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Away with Green Aesthetics!

  Mateusz Salwa

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!

Matuesz Salwa

* Professor Maciej Luniak (Museum and Institute of Zoology, Polish Academy of Sciences) suggested this approach to me.