“I declare this world is so beautiful that I can hardly believe it exists.” The beauty of nature can have a profound effect upon our senses, those gateways from the outer world to the inner, whether it results in disbelief in its very existence as Emerson notes, or feelings such as awe, wonder, or amazement. But what is it about nature and the entities that make it up that cause us, oftentimes unwillingly, to feel or declare that they are beautiful?
One answer that Emerson offers is that “the simple perception of natural forms is a delight.” When we think of beauty in nature, we might most immediately think of things that dazzle the senses – the prominence of a mountain, the expanse of the sea, the unfolding of the life of a flower. Often it is merely the perception of these things itself which gives us pleasure, and this emotional or affective response on our part seems to be crucial to our experience of beauty. So in a way there is a correlate here to the intrinsic value of nature; Emerson says:
the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal, give us a delight in and for themselves
Most often, it seems to me, we find these things to be beautiful not because of something else they might bring us – a piece of furniture, say, or a ‘delicacy’ to be consumed – but because of the way that the forms of these things immediately strike us upon observation. In fact, one might even think that this experience of beauty is one of the bases for valuing nature – nature is valuable because it is beautiful.
Emerson seems to think that beauty in the natural world is not limited to certain parts of nature to the exclusion of others. He writes that every landscape lies under “the necessity of being beautiful”, and that “beauty breaks in everywhere.” As we slowly creep out of a long winter in the Northeast, I think Emerson would find the lamentations about what we have ‘endured’ to be misguided:
The inhabitants of the cities suppose that the country landscape is pleasant only half the year….To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again.
The close observer of nature sees a river in constant flux, even when the river’s water is frozen and everything appears to be static and unchanging for a time. Nature can reveal its beauty in all places and at all times to the eye that knows how to look for it. We can hear Emerson wrangle with himself on this very point in the words of this journal entry:
At night I went out into the dark and saw a glimmering star and heard a frog, and Nature seemed to say, Well do not these suffice? Here is a new scene, a new experience. Ponder it, Emerson, and not like the foolish world, hanker after thunders and multitudes and vast landscapes, the sea or Niagara.
MS Am 1280.235 (706.3E) Houghton Library
So if we’re sympathetic to the idea that nature, or aspects of it, are beautiful, we might ask ourselves why we experience nature in this way. Emerson says that nature is beautiful because it is alive, moving, reproductive. In nature we observe growth and development in living things, contrasted with the static or deteriorating state of the vast majority of that which is man-made. More generally, he writes: “We ascribe beauty to that which…has no superfluous parts; which exactly answers its end; which stands related to all things”. He cites natural structures as lacking superfluities, an observation that in general has been confirmed by the advancement of biology. Furthermore, he says that whether talking about a human artifact or a natural organism, any increase of ability to achieve its end or goal is an increase in beauty. So in Emerson we might find the resources for seeing evolution and the drive to survive as a beautiful rather than an ugly process, governed by laws that tend to increase reproductive fitness and that we can understand through observation and inquiry. And lastly, Emerson points to the relation between what we take to be an individual and the rest of nature as a quality of the beautiful. This consists in the “power to suggest relation to the whole world, and so lift the object out of a pitiful individuality.” In nature one doesn’t come across individuals that are robustly independent from their environment; rather things are intimately interconnected with their surroundings in ways that we don’t fully understand.
Nothing is quite beautiful alone: nothing but is beautiful in the whole.
All of these qualities of beauty seem to go beyond the mere impression of sensible forms that we started with, and what they require is what also served as the basis of truth and goodness in nature.
MS Am 1280.235 (708) Houghton LibraryIn addition to the immediate experience of beauty based in perception, Emerson suggests that the beauty of the world may also be viewed as an object of the intellect. He writes that “the question of Beauty takes us out of surfaces, to thinking of the foundations of things.” In other words, we can also experience the world as beautiful because of its rational structure and our ability to grasp that structure through thought. Think for instance of the geometric structure of a crystal, or snowflake, or nautilus shell. Or consider the complexity of the fact that the reintroduction of the wolf in Yellowstone National Park changed the course of the rivers due to a chain reaction of cause and effect through the food web, a process called a trophic cascade. This reinforces Emerson’s emphasis on the interconnection between all members of the natural world; as observers of nature we are confronted with one giant, complex process that isn’t of our own making, but that we can also understand, and get a mental grasp on, even if only partially, and be awe-struck in that process of understanding.
There is thus an emotional or affective component in the beauty of the intellect just as there is in the immediate beauty of perception. If we destroy the natural world, we take away the things that we can marvel at and experience awe towards in these two ways. And this experience of the beautiful through the intellect may reinforce our attributing value to nature here as well, but a deeper kind of value, the intrinsic value I talked about in the last essay. Here it is not only that nature is valuable because it is beautiful, but nature is beautiful because it possesses intrinsic value, grounded in its intelligible structure. Thus we see a close parallel between goodness and beauty in nature. We can find an objective basis for goodness and beauty in nature, namely its intelligible structure, but also see that nature is valuable and beautiful for us, with the particular apparatus that nature has given us for navigating our way through the world.
So that which is the basis of truth in nature and provides it with intrinsic value is also that which makes it beautiful. Emerson himself ties these three aspects of nature into one package himself:
He should know that the landscape has beauty for his eye, because it expresses a thought which is to him good: and this, because of the same power which sees through his eyes, is seen in that spectacle
This is the unified philosophy of nature that I set out to explicate in the first essay – nature is the source of truth, goodness, and beauty, because of its intelligible structure, and because of its production of organisms that can recognize that structure, us. And this view of nature includes an inherent call to protect that which is true, good, and beautiful. These are the things that we as human beings are searching for, are striving after, and yet they’re right in front of us if only we would listen with our ear to the earth.
Although I’ve been advocating an approach to nature based on its intelligibility, we are far from tying down the giant that is nature with our minds. Emerson writes that “the perception of the inexhaustibleness of nature is an immortal youth.” Although we shall continue to try to uncover nature’s secrets, let us also continue to take pleasure in our immediate encounter with her. Let us continue to be awe-struck, like the child on the seashore, or clambering up a tree. Let us hold onto that experience, and fight for the environment that makes it possible, both for the child in each of us, and for those that come after us.
Michael welcomes correspondence, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His series "Emerson and the Environment" is part of a larger project which was awarded a Student Sustainability Grant. Quotations taken from Emerson’s journals, his book Nature, and his essays ‘Nature’, ‘Art’, ‘Beauty’, and ‘Spiritual Laws.' He is happy to provide more specific source information for the quotations.
Earth as we know it is an incredibly complex and fragile network of interconnected systems that have developed slowly over the last 4.5 billion years or so. From the ashes of the Big Bang this planet emerged as a mass of energy and elements. From that newly born mass of energy and elements evolved structured, dynamic systems of solids, liquids, and gases. The evolution of this planet continued to unfold over billions of years in such a unique way that eventually conditions arose with the ability to foster life.
From the smallest microorganisms to the largest animals, all life on Earth has a common ancestor. Everything is connected to everything. So how is it that our species has come to dominate the landscape in such a short period of time? Furthermore, what gives us the right to do so? In 3.5 billion years of life on Earth everything has followed a natural course of evolution. However, our rapid success as a species has begun to affect this natural order. With our population at seven billion and climbing, we have played a tremendous role in the disruption of the Earth’s natural systems. As we continue to grow and have a greater impact on the Earth’s systems, it is imperative that we address our role and relationship with nature.
The ability of humans to manipulate the landscape and recognize the consequences of doing so puts us in a peculiar position. As a species we are assigned the duty to provide and proliferate. Our goal is to achieve stability for ourselves and our kin. However we also have an obligation to maintain the environment, as we depend on the resources and services it provides. The question then becomes: what is our role in nature? Do we have the right to manipulate the land, factory farm animals, and pollute waterways? Or do we have an obligation to reduce our numbers and merely subsist? In order to answer these questions we must rely on our knowledge of Earth, evolution, and our influence on the environment.
Our relationship with nature has historically been one of imbalance and overuse. Nearly every step in human history has unfortunately been accompanied with a leap in environmental degradation. At first, humans were incredibly in-tune with their surroundings. Nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes used to roam the lands, following the ebb and flow of the seasons. These tribes had a measurable impact on the environment, but their influence was relatively manageable due to their population size. With advancements in technology and agriculture though, humans began to find more efficient ways of sustaining themselves. These advancements allowed for more permanent settlements, which led to rapid population growth and a distancing from nature.
As society evolved, populations grew and more and more resources were required to fuel the expansion. With breakthroughs in agriculture, settlements became more permanent and cities began to take shape. This shift to city life inadvertently led to a distancing from nature. While many people were still in-tune with nature on a subsistent level, the need for more and more resources began to change our regard for nature.
Although our distancing from nature began several thousand years ago with advancements in agriculture and social order, it is the age of industry to which we owe our modern regard for nature. The growth of cities allowed for a separation between people and nature and our obsession with convenience and efficiency beckoned a new perspective on the environment. With technological advancements, nature became something we were no longer apart of and entirely subject to, but something that we could control and profit off of. The growth of industry enabled humans to truly dominate the landscape and disrupt the natural systems that have been in place for billions of years.
As we have removed ourselves further and further from nature, we have developed a willing ignorance of our role and relationship within it. With the growth of cities and trade we have moved from a subsistent, sustainable economy to one of greed and exploitation. Humans have always had an impact on the environment, but with the age of industry that impact has been ultra-magnified. Population growth has been exponentiated, cities have become the primary place of residence, and the majority of the world is now out of touch with the workings of nature.
Although every species plays a unique role in the biosphere and inherently has its own impact, not every species has the cognitive ability to measure their influence or the capacity to change it. Humans are unique in that respect, which is the root of the problem. We are capable of understanding our influence over nature, but we tend to ignore the Earth’s reaction to our presence. I am not arguing that we purposefully degrade nature, but that environmental degradation is an inherent trait of our population’s perpetual progression. We know we are crippling the environment. We have the ability to do something about it. Therefore, we should make change where change is necessary.
The size of our population and its incessant desire to expand has an obvious impact on the environment. However, that impact is magnified with the demands of industry and capitalism. In his book, Regarding Nature, Andrew McLaughlin identifies industrialism and the capitalist mindset as being especially influential on our regard for nature: “The economic systems that we construct and live within are, I suggest, the primary immediate causes of our relations between society and the rest of nature” (Regarding Nature, P. 12). Further causing a perceived division from nature is the economic structure we have allowed to infect most of the world.
Capitalism is an especially destructive force in our regard for nature as it encourages a monetary-driven social hierarchy based on the encroaching exploitation of our world’s resources. Our relationship with nature has now become purely economic. We do not associate ourselves as a part of nature because we use it for profit. Forests are cut down for the profits of the lumber industry and to make room for livestock. Animals that we are undoubtedly related to, that have senses and the ability to socialize are slaughtered by the billions to feed an increasingly carnivorous population. Resources such as oil and food are all unevenly distributed throughout the world and therefore used as a platform for profit. All the while the environment bears the grunt of our greed.
We not only encourage a division amongst ourselves through the commoditization of the world’s resources, we encourage a division between man and nature. In order to reconstruct our views of nature and understand our place within it, it is important to reconsider our relationship with each other and our surroundings. As Aldo Leopold puts it, man “…has not learned to think like a mountain” (A Sand County Almanac, P. 11). We have to consider ourselves as part of a bigger picture. Industry and capitalism rely heavily on ignorance and individualism. However, the reality is that we are all dependent upon each other in one way or another.
IV. Time for Change
Humans play a vital role in nature just like everything else. What separates us from nature though, is the ability to understand our place within it. This cognitive capacity of ours has historically been the cause of a perceived division between man and nature. However, in order to achieve a sustainable future in which humans assume a more natural role and have less of an impact it is imperative that we reconsider our role and relationship with nature. A change in the way we regard nature has obvious political, economic, and social repercussions, but our cognitive ability obliges us to reevaluate our position in the world rather than continue to degrade it.
There are a number of ways in which we can begin to reconsider our relationship with nature, but all of which require an enormous effort. Through a universal education curriculum, it is possible to encourage people everywhere to consider themselves as part of a larger picture. By teaching people about the environment, evolution, and ecology, we can provide them with the tools for change. Lewis Mumford imagined a social revolution brought about by a change in values through educational reform: “The humanizing of technology and the protection of diversity were both contingent on a fundamental change in values” (Minding Nature, P.219). In order to bring about necessary change it is critical that people take action. Through a universal environmental education program it is possible to galvanize people into forming new ideas and opinions of the world and to understand their place within it.
A universal education program would go a long way in encouraging change in how we view each other and our environment. Changing attitudes are a primary component in achieving a sustainable future – one in which nature is allowed to run its course without human intervention. Gregg Easterbrook discusses a similar future in his The Ecorealist Manifesto: “…the long-term purview of nature might be combined with the short-term insights of the genus Homo in ways that allow people, machines, and nature to work together for each other’s mutual benefit” (The Ecorealist Manifesto, P. 1). In order for the Earth to retain its balance, it is important that we not overstep our bounds as a species. This requires a universal effort to reevaluate our relationship with nature and make adjustments as needed.
After thousands of years of societal evolution, we find ourselves at the peak of technology and pollution. We are already seeing the effects of our industrial ways through the extinction of species, the melting of glaciers, and the destruction of the landscape. As we continue to disturb the world’s natural systems we are recognizing a rippling of consequences. Our recognition of these effects suggests that our role in nature is far more influential than it should be. Therefore it is necessary that we make major changes and that we make them soon.
Our role within nature should be one of subsistence rather than commercialization. We have exploited the world for too long and the consequences of doing so are everywhere. As everything is related to everything, we have no right to infringe on the livelihood of any other species. In fact, our cognitive ability and understanding of nature obliges us to maintain the integrity of the environment. So we must change how we influence the land. We must respect the natural order of things and find a way to live accordingly.
Although a change in attitudes would require a complete overhaul of our current economic and political structures, it is something that must be done. As history shows, if we continue to encourage expansion and development it is very likely that we will see major effects in climate and ecology. We have seen the destructive nature of industrialism and capitalism. We can predict and measure the effects of our actions on the environment. We know we are headed in the wrong direction and we are expecting major consequences. So why don’t we do something about it?
- McLaughlin, Andrew. Regarding Nature: Industrialism and Deep Ecology. Albany: State University of New York, 1993. Print.
- Leopold, Aldo, Charles Walsh Schwartz, and Aldo Leopold. A Sand County Almanac. With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River. New York: Oxford UP, 1966. Print.
- Macauley, David. Minding Nature: The Philosophers of Ecology. New York: Guilford, 1996. Print.
- Easterbrook, Gregg. “The Ecorealist Manifesto.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 1995. Web. 13 Apr. 2014.