In the Western aesthetic tradition, concerns with the environment have always been present. But it was not until the latter part of the twentieth century that the specific discourse of environmental aesthetics was established, first with a focus on nature, soon followed by the consideration of the built environment. The most recent formulation includes the entirety of our lived world, including our interactions with various objects and other people. Environmental aesthetics thus explores the way in which we gain an aesthetic experience when we engage with our environment in this expansive sense through active perception informed by sensibility and imagination.
The occasion for gaining an aesthetic experience is everywhere in our environment, not limited to memorable or extraordinary “standout” moments. Such unforgettable experiences of a sublime landscape and a stunning architectural piece have been a favored subject for aesthetics in general. However, the mundane, nondescript, and often-overlooked aspects of our everyday environment are also capable of provoking an aesthetic experience, though different in character and intensity. Furthermore, we have constructed an evaluative framework of environmental aesthetic values that is culturally, socially, and historically situated. For example, wetlands have generally been regarded as lacking aesthetic merit not only because they are rather dull-looking but also they have long been considered to lack any utilitarian values for humans. Consequently, they have been vulnerable to destruction for the sake of “improvement” and “development.” Weeds, such as dandelions, in a green lawn—a quintessential ideal for the American domestic landscape—are considered the public enemy number one because they ruin the perfectly smooth and green carpet; hence they need to be eradicated.
However, the seemingly monotonous and boring appearance of wetlands starts becoming more complicated and intriguing once we understand its complex ecological functions. We start noticing the subtle change in vegetations that respond to the differing saline contents of the water, and we realise the wetlands’ seemingly boring appearance conceals lively activities of various creatures that inhabit this environment. Imaginative engagement based upon such knowledge leads us to develop an aesthetic appreciation of an otherwise humble, quiet, and easily overlooked beauty of this environment. Despite the negativity associated with dandelions, unsightly weeds in our lawn, we can’t help but marvel at their remarkable life story shown by their dramatic transformation from the vivid yellow flower to the floating cotton fuzz. Once we overcome various stereotypes and assumptions, we find aesthetic gems everywhere. The well-known twentieth century environmental thinker, Aldo Leopold, thus declares in his Sand County Almanac that “the weeds in a city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods” ( 1966, 266). It’s just that what is all-too-common and all-too-familiar to us is aesthetically disadvantaged.
Overcoming their aesthetic disadvantage is beneficial to our lives. First, it widens and sharpens our aesthetic sensibility to be able to have an aesthetic experience of something on its own terms. We open ourselves to be affected by diverse kinds of things and phenomena. Second, this openness cultivates moral virtues of respect and humility regarding others insofar as we don’t impose our preconceived criteria or values on them. Cultivating such an attitude is vital in our moral interaction with others. This intimate melding of the aesthetic and the ethical is one of the wisdoms offered by non-Western traditions such as Zen Buddhism. Spiritual enlightenment, according to Zen, is facilitated by transcending one’s self burdened with all kinds of predilections so that we can respectfully experience and appreciate the other for what it is, not as what we think it ought to be or what we would like it to be.
At the same time, attending to the aesthetic potential of those that have been invisible does not mean that aestheticization should take place indiscriminately. Some parts of our environments are downright ugly and in need of repair, clean-up, or reconstruction. It is not contradictory to encourage cultivating our aesthetic sensibility toward many aspects of our environment while recognizing that some of them are aesthetically negative with no redeeming values. However, such discrimination needs to involve not only sensory perception but also a sympathetic imagination. For example, a dilapidated neighborhood in one case may be an environment with memories for its residents who still regard it with affection, while in another case the residents may be suffering from severe aesthetic deprivation and are desperate for some degree of aesthetic decency in their environment. Such finely nuanced and sympathetic understanding that informs aesthetic sensibility is valuable when we as a society decide what course of action, if any, should be taken regarding the said neighborhood.
Thus, environmental aesthetics is multi-faceted in terms of what it deals with: nature, built structures, urban environment, domestic space, various objects within, and our interactions with others. It encourages unearthing the hidden gems in our environment, but at the same time it cultivates a sober but sympathetic eye regarding those environments that are aesthetically harmful. Ultimately, it explores our intimate connection with our environs because we are creatures whose lives are deeply embedded in the lived world and its quality cannot but affect the quality of our lives.
When reading Plato’s (428/7–348/7 BCE) aesthetics today, one of the claims that most likely causes disagreement is his advocacy for the state’s regulation of the arts in Book X of his Republic. What we tend to miss, however, is that underlying his view on censorship of the arts is his acknowledgement that we humans are profoundly affected by the aesthetic dimensions of our lives. Although his targets are mostly arts because of their capacity for providing intensified and focused aesthetic experiences, we can expand his acknowledgement of the power of the aesthetic to include the entirety of our lived environment, namely, natural surroundings, built structures, various objects in our daily lives, and interactions with other people. Our sensory and emotive engagement with these various ingredients of our environment constitutes aesthetic experiences. If these experiences are mere dispensable icing on the cake, there is no need for Plato to call for regulating the arts in the Republic.
Whether or not we agree with his proposal of censorship of the arts or his vision of the ideal society, the most important insight Plato offers is that aesthetic experiences play an indispensable role in cultivating intellects and moral virtues. Plato was fully cognizant of the power of the aesthetic that is a double-edge sword. It can be harnessed to promote a good life, humane and civil society, and a sustainable world, or it can work against these goals. Thus, environmental aesthetics should be regarded not simply as a matter of aesthetic experience of the environment but as a discourse and practice with profound ethical and social significance.
Leopold, Aldo. (1949) 1966. A Sand County Almanac, With Other Essays on Conservation From Round River. Illustrated by Charles W. Schwartz. New York: Oxford University Press.