. Nevertheless, these experiences are themselves as valuable to us for appropriately appreciating nature as the is – aesthetics is in some sense a truth-seeking exercise, and to ignore the ugly and un-scenic could be argued is inappropriate. One cannot appreciate nature on its own terms when one only appreciates its beauty and looks past its other important features. Once again this is to confuse the mere pursuit of pleasure with the broader aesthetics experience where imagination and creativity reside most strongly. Beauty is of course to be found everywhere in nature, and indeed we seem invited to appreciate it when it is there – but this is like looking at a painting and only observing a small piece of it, or worse, viewing that tiny part as though it were a complete picture. It is, when viewed in this light, that it is easy to see the perversion of obsessing with scenic beauty at the expense of all other experiences. A problem that is alluded to in the writings of Aldo Leopold (1949) and expressed through the writings of poets such as Robinson Jeffers and T. S. Eliot who seek to explore these un-scenic natural landscapes in their writings:

The Wasteland – T. S. Eliot

“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow

Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,

You cannot say, or guess, for you know only

A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,

And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief

And the dry stone no sound of water…”

It is this sense of appreciating the reality of nature that makes it easy to see where Deep Ecology founded its “worldview” in the early 1970s through the writings of Arne Naess and George (1984) Sessions eventually culminating in their famous eight points. This in effect represented a push to look beyond mere scenic beauty which has been ever present since the time of the Romantics and use nature as a means of turning this lens towards humanity and humanities place in nature – and not separate and distinct from it (Lynch & Norris 2016). Such a perspective has maintained a presence to this day in natural aesthetics and has in recent years began creep into conservation planning through concepts like “rewilding” as described by Prior & Brady (2017). Where former agricultural land has been reclaimed and attempts now being made to “rewild” these regions into the ecology of their prehuman caused devastation past and allow nature to take hold with minimal or no human interference – and in a sense “rewild” these locations based on their aesthetic history. While in certain cases the public remain resistant to this perspective, seemingly in large part through ignorance and lack of understanding of what such projects represent – often conflating non-interference with miss-management (Prior & Brady 2017).

It is this kind of non-instrumental approach to conservation that is so appealing to modern natural aesthetics and represents precisely the kind of values that were put forward in the early writings of Deep Ecology as it seems to have been originally intended. While later Deep Ecology – or more accurately “Transpersonal-Ecology” became a movement concerned with formulating a movement built on radical non-anthropocentrism with a deeply anti-human sentiment that Lynch & Wells (1998) call an “eco-pathology” when taken to its logical extremes. But in its initial conception by Naess (1973) Deep Ecology is a much simpler idea, and while there is a significant level of political posturing, it fundamentally represents an aesthetically derived worldview through which certain ideals were formulated and established in the decades following Naess & Sessions (1984) “Eight Points”. The position of requirements in natural aesthetics is outlined in depth by Allen Carlson (2010) and makes clear that the requirements of natural aesthetics. It is from this view that the connection between Deep Ecology and aesthetics came to light in the mid-1990s through Lynch (1996), and again through Lynch & Wells (1998) but was never linked with the kind of budding aesthetic movement at the time. The cursory reading Arne Naess’ philosophical works in the 1970s, leaves no doubt that many of the key features of Deep Ecology have gone on to provide the framework of appropriate aesthetic appreciation as represented through modern natural aesthetics. Of course, there are other key influences through the Animal Rights movement as well and through the perspectives of historical writers that found the notion of landscape appreciation to be problematic.

For the Deep Ecology world view, the same issues arise in form of questions surrounding the state of human society – focusing on Anthropocentrism, Instrumentalism, Intrinsic Value of Nature, the “in principle” – “equal right to live and blossom” and “Principles of diversity and of symbiosis” as outlined by Naess (1973, p95-96) in relation to nature and human society. These same principles have since arisen as central concerns for the appropriate appreciation of nature. Carlson (2010) outlines the requirements of an environmental aesthetic first by identifying the problem with the traditional formal aesthetic structures that have dominate nature appreciation for centuries, that it is “(1) anthropocentric, (2) scenery-obsessed, (3) superficial and trivial, (4) subjective, and (5) morally vacuous.” As he then goes on to outline the opposite of these as the requirements of a holistic natural aesthetic that appreciates nature on its own terms. In Carlson’s (2010) words it ought to be “(1) acentric rather than simply anthropocentric (not to be confused with the Transpersonal-Ecologies ideas of non-anthropocentrism), (2) environment-focused rather than scenery-obsessed, (3) serious rather than superficial and trivial, (4) objective rather than subjective, and (5) morally engaged rather than morally vacuous.” These principles identify the strong correlation between the foundational ideas behind the Deep Ecology worldview and the requirements of an appropriate standard of natural aesthetics. Of course, as we have already discussed with respect to aesthetic experiences in general, objectivity is simply beyond the scope of aesthetic experience. And Carlson (2010) acknowledges that neither a scientific nor purely sensory approach to aesthetic provides sufficient objectivity upon which to build a complete Environmental Ethic. But science is objective and grounding our aesthetics within a scientific lens allows us to at least frame our aesthetic experiences within an objective context. Our aesthetic judgements are not objective, but they are normative and when that normativity is bound within a set framework we should expect to see a spectrum of acceptable responses emerge within this framework that permeate into other aspects of our lives including our moral judgements. We may not be able to formulate a complete ethic from natural aesthetics but that does not mean we can’t learn from it and do as Deep Ecology attempted to do and “turn the lens on ourselves.”

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