Saturday, April 19, 2008

Open Spacious Vivid

The natural world has the power to move us, inspire us, transform us. This can be sudden or gradual event initiated via scientific exploration, religious understanding, spiritual experience and/or immersion in beautiful and sacred places in the wild and in wilded urban places.

In his article titled 'On Being Moved by Nature', Noel Carroll (2008:170) speaks of being 'emotionally aroused' by nature through a panoply of cultural and personal value systems including the aesthetic, the scientific and the religious. Emotional arousal, he suggests, 'may be a function of our human nature in response to a natural expanse' which can engage all the senses and give rise to a 'sense of mystery' (174), 'majesty' (177), and even a 'displaced religious sentiment' (183 citing Diffey, 1993).

In concluding, Carroll surmises that emotional arousal in nature might be 'instinctually grounded' (185). That is, having deep feelings for nature is natural. This seems similar to Wilson and Kellert's biophilia hypothesis but their concept is also grounded in notions of care and sensitivity based on a human's innate affinity with nature.

Carroll's article is part of a new volume of ecophilosophical highlights on environmental aesthetics, Nature, Aesthetics and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty (2008). The chapters explore the relationship between art, aesthetics and action, but many of the ecophilosophers seem to debate the aesthetics of nature as if we humans are somehow removed from our own naturalness. Along the way they question whether everything in nature is positively aesthetic (and arty) or whether aspects of nature can also be deemed negatively aesthetic or unscenic (Saito, 2008), and if so, how would this viewpoint affect environmental care?

Saito takes umbrage at the view that all natural phenomena is 'aesthetic appreciable' (249). He claims that environmental dangers and natural disasters which deleteriously and seriously affect human life cannot, and should not, be regarded in a positively aesthetically context. This would be morally inappropriate.

Another chapter takes the theme 'From Beauty to Duty' written by the highly regarded Holmes Rolston III who asks: if we humans value the beauty of nature will we be motivated enough to care for beautiful places too? But there are other questions to ask as well. Would all cultures regard these places in the same way and therefore join together to save them? And if a beautiful place was seen to be in the way of an economically valuable development (mining, logging, freeway, housing), would its beauty be enough to save it? There are plenty of examples to say no.

Rolston (2008:326) slightly alters the common saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder to beauty being in the 'mind of the beholder' but I would suggest that such a mind-full view of beauty ignores the significance of a deeply embodied experiential immersion in the natural environment. Despite this oversight, Rolston warns that approaching conservation via aesthetics may be too limiting. He says: 'Starting off with an aesthetically oriented approach may disorient us and leave us with too weak a locus of value to protect all the values in jeopardy'.

In other words, aesthetics might 'give rise to duty' but it might not be enough to preserve a special place or ecosystem (327). Other values need to be taken into account particularly what Stephen Kellert (2004) calls 'biophilic values' which, he states,'constitute threads of relationship between people and nature that foster an ethic of care for the natural world' - beauty or no beauty.

Along the wilded trail the Brisbane River and its environs are beautiful, its colours vivid, the sky above, spacious, intensely blue. Not far away, among the concreted highrise repressed and depressing cityscape the river is still beautiful although its natural surroundings have been decimated without thought to aesthetics.

Rolston calls for a recognition and valuing of an aesthetic vitality in nature or an 'ecological aesthetics'. This, he says, brings us face to face with the wild and wild places where 'we are not at home and must take some care' (336), and where, referring to the concept of ecological self, 'our sense of identity enlarges into local, regional, [and] global biotic communities'.

Inspired by his call for an expansive and expanded self, a river-centred ecological self may come about through a deep connection with, and understanding of the river's beauty, bounty and ecosystem services. It can emerge gradually through building relationship, through experience and growing sensitivity; it can arise instantaneously, such as being awestruck by its flow, its rainforested banks, its dolphins dancing, its scenic quality or its recent rain-drenched overflow. Pehaps if we argued more about its aesthetic scenic quality in addition to its potentially poor water quality or endangered environmental flow, the river would be a central and beautiful red (or should it be blue/green) carpet of this river city.

Rolston concludes his chapter passionately by asking whether an environmental ethic needs to have an aesthetic quality. He emphatically answers 'yes' and in this way stresses the intimate and exquisite link between beauty and duty.

Carroll N, 2008, On being moved by nature: Between religion and natural history, in A Carson and S Lintott, Eds, Nature, Aesthetics and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty, New York: Columbia University Press.
Diffy TJ, 1993, Appreciating art and appreciating nature, in S Kemal and I Gaskell, Eds, Landscape, Natural Beauty and the Arts, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Rolston H III, 2008, From beauty to duty: Aesthetics of nature and environmental ethics, in A Carson and S Lintott, Eds, Nature, Aesthetics and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty, New York: Columbia University Press.
Saito Y, 2008, Appreciating nature on its own terms, in A Carson and S Lintott, Eds, Nature, Aesthetics and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty, New York: Columbia University Press.
Sustainable Ways, 2004, The Sustainable Ways Interview, Social Ecologist and Author Stephen R. Kellert Shares His Views of Sustainable Design, Sustainable Ways, 2, 1, Autumn,