Below you will find my Philosophy Masters final dissertation with which I passed my MA. I have posted it for information purposes only and all opinions and research is my own, sources and references are listed in the bibliography. Please do not copy or use any of this writing. Comments and questions are welcome, if you are currently studying for a degree or MA in Philosophy or are simply interested in this particular topic please feel free to get in touch.
Copyright: Kerri-Ann Betty
Aligning aesthetics and environmentalism:
A consideration of aesthetic care for natural landscapes.
by Kerri-Ann Betty (was Briggs)
always felt drawn to nature and natural landscapes. I love to take walks and
admire the formations of land, the flora and fauna created by nature. John
Burroughs wrote in ‘The art of seeing things’ “If I were to name the three most
precious resources of life, I should say books, friends, and nature; and the
greatest of these at least the most constant and always at hand, is nature” (Burroughs
2001) This view that nature is precious and should be valued has become of more
importance over the years. I often
wonder whether others, when looking at a natural environments, feel the same
sense of pleasure or whether the views evoke a different emotional response in
others. This is partly what drew me to this field of research and writing this
paper. Additionally, the idea that we humans are harming natural environments
is something that I’m concerned about, something I feel I needed to better
understand before making a judgement. In this paper I will bring together the two
previously mentioned topics of philosophical debate, aesthetics and
I will begin this paper with a short introduction to the history of aesthetic appreciation, I will then offer an explanation of what it is I mean by aesthetic care. In the chapters that follow I will look to answer several key questions that I feel will help to align aesthetics with environmentalism whilst considering levels of aesthetic care of nature. When looking to consider aesthetic care for natural landscapes a proportion of prior information is required to enable a well constructed view to be established. I will begin by looking at how we aesthetically appreciate natural environments whilst offering the view that we aesthetically appreciate natural environments in a different way to how we appreciate urban environments. I will introduce Allen Carlson’s theory of scientific cognitivism and my view that it is useful when applied to only some environments. In the following chapter I will discuss why a balance is needed between aesthetics and environmentalism and assess whether it is possible to maintain one. I will then, In the third chapter, discuss different levels of aesthetic care and assess when these different types of human interventions should be undertaken. Finally, I will be concluding my paper by attempting to align aesthetics and environmentalism whilst offering the view that humans are ethically obligated to not only administer aesthetic care but to carefully consider the correct level of aesthetic care required for each environment on its own merits.
How do we aesthetically appreciate natural environments?
Is it possible to maintain a balance between aesthetics and environmentalism?
What is the correct level of aesthetic care for natural environments?
A brief history of the study of the aesthetics of nature
the Weston world philosophical debate regarding the aesthetic appreciation of
nature first developed in the ‘early modern period’. Prior to this nature was
appreciated as a sort of mirror of art.
To begin with philosophical investigation of the aesthetics of nature a was
seen as a pointless and ‘unworthy’ in the eyes of religion. Seeing “natures
workings as nothing but poor substitutes for the perfect harmony that had been
lost in humanity’s fall from grace” (Carlson and Lintott 2008 pg3) The rise of
science though and the increased use of natural landscapes within art lead the
way for aesthetic appreciation and for further philosophical debate. “It was not until
Englishmen became familiar with the landscapes of Claude Lorrain and Salvatore
Rosa, Ruysdael and Hobbema, that they were able to receive any aesthetic
pleasure from their natural surroundings” said Christopher Hussey (1927)
The study of the aesthetics of art was already a well-established and
regarded topic of philosophy by this point. It took time for nature
appreciation to be regarded as a topic of philosophy worth time and research.
In the late eighteenth century, the appreciation of nature was highly influenced by the idea of the picturesque. This followed through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries being the most popular aesthetic experience of nature. This mode of aesthetic appreciation which is commonly connected with tourism can be seen today in the use of particular photographs of landscapes used to advertise them as places worth visiting, prints of these images can also be purchased on postcards, mugs, tea towels and other souvenirs.
Philosophical study of the aesthetics of nature began to decline in the twentieth century; ideas such as the concept of the sublime and the notion of disinterestedness appeared to be brought to a close. Kant’s ‘Critique of Judgement’ is thought to have had some influence in this as many believe that he achieved philosophical closure, this together with the views of GWF Hegal being discussed throughout the UK, who viewed art as of higher importance to that of nature, there appeared no need for further philosophical study and therefore brought an end to the need of debate. 
Whilst this was happening in the UK, in North America the popularity of ‘nature writing’ was emerging, this combined with the alignment of aesthetics with environmentalism began to pique the interest of philosophers around the world. The idea that humanity was causing damage and destruction to nature, raised by George Perkins Marsh, began to create a renewed interest. This led to further debate and discussion, the idea then of nature being truly aesthetically beautiful arose, a view that naturalists like John Muir held; it was Muir who argued that nature was inherently beautiful and the only point at which it could be considered unattractive is when it was subjected to human intrusion. At this point positive aesthetics was born, something I will discuss further later.
A consideration of Aesthetic Care
we care about something aesthetically does this imply that there is some kind
of ethical relationship between us and that which we care for? Does it mean
then that if we care for something aesthetically that we should also consider a
level of care in terms of maintenance so that we may preserve the object of our
These are some of the questions that I will be addressing in the next few
In an urban landscape, inhabited by humans, aesthetic care is often shown by a lack of debris, neatness and organisation. How though in natural landscapes are we able to express aesthetic care without disrupting the space and changing it from an untouched area of natural beauty to an organised space that mimics human formed manicured landscapes. Aesthetic care of natural spaces is undertaken, most often, by humans with good intentions, sometimes though we can unintentionally harm nature by destroying habitats for other organisms and disrupting the naturally formed beauty of a space. In recent years more attention has been paid to the relationship between aesthetics and ecology within philosophical literature. There are a number of reasons this may be though one of the key reasons I believe is that aesthetics have a powerful impact on humans, the way someone or something looks can evoke emotions and feelings of different sorts for example affection or distaste. These feelings can lead to actions. An environment that evokes pleasing emotions for a community is more likely to be cared for than one that evokes annoyance and distaste. Shelia Lintott says “the power of aesthetics can be a valuable tool for environmental ethicists, scientists and activities” (2008 pg380) This relationship between natures aesthetic value and environmentalism has a long, rich history, one of the key philosophers within this area of debate Eugene Hargrove believes that aesthetic values play an important role in landmark decisions concerning both preservation and conservation, he also notes that both the arts and the sciences have been instrumental in drawing the public’s attention to the ‘aesthetic dimensions of natural environments’.
How do we aesthetically appreciate natural environments?
When we talk of aesthetic value and appreciation it is worth considering that there are a number of ways, we might aesthetically experience something; be that art, architecture or in this case environments. To appreciate aesthetic values doesn’t simply mean we have to ‘like’ or ‘love’ the way something looks. Other ways in which we might experience the aesthetic value and appreciate its power include being thrilled, engrossed, humbled, transformed, educated, horrified and disillusioned. These experiences are each valuable, yet none would be considered pleasurable. It is therefore possible for us to appreciate things that we do not necessarily find attractive and pleasing to the eye; we can appreciate them for their own qualities. Traditionally though when we talk about aesthetic appreciation within philosophical discussion, we are talking about finding things beautiful and attractive, a positive pleasing experience; this notion is being challenge recently in articles featured in the British Journal of Aesthetics with one particular philosopher Antonia Peacocke directly challenging the idea and suggesting that we embrace a more multidimensional account of aesthetic value. Peacocke says that “Aesthetic value empiricism claims that the aesthetic value of an object is grounded in the value of a certain kind of experience of it. The most popular version of value empiricism, and a dominant view in contemporary philosophical aesthetics more generally, is aesthetic hedonism. Hedonism restricts the grounds of aesthetic value to the pleasure enjoyed in the right kind of experience.” A restrictive and conservative view but one I find interesting and will refer back to it in a later chapter, initially though I will be focusing, in this paper, on aesthetically appreciating environments in a traditional sense, that being, finding an environment pleasing to the eye and being drawn to describe them as ‘beautiful’.
When considering the aesthetic appreciation of nature, in its traditional sense, it would be hard not to mention one of the most highly respected philosophers within the field, Allen Carlson, a scientific cognitivist, who many argue advanced the discussion of aesthetic appreciation of nature and presented a bold theory in which to support it. Carlson offered a framework and set of constraints for which any respectable researcher within this area would at least consider. Carlson’s view, in brief, is that the appreciation of virgin nature (nature untouched by human hands) is a matter of scientific understanding. In many of his early papers he discusses scientific cognitivism, the theory that nature should be appreciated with reference to scientific information about it and its parts. A theory some would argue is built off the back of Kendall Walton’s theory of art appreciation,  in fact Carlson himself is explicit about this. Carlson argues for the view that this scientific cognitivism justifies ‘positive aesthetics’ the view that something is aesthetically good or positive. Marcia Muelder Eaton, a philosophical aesthetician, has views that align somewhat with Carlson in “The Beauty that requires health” Eaton endorses Carlson’s views and suggests that aesthetic attention guided by contextual features is what’s key to proper aesthetic experience of natural environments, it helps to inform us of what is relevant and what isn’t in order to fully appreciate it.
Joan Nassauer too appears to agree with Carlson’s thirst for knowledge but for a different reason they believe that “Because aesthetic satisfaction involves us more deeply in the landscape, we continue to learn more and grow more intelligent in how we tend the land” (1988) so then Nassauer finds a benefit in us having some form of scientific knowledge about environments not so much to aid our aesthetic appreciation but more so that we can make educated judgements for when and how to aesthetically care for them, something I will discuss further in chapter 3.
Glenn Parsons though argues against Carlson’s views finding fault in many of his theories. Parsons suggests that we rethink the relationship between appropriate aesthetic appreciation and positive aesthetics when considering nature. He offers that “The idea that nature is aesthetically good must be incorporated into such theories explicitly, rather than derived from them post hoc” (2008) Parsons goes on to insist that we must investigate further how the acquisition of scientific knowledge really functions within the theory. Parsons holds the view that Carlons has difficulty defending his view of Positive Aesthetics because he excludes any kind of beauty making criteria from the normative element of his theory.
Emily Brady too puts forward an objection to Carlson’s theory of aesthetic appreciation, she offers the view that although scientific knowledge is a good starting point for the appreciation of nature it isn’t necessary for perceiving aesthetic qualities and values. In her view we do not need to know about why an environment looks the way it does to aesthetically appreciate it; we don’t need to know that the flower meadow growing in a field is ecologically helpful to bees and insects and that it in turns supports a sustainable future for a multitude of organisms, we can simply admire the beautiful colours and shapes of the flowers dancing in the wind. Our initial thoughts when we observe natural environments rarely involve any scientific considerations most often, we are struck first by appearance, shape, colour, line and form. Lance Hosey gives a great example of this when he talks about his thoughts whilst he observes the trees in late September “My first thoughts are not about the chlorophyll draining from the leaves and their ebbing ability to produce oxygen, absorb carbon, and photosynthesize. No, my first reaction is simpler – the sheer splendour of the scene stops me in my tracks. I’m awestruck” (Hosey 2012) Hosey here is admiring the beauty of the environment, the beauty in the colourful leaves falling from the trees, he is able to do this before he even considers the science behind what is happening to the trees. It would be fair to argue that some may not even have this knowledge of what is happening to the leaves on the trees and yet they too can appreciate the aesthetic beauty.
Carlson’s theory though doesn’t suggest we need to know all of the scientific knowledge there is to know, just that we have some understanding, or at least should have. Initially I agreed with Brady’s view, I don’t feel we need any scientific knowledge to appreciate most of nature’s environments. This lead me though to consider some environments which at first, I did not consider beautiful, at first, I considered them to be rather bland and boring, for example the local wetlands. My initial view of the wetlands on a typical overcast British day was that it lacked colour, was overgrown in places and could be enhanced with the planting of colourful flora. After researching though I found that the wetlands were home to a number of species of birds, insects and water loving mammals and that the plants surrounding the area were there because they grew well in that particular environment and because of that supported the eco-system of the organisms within it. This newfound scientific knowledge together with revisiting at different times of the year to see the wetlands in different seasons and weather conditions gave me a renewed appreciation and I began to see the beauty in the wetlands environment. This then would support Carlson’s theory that some level of scientific knowledge is useful to make aesthetic judgements, though it only supports it in specific situations and for specific environments and I question whether it was essential or whether over time through regular expose to the environment whether my opinion would have changed not due to any scientific knowledge gained but simply from viewing the same environment regularly and in different stages of its development through the seasons.
In order to further investigate this question, it is useful then to consider what would happen if this were not a natural environment but rather an urban one. One that was created by humans. Carlson himself offers that his theory only applies to “virgin nature” I question though whether it could apply too to urban environments. If I consider how I would feel about a space created by humans that similarly to the wetlands looked drab, lacking colour, shape and interest would I a) return regularly b) Change my opinion of it through the changing seasons and c) Change my opinion of it after gaining scientific knowledge. My initial thoughts here are that I would probably not return specifically to visit the space if my first visit did not spark some form of interest for me but that if I was to come across it again in a different season my opinion of it may change. An argument could be made about normative claims, claims that we should or ‘ought’ to know when the best time is to visit in order to experience the environment in its best light so that we can appreciate it when it is looking its best. I would offer though that with regards to urban environments especially simply knowing when is best to visit isn’t something we could just know. We’d have to be told by those that created the space, we’d have to also agree with them and their opinions on the space. We may not as I previously mentioned experience the space in the same way in which the creator does and so it would be difficult to state exactly when and how to experience an urban space to experience it in its ‘best light’. Again, having some scientific knowledge may aid in changing my views but I’m unsure if it would in the same way it does for natural environments. There is something about the power of nature changing without human intervention that I appreciate more than I do when I consider changes made by human hands. This for me suggests we (well I for certain) appreciate natural environments in a different way to urban environments. So, Carlson then was probably right in applying his theory only to nature, for natural environment for many if not most are experienced in a different way to urban environments, we appear to innately respond to natural environments in a different way to urban ones.
When considering the natural environment as Carlson says “It is so rich in diversity, suggestion and emotional stimulus that it allows great liberty in selecting, emphasizing and grouping. Thus, the problem is what and how to select, emphasize and group and what and how to compose for appropriate appreciation” (Carlson 2008) Paul Ziff offered a way for us to group and categorise art with his notion of ‘acts of aspection’ a term I will explain in more detail shortly. Whether this is something that could transfer over to natural environments is still a topic of debate many years after it was introduced and something Carlson has debated in a number of his papers. Differences in design and purpose of urban environments mean that we attribute different acts of aspection to them; we may be looking for different qualities in each. In some we may be looking for colour, for flow and for open space whereas in others we may be looking for vibrancy of colour and variety of flora. This though is not the case for natural environments, we have not designed them for a purpose; they have been created without human intervention and so it is more difficult to characterize the aspection. This is one of the things that makes finding a fully functioning model of appreciation (a term I will refer to later) for natural environments so difficult.
The idea of ‘acts of aspection’, in brief, offers the suggestion that we appreciate different things in different ways. Aspection according to Ziff’s notion, is the suggestion that we in a sense judge different things differently; for example we could contemplate, study, observe, survey, inspect, scrutinize etc. It seems practical for us then to say that one might scrutinize a piece of artwork submitted by a professional artist to an art competition and yet for us to contemplate a Banksy that appears on a wall in a public space. This notion appears practical when it comes to art and its many forms such as: music, theatre and visual art. It is suggested by Ziff that we simply know the correct ‘acts of aspection’ for art forms because they are our own human creation; so then as urban environments are created by our hand, we should too know the correct acts of aspection for them. We understand their construction, their purpose and their parts. However, this notion doesn’t neatly apply to that of natural environments; essentially because we played no part in their creation. We according to Ziff find it easier to understand how to appreciate something when we understand it; Carlson’s theory of a need for some scientific knowledge then links very well with this notion. If we better understand the make-up and scientific structure of an environment we should be in a better standing of understanding exactly how to appreciate it for example whether to survey it, study it or inspect it. Further to the debates that followed Ziff’s notion of aspection there are now several ‘models of appreciation’ offered to us, models that will supposedly further educate us in how exactly to aesthetically appreciate things. There are many models which work well when we consider the aesthetic appreciate of art; some models attempt to do this for natural environments though many fail and those that don’t are not wholly successful.
Since the arrival of environmental ethics, the question of whether there is a model of appreciation that can align with environmentalism has been raised. One way we could begin to investigate this is to look at what the requirements are of environmentalism for a good model of the appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature. Carlson and Lintott offer a very clear and to the point answer to this question “What environmentalism requires from the aesthetics of nature is an approach that first is acentric rather than simply anthropocentric; second, is environmentally focused rather than scenery obsessed; third is serious and deep rather than superficial and trivial; fourth is objective rather than subjective; and fifth is morally neutral or even morally vacuous” (2008) There are a number of models of appreciation that have been discussed and debated over the years, some of which were initially accepted as suitable for not only aesthetically appreciating art but also natural environments. Over time though, it has become apparent that most are problematic.
Initially one of the most commonly accepted models for nature appreciation was the ‘object model’ a model which encourages us to consider an object’s features separately to its surroundings. The problem though as Santayana points out is that nature is indeterminate, there are no lines drawn around nature to tell us where it begins and where it stops and though it contains many individual objects if we direct our focus and appreciation to just one, we are not appreciating the natural environment as a whole. This model would obviously fail to meet a number of the previously mentioned requirements as it fails to have an environmental focus or any moral grounds.
A model that could be seen as slightly more successful is the Natural Environmental Model, a model that does not focus attention on simply one object or try to encapsulate a particular scene for our appreciation and it doesn’t simply reject the idea of traditions aesthetic appreciation. It promotes the idea that we should aesthetically appreciate natural environments for what they are and not what they have. This model addresses the concerns of Santayana’s in the sense that it understands environments to be diverse and without boundaries. It encourages us to use both common sense and scientific knowledge when we consider our judgements. It also meets a few of the mentioned requirements for example: it isn’t ‘scenery obsessed’, there is a consideration of a level of environmental focus as it leads us to do at least some research and study to help us understand the biology of the environment and I would argue it is deep and not trivial. So then this model is successful on some levels. It meets some of the requirements and it appeases the concerns of Santayana. The problems arise though when we consider how dependant this model is on the average person, their acquisition of common sense, knowledge and the time they assign to appreciating an environment. Carlson states that this model when applied to the aesthetic appreciation of anything, be that objects or environments “is dependant on and guided by knowledge, scientific or otherwise, that is relevant to the thing in question” (2008) People are very different, they do not all have the same up-bringing, education, cultural experiences, religions or beliefs. This creates an issue then for the supposition that a person is able to use ‘common sense’ and scientific knowledge. This heavy dependence on the ability of a person to have certain knowledge and common sense creates an issue for this model of aesthetic appreciation despite its many appealing aspects over other models.
At this point it seems fair to agree that we aesthetically appreciate urban and natural environments differently and that it is difficult, if not impossible to find a model of aesthetic appreciation of natural environments that is a) fully successful and b) where environmental and aesthetic values are in balance. In the next chapter I will be addressing the question point b in much more detail looking at whether it is at all possible to find an adequate balance between aesthetics and environmentalism. Something that needs to be considered before I can address then, in the final chapter, what the correct level of aesthetic care is for a natural environment.
Is it possible to maintain a balance between aesthetics and environmentalism?
Lance Hosey writes that “Aesthetics are fundamental to both culture and nature, and if sustainability refers to the graceful interaction between them, it must have a sensory dimension” (2012) Hosey here talks of the importance of aesthetics and also suggests that sustainability is where we may be able to find a balanced link between aesthetics and nature. In Hosey’s book ‘The shape of green, aesthetics, ecology and design’ he talks of the study of ecology and how is encompasses not just part of an environment but the total environment and all it’s associations; a holistic approach. Hosey believes that ecological design should “work not just to preserve the natural environment of wildlife and watersheds; it should embrace the entire environment as well” (2012) In Hosey’s view within culture and nature aesthetics are important; and they are not just beneficial to humans but to animals too. Hosey goes on to talk of the rich history of aesthetics and that aesthetic expression is inherent in our species, that is to say that we are in-built with the desire to create and seeks aesthetically pleasing surroundings, in his view this inherent interest in aesthetics is not a vane and selfish, it goes deeper, it relates in part to survival. If we consider historically, many years ago before we had the knowledge we do now about animals and environments, where was the starting point for learning? In most cases aesthetics, the way something looked or the way it looked changing could in some cases be a warning sign. Aesthetics are one of the first signs of change or warning; along with other sensory experiences. The traditional study of ecology concerns itself with the ‘flow of energy’ through ecosystems; an emerging trend within the study of ecology though refers to sensory ecological study which put emphasis on the flow of informational, believing that it is essential. Not just for us as humans, but also for animals. Hosey believes that sensory experience within ecology is not just relevant but vital; in his book he discusses how animals still to this day communicate through the use of sensory information such as sight, sound and scent. In his view aesthetics are fundamental within nature and environments; he believes that aesthetics within the natural world is not just important for us humans to enable us to understand environments but also for other organisms and animals. The way a natural environment looks will help an animal know whether it is a safe place for them to be, whether they will find food there and be amongst other of their species. Aesthetics is not a trivial concern for environmentalists and ecologists, not something to be ignored. Hosey here I feel that this highlights an important aspect of the link between aesthetics and environmentalism, it is essential for us to understand that there is a link, a historical one, that concerns all life and organisms; it’s also important that we continue to support this link and ensure that it is balanced.
There are some that disagree, some that believe aesthetics are not important, they that believe it is wrong for us as humans to care about aesthetics as much as we do, that the way something looks should not be a matter of importance when considering the value and worth of an organism, object or environment. Though there may be occasions where aesthetics should not be our first concern, I would argue that to simply disregard aesthetics as shallow would be irresponsible of us, especially in the case of natural environments. Lance Hosey wrote “Aesthetic attraction is not a superficial concern, it’s an environmental imperative. Beauty could save the planet” (Hosey 2012) A firm statement and one that struck accord with me leading me to investigate his claim further, exactly what did Hosey mean when he said that ‘beauty could save the planet?’ this is something I will investigate further later in this chapter. Aesthetics has been a subject of interest within Philosophy for years so has a well documented history, Environmental ethics on the other hand as a field within philosophy is relatively new with it only really getting started in the 1970’s. There is a long-documented history within philosophy of the theorizing about the place of humans within the natural world yet only in recent years has this warranted a dedicated field of philosophy. According to Katie McShane “The motivation for the earliest work in environmental ethics, then, was a desire to formulate ethical theories that did a better job of accounting for our moral obligations to the nonhuman natural world.” It is considered by some, such as Holmes Rolston, that aesthetic experience is an obvious starting point for environmental ethics. It’s hard to disagree with this when you consider that aesthetics, and the way in which an environment looks, is one of the early indicators of the health of an environment; when an environment for example a forest full of trees suddenly drastically changes it is an indicator for us to investigate why this has happened and to attempt to understand whether this is a sign of poor health, naturally occurring change or damage caused by humans or other organisms. Perhaps this then is what Hosey means when he says that “Beauty could save the planet”. Aesthetics and how an environment looks is an early indicator or change which can instruct us to investigate and research. Another reason Rolston’s suggestion makes sense is when you look into the reason behind why certain environments are protected and conserved, in many cases the answer is simply because humans believe them to be beautiful. Eugene Hargrove agreed and went further, suggesting that the core foundations of environmental ethics lie in aesthetics “The ultimate historical foundations of nature preservation are aesthetic” (1989). Another view that supports Hoseys claim, if we are protecting what is beautiful then the aesthetics of an environment matter, the way they look encourages us to act, to protect. The views within environmentalism of course over the years have changed and there are now some who question the views of Hargrove and Rolston as to whether it is possible for there to be a harmonic balance between aesthetics and environmentalism.
There is some concern that rather than aligning, aesthetic values have overtaken that of environmental values “In conservation and resource management arena, natural aesthetics has, indeed, been much more important historically than environmental ethics. Many more of our conservation and management decisions have been motivated by aesthetic rather than ethical values, by beauty instead of duty.” Said J.Baird Callicott ( 2008) This then raises the question of whether we can and whether we need to look to re-balance environmentalism and aesthetics. Rolston goes on to raise a further point with his statement of “If not beauty, then no duty?” (2008 pg325) the question of whether, in many cases, we only care about environments that are seen as beautiful to us as humans, are we too often putting aesthetic values, like Callicott suggested, ahead of environmental ones rather than ensuring there is a balance and using the aesthetics to help guide us on when and how to act to best care and protect for them.
There are areas of course where a balance between aesthetics and environmentalism is unable to be met. Aesthetic preservation is one area that I feel leans too far and is unable to offer a balance. Glenn Parsons highlights an important consideration when it comes to that of aesthetic preservation (over say conservation) of environments “Aesthetic preservation requires that there be a gain in aesthetic value in saving nature, rather than developing it” (2008) so then that is to say that we are making the assumption that untouched nature is more aesthetically valuable than any form of nature that has been developed by human interference. Parsons finds fault in this assumption and argues that it is false, he offers examples of human developments that are in his opinion ‘aesthetically outstanding’. It is hard to disagree with him on this point as I’m sure most if not all of us could name at least one human built development that they find aesthetically appealing. So then, as Parsons highlights, how can we define which is more valuable if both the original natural environment was ‘aesthetically outstanding’ and the planned development is also considered to be ‘aesthetically outstanding’ how to we choose which has more aesthetic value. This is a valid concern raised by Parsons but one I’m sure many would argue is trivial with the opinion that very few human built developments are in fact as aesthetically ‘good’ as, or better than the nature they would be replacing. Parsons though continues to defend his viewpoint and offers a strong defence against aesthetic preservation, one that raises valid questions of the practice. It is true that in attempting to argue in favour of aesthetic preservation we may be tempted to go off track and quote ecological importance, offering the view that one natural environment is of more value than an urban human developed environment because of some ecological benefit but as Parson reminds us “the difference in value must rest on purely aesthetic grounds” (2008) We are in danger then of the aesthetic assessments of the preservationist becoming ‘morally charged’ as Hettinger would put it rather that solely focusing on aesthetic values. This then too raises a question around the morals and ethics involved when we look at creating and maintaining a balance between aesthetics and environmentalism.
Rolston states “Perhaps ethics is not always tied to duty either, but logically and psychologically closer to caring” (2008) It is unclear whether we have yet been able to really unscramble aesthetic appreciation enough to determine whether the choices we make related to aesthetic changes are ethical. The concern of ethics when it comes to aesthetics and environmentalism is something that Simon P. Jones discusses in ‘Environmental Philosophy an introduction’ Jones reminds us that often those who are environmentally minded feel that aesthetics are trivial; that they refer to the taste of humans rather than being a matter of importance. This though cannot be proven; we don’t know for sure if we are the only organism that experience aesthetic appreciation. It may be that we are but we cannot know for sure and so it would be negligent of us to make any decisions using this view as reasoning. Going back to Rolston’s statement, it raises the question of whether our supposed duty is tied more to our caring nature as humans (as a species we on the whole, are inherently caring though obviously there are exceptions) or whether it is tied to our thoughts around morality and ethics. Carroll’s idea here becomes valuable again, that the idea there is a link between our emotions and the aesthetics of nature and that there is no good reason to dismiss emotional responses when we reflect on our level of aesthetic care of environments. This idea that our thoughts around caring for environments links not just to ethical duty but to our inherent caring nature could suggest we are closer to environmentalism and aesthetics aligning than many are concerned about.
Callicott and Rolston are not the only ones
writing of their concern that we are out of balance, Joan Nassauer writes “Freezing
nature to look scenic and making nature neat and tidy could create the
antithese of ecological health” in her paper aligning aesthetics and ecology.
She goes on to mention like I previously highlighted, that environments humans
admire and give attention too are more likely to be cared for and protected by
humans; they are more likely to survive long term with the support of humans,
she offers a name for this she calls it ‘cultural sustainability’ Nassauer goes
on to state that “Landscapes that are ecologically sound, and that also evoke
enjoyment and approval, are more likely to be sustained by appropriate human
care over the long term.” In essence humans are less likely to try and change
or enhance environments that they already view as being attractive, they
instead will look to care for them in a way that supports the natural
development on the space, caring for it to keep it healthy rather than changing
it to make it more appealing to the eye. This then introduced the question of
what level of aesthetic care is the right level for natural environments? Nassauer
says ‘appropriate human care’ but how can we know what level of care this is?
Nassauer does offer a possible solution for us, one that could show us the way towards aligning aesthetics and environmentalism; she suggests that we can do this through design. “Bringing aesthetic expectations into play in a way that benefits landscapes ecology requires designing strategies, landscapes, and policy with an awareness of what people enjoy and value in the appearance of the landscape now” (2008) My initial concern here is that Nassauer is talking about creating new landscapes for ecological health, creating new environments that are both aesthetically pleasing to humans and include some form of ecological health. Though an innovative and interesting idea it for me ignores the core issue of the natural environments we already have and should be looking to preserve. Nassauer is suggesting that rather than dominating the landscape with well-kept ordered and neat spaces we look to find a balance between appealing design and ecological health using the skills of artists and designer. She admits that of course it would be difficult to know exactly what designs we should use as people see landscapes differently, they evoke different responses in different people; yet she perseveres and supports her theory using examples of already established areas where there is connectivity between built up urban environments and biodiverse corridors which lead to open spaces built to encourage ecological health. She offers that this idea of nature that works with urban environments and requires a for of educated care makes it vivid, a term I mentioned briefly earlier. Nassauer goes on to say that this type of harmonious design, this force alignment between aesthetics and environmentalism is the only way to secure and ecologically balanced future she says that “/waste places, where remnants of indigenous ecosystems survive unnoticed, will not be able to escape anthropocentric land management under the pressures of population growth.” Essentially what she is saying is that there is no other option, no other way forward and this is the fault of humans, that we as a population are putting our wants and needs ahead of that of nature. Our population growth is creating the demand for space which is what puts pressure on the powers that be to make decisions that affect how to can care for and preserve natural environments. If this is true, if we are through necessity going to be in essence destroying natural environments in order to create new environments which offer a combination of urban aesthetic appeal and ecological health this this surely puts additional pressure on the need for us to educate ourselves, to understand exactly what is required for ongoing ecological health and to know how to correctly aesthetically care for both the remaining natural environments and the newly created hybrid environments; we need more than ever to create a balance and to do this we need to understand what the correct level of care is. This is something I will look into further in the next chapter.
Another philosopher who believes that it is possible to create and maintain a balance between aesthetics and environmentalism is Ned Hettinger. Hettinger offers the view that aesthetic considerations can help justify environmental protection. He offers a name for the term, “aesthetic protectionism”. Hettinger writes in ‘Objectivity in environmental aesthetics and protection of the environment’ about how environmental degradation is a problem, one which is substantial and risks the loss of much aesthetic value. He accepts that some disagree and consider natural beauty as a weak and trivia compared with other values such as health. This he says may be due to the fact that we do not take beauty into account when we determine the worth or and how we treat humans. There are some who feel that aesthetic value is anthropocentric, that is that the only value is reducible to pleasurable experiences for humans, something which I spoke about in chapter one, people who lean towards this view, Hettinger says, they feel that the best defences of nature should be intrinsic. Throughout his paper Hettinger discusses the views of a variety of philosophers that he feels would object to his idea of “aesthetic protectionism” before he goes on to discuss the ideas of Carroll, who sees emotional responses as important; and Brady, who sees imagination rather than knowledge as important when we consider the appreciation of nature. Hettinger says that Brady’s imagination-based theory is especially useful in supporting the idea of aesthetic protectionism he goes on to say that “Perhaps what is most useful for aesthetic protectionism is Brady’s insistence that aesthetic appreciation be disinterested, for it provides a mechanism for discounting positive aesthetic responses to environmental degradation.” (2008) Hettinger supports the view that positive responses to environmental degradation are often self-interested and thus not properly aesthetic, he also holds the view that in some situations having scientific knowledge may not actually be positive for aesthetic protectionism, that actually ecological ignorance and myth can in some cases be best for environmental protection; suggesting that if we simply just believe that nature has a delicate balance and that we could cause harm by intruding that this would be a way to protect the environment. Though I can see why Hettinger holds these views I am concerned that he disregards the fact that being uneducated about the environments and simply just leaving them be may actually result in causing harm too, we, I feel are responsible for some level of care, and in order to carry out this care we do need to have scientific knowledge and be educated in the way in which each unique environment needs support or in some cases to be left. However, Hettinger concludes his paper with a view that I do support “we need to develop and justify accounts of better and worse aesthetic responses to the environment that avoid both anything goes relativism and the idea that only one type of environmental aesthetic response is acceptable.” (2008) here he acknowledges that ideally, to create a balance we need to be aware that different environments will require not only a response but a different response depending on the different environments. He is explicit in his final words though that having this knowledge-based response does not guarantee beneficial environmental results, and I can agree with this as I’m sure most will. There really is no guarantee either way, whether we act, do not act, act with or without knowledge. I feel though that with knowledge we can provide the best response possible at the given time.
What is the correct level of aesthetic care for natural environments?
The relationship between aesthetics and
environmentalism is one that requires a delicate balance in order to keep each
side of the debate appeased, as I highlighted in chapter 2 this is not easily
maintained. There is a view held by a many that we as a
human society are putting aesthetic satisfaction ahead of ecological health.,
it is this concern that created a rise in the level of philosophical interest in
the relationship between humans and the natural environment. This as I
previously mentioned paved the way for a dedicated area of philosophical debate
known now as environmental philosophy; examining our relation, as human beings, to nature and our natural
environment whilst raising
questions about aesthetic values being considered ahead of ethic ones as well
as if/how we should be caring for them. When we consider aesthetic care there
are two main areas of discussion that come to mind: conservation and
A brief explanation of each of these terms would be: 1) Conservation is the term used to describe the care and protection of natural resources so that they can persist for future generations. 2) Preservation is the act of maintaining, protecting or keeping something in existence. Each term is widely discussed within environmental philosophical debate, and I will discuss each in more detail in this chapter. The idea of preserving and/or conserving an environment because of its aesthetics is not a new phenomenon, in fact it is something that we’ve done for years. Attractive (or those which a majority of humans believe to be) plants, landscapes and even ‘pretty’ and ‘cute’ animals have been saved thanks to the way in which they look. Why this is so is one of the questions I intend to examine.
When we think of the definition of care we think about it meaning the provision of what is necessary for the health, welfare, maintenance, and protection of someone or something. When we talk of aesthetic care for environments we are thinking along very similar lines in that we understand some natural environments may need human assistance to keep healthy and functioning and we are using aesthetics, along with scientific knowledge, to guide us in understanding how and when we administer this care. Care for an environment, should be seen as a sustained form of attention that in turn invites others attention and interest which often results in multiple persons willing then to assist in the care given. Essentially, no one person would be able to care for all natural environments. We as a species need to take responsibility, we need to work together and ensure care is given not just in the present but in the long term. We also need to ensure that we are administering the correct type and level of care to each unique natural environment. When considering the level of care, we give to particular environments those that are aesthetically pleasing to humans in most cases, as I previously mentioned, get more respect and care. This is somewhat of a problem as it can result in imbalanced levels of care. Many philosophers have written about ways in which we could and should look to change this. The core problem is as Nassauer states “a scenic landscape aesthetic does not necessarily protect nature” (2008) As humans we tend to want to tidy and organise spaces so that they are aesthetically pleasing to us, when it comes to nature and natural environments though human intervention, tidying up a space to make it more aesthetically pleasing might actually harm the natural flora, fauna and organisms living within it.
It is important here to be clear about what it is to ‘harm’ an environment; Landscapes themselves don't have a physiology or exhibit homeostasis though the non-human organisms living within them may well. When we talk of an organism being harmed it usually refers to it being physically damaged resulting in it unable to maintain vital functions; in recent years though we also consider mental harm (emotional distress for example) as something just as important as physical harm; an organism can be harmed both physically and mentally. When we consider an environment though, what exactly is it we mean by harm. One consideration of what it is to harm an environment could well be the physical harm and mental harm of the non-human organisms living within the environment, when we change, or in some cases refuse to intervene and change, the natural habitat of the organisms we could well destroy their food sources, we could be causing them distress, we could without intent simply by changing a landscape kill off a species. The damage though might not stop there, if we unintentionally kill one species, we may well be taking the food source of another which would create a chain of events effecting many other species. Further to this that species may well consume other organisms or a certain flora and fauna, without them consuming a portion of which could result in it multiplying to levels which could then become unmanageable or even harmful (in the same sense). Another angel we could take when looking at harm is the aesthetic harm, if we change a landscape aesthetically is that space then no longer natural and as such no longer objectively beautiful? Human intervention of a natural environment could then aesthetically harm in a sense that the harm is the change from natural and untouched objective beauty to changed and modified human development which is then subject to human aesthetic judgement. Each of these definitions of harm is I would argue relevant, and each should be considered when we look to assess aesthetic care as each have consequences linked to the aesthetic changes humans may make or in some case refuse to make. In order for us to make an ethical decision as to whether or not we should undertake aesthetic care of an environment we should be considering the levels of harm connected to each of the above and look to balance our response to cause as little ‘harm’ as possible on all levels.
So, what then could we do to ensure that we are not causing harm to environments when we are considering aesthetic care? As previously mentioned, there are situations where environments not seen as aesthetically pleasing are left uncared for, this complete lack of intervention could lead to harm. One suggestion could be to change the way in which we view the environments. Rather than allowing spaces viewed as ‘ugly’ to be left uncared for we could work on re-educating, encouraging people to see beauty in environments that they may not have before. As Marcia Muelder says, “What we must aim for is generating aesthetic responses that will lead to sustainable care” (2008 pg382) This would require a level of work and time. Though tastes do change naturally overtime if we want to act fast enough to save certain environments from damage and destruction intervention may well be needed, we may need to create new tastes “creating wide-spread ecofriendly aesthetic tastes is clearly an admirable goal” (2008) Sheila Lintott says, though not an easy one, I think all would agree. Often the use of celebrities in marketing campaigns aids companies and charities, if a celebrity endorses a particular effort to save for example a rainforest it is more likely to reach its fund-raising goals. The use of celebrities to create trends that will change a societies views and aesthetic tastes is just one possible way in which we could look to change modern society’s opinion of what environments are worth preserving or conserving. This isn’t a new idea; in fact it is something that some companies are already using to raise awareness and encourage support.
Societal views are slowly changing, this is evident in projects that have taken hold within urban communities in recent years whereby councils are stopping the cutting of certain areas within their constituencies allowing them to grow freely and ‘wild’. Initially this was met with criticism, many objecting due to the ‘ugly’ ‘unkept’ aesthetic however with good project management communities have been educated to the benefits of leaving areas to grow wild. In many cases those that inhabit urban overly built up areas treasure the presence of trees, wildlife and birds within their environment, being in their presence gives them a moment of relief from the imposing infrastructure that surrounds them. Over time some community’s views changed, not just because they were able to understand the ecological benefits but because they began to see beauty appear in the long tall grasses, in the wildflowers and the new insects and wildlife visiting the spaces; the aesthetic taste in this situation changed overtime. These valuable spaces are one example of where aesthetics and environmentalism have aligned, and a balance has been struck. Though initially one might argue it was a form of aesthetic ‘harm’ to an urban environment, harm only to humans and their aesthetic pleasure, creating an ugly space where previously a tidy attractive space was situated, over a period of time a new naturally beautiful space had emerged that balanced beauty and ecology.
Looking then at natural environments to consider a correct level of aesthetic care it is important to understand exactly what sort of care would be beneficial to the environment and what might harm it, this requires time and research. A correct level of care is attentive to change, it requires us to watch over the environment as it changes and to make educated decisions as to whether the changes in the long term will or will not damage the health of the environment and its inhabitants. Nassauer says that “In this way, landscapes are more like children than works of art” (2008) what is meant here is that the landscapes don’t require making in the way that a work of art does but rather they require tending. They will not thrive under complete control and structure; they need us to give them time and space to flourish and inevitably change. Allen Carlsons idea of scientific knowledge comes in useful here too, it can be used to guide us into making better decisions on how to care for environments. Nassauer too comments on the importance of educated care when they again use the child comparison “regardless of good intentions ignorant care can make a spoiled child, overindulged with too much of a good thing” In landscape care Nassauer is referring to how we can often with good (of Nassauer would say superficial) intentions tend to our front gardens and urban landscapes. Making them as tidy and neat as possible because this is what we feel is most pleasing aesthetically. These superficial appearances of the urban landscapes belie ecological flaws, although we may find the neatness aesthetically appealing, we may come to learn that we have in fact spoiled the landscape, resulting in little biodiversity and poor ecological structure. Care that is driven by intelligence and knowledge of each unique environments ecological health requirements is sometimes referred to as intelligent care. Vivid care is a term given to signify the existence of ecological health with unmistakable beauty and attractiveness.
When is the correct time for humans to intervene in natural environments? When a forest is on fire when is it right for us to put it out? When a coastal cliff is eroding when is the right time to put in place sea defences? When a greenspace is becoming overgrown with one particular flora or fauna when is it right to look at management solutions? Each of these questions require us to make a decision that in turn requires us to think both practically and ethically. Aldo Leopold offers a view on when it is right for us to take action, he states that “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, the stability, and the beauty of biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (1968) So then the right time for us to act is when the delicate balance of beauty and sustainability is disrupted according to Leopold. Nassuare agrees “Attention to landscapes and sustained action to maintain their ecological function is what we need” It is agreed then that we do need to care aesthetically for the environments but that we need to do so not solely for our pleasure (though this is a welcome benefit) but rather so that we can support nature to continue to survive and strive.
This positive view which appears to create a nice alignment for aesthetics and environmentalism, on the surface, makes sense and is one I think many would agree with though it leaves us still with the questions of how we access the natural environments to determine their integrity, stability (we could use scientific tests here that will give definitive answers so long as we have enough research to determine these are correct) and beauty (where unless we agree that natural beauty is objective we have to agree an appreciation model one that can give us solid definitions of what is and is not beautiful). This stumbling block that some may find could though be answered with conservation. If we are unsure on what is for sure the best way to aesthetically care, then rather than make drastic changes should we focus instead on conserving what is already there? Nassaure finds this idea appealing “As we confront the limitations of our ecological knowledge , we need to work conservatively in the landscapes , saving every possible remnant of remaining indigenous ecosystems even if we cannot fully anticipate all of their potential values” (2008) Glenn Parsons raises some concerns when it comes to conservation, he claims in his book “Aesthetics and Nature” that many nature conservationists are concerned solely with conserving natural environments for human benefit, be that aesthetic or practical. That they care for these environments because they feel that their existence is essential to organisms that will offer some benefit for humans in the present or future. He offers an example of this when referring to how a particular conservation organization in Canada maintains a wetland, keeping it ecologically healthy and encouraging the local waterfowl population within it yet also allows hunting of the waterfowl it is supposedly caring for. Parsons feels like this is essentially a form of exploitation. That humans are motivated by the wrong things when acting in this way. So then, in Parson’s view conservation is not a desirable option when considering the correct type of care for natural environment. That its not considering the environments value beyond that of human benefit. Parson’s instead appears to feel that preservation is a better option for care, one that offers a more ethical approach not guided by the selfish needs of humans, he states that “Preservation, unlike conservation, thus does not rest upon any practical benefit that nature has for humanity” (2008)
Emily Brady in her paper ‘Aesthetic character and aesthetic integrity in environmental conservation’ offers an attractive solution in the form of a concept called Aesthetic Integrity; a term used to describe an ecosystem undisturbed by humans; stable, balanced and unimpaired. It forms too as an ecological concept guided by moral principles whilst also being an aesthetic concept that implies a form of unity, harmony and holistic approach. Brady goes on to say that “Aesthetic integrity as a principle of conservation does not provide a set of criteria, and it will not be a matter of measuring anything. Rather than those approaches, I suggest application of the principle on a case by case basis.’ This is an approach that I’ve mentioned before, and one that I feel makes the most sense. I don’t feel that there is any other way forward when it comes to the care of natural environments, each are unique and require such different levels of involvements and care and so there is no one size fits all response. As Brady says, some may find this idea too loose and without form, so she offers some possible guidelines to the concept that will give it more structure:
1) We must consider the history of the environment in question when deciding how to conserve the predominant aesthetic character of it.
2) We must avoid ‘sharp breaks’ from the narrative, no grand scales changes made that could create incongruity.
So then Brady’s guidance gives us some line of thought to guide us when we consider the use of Aesthetic Integrity as a concept for aesthetic care of natural environments. Using Brady’s guidance, a good level of aesthetic care should firstly take into account the narrative of the environment, the history of it. This then requires us to study it over time, to log information and to consider that information alongside the scientific knowledge we have. Secondly to avoid any big snap changes, ones which do not fit with the natural course the environment appears to be taking. This feels like a morally safe approach, it also feels like one environmentalists would find appealing. It does not seem to place too much emphasis on human benefit, rather it seeks to study the environments carefully to try and assess best its own needs. Though I’m attracted to this concept I can see some potential flaws with it, and I can understand that many may still argue that it is not evolved and structured enough to withstand criticisms. I do feel it is a good starting point and that it together with elements of other approaches and concepts I’ve discussed in this chapter could come together to form a holistic and well composed approach to the aesthetic care of natural environments.
In this paper I’ve discussed several questions, highlighted as chapter titles, that I feel can help in the quest to align aesthetics and environmentalism. I’ve discussed the views of a number of philosophers who have written essays, journal articles and books on the topics and I’ve given my thoughts and opinions throughout. When I set out to write this paper, I naively thought that there must be a relatively simple and bullet proof way to align aesthetics and environmentalism whilst considering aesthetic care; I have since found that I was wrong. Many it seems have attempt this and to date none have been wholly successful. I do feel though that there are some new discussions that are bringing forward new thoughts and theories combining them with old which could potentially offer us an answer, not fully constructed yet, but possibly soon.
Essential to this potential future problem-solving concept lays, I believe, in the recent approach offered by Peacocke. That we should, moving forward, embrace a more multidimensional view of aesthetic values. We should look beyond the simple terms of the beautiful and ugly and see the worth in the many other aesthetic experiences of environments. If we look beyond the idea that environments need to please us, need to make us happy and evoke positive emotions and instead accept that it is OK for them to spark other responses such as awe, intrigue and question, then this I argue, would help us to make better decisions when it comes to what level of aesthetic care is required. This approach combined with the concept of Brady’s ‘Aesthetic Integrity’ could, I feel, go on to form an interesting bond between morality and practicality. In order to function though we will need to use scientific knowledge, a theory Allen Carlson offered in the very early stages of philosophical discussion in this area. Though this may seem at first irrelevant if we are going to be using Peacocke’s approach, if we also combine elements of each theory then we could be on the way to forming a new holistic concept.
We should use aesthetics to guide us; if a natural environment looks different to how it previously did this should lead us not to immediately want to change it, improve it or cover it up but rather to investigate the change, to try and understand what brought the change on and why it happened. To identify if the change is one to be concerned about, if it requires human intervention or whether it is a harmless natural change that will not damage the long-term health of the environment. Thus, a combination of scientific knowledge, aesthetic integrity and multidimensional values. This is just the bare bones of the concept I have in mind, one which takes on board all of what I’ve discussed in this paper. Though here I’m only able to offer the bare bones of a potential new concept I certainly feel that it is one worth pursuing and intend to spend more time researching and developing it in order to in the future present a more detailed theory that will stand up to critique.
Further, the time spent researching for and writing this paper has lead me to feel that we should be ethically bound, as humans, to aesthetically care for natural environments because it is up as inhabitants of the natural world to care for it both aesthetically and otherwise; to ensure its long term sustainability for us as we are today, for any possible future posthuman life and for the many other organisms we share our environments with. I reiterate that there is no one size fits all response to the question of a correct level of care when we consider natural environments. To ensure that we give the correct type of aesthetic care to natural environments we need to not only look beyond human benefit and consider all organisms that inhabit the space, we also need to assess each environment individually. Allen Carlson’s views that scientific knowledge and understanding help us judge things aesthetically comes in useful here, though as I mentioned previously, I don’t feel it is essential for us to have a scientific understanding to enable us to aesthetically appreciate environments I do feel that scientific knowledge and understanding can help us make educated judgements on how to correctly aesthetically care for natural environments. In this sense my views align with Eaton’s, Eaton offers the view that we need be continuously listening and looking at the natural environments in order to track scales and give aesthetic attention relative to the specific environment, if we use scientific knowledge and we scale each response to each unique natural environment we can give an appropriate scale of care which offers the best alignment between aesthetics and environmentalism available to us today. We need to take time to research and study each environment individually and make educated judgement calls for each unique environment given its present situation; with the scientific knowledge and understanding as encouraged by Carlson we can assess whether we need to intervene, to make changes for future sustainability of the said natural environment itself and its non-human inhabitants or whether our involvement would disrupt a natural process that could not only in the future provide a different type, or even enhanced natural aesthetic beauty for us to aesthetically appreciate but also a new naturally created environment for evolved organisms to inhabit.
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