People tend to agree that green spaces are ecologically
beneficial (even if some are not), but they do not see that finding them
beneficial implies that they should cultivate, protect and restore them or the
quality of human life risks to deteriorate.
The reasons for this ecological indifference are multiple, but two of
them are, in my opinion, of major importance.
First, ecological impact seems to be an abstract scientific
fact that is measurable though not necessarily palpable; something discussed by
experts and not felt by ordinary people on a daily basis. When a city tree is
felled, hardly anyone considers the annual loss of cubic meters of
oxygen. Yet on a sunny day, many inhabitants will definitely regret the
disappearance of its refreshing shade. Second, appreciating green spaces for
their ecological significance is risky because it amounts to considering solely
their instrumental value, which may result in appreciating them in terms of
efficiency. From this perspective, one might rationalize replacing a tree with
some equally effective “ecological device.” For now, nature stands protected
but only because it is less expensive than its ersatz counterparts. Were costs
to reverse, it could become extremely difficult to persuade technocratic
societies to protect nature for its productive potential alone.
Paradoxically, creation, protection, and restoration of
natural spaces insofar as their ecological impact is at stake must be promoted
also for reasons other than efficiency and in other ways than referring to
tables and graphs. One such strategy embraces their aesthetic qualities.
There is little doubt that we tend to care for what we like.
Of course we like things for different reasons, practical, economic, symbolic,
etc., but more often than not we like them for how they appear to us in the
simplest sense, i.e. for their sensuous appeal. Unfortunately, many
ecologically beneficial natural spaces do not meet aesthetic requirements on
behalf of the general public (e.g. unmown lawns) and the aversion provoked by
their appearance is stronger than the appreciation based on acknowledgment of
their ecological beneficial effects. Consequently they are unwanted or tend to
be beautified very often at the expense of their ecological values.
In order to persuade people to maintain natural spaces
despite their supposed aesthetic unattractiveness and not to consider other
solutions, people must be reminded that they may like them hic et nunc for how they look, smell, feel or sound. As people
are very often driven by direct experience and not by indirect knowledge, it
would be good to inspire people to like things that the “abstract” science
proves to be worthy of their protection.
It is not, however, about beautifying nature or claiming
that one should appreciate it in a disinterested way as something that has an
inherent value. It is about encouraging an informed approach. Rendering people
more knowledgeable amounts to making them understand how green spaces work and
thus are useful to them as natural ecological “devices” as well as making them
appreciate these spaces as natural.
Even if it is debatable whether “ecological literacy” (D.
Orr’s term) may effectively change one’s taste
or one’s aesthetic experience (e.g. from disgust to pleasure), it may
certainly modify one’s approach in such a way that one can overcome an initial
negative response. In light of this ecological knowledge, people might end up
liking “ugly” things that previously provoked their disgust: they may even
start to appreciate the messy appearance of an uncut lawn, in spite of their
usual preference for neatly cultivated parterres.
One reason why people treat ecologically beneficial spaces
as eyesores (in fact lots of them are not beautiful in an “ordinary” way) is that
they associate the aesthetic appeal of nature with greenery, which,
in turn, is seen through such paradigms as gardens or picturesque landscapes.
What is more, the ecological is metaphorically represented by the color green
in contemporary culture. People may then think that a space literally lacking
greenery is not green in the metaphorical sense either, and consequently there
is no reason why spaces which, in their opinion, are not spectacularly green
should be welcome.
However, contrary to what we are accustomed to, green is not
the color of ecology (or at best it is a color of a shallow ecology) – greenery
is not the most ecologically productive part of nature.* Not without a reason,
many ecologically efficient spaces do not look very green (and vice versa:
many green spaces are unecological despite their overriding greenness).
Summing up, in order to start liking ecologically beneficial
"green spaces," people ought to be informed and thus get rid of their
aesthetic habits and commonplaces. Nature offers a cornucopia of colors, and
green need not dominate!
* Professor Maciej Luniak (Museum and Institute of Zoology,
Polish Academy of Sciences) suggested this approach to me.