Chap 5: Environmentalist Worries about the Relevance of Aesthetics

Fisher and Hettinger, Draft introductory material

            Why are aesthetic considerations not more prominent in environmental theorizing even though they figure importantly in everyday thinking about environmental issues? There are at least 5 reasons for this....

            Consider purple loosestrife. Fields of its beautiful purple flowers are attractive aesthetically but it is environmentally harmful, invading and crowding out variety of native species that provide food and habitat for many animal species. There are many such examples. (water hyacinth in Africa, many species in Hawaii, Cormorant on Lake Michigan). Beautiful things can be harmful and thus one might think it a mistake to base environmental policy decision on aesthetic values.

            It is true that environmental decisions made wholly on the basis of aesthetic value would be seriously incomplete. Aesthetic is not the only relevant factor in environmental decision making. But this does not show that aesthetic value is not an important factor. But in individual cases it may be outweighed by other factors/values such ecological considerations. Whenever there are multiple values, they can conflict, and there is no reason to think that aesthetic value will be especially likely to conflict with other environmental values (?such as economic, recreational, ecological, animal welfare values). Furthermore, before we dismiss or override aesthetic considerations, we need to make sure the aesthetic judgements are well grounded. In the case of an invasive exotics, though beautiful in a narrow dimension, it may be aesthetically negative when one takes a broader aesthetic point of view. The exotic starfish that feeds on coral reefs may be quite attractive in itself, but it may destroy ecosystems that are more beautiful still. (Not clear this is really beautiful when consider harm it does etc.)

            Or consider the objection that the focus on aesthetics has led us to preserve mainly dramatic and scenic landscapes, such as high mountains, geysers, rock arches, waterfalls, glaciers (Garden of God’s; Bryce Canyon), and ignore those ecosystems and landscapes that are more ecologically important, such as, prairies, swamps, and rain forests. There is some truth to this charge, but it again trades on an overly narrow conception of aesthetic value: Scenic beauty is only one type of beauty and environmental aestheticians have done much to show us the beauty in unscenic nature. Moreover an enlightened environmentalism needs to neither ignore aesthetic value nor make it the sole basis of environmental decision making.

            Many environmentalists think that aesthetics is all about how things look on the surface and this is a superficial focus compared with deeper environmental concerns. Those on Cape Cod who object to the wind mills off the coast adopt this anti-green perspective for the sake of their view. Whether or not their position is justified, shows the power and significance of such considerations. No one wants power lines and transmission towers affecting their view. But it is an open question whether or not a concern for the naturalness of one’s local environment is an unimportant value. And so once again, even in cases like this, there are a variety of values in need of consideration, and aesthetic values belong importantly in the mix.

            The 40 year battle to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is often thought to be about weighing the economic benefits of oil development against the existence of the Porcupine caribou herd and the traditions of the native peoples who depend upon them. But one need not make the protection of the refuge contingent on predictions about the biological and social? effects of oil development on the region. The aesthetic value of ANWR would undoubtedly be seriously compromised by this human industrial exploitation of this pristine natural area. Imagine the negative effects on the sublime spectacle of the 15,000 members of the Porcupine herd when they wandering amongst the oil derricks. Here aesthetic value play a major role in environmental protection.