Notes on Ecological Aesthetics and Ethics

By David George Haskell

A sense of beauty is a rigorous, perhaps even objective, foundation for environmental ethics. Our human aesthetic judgment integrates many strands of experience: intellect, emotion, bodily senses, and all we know from our interactions with others, both human and non-human others. From this integration, we understand the good.

Of course, an aesthetic sense is subject to the whims of desire, passing fads, and superficial impressions. So a well-grounded ethic depends for its rigor on a mature sense of aesthetics. By “mature,” I mean a sense of aesthetics that emerges from many years of lived relationship with a place and its community of life, both human and non-human. Such experience allows us to “unself” our judgment into the wider experience of the community. Our aesthetic and then our ethic will thus emerge not just from the limited confines of our own self, but from the knowledge that lives within the networks from which communities are made.

Once we—collectively—have an integrated sense of aesthetics, we can begin to discern what is beautiful and what is broken about a place, and, from there, I believe we can begin to form an objective—or near-objective—foundation for ethical discernment. Answers emerge from the community of life itself, filtered through human experience and consciousness.

What do I mean by that? Years of experience in a particular place will open us to the lives of other people and other species in that place, so our sense of aesthetics will incorporate their realities. Once we have that, we have a ground for moving forward and making ethical decisions that are actually deeply rooted in the physical, biological realities of a place, rather than coming only from abstractions of a seminar room or dogmas in a philosophy born in another ecosystem.

Aesthetics is often presented as something that’s very subjective, divorced from the reality of the world. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. A sense of ecologic aesthetics comes from a very gritty, sensually rich experience that has its tendrils in the realities of a place.

None of this can answer the ethical nihilist who poses the question, “So, what? Ethics are vaporous illusions carved into the human nervous system by evolution.” But if some ground for ethics does exist in this universe, then a sense of aesthetics can, I think, help us find this ground by a process that fully acknowledges and embraces our existence as evolved members of ecological communities. This is a fully biological foundation for ethics.

On a practical level, if we try to answer questions about how to live in particular places without first listening to the realities and particularities of the place itself, our answers are going to be unmoored and will have terrible consequences. Understanding how to live ethically in a place is an extraordinarily complicated, important, and difficult challenge. Moving forward with answers that are not based on deep engagement with a place and its inhabitants is a recipe for disaster. So action in the world demands, first, a practice of listening.

Religious and philosophical traditions have known this for many millennia: contemplation and action go together, just as the inhale and the exhale go together. Monastic communities are deeply contemplative, but also have engaged in action in the world—whether that action is caring for other people in hospitals, or agricultural action, or caring for the sick. This history evinces the truth that we need open, contemplative spaces within our lives, especially lives of action. I think there’s a hunger for that kind of open space. Without it, we feel a desperation and a feeling that we’re up against the wall without a good way forward. Contemplative practices create spaces for new ideas, new connections to emerge. That sounds like a rather goal-oriented way of putting it, but I do think that one of the fruits of contemplation is an increased ability to come up with new ideas or to see old ideas in a new light.

In the environmental community, there are some instances of people making decisions about the fate of ecosystems when the decision-makers have never experienced the ecosystem at stake. When NGOs, governments, or businesses have decision-making structures that are divorced from the lived experience of a place, then the outcomes will most likely not be good for that place or the people in them. We need to bring lived experience of ecosystems back into the decision-making process.

David George Haskell is the author of the newly released The Songs of Trees, an exploration of science and ethics through the lives of a dozen trees around the world. He is professor of biology at The University of the South and the author of The Forest Unseen, winner of the 2013 National Academies’ Best Book Award and Pulitzer finalist. You can follow him on Twitter at @DGHaskell.

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

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