Environmentalism by Aesthetics

Published on 19 July 2020 at 09:47

Richard Sylvan proposed a theory called the Last Man Argument. 

You are the last remaining person on earth, and there will be no one after you. Would chopping down trees, hunting animals, and damaging rivers and soils be unjust? Or destroying an entire rainforest. 


 In the last man argument, do the last person's actions have any moral wrong to them? If we are to say that the last person to live burns forests, pollutes oceans, etc. We are not around to judge, and no other rational being is either. We can only be shocked at the thought of such actions because we value the beauty in nature, and the idea of unrestrained and nihilistic environmental damage irks us. Even for those who view our world in pure utility, the last man has no utility in his actions or desires to make anything of utility. 


Our ethical outlook on the environment is 'Anthropocentrism,' it is the concern of the environment with a focus on human welfare. We aim to preserve the biological diversity of our planet because doing so is in our best interests. People hold different ethical views towards the environment; some put humans at centre value; some consider the earth as central and for others, profit. 


Our environmental policy is weighed on the cost/benefit scale of human needs. This means some concessions will be made for the greater maxim; this is an action of our reasoning. However, this way of thinking proposes utility in nature. Everything must have a purpose to be useful to us; this way of processing comes from utilitarianism. We are concerned with finding the greatest good for the greatest amount, which has grown to influence many decisions in our lives in political thought and economics.   


With utility and purpose in our environmental vision, can nature be free of our needs?


Typical among ethical theories is our inability to understand the rationale of the unintelligible neighbour, that we share every part of our existence with - can we consider all lifeforms we share a biosphere with when making decisions that we can only rationalize?


I would argue that nature can be free of our needs in a consumer society, albeit a disappearing

freedom. As creatures of reason, we have an innate ability to feel in a way that makes us higher than nature and feel small in some ways at the same time. Above all, some may call this a spiritual sensation. An understanding that we are sophisticated enough and different from all sentient beings on earth. 


In finding value in nature, we only need to remember the walks, sunsets, moons, oceans, and landscapes that make up our home. This sense of joy, the sublime, a sensation that is best described as spiritual. Edmund Burke, who introduced sublime to aesthetics, argued that

the sublime and the beautiful are two vastly different experiences. The sublime

being felt in nature as we awe at its magnificence and indifference to us. This

is the value of aesthetics that we feel and see in our world. Nature in the sublime is

as it is, free from our desires, needs, and wants. Comparable to holding a new-born baby, that feeling over overwhelming joy where we are lost in the moment. If nature did not provide us with the sublime, would we still value it? 


Nature does provide practical reasons to find intrinsic value in it; wetlands can protect against

hurricanes and violent storms. Trees and rainforests produce oxygen and collect CO2, and wild predators act as pest control. 


Immanuel Kant proposed in his argument of aesthetics that there are four key elements in judging something that is to be true beauty. One key measure is the subject must be disinteresting. You and I can have very different days, but in the end, we can both appreciate a wildflower in the hedgerow. It is because the beauty of the flower is in our

judgment, not because it provides any sort of pleasure to be deemed beautiful

in our judgment.


In our concern for different environments, we can acknowledge this. The polar caps offer only a glimpse at the natural world that is threatened. It is also our very homes that are endangered and not some faraway places. We may appreciate seeing such spectacles from the comfort of our living room and feel the need to act against the environmental damages, but there is action needed in our local communities that need us to turn to our home beauty before we forget about it.



To Burke and Kant, the aesthetic judgment is free from the object itself and comes from the subject, which in our case, is us. Aesthetics are free from logic and utility, and we find ourselves at home with nature through this view. The Aesthetic viewpoint can allow us to see the world free from our desires and needs. It may also help us realise some of the things in our consumer society that actively interfere in our homes, such as the cost externalisation of single-use plastic from our grocery shopping. So cheap in manufacturing yet, the cost is externalised first to us and then to future generations who will have to battle this immortal substance that does not belong. 


Without understanding the intrinsic value in nature, losing such value which I believe comes from inside of us and our connection to beauty would disastrous for both us and the environment.


Our environmental attitudes should not be one measured wholly on cost/benefit, which has the interference of consumer society, and its value systems to judge the best utility. 

Edmund Burke argued society was made up of a partnership between the living, the unborn, and the dead. We live in communities both cooperatively and competitively, bound by mutual trust and our shared home. There is a place now for a review of enlightenment philosophy of how we get our house in order and what we value, and I believe Aesthetics can play a crucial role in our understanding of the sacredness of the environment

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