“This vanishing world is beautiful beyond our dreams and contains in itself rewards and gratifications never found in an artificial landscape or man-made objects.”
Quote by early Tasmanian conservationist and nature photographer Olegas Truchanas (1923-1972)
This is the signature quote on a friend of mines’ email. My eyes flicked over it the other day and were caught. I wrote this piece in my head while taking a shower this morning.
One the face of it it looks like an innocent motherhood type statement concerning the disappearance of, and need for, the preservation and celebration of the natural environment. On one level it is of course that. On another level it is a stark window into the unconscious world of heuristics and how our lives are governed by more or less automatic processes far and away removed from ‘free will’. On another level the statement is almost sense free. I met the person in question down the street and blurted out in my usual callow fashion that I was writing about his signature quote and I thought it perhaps didn’t mean anything at all. My usual tactful self – creating quite the wrong impression of what I actually meant.
There is much to unpack here. ‘The vanishing world’ refers to the disappearance of the untouched human free landscape. It is arguable that such landscapes haven’t existed since pre neolithic times, even the heart of the Amazon jungle has been inhabited for thousands, if not tens of thousands of years. However the sense is that of the high impact intrusion of agricultural/industrial/post industrial cultures.
The assertion that such landscapes are beautiful creates a degree of tension because of course beauty (as far as we can know) is only perceivable by the self concious intelligence. More – notions of beauty are culturally explicit. Certainly the Eighteenth Century European sensibility abhorred unmodified landscapes. After the romantic movement dominated peoples sensibilities the rich spent millions (in our money) creating ‘improved’, ‘natural’ landscapes – levelling hills, uprooting forests and dispossessing peasants in the wholesale pursuit of the ‘natural’. It is arguable, though not of course provable, that the Pre European Central American cultures either did not perceive what we would call beauty or whose sense of it was so alien that we cannot appreciate it except in the sense of craftsmanship and treatment of materials. The Anglo Saxons in their literature were silent about landscape except in elegiac doom laden ruminations on the ruins left behind principally by the Romans or their own t neolithic ancestors. The natural world can only be ‘beautiful if the perceiver has in their cultural toolbox notions that make this possible. We carry around complexes of ‘aesthetic heuristics’ that create the interface between us and our raw perceptions.
Clearly it cannot be ‘beautiful beyond our dreams’ because the visual impressions of beauty that give us pleasure in our dreams are identical to the ‘heuristic aesthetic set’ that governs our waking appreciations and recognitions. Unless one invokes a Platonic notion of forms (for which there is no evidence based method of determination) then beauty is dependant on people to invoke it. A landscape is not beautiful unless it is observed by a self conscious intelligence with the appropriate culturally derived sensibilities in their heuristic toolbox.
The notion that the natural landscape is more beautiful or in possession of a better sort of beauty than the technologically derived or built landscape is not absolute either. As I mentioned above the Anglo Saxon appreciation of landscape is exclusively relating to the built environment and the ruins of it in particular. Notions of beauty are deeply fashion derived and change over time. Not only fashion forms our aesthetic judgement but necessity must also have played a part. Our ancestors of not too far removed, must have deeply feared what lay beyond the circle of firelight, ‘the fields they knew’ or the lands beyond their experience. ”Here be dragons’ is seen as a quaint assertion made by ancient cartographers concerning lands beyond the their knowledge, but there is fear there as well.
The signifier of human intervention – the straight drystone wall, the windmill with its’ weir and quiet fields were seen as beautiful and touchstones against the chaos of a threatening natural world.
On the face of it you can’t really use an aesthetic argument for the preservation of the natural world. All such arguments are culturally derived.
The argument must come from the needs of the environment itself. That the global network of energy gradients – both entropic and emergent, are all interdependent is becoming increasingly clearer as our environmental knowledge deepens. Also the old socio-anthropological principal that ‘you can’t just make one change’ is becoming increasing accurate at every level, not just the culturally derived.
So what has come out of this long meditation on that innocent sentence is that it is not really meaningful to argue for preservation of the natural on aesthetic grounds because the arguments are not supportable. The exponentially spreading human population is exponentially spreading the potentiality for the appreciation of the the natural environment aesthetically while destroying it in the process of its growth. This appreciation is sadly not universally recognised in any effective way because if it was we, as a world population, would be radically restricting our population growth and draconianly invoking environmentally protective safeguards.
What we are dealing with here is one of those epistemological paradoxes like the net increase in knowledge causes a net increase in ignorance.
As the number of people increase reducing the amount of natural environment, so the number of brains increase capable of appreciating beauty. Beauty only exists in self conscious entities, so the amount of beauty in the world increases as the source diminishes.
As we know from highly mannered cultures (like Imperial Japan) aesthetics and concepts of beauty can be parred down to the extreme minimalist. maybe in the future some one will write a very similar thing as 25 billion people ragard the last tree over the internet each viewer overcome with wonder.