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Review of Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty
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Allen Carlson, Sheila Lintott, eds, Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty (Columbia University Press, 2008)

Reviewed by Allison Hagerman

As a graduate student entering the twilight (hopefully) of my cheap starch-fueled indentured servitude, I find myself at odd moments (waiting in line at the grocery store, folding laundry, entering grade sheets at mid-term) daydreaming of courses I’d like to design and teach in the not-so-distant future. One of these courses would certainly be designed with the content of Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott’s Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty in mind. In addition to the fact that the organization of this anthology makes a course entirely devoted to environmental aesthetics feasible, it also provides a thorough overview of the debates specifically centered around Carlson’s version of scientific cognitivism and its implications for positive aesthetics. Thus, the book serves as a good introduction for both students and instructors who are interested in the work of philosophers who understand that the link between aesthetic value and environmental issues is both intriguing and important.

First, I’ll address the potential of this book as it pertains to course design, whether it serves to inspire the creation of a course or as a text to be integrated into an already existing course that includes environmental aesthetics as a topic of study. I myself would have been grateful for exposure to the readings contained in this book during the latter period of my undergraduate days, and most certainly upon arrival at graduate school. As it happens, I did not learn of the existence of some of the core writings in environmental aesthetics until very late in my graduate school course work, and the existence of anthologies such as this one may serve to prevent such misfortune from befalling other students by presenting an assortment of readings that should be accessible to advanced undergraduates and informative and thought-provoking for graduate students in philosophy, environmental studies, sustainable development, and landscape design.

Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism easily provides a semester’s worth of readings, divided into four sections with six essays contained in each. The essays are more or less equal in length, give or take a few outliers, and that makes it easy to envision plotting a course from start to finish alongside its very logically sequenced contents. Each of the four sections contains an introductory segment by Carlson and Lintott that provides the reader with a roadmap of the section, briefly identifying the authors and their essays. The introductions then cycle through helpful summaries of the main points of each of the essays so that the reader becomes aware of the dialogical relationship between the texts in each section. Lintott and Carlson also provide a very helpful general introduction that supplies a brief history of the aesthetics of nature and an outline of recent developments, as well as a clear explanation of the demands involved in the enterprise of cultivating an aesthetic understanding and appreciation of nature that is appropriate and respectful.

The anthology offers a selection of many of the key texts contributing to the discourse in contemporary environmental aesthetics, but very thoughtfully, the editors initiate the readings with a section called “Historical Foundations,” which contains excerpts from the works of Eugene Hargrove, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, John Burroughs, and Aldo Leopold. In this way, readers who may be venturing into environmental aesthetics for the first time can obtain some sense of historical context and are able to familiarize themselves with the work of writers whose ideas often surface in contemporary debate. Hargrove, the only contemporary writer included in the section, is an appropriate place to begin because his essay, “The Historical Foundations of American Environmental Attitudes,” provides an overview of the influences of nineteenth-century developments in the arts and sciences on North American engagement and policy regarding the natural environment during the last two centuries. The selections from the oeuvres of Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, Burroughs, and Leopold are classics. Several of the contemporary texts featured later in the anthology refer back to these works and the vivid stories woven into their narratives. The inclusion and placement of this first section makes it easy for the reader to get the most out of the more recent works that make up the majority of the anthology; for example, when Yuriko Saito, in her essay “The Aesthetics of Unscenic Nature,” mentions the expectations of the artists from John Muir’s essay and their attitude toward non-scenic nature, the reader is already familiar with Muir’s account and can even pause to go back and re-read that segment if he or she so chooses. The editors show a thoughtful consideration of the reader and a pedagogical mindfulness in placing these seminal texts from the Western tradition of environmental thought at the reader’s fingertips. The book as a whole delivers a real sense of these texts’ impact on subsequent writers due to the abundant evidence it provides of their influence on contemporary discourse.

The second section of the book is titled “Nature and Aesthetic Value,” and as Carlson and Lintott explain in the section introduction, it features the work of writers who ask, “What is the appropriate appreciation of nature?” and “How do we appreciate nature on its own terms?” It features J. Baird Callicot’s “Leopold’s Land Aesthetic,” Allen Carlson’s “Aesthetic Appreciation of the Natural Environment,” Stan Godlovitch’s “Icebreakers: Environmentalism and Natural Aesthetics,” Yuriko Saito’s “Appreciating Nature on Its Own Terms,” Noël Carroll’s “On Being Moved by Nature: Between Religion and Natural History,” and Patricia Matthews’ “Scientific Knowledge and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature.” The works of Callicott, Carlson, and Matthews offer arguments for the necessity of scientific knowledge in forming an appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature. Carlson seeks to establish the necessity of scientific knowledge for appropriate aesthetic appreciation of nature by arguing that it is the analog of art history in Kendall Walton’s “Categories of Art” (which, as it is a piece that specifically deals with art appreciation, is not included in the anthology; instructors may choose to assign it as supplemental reading, as it is referred to quite a bit by several of the authors). The essay by Saito presents justifications for acknowledging that sources of knowledge other than western science may play a role in appropriate appreciation, and adds a moral dimension to the primarily epistemological focus of the cognitivist approach. Godlovitch argues that even a scientific approach is too anthropocentric to constitute appreciating nature “on its own terms,” and Carroll argues for the appropriate appreciation of nature that can be accomplished via an emotive response.

The third section of the book, “Nature and Positive Aesthetics,” is perhaps the most technical: if the reader has been moving through the text in its arranged sequence, he or she should be well prepared to engage with the ideas contained in this section. Even with the helpful section introduction provided by the editors, I wouldn’t recommend jumping in at this point (unless, of course, you are a professionally trained philosopher). In this section, the reader encounters the notion that, when approached in a certain manner, all of nature may have positive aesthetic value. What approach would guarantee such an evaluation? What are the implications of the positive aesthetic evaluation of nature? What kinds of problems arise in trying to justify this view? What is its relevance for protection of the environment? These are the questions that Allen Carlson, Yuriko Saito, Janna Thompson, Stan Godlovitch, Malcolm Budd, and Glenn Parsons pursue in the readings for this section.

The final section of the book will appeal to those who are eager to see theory invigorated by practice. “Nature, Aesthetic Value, and Environmentalism” contains reflections on the relationship between aesthetics and ethics and how an articulation of this connection informs environmentalism. Holmes Rolston III’s “From Beauty to Duty: Aesthetics of Nature and Environmental Ethics” inspired the title of the anthology and advocates a cognitivist approach that is not merely intellectual, but participatory, in an appreciation of natural beauty that is respectful of all life. Marcia Muelder Eaton’s “The Beauty That Requires Health” is a meditation on how perception under ecologically informed concepts can cultivate aesthetic appreciation of healthy environments and negative aesthetic response to unhealthy situations: imagine a world where desert dwellers widely recognize that maintenance of a Kentucky blue grass lawn in the midst of an arid climate is a sign of bad taste, in addition to inappropriate water consumption and chemical use (an insight that is slowly taking hold where I live, in Albuquerque, New Mexico). Joan Iverson Nassuaer discusses eco-friendly design strategy that works as a form of environmental activism in that it both educates and heals nature within urban and suburban contexts in “Cultural Sustainability: Aligning Aesthetics and Ecology.” In “Toward Eco-Friendly Aesthetics,” Sheila Lintott brings everyday aesthetics into the mix and discusses the problems entailed by the assumption that all of our aesthetic appreciation must be disinterested. In reality, our cultural biases and social situation affect our perceptions and influence our aesthetic response, and any cultivation of an eco-friendly aesthetic must acknowledge this. Lintott provides an illustrative case study involving the change of a community’s perception, and subsequent cultivation of appreciation, of the bats that had taken to roosting en masse beneath one of their bridges. Emily Brady’s “Aesthetic Character and Aesthetic Integrity in Environmental Conservation” brings to light the importance of cultural, in addition to natural, history in establishing the character of a place, and discusses what role this recognition plays in making decisions regarding intentional alteration of the environment. Ned Hettinger’s “Objectivity in Environmental Aesthetics and Protection of the Environment” closes the anthology with thought-provoking questions about the possibility of objectivity in aesthetic judgments of nature, and whether or not scientific cognitivism offers the only route to such judgments.

All in all, the selection of readings this anthology provides is certainly not exhaustive of all that environmental aesthetics has to offer (the literature is growing by the day), but it is informative and delightful in that the arrangement of readings themselves reflect an aesthetic of health – that is, they are not isolated units but rather coalesce in organic interdependence. Not only do tendrils of thought running through the essays enlace and intertwine as the authors approach a shared problem from different angles; the authors actually often refer to each other’s arguments, and more often than not, these references are located in this anthology. Thus, performatively and in content, Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism is a fine introduction to a living and breathing discourse, one that invites a broader audience while cutting no corners in rigorous philosophical debate.


2009 © Allison Hagerman

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