Overcoming Climate Breakdown Denial and Neglect through the Aesthetics of Nature

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Overcoming Climate Breakdown Denial and Neglect through the Aesthetics of Nature

Marta Tafalla


Modern industrial societies mostly respond to the threat of climate breakdown with denial and neglect. In this paper, I argue that one of the causes of this is a superficial view of nature, including a shallow conception of natural beauty, and propose a deep aesthetic appreciation consisting of embodied participation, multisensorial perception, naturalist knowledge, and admiration without dominion. This appreciation focuses on following animal stories within the environment, an approach that will reveal how nature is not merely scenery but a network of interrelated stories that weaves the web of life and can be seriously damaged by climate chaos.

Key Words
animal aesthetics, climate breakdown, environmental aesthetics, environmental ethics, global warming, global warming denial


1. Introduction

The environmental catastrophe humanity is causing all over the planet is the most dangerous problem in the entire history of our species. One of the main factors in this is climate breakdown; it is nothing short of astonishing that our societies are mostly responding to it with denial or a combination of indifference, neglect, and inaction. Although recent years have seen increasing concern about climate issues reflected in the emergence of new movements like Fridays For Future and Extinction Rebellion, our societies have made barely any significant effort to prevent climate chaos or adapt to conditions on Earth in the near future, which may be frighteningly different from those we experience now.

Given this situation, urgent answers are required to the following two philosophical questions: Why are people denying and neglecting climate breakdown? And, how could we raise awareness of it? This paper begins with an analysis of denial and neglect; I will argue that one of the reasons that prevent people from appropriately responding to the threat of climate chaos is that they have a superficial conception of nature, an important feature of which is a banal view of natural beauty. I then will propose a deep aesthetics of nature that could help foster our connections with environments and species and consequently promote a more adequate response to climate breakdown.

First, I should clarify how I believe the aesthetic appreciation of nature is to be understood. There are very few wild places left on Earth, where nature remains free from human management or some kind of human impact. Despite this, even in the most densely populated urban centers, nature can still be found in the form of plants spontaneously growing in abandoned lots, wild animals entering cities searching for food, insects pollinating garden flowers, or various weather phenomena. In the immense majority of places on Earth, we find a combination of natural and artificial (human-made) elements in different proportions and interacting in various ways: national parks managed by people, wild mountains crossed by roads, oceans where abandoned fishing nets continue to kill animals, and intensively farmed land loaded with pesticides. In each case, I believe it is necessary to appreciate the natural elements and distinguish them from the artificial ones, while at the same time observing how they interact. Thus, when I refer to the aesthetic appreciation of natural environments, I am not referring to a pristine wilderness, but to environments that are still natural to a significant degree, even if they include artificial elements.

2. Denial and Neglect: a Reflection on the Causes

Although the scientific community has acquired in-depth knowledge of climate breakdown, summarized in successive Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, our societies have not seriously tried to prevent climate chaos, as shown by the fact that greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow.

Climate change denial narratives have been expanding all around the world and assure people that they need not care about what is presented as it is a fake problem. Not all such discourses make exactly the same claims, however. As summarized by sociologist Aaron M. McCright, scholars have identified four key dimensions of climate change skepticism.[1] Negationists may deny: (1) climate change and the warming of Earth (trend skepticism), (2) that climate change is due to human activity (attribution skepticism), (3) severe consequences of climate change (impact skepticism), or (4) general scientific agreement on the reality and human cause of climate change (consensus skepticism). These discourses have been developed mostly by a coalition of think tanks connected to right-wing movements, with the intention of spreading doubt and confusion in society; and the fact that there are different types of negationism increases that confusion further.[2]

There is, however, another response that is more widespread than denial: a combination of indifference, neglect, and inaction. One of the main reasons that explain these attitudes is that confronting climate breakdown means understanding the modern industrial way of living as its cause. Trying to stop climate chaos would mean changing our lifestyle: renouncing, or at least severely reducing, activities like flying, shipping, driving, eating animal-based food, buying things imported from other continents, and frequently renewing clothes and smartphones. This would mean giving up products and activities that symbolize the good life in our consumerist societies: the very products and activities that advertising tempts us with every day and everywhere and that enrich corporate business.

In her research on Norwegian society, sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard analyzes indifference towards climate breakdown among people living in one of the world’s wealthiest nations. Norway is a democratic and peaceful society whose citizens enjoy high levels of education, with many being politically engaged. Although Norwegian citizens have access to knowledge about climate breakdown and are beginning to perceive its effects on their daily life, Norgaard found a “collective distancing from disturbing information,”[3] an attitude summarized in the title of one of her articles: “We Don’t Really Want to Know.”[4] Norgaard’s research shows us that what looks like public apathy is, in fact, socially organized denial connected to the thoughtless defense of the privileges enjoyed by the affluent classes.

This defense of privilege is mutually reinforced by the disconnection from nature experienced by many citizens in modern industrial societies, to the extent that we could consider the neglect of climate breakdown as a consequence of the neglect of nature. For example, if people are not able to identify the bird species living in their region, they will not notice if the birds change their migration patterns because of global warming. What is more, this disconnection may be increasing because of the way children are educated by families and schools. Many children watch videos of spectacular landscapes and exotic animals on the Internet, but are not familiar with their own environments and local fauna and flora, and do not understand natural cycles or how their own lives are embedded in them. Richard Louv warns that when children suffering from nature-deficit disorder become adults, they could develop a fear of nature rather than looking for better ways to inhabit Earth.[5]

Philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno provide a theoretical framework to help understand the neglect of nature. Both authors fled Nazi Germany and devoted most of their research to analyzing the general characteristics of totalitarian systems. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer argue that twentieth-century totalitarian regimes were not an accident of human history, but the product of a particular kind of rationality that had progressively developed until it became the predominant form of reason. What the two authors called “instrumental reason is characterized by its reducing of humans, other living beings, and all natural elements to mere instruments: They have no meaning or value in themselves; rather their only meaning lies in serving an end outside themselves. According to Adorno and Horkheimer, “Everything is perceived only from the point of view that it can serve as something else, however vaguely that other thing might be envisaged. Everything has value only insofar as it can be exchanged, not insofar as it is something in itself.”[6]

Despite the search for knowledge generally being viewed as a driver of historical progress, Adorno and Horkheimer are critical of the fact that most scientific and philosophical research does not really aim to understand the world as it is, but only to dominate it. They claim, “What human beings seek to learn from nature is how to use it to dominate wholly both it and human beings. Nothing else counts.”[7]

Horkheimer and Adorno offer a description of how dominated nature looked in the mid-twentieth century:

The whole earth bears witness to the glory of man. In war and peace, arena and slaughterhouse, from the slow death of the elephant overpowered by primitive human hordes with the aid of the first planning to the perfected exploitation of the animal world today, the unreasoning creature has always suffered at the hands of reason. … To dominate nature boundlessly, to turn the cosmos into an endless hunting ground, has been the dream of millennia. It shaped the idea of man in a male society. It was the purpose of reason, on which man prided himself.[8]

Dominion over nature, like any system of dominion, is only possible because it is built upon oblivion. These two authors aimed to demonstrate this through the paradigmatic example of animal experimentation. In order to subject animals to cruel experiments, scientists need to repress their empathy for animals, to ignore animal suffering, and, even more, to forget that animals exist for themselves and believe that they merely exist to serve humans. This includes a striking contradiction: To justify medical experiments on animals that are undertaken with the aim of benefiting humans, scientists stress the similarities between humans and the animals involved, but to justify the infliction of suffering, they deny the similarities at the same time. Horkheimer and Adorno write:

… the perennial dominion over nature, medical and nonmedical technology, derives its strength from such blindness; it would be made possible only by oblivion. Loss of memory as the transcendental condition of science. All reification is forgetting.[9]

Instrumental reason reduces every natural being to those particular aspects that can be dominated and promotes ignorance of the rest. In this way, a superficial and distorted conception of nature is constructed. Some scientists have recently begun to acknowledge this, including primatologist Frans de Waal, who examines many primatologists’ resistance to accepting the high intelligence of primates.[10]

This oblivion explains why today, although many species and environments are already victims of climate chaos, most citizens of modern industrial societies are unable to recognize this situation. The memory of nature has disappeared under the superficial conception of her as a mere collection of useful resources. [11] Any knowledge of nature beyond a crude instrumental conception or empathy with Earth’s creatures is repressed, because they would be an obstacle to our exploitation of nature.

3. Denial and Neglect: the Role of a Shallow Aesthetics of Nature

In his Aesthetic Theory, Adorno denounces mainstream nineteenth-century philosophy for being devoted to affirming human superiority over nature, with the aim of legitimizing human dominion over her. Human superiority means that philosophical aesthetics should be devoted to that created by humans. Adorno states:

Since Schelling, whose aesthetics is entitled the Philosophy of Art, aesthetic interest has centered on artworks. Natural beauty, which was still the occasion of the most penetrating insights in the Critique of Judgment, is now scarcely even a topic of theory. The reason for this is not that natural beauty was dialectically transcended … but, rather, that it was repressed. … Natural beauty vanished from aesthetics as a result of the burgeoning domination of the concept of freedom and human dignity, which was inaugurated by Kant and then rigorously transplanted into aesthetics by Schiller and Hegel; in accord with this concept nothing in the world is worthy of attention except that for which the autonomous subject has itself to thank. [12]

According to Adorno, philosophy used the concept of freedom to affirm that humans were free to dominate nature, while denying the possibility of nature being free. Concepts like human freedom or human dignity were unfortunately constructed against nature. He claims, “If the case of natural beauty were pending, dignity would be found culpable for having raised the human animal above the animal.”[13]

This neglect of natural beauty was necessary to justify human dominion over nature, because “the experience of natural beauty, at least according to its subjective consciousness, is entirely distinct from the domination of nature.”[14] According to Adorno, instrumental reason views nature as something that exactly fits the instrumental services that reason expects to receive from her, as if nature had been designed as a collection of tools for the ends of reason, as if nature were identical to the purposes of instrumental reason. But there is something that instrumental reason cannot appropriate completely, something that remains indomitably different, nonidentical to the purposes of instrumental reason. In Adorno’s words, “Natural beauty is the trace of the nonidentical in things under the spell of universal identity.”[15]

At the same time as the aesthetics of nature was being neglected in philosophy, it was repressed in real life. Modern industrial societies built a superficial and distorted view of natural beauty that reduced landscapes, plants, and animals to a mere ornamental function. In this way, natural beauty was viewed as a commodity administered by businesses like the tourism industry. Putting superficial experiences of natural beauty on sale proved to be the most effective way of making people forget even the possibility of experiencing it in a profound and meaningful way.

The unmediated experience of nature, its critical edge blunted and subsumed to the exchange relation such as is represented in the phrase “tourist industry,” became insignificantly neutral and apologetic, and nature became a nature reserve and an alibi. … Here the essence of the experience of nature is deformed. There is hardly anything left of it in organized tourism.[16]

Several decades after Adorno and Horkheimer’s work, their ideas capture the reality of the tourism industry, ever more dangerous. Tourism industry is harmful because it promotes polluting flights and cruises and the urbanization of natural environments, only to offer its clients a shallow view of nature as mere commodified scenery. But the damage does not end here. Tourism participates, together with other business sectors like advertising and social networks such as Instagram, in the commodification of images of nature. Such businesses use images of nature to provoke emotions and evoke ideas with the aim of selling products or transmitting ideological messages. Here, we find not only the contradiction that airlines and the automobile industry, which are major polluters, advertise themselves with beautiful images of nature, but also the deeper problem that this constant use of images of nature, as instruments for business interests, contributes to our forgetting what nature really is. The exploitation of nature does not only consist of cutting down forests to sell wood and create pastures for livestock; it also occurs when we take the beautiful appearance of natural elements, dissociate this appearance from what natural elements really are, and use the images to convey messages that have nothing to do with nature herself. The same images of natural landscapes, trees, and animals that we constantly encounter everywhere in mass media and social networks contribute to our forgetting about real nature and the environmental crisis.

4. A Deep Aesthetics of Nature: a Proposal

The very idea that we should distinguish between shallow and deep aesthetic appreciations of nature appears in the seminal article, “Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty” (1966), by Ronald Hepburn, one of the pioneering aestheticians who, like Adorno, rehabilitated the aesthetics of nature after a long period when it had almost disappeared from academic philosophical discourse.[17] This gave rise to a discussion over which criteria might be used to distinguish between superficial and deep appreciations. Although a detailed analysis of the approaches developed in recent years is beyond the scope of this paper, my own approach draws on ideas from different philosophers who have made relevant contributions to the debate.[18]

Shallow appreciation tends to reduce nature to an image that has a merely decorative function on the stage where people represent their lives. It gives the impression that nature is passive, like a decorative curtain, something that could easily be replaced by an artificial setting. To achieve a more serious and deeper appreciation, we need a more embodied experience. As Holmes Rolston states:

Aesthetic appreciation of nature, at the level of forests and landscapes, requires embodied participation, immersion, and struggle. We initially may think of forests as scenery to be looked upon. That is a mistake. A forest is entered, not viewed. It is doubtful that one can experience a forest from a roadside pullover, any more than on television. … You do not really engage a forest until you are well within it.[19]

This is the reason why Allen Carlson criticizes the landscape model of appreciation, which considers nature as scenery, and instead proposes the environmental model. Carlson states that we should experience nature not as unobtrusive background but as obtrusive foreground.[20] We must walk through the forest and pay attention to multisensory information: Explore different paths, listen, touch, smell, taste, feel the wind, feel the cold, crouch to observe insects, get muddy, grow tired from walking, experience our sense of balance when climbing a steep slope, become lost and find the path again, and so forth.

If we are to overcome the primacy of sight and achieve a multisensorial experience, one element that can significantly enrich our aesthetic experience is natural sounds. When we listen to the sounds of wind, rain, and storms, we feel the energy of nature and realize that she is not passive but powerfully active. This is even more clear when we attentively listen to the voices of animals, because then we realize that nature is not scenery designed for us, but is the home where all species live. Every individual animal is an agent who, while we walk through the forest, may be searching for food, exploring the territory, looking for a partner, building a nest, educating her young, or playing with her family. While engaged in these activities, many of them will emit different sounds. Listening to animal voices, trying to discover which species emits each sound and what it means is a revealing way to appreciate nature because we are focusing on active agents. I believe this is a decisive element for a deep aesthetic appreciation of nature that has hardly been explored and therefore will now explain it in more detail.

Every animal species has a way of life, and all the ways of life of the species that share an environment are interwoven and also interrelated with the environment’s vegetation and inorganic elements. Meanwhile, every individual animal is a subject with a particular personality and personal story, and her life is interconnected with many other individual lives. Therefore, when we focus on listening to animal voices, we begin to follow the threads of the fabric of intersecting stories woven in the environments. This kind of appreciation is not limited to sounds, however. People can also smell the presence of animals, touch their footprints on the ground, touch the feathers they find, explore abandoned nests, and, of course, watch them. If we visit the same forest frequently, we will become familiar with certain animals and be able to regularly observe them. We will then have the opportunity to appreciate the aesthetic qualities of animals in a detailed manner and realize that we appreciate beauty in animals not only because of their bodies but also because of their movements. [21] Such appreciation is enhanced even more when we realize that they are agents weaving their personal stories.

By following animal stories, we will also understand the environment in a more complex way, because we will discover a particular point on the shore of a river where many animals go to drink, learn to value the role of trees (even dead ones) as providers of homes for animals, and understand how dangerous a road through the forest can be. My proposal means shifting from a paradigm where we view nature as scenery or a collection of images to one where we understand nature as a network of interwoven lives, a web of stories we could narrate as tales or novels. By adopting this approach, we will see environments inhabited by active agents. To understand their activity, we must be active as well. Contemplating nature is not a matter of looking at a landscape, but rather involves trying to follow her stories.

Focusing on animals does not mean that we have to look for large spectacular species; we can enjoy enriching experiences by observing small birds, reptiles, or insects. In fact, we may find these small animals even in cities and allow us to rediscover urban life from a different perspective. The day we find out that the supermarket building on our street hides a small colony of bats in its walls, our street reveals itself to be a more fascinating place.

The activity of following animal stories should be executed with great respect towards the animals. That is, we should take all necessary measures to prevent our presence from disturbing them by, for example, hindering their search for food or forcing them to renounce a good place they had found to nest. The measures needed depend on the species and other factors. If we want to contemplate dragonflies mating in wetlands in the summer, we can observe them from a short distance away without being a nuisance to them. If we stand still, the dragonflies may fly around us and even perch on our arms or legs. In a similar way, sometimes when walking through a forest we can watch squirrels eating in the trees and blackbirds and robins singing in the bushes; we take delight in being surrounded by all these creatures. If we live in the countryside, we may have the good fortune that owls or sparrows nest in our roof, a dormouse hibernates in our basement, a gecko hides in our composter, or a pair of foxes reproduces in our garden; we will share our home with them. Many people living in the countryside and even in cities have bird feeders and water bowls in their gardens and on terraces, and different species of birds and small mammals such as hedgehogs come to eat from them and learn to tolerate human presence.

The town of Pobla de Somiedo, in the north of Spain, is surrounded by mountains where a small population of bears lives. As a hobby, several neighbors go to elevated places near the town with their chairs and telescopes to watch the bears and follow how female bears educate their cubs and how the cubs grow up. The neighbors chat about any novelty in the bears as if they were following a soap opera and have WhatsApp groups for sharing their daily observations. Some of the bears are so used to the presence of humans that at night they go down to the town and take fruit from the orchards. The town even had to change its municipal rubbish containers to stop the bears from opening them. It is important to highlight that, with regard to the possibility of wild animals and humans sharing the same space in a convivial way, there is a great range of variability depending on the animal species and also depending on the way humans behave and their cultural view of the animals. When it comes to the always polemic issue of feeding wild animals, it is important to stress that in some cases it is recommended by scientists to help the animals, but in other cases it is discouraged, so it is necessary to consider each case individually.

To mention a different example, in the countries where wolves are hunted, they hide as soon as they perceive the presence of people, even from a long way off. Because of this, to watch wild wolves we need to take special measures. Recently, I went wolf watching with a guide who knows a wolf family very well, their territory, and their daily habits. We went to the mountains at night, hid among the bushes, and were silent. When dawn came, from a distance and with the help of telescopes, we could see how some of the wolves came out from the bushes and enjoyed the first sunlight in a forest glade. Talking with biologists about this, they told me that if people did not hunt wolves, they would lose their fear and it would be easier to watch them. The differences have to do with the behavior of every animal species but above all with human behavior.

Assuming that our attempts to watch animals could damage them is also an enlightening lesson. On the one hand, it reveals the vulnerability of all living beings. If we try to approach some wild boars to see them up close and they become afraid and leave, running across a road, our behavior could provoke a traffic accident. On the other hand, it reveals our own embodied presence in the forest. We are not only an intellectual subject but a body that other animals perceive; a body which emits sounds and smells and may be frightening for other creatures.

A difficult issue arises with regard to this: There are now more than eight billion humans on the planet. Human overpopulation, which is one of the causes of the environmental crisis, is also a challenge when considering how to help people discover a deep aesthetic appreciation of nature, because some natural areas are beginning to become overcrowded with human visitors. Several natural parks already regulate access to certain areas, while experts are discussing measures like banning motor vehicles or large groups of people. This is a point that needs specific research; I will come back to it briefly at the end of the paper.

The activity of following animal lives leads us to an important element: the role of knowledge. I defend the idea that to have a deep aesthetic appreciation of nature we need naturalist knowledge; in many cases, this knowledge can be articulated through a story. To understand this, it is helpful to consider some ideas developed by Yuriko Saito. In her paper, “Appreciating Nature on its Own Terms,”[22] Saito argues that there is a moral obligation to treat things for what they are. Nature is not an empty recipient waiting for us to fill it with our personal thoughts and fantasies. Instead of imposing our own human view upon nature, we should listen to nature’s own stories. Because of this moral requirement, the aesthetic appreciation of nature should be based on knowledge. According to Saito, this knowledge is not restricted to natural science, as it is for other philosophers such as Allen Carlson and Glenn Parsons; Saito proposes a broader view that also includes the traditional wisdom of indigenous cultures and popular knowledge like mythology and folklore.

In her recent article, “Consumer Aesthetics and Environmental Ethics: Problems and Possibilities,”[23] Saito defends the role of knowledge in the aesthetic appreciation of objects we purchase as consumers and connects this knowledge with the idea of a story. She claims that we may find an object aesthetically appealing because of its appearance, but if we discover that its production provoked environmental damage, this story is a reason to change our aesthetic judgment concerning the object. Saito writes:

One may claim that such considerations have nothing to do with aesthetics and do not affect the aesthetic value of the object. But in the case of local food, knowing that the food was locally sourced from a farmer practicing sustainable agriculture inclines us to savor its taste and texture. This is in contrast to chowing down on fast food with unknown origin. … In contrast, people often become vegetarian not only for ethical reasons but also on aesthetic grounds after coming to know various harms done to the animals and environment: they can no longer enjoy the taste of meat.[24]

We can apply a similar idea to the appreciation of nature. Imagine a fertile wetland where many birds from different migratory species come and spend some months every spring. The wetland offers them water, food, and good places to nest. The coexistence of many birds from different species makes this place a fascinating spectacle to watch. Imagine that birdwatchers go there every spring to contemplate the birds. They may ring some of the animals, to study whether the same individuals come to the same place year after year.[25] They may even implant geolocation systems on some birds to track their migration throughout the year. If global warming causes a severe drought in this place, the amount of water will diminish, provoking a loss of vegetation, and it will become less hospitable for the birds. If the drought continues for several years, the wetland will eventually dry up. The following spring, when the birds fly to the place, they will find that there is no water and no food for them. They will have to find another place, but perhaps it will be difficult, because many other previously suitable places have also suffered the drought. Unable to find water and food, this may cause the death of some of the birds. Imagine that we visit this place when it is completely dry. If we know the story of this dried wetland and the role it played in the lives of many animals, we may aesthetically judge this place as damaged, impoverished, sad, and ugly because it has lost its previous beauty. But a first-time visitor who has no idea of the story of the place will not miss the birds and may find that the color of the soil looks beautiful and the silence of the place is calming. We need stories to connect causes and consequences and to understand the damage we produce. If we know its story, the dried wetland without birds for us is the site of a tragedy.

The stories we follow may be of several types: the story of a particular animal, or a group of them; one we follow over many years, or only for a short period of time. We could maintain that, in fact, we always follow fragmentary stories because we are finite beings that can only temporarily follow some threads of the immense fabric of which life consists. But these stories, even if they are fragmentary, allow us to transcend the mere appearance an animal has at a particular moment. The point is that to have a deep aesthetic appreciation of an animal, we should not only appreciate her external appearance at a particular moment. Our appreciation will be deeper if we know about the way of life of the species and the specific story of this particular individual. And, this will help us understand that global warming may interrupt animal stories and bring about terrible endings. Imagine that some of the birds from the previous example starve in the dried wetland; that would be a very sad ending to the stories of their lives.

This example shows why animals are so important in the aesthetic appreciation of nature and why appreciation of them can especially help raise awareness of climate breakdown. The dried wetland is sad for us, but it is reasonable to claim that the birds also react to it with negative emotions like frustration and fear. Climate chaos is not only changing landscapes but also is causing suffering for billions of animals, who are subjects with cognitive and emotional capacities. Climate breakdown may seem to be something abstract and difficult to understand, but when we see desperate animals struggling to survive in degraded environments, it is easier to comprehend what it means.

This focus on animals does not pretend to downgrade other natural elements and their aesthetic value. Neither do I want to say that we can only follow animal stories. We can, of course, follow the stories of trees, fungi, or rivers. But I claim that it is important to focus on animals and regret that philosophical aesthetics has devoted little attention to them.

There is a fundamental difference between aesthetically appreciating animals and appreciating any other natural element. Mountains, rivers, trees, fungi, clouds, and stars can be delightful to watch, but they cannot watch us and they cannot listen to us or respond to us. Most animals can do this because they are subjects with perceptual, cognitive, and emotional capacities. When we are watched by the wild and fierce gaze of a red kite or by the curious and amusing gaze of a young fox, we realize that they are subjects and that environments are not merely beautiful scenery but they are inhabited by a diversity of subjectivities. That is, environments are full of feelings and emotions: joy, sadness, curiosity, expectation, fear, playfulness, and so on. When we exchange glances with an animal starving in an environment damaged by human activity, the frustration, sadness, and fear we see in her gaze shows us very clearly the consequences of the environmental crisis. We are not damaging scenery for the tourism industry, we are not damaging mere images, we are not damaging instruments designed for human ends: we are damaging subjects with their own purposes and their own interests, and we are interrupting their stories.

The cognitive view of aesthetics I am defending has received several critiques. In her article, “The Narrative and the Ambient in Environmental Aesthetics,”[26] Cheryl Foster compares the two fundamental views of the aesthetic appreciation of nature that have developed over recent decades and summarizes the debates between them. While some authors defend a cognitive aesthetics and read natural environments through “frameworks of conceptual information,” others favor immersive experiences where sensuous attention, feelings, emotions, and imagination are the protagonists. For this second view, the difficulties of translating the sensations lived in aesthetic experiences of nature into words are not seen as a shortcoming or a fault, but as revealing the primacy of feeling over language and reason. Foster’s attempt to find an equilibrium between the two views is inspiring, but in a situation where global warming is rapidly increasing, we need to give primacy to an understanding of the damage we are provoking. I previously referred to a paper by Norgaard entitled, “We Don’t Really Want to Know,” about people who do not want to be informed of climate breakdown because they do not want to admit the environmental impact of their lifestyles. To understand that environments are harmed by our actions and that this affects the kind of aesthetic experiences we may have in impoverished environments, we need knowledge. Because climate breakdown is causing accelerated changes in all environments, the notion of the story is useful to capture these changes.

This concept of the story again connects with Adorno and his claim that dominion is imposed through oblivion. When a government succeeds in imposing a totalitarian regime that treats part of the population with injustice, this is because the majority of society forgets the victims and people repress the memory of the injustice committed. In a similar way, our society accepts dominion over nature because most people have forgotten what nature is really like and repress the knowledge that every environment is inhabited by many animals who are subjects with cognitive and emotional capacities. Because of this, according to Adorno, we should resist projects of dominion with the help of memory. Our capacity to remember that the dry place was a fertile wetland in the past visited by many birds will help us understand the damage we cause and raise our environmental awareness. When animals starve, when species go extinct, our capacity to remember their existence is a way to resist environmental annihilation.

Finally, in order to develop a deep aesthetic appreciation, we need an attitude that consists of admiration without the aim of dominion. When we intend to dominate nature, we only focus on those elements that we can instrumentalize and forget all the rest, and then we have a superficial and distorted view of nature. If we do not intend to dominate nature but, on the contrary, attempt to respectfully get to know nature, this will allow us to have a deeper aesthetic appreciation of nature and will also help us to find good ways of inhabiting environments and coexisting with other species. Whereas superficial aesthetics shows us nature as a theatrical stage, deep aesthetics gives us roots on Earth, making us feel at home on this planet. And, we also realize the terrible effects of climate breakdown caused by our lifestyle on the natural environments we admire. Imagine that a person goes walking in a Mediterranean forest near home every week. This person becomes familiar with it and enjoys lots of enriching aesthetic experiences there. Imagine that climate breakdown increases the temperature and episodes of drought in the region. The person may see how particular trees struggle with the changing conditions and finally die; how fires become more frequent and violent, causing the death of familiar animals. Because this person is following animal stories, with a personal story connected with them as an observer full of curiosity and empathy, such a person is able to appreciate that some of these animal stories have abrupt and sad endings. For this person, climate breakdown is not a matter of abstract knowledge but a vital experience in an environment one feels connected with. When the forest is impoverished, life is impoverished, too.

5. A Deep Aesthetics of Nature: How to Learn

Having presented my proposal, I will finish by suggesting four activities that could help people discover and start practicing a deep aesthetic appreciation of nature. These activities can take place in a wide variety of places; not only in natural parks, on wild mountains, or in forests, but also in our own neighborhoods. This is important because of the problem already mentioned of the negative impact that many human visitors may have on some natural environments.

The first activity is citizen science. Many scientific organizations study environments, including urban ones, and biodiversity with an increasing level of precision. Because they need huge amounts of data, they are calling on citizens to help. This has benefits for scientific research, but also for the citizens themselves.

By collecting data for researchers, unobtrusive background becomes obtrusive foreground, as Carlson put it. When a person goes to the countryside with the “mission” of counting swallows, one will not simply have a general impression of the countryside’s beauty but will also concentrate on a species. The first time this person pays attention to swallows flying may bring appreciation of how graceful they are, but if more time is spent contemplating how swallows fly, how they make nests and feed their chicks, a more detailed appreciation of their aesthetic qualities may develop.

Concentrating on a particular “mission” is only a starting point, however. In order to count swallows, one needs to correctly differentiate them from swifts and house martins, so one has to pay attention to them too. They may seem very similar at first, but as one observes them, one will begin to see how different they are in the form and color of their bodies, in the way they fly, their behavior, and one will also appreciate aesthetic qualities in them. Over time, a person will follow more and more of the threads that weave the web of life. Moreover, as citizens gather data for researchers, they are more likely to read the resulting scientific reports. Scientists may conclude that swallows are changing their migration patterns because of climate breakdown; this knowledge may be more understandable for citizens who have helped gather the data.

The second activity I propose is gardening. Marcello di Paola has argued that climate breakdown is such an immense and complex problem that it can provoke moral disengagement and described how gardening a small plot following permaculture methods can help us better grasp what climate chaos means and change our lifestyle to prevent it.[27] Di Paola is more focused on ethics than aesthetics, but, inspired by his ideas, I believe that through gardening we can become familiar with certain plants, meaning we can appreciate their aesthetic qualities in detail, and by taking care of them, we learn to understand their needs and help them flourish. Gardening allows us to understand how climate breakdown can make it impossible for some plants to adapt, and also to understand our responsibility towards them. Di Paola offers two important ideas. The first is that the mere practice of permaculture can represent a way of fighting climate chaos, because gardens absorb carbon emissions and moreover people could produce part of their food in home gardens and be encouraged to become vegetarian. I would add that gardening may contribute to urban rewilding, which is an effective strategy to help biodiversity; our gardens may attract and help insects and other small animals. The second idea is that gardening is pleasurable in itself and teaches us that taking care of nature is not only a means to safeguard our future but is self-rewarding by providing aesthetic enjoyment.

The third activity is reading nature writing. Great books, like those by Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson or Terry Tempest Williams, help us oppose the view of nature as scenery: a passive and decorative curtain. Nature writing uses concepts and narration to show how the lives of humans, other animals, and plants are interconnected. The combination of natural science, philosophical reflection, and poetic writing that characterizes this genre teaches us to aesthetically appreciate nature at the same time as it helps us understand her, and it promotes the virtues of patience, attention, and the capacity to admire and be surprised. I believe this genre is more inspiring than pure science, because it is written in the first person and allows the reader to engage with the writer. Writing in the first person and focusing on narrating animal stories is a particularly fertile combination, because it promotes our connection with other species. This genre can also stimulate people to write their own pieces. Writing about our experiences in nature is a way of making our observations tangible in memory, of reflecting on them; of celebrating natural beauty with poetic writing and of thinking about ourselves as animals belonging to the web of life.[28]

The fourth activity consists of following animal stories through webcams, for example, those installed in bird nests. In this case, we consciously renounce a more embodied experience, but in return many people can follow the daily life of birds and learn their stories in an intimate way without disturbing them.

Each of these four activities has its own advantages and limitations, but their combination provides a diversity of experiences that helps us develop a deep aesthetic appreciation of nature, while at the same time offering us strategies to prevent the overcrowding of natural environments. A deep aesthetic appreciation of nature, focused on following the interconnected stories of animals, is immensely rewarding and provides us with a strong reason to change our lifestyles and reduce our negative impact, taking the path of reconciliation with the other species within the web of life.



This work was funded by the Spanish State Research Agency (Agencia Estatal de Investigación, AEI) and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) under grant CSO2016-78421-R. I am thankful to both anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions, which have greatly helped to improve this paper. I am also grateful to Núria Almiron, who read an earlier version of this paper and made helpful suggestions.


Marta Tafalla

Marta Tafalla, PhD., is lecturer at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Her main research interests are animal and environmental aesthetics and ethics. Among her recent publications is the book, Filosofía ante la crisis ecológica (Philosophy facing the environmental crisis) (Madrid: Plaza y Valdés, 2022). She has previously published two articles in Contemporary Aesthetics, in 2014 and 2017.

Published on March 25, 2023.

Cite this article: Marta Tafalla, “Overcoming Climate Breakdown Denial and Neglect through the Aesthetics of Nature,” Contemporary Aesthetics, Volume 21 (2023), accessed date.



[1] Aaron M. McCright, “Anti-Reflexivity and Climate Change Skepticism in the US General Public,” Human Ecology Review, 22, 2 (2016), 77-107, https://doi.org/10.4225/13/58213a5387787.

[2] Maxwell T. Boykoff, “Consensus and contrarianism on climate change. How the USA case informs dynamics elsewhere,” Mètode Science Studies Journal, 6 (2016), 89–95, https://ojs.uv.es/index.php/Metode/article/view/4182.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010).

[3] Kari Marie Norgaard, “Climate denial: emotion, psychology, culture, and political economy,” in The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society, eds. J.S. Dryzek, R.B. Norgaard and D. Scholsberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 399-413; ref. on 374.

[4] Kari Marie Norgaard, “We don’t really want to know: Environmental justice and socially organized denial of global warming in Norway,” Organization & Environment, 19, 3 (2006), 347-370, https://doi.org/10.1177/1086026606292571.

[5] Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods (New York: Algonquin Books, 2005).

[6] Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno (1944), Dialectic of Enlightenment, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2002), translated by Edmund Jephcott, 128.

[7] Ibid., 2.

[8] Ibid., 204-206.

[9] Ibid., 191.

[10] Frans De Waal, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (New York: Norton & Company, 2016).

[11] I specifically use gender-specific pronouns when I refer to animals and nature so as to treat them not as objects.

[12] Theodor W. Adorno (1970), Aesthetic Theory, eds. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann (London: Continuum, 2004), translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor, 81-82.

[13] Ibid., 82.

[14] Ibid., 86-87.

[15] Ibid., 95.

[16] Ibid., 89-90.

[17] Ronald Hepburn (1966), “Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty,” in The Aesthetics of Natural Environments, eds. Allen Carlson and Arnold Berleant (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2004), 43-62.

[18] See for example: Allen Carlson and Arnold Berleant, eds., The Aesthetics of Natural Environments (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2004); Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott, eds., Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism. From Beauty to Duty (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007).

[19] Holmes Rolston III (1998), “The Aesthetic Experience of Forests,” in The Aesthetics of Natural Environments, eds. Allen Carlson and Arnold Berleant (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2004), 182-196; ref. on 189.

[20] Allen Carlson, Aesthetics and the Environment. The Appreciation of Nature, Art and Architecture (New York: Routledge, 2000), 48.

[21] Tom Greaves, “Movement, Wildness and Animal Aesthetics,” Environmental Values, 28, 4 (2019), 449-470, https://doi.org/10.3197/096327119X15576762300703.

[22] Yuriko Saito, “Appreciating Nature on Its Own Terms,” Environmental Ethics, 20, 2 (1998), 135-149.

[23] Yuriko Saito, “Consumer Aesthetics and Environmental Ethics: Problems and Possibilities,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 76, 4 (2018), 429-439, https://doi.org/10.1111/jaac.12594.

[24] Ibid., 434.

[25] Bird ringing (also called banding) means placing a numbered ring around a wild bird’s leg in order to allow individual identification. Thanks to these rings, scientists can keep track of the survival and movements of birds.

[26] Cheryl Foster, “The Narrative and the Ambient in Environmental Aesthetics,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 56, 2 (1998), 127-138.

[27] Marcello Di Paola, “Environmental Stewardship, Moral Psychology and Gardens,” Environmental Values, 22, 4 (2013), 503–521,https://doi.org/10.3197/096327113X13690717320784.

[28] Isabel Balza, “When the Grass Sings: Poetic Reason and Animal Writing,” Environmental Values, 28, 4 (2019), 471-488, https://doi.org/10.3197/096327119X15576762300712.