Why Environmental Aesthetics?

John Fisher and Ned Hettinger


            Why should we care about environmental aesthetics? Because the beauty of nature figures prominently in why we value nature and nature today is seriously threatened in many ways. List of nature beauties threatened: Arctic Refuge, mountains of West Virginia, Polar Bears, flowers in Hawaii, urban sprawl (development: every open space turns into a shopping mall) , . . . .

            Beauty is a serious motivator (stronger even than abstract beliefs about what is right) and thus aesthetics can be particularly useful in protection of the environment. The fact that environmentalists and environmental organizations focus on nature’s beauty supports this contention. In addition, restoration is partly driven by concern for beauty.

            One reason we have environmental problems is a lack of appropriate respect for the natural world. If we believe that we ought to respect nature, part of respecting nature appropriately is aesthetically valuing it. If you don’t see the beauty of a forest or the wild animals that inhabit it, then you are unlikely to view it as any more than a resource to be exploited and altered in various ways. Whereas if you perceive and appreciate its stupendous beauty, sublimity and positive aesthetic value, you will take the issue of its degradation or even destruction very seriously.


            Aesthetics is not just important for protection of nature, it illuminates nature and our relation to it. Someone who did not respond to nature aesthetically is missing something deep in their understanding and appreciation of nature. Conservation-education leader David Orr notes a decline in our capacity for aesthetic appreciation and argues that this manifests an “ecological illiteracy” that allows us to feel comfortable with ugliness. Along with Rene Dubos, Orr worries that “our greatest disservice to our children” is giving them “the belief that ugliness is somehow normal.” “Ugliness,” he argues, “is the surest sign of disease . . . or ‘unsustainability’” and signifies a “fundamental disharmony between people and between people and the land.”

            Studying the aesthetics of nature will also make one better able to appreciate nature and will increase the aesthetic pleasure the natural world provides in our every day encounters with it. The beauty of nature is everywhere, not just in the spectacular scenery of the national parks. Even in humanized or “mixed-nature” (e.g., one’s backyard, local parks and creeks, city birds) there is much beauty that can be found especially by those sensitized by the study of environmental aesthetics.

            Some have argued that there are deep biological explanations for our love of nature and for our aesthetic attractions to the natural world (biophilia explanation). Local parks (Central Park), eating outside, camping, going for a walk in the park.

            Although originally aesthetics, which was developed as a subfield of philosophy in the 17th and 18th century, was concerned very much with nature as well the arts, it became virtually synonymous with the philosophy of art in the early 20th century. It was not until the last 30 years that aesthetic theorists began to devote serious attention to nature. It is no coincidence that this turn of events occurred in parallel with the growth of environmental consciousness. Environmentalism and the problems of our environment, from pollution to loss of open spaces, the extinction of species, and so on, has led everyone, including aesthetic and ethical theorists, to pay greater attention to natural environments.

            In addition, when philosophers who had solely theorized about art turned to nature, they found that new and deep themes emerged concerning aesthetics itself. They found that the aesthetics of nature opened or greatly energized fundamental questions about the nature of aesthetic phenomena: What are the appropriate objects of aesthetic appreciation? Can an environment be an appropriate object of appreciation? Is aesthetic appreciation just restricted to the forms of objects or does it involve an appreciation of the history and nature of the object? How central is cognition to aesthetic appreciation? What is an aesthetic experience, especially when the objects of experience are natural things in an environment or the environment itself? For example, do we have to interact with nature to appreciate it? More broadly, what is aesthetic value and how does it measure up to other values?

            In short, just as environmental ethics raises fundamental issues about ethical theory, which had been thoroughly anthropocentric until recently, so environmental aesthetics raises fundamental issues about aesthetics, which was until recently thoroughly focused on human artifacts, namely artworks.

            About the importance of aesthetics for environmental preservation, Marcia Eaton says this: The Newsletter editors have asked me to describe my ventures in another “real world” area-environmental reform, if I may call it that. Partly, I think, as a result of the requirement imposed by the 1969 Environmental Policy Act that planners give “due account to aesthetic amenities,” engineers and designers in the USA have had to attempt to identify what these are and then deal with them accordingly. Increasingly, ecologists internationally recognize that in the absence of a change in aesthetic preferences, sound environmental practices have little chance of being widely adopted. (For instance, as long as people want large, green, closely mowed yards no matter what the climate or soil or water conditions, they will continue to use polluting gasoline mowers and a toxic cocktail of fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.)

            Positive aes qualities of nature as strong motivation and justification for positive actions toward environment (including saving it from development).