The Last Refuge Of The Unquantifiable: Aesthetics, Experience And Environmentalism Michael Hannis



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The Last Refuge Of The Unquantifiable:
Aesthetics, Experience And Environmentalism


Michael Hannis

"To reassert the place of the aesthetic in experience is to recognise the preeminence of the immediate. It is to realise that we live first and foremost in an extended present, which is the primary reality. And the quality of that present should be our greatest concern." (Berleant 1992, p. 187)

On arrival in a place, whether it is an ancient forest or a supermarket car park, an aesthetic response of some sort will follow quickly on the heels of our initial physical perception of our surroundings. We may find them beautiful, ugly, awesome, bland, inviting, or repugnant, among innumerable other possibilities. This response may be an intense experience, or it may be scarcely noticeable; it may not remain constant; nevertheless it provides a valuable barometer of how we feel about what is around us, whether it be "natural" or "artificial". These are evaluative responses, involuntary qualitative judgements which lead us to take a certain attitude towards what we perceive, which in turn may guide or suggest action.

By contrast, judgements of, for example, size, position or (more controversially) colour are non-evaluative; we experience them as the discovery of "objective" quantitative facts about the world. They do not require us to take any particular attitude towards what we perceive. If I say that a tree is a hundred years old, or a hundred feet high, I am not saying anything about my attitudes, nor am I saying anything which, on its own, makes me likely to take or avoid any particular action. If on the other hand I say that the tree is beautiful, this is a statement not only about the tree but about an attitude I hold towards it which may well result in my sitting under it, photographing it or arguing against chopping it down. On a personal experiential level, it is apparent that only these qualitative, "subjective" sorts of judgement can ultimately give rise to action. Judgements of fact, quantification, categorisation and identification give rise to action only contingently, in the context of a pre-existing evaluative framework. "X is the last rhino" only entails "save X" if we already hold "rhinos are valuable" (for whatever reason).

Similarly, "this new road will lead to increased economic activity" only entails "build this new road" if we already hold that "increased economic activity is desirable / necessary for our well-being". This may seem obvious to the point of banality: yet in modern public "environmental" debate and decision-making the emphasis is firmly on objectivity; verifiable facts are the only universal currency, and underlying evaluative frameworks are rarely open to question. In this paper I aim to show, drawing on the methodology and theoretical insights of Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology, that this inevitably leads to an under-representation of the qualitative judgements, based on subjective experiences, which shape how we really feel and act in the world.

I focus specifically on the aesthetic appreciation of landscape, taking aesthetic values as subjective in the sense that they inevitably involve something of the unique perceiving subject. I initially allow, despite possible metaphysical problems, that verifiable quantitative data can be objective in the conventional sense of being only about the object, but question the assumption that this quality privileges such data over subjective values in the decision-making process, and go on to suggest that in at least some contexts the subject / object distinction is itself untenable. I do not therefore attempt to defend any general idea of intrinsic value (in the sense of value independent of valuers), whether aesthetic or otherwise; such attempts, although tactically and intuitively attractive, seem to me to be an example of what I am arguing against, namely the attempted translation of a subjective experience into an objective fact in order to increase its status. This is not intended as a denial of the possibility of intrinsic value but an attempt to circumvent the metaphysical arguments about it by giving more weight to subjective experience of value. There can be no neat mathematical proof of the existence of intrinsic value; to wait for such proof is to fiddle while the world burns.

Mary Midgley (in Chappell, ed., 1997, p.96) notes recent research (Craig, Glasser & Kempton 1993) indicating that senior environmental policy advisers to European governments "articulated deeply held personal environmental values [but told researchers that] they normally keep these values separate from their environmental policy activities." She comments:

"The present position, in fact, is rather like what we would find in a ministry charged with running prisons if all humane talk about what life was like for the prisoners was banned and proposals for reform had always to be couched in terms of efficiency in preventing crime. This sort of indirectness is obviously misleading and wasteful."

When even the environmental values of such powerful figures are scrupulously kept out of policy-making, those held by ordinary citizens are evidently left even further out in the cold; and they will stay there forever if their consideration remains dependent on proving their objectivity. Aesthetic values are some of the slipperiest and most subjective of all; but this does not justify ignoring them- they are directly personal and intuitive contributions to the urgent debate about what sort of world we want to live in.

A world of value

In dividing the world into human and non-human, Neil Evernden argues, we have turned nature into Nature, reinterpreted the real experienced world into a system of laws and measurements which the "behaving matter" that is not us must obey, and by which we can know, predict and control it (Evernden 1992). Such knowledge must be objective, must be knowledge only of the object, not of the perceiving subject; the distinction must be maintained in order for the system to work. We must not anthropomorphise Nature or empathise with it, for this would be to confuse the categories, to imagine that it is like us, which by definition it is not. With Galileo, said Husserl, began

"..The surreptitious substitution of the mathematically substructed world of idealities for the only real world, the one that is actually given through perception, that is ever experienced and experiencable- our everyday life-world." (quoted in Evernden 1992, p.61)

This mathematical "modelling" of the world has of course been the foundation for all the spectacular predictive and explanatory successes of empirical science; and today's computer techniques continue to demonstrate its power. We have models of fantastic and ever-increasing complexity, representing everything from the human genome to the global climate "system"; no wonder we consider this to be the best way to gain knowledge. We seek to better "understand" the world (although "stand over" might be more accurate), and in order to do so, we constantly refine and develop our models of what is "out there".

But any model is only as accurate as the data that goes into it; and if the model is to be of use to more than one person, then that data must not contain anything whose meaning is person-specific or "subjective". It must all be verifiable information about the object of enquiry- it must be objective. And mathematics is the paradigm case of objective knowledge. It is also the common language into which observations of the world must be translated in order to be mutually commensurable. Hence the need to quantify anything which is to go into the model, purging it of extraneous interpretation and rendering it susceptible to mathematical processing.

This positivist epistemology has escaped from the laboratory and taken a firm hold on our wider social decision-making processes. As it both presupposes and maintains a strict human / Nature distinction, it is structurally incapable of accommodating any subjective experience of the natural world, since such experience cannot be effectively represented as objective quantitative data. As Joseph Grange says:

"What is wrong with positivism is what it makes of the object facing us. It reduces this object to shape, extension and, where necessary, motion. This extreme quantification of place strips the world of Being and value. In place of a textured environment holding worth in itself, we are given a blank array of objects whose only significance lies in their measurability and observability." (Grange1989, in Seamon and Mugerauer 1989, p.76)

The rise of "environmentalism" is due not only to concern over the "environmental crisis" but also to this fundamental discrepancy between the attitude towards the natural world inherent in prevalent economic and political practice and that reflected in personal experience. As Neil Evernden points out, the real agenda of many campaigners and activists is nothing less than the restoration of value to the non-human world; value which for many, and perhaps for all, was never really lost, but whose expression was repressed as it became socially illegitimate. The many persuasive theories about when and how it was lost in Eurocentric culture (see e.g. Evernden 1992 ch. 4) must be seen as such, not as positing or explaining some genuine deficiency in the human capacity to perceive it. For the world of our experience is not a mechanistic Cartesian collection of value-free objects, just as we do not genuinely perceive ourselves as pure detached points of consciousness. We experience emotion about, relation to, and connection with non-human realms continuously and from these, as well as from "sense-data", we construct our private pictures of "ourselves in the world".

Yet in the field of public society as reflected in mainstream political, legal, and economic decision-making, the sacred principles of rationality and objectivity demand the ruthless separation of subject and object, of experience and observation, of fact and value. Noses stuck in the fine detail of our world of objects, we subdivide, quantify and model the earth, craving meaning but seeking it only, since Descartes, in the uncorrupted mind, not in the physical world of experience (Evernden 1993 p.85). Human constructs and concepts are the bearers of value and meaning in our science-orientated culture; observations of the world, data, may prove or disprove theories but it is the theories that gain meaning in the process.

"As we are no longer in nature conceptually, purpose is no longer intermingled with the stars and the birds. With the great divorce between humanity and nature, purpose and all other species of willing came to reside with us: we have sole custody of these offspring and are pleased to regard them as the consequence of a virgin birth- perhaps the last miracle we have been able to accept." (Evernden 1992, p.30)

Data is just data; one value-subtracted datum is much like another, apart from its vital quantitative component.

"One million trees were cut down today": this fact can be entered into calculations of timber yield, profit or paper demand, or equally into calculations of climate change, soil erosion or smog generation, but it can never convey the majesty of the slain giants, the ugliness of the denuded land, the devastation of the dispossessed peoples of the forest or the passion of those who tried in vain to stop it happening. These phenomena are not data, they are what is stripped away in the process of making data; they cannot be expressed as mathematical formulae or analysed by statisticians because they are in the wrong language, they are not objective in the sense of objectification, separation, demarcation. They speak of a different world, a colourful world of subjectivity and emotion in which there is illicit experiential fraternisation between human and non-human, a world in which meaning and value can be ascribed to what is perceived, and indeed can be revealed through such perception.

Inspectors at public enquiries listen politely to emotive testimonies about valued natural features and then quietly dismiss them as "subjective opinions". A community's love of a threatened landscape becomes "admissible evidence" only if it can be quantified; exactly how many people love it, and how much? (Evernden 1993 p.54) Only then can it be translated by "contingent valuation" into the acceptable form "how much it is worth to keep it". (Of course, once priced in this way, it is for sale: and when the benefits are shown to exceed the costs it will be swiftly sold.)

Scientific ecology seems to offer a source of "hard facts" to use in defence of meadows and mountains, with its well-researched stories of obscure endangered species and disrupted ecosystems; but the process all too often comes full circle with the question "what is this ecosystem worth then?" The only really effective tactic is to challenge the carefully formulated facts and figures of the "developers"- and while environmental groups have become very adept at this, it is still rather akin to having to defend oneself in court in a foreign language with access to only half the evidence.

But the problem with allowing such debates to be conducted only in terms of "objective facts", whether ecological or economic, is deeper than a tactical disadvantage. It commits environmentalists to precisely the view of the world which legitimises the actions they oppose: a dead, value-free world of resources. Evernden argues that this predicament is encapsulated in the universal adoption of the term "environment".

The beginning of ''the environment''- and the end of ''the world"

The insights of phenomenology, and of Merleau-Ponty in particular, have a special relevance to the "environmentalist" project of re-examining our attitudes to the natural world. They emphasise the importance of examining direct experience. But more than this, they give philosophical weight to the contention that "environmental awareness" is not an optional bolt-on extra to our modern mind-set, but necessarily entails a fundamental reassessment of the relationship between ourselves as conscious physical beings and the world in which we live. The first step in this reassessment is to affirm and accept that this relationship exists, permanently and irrevocably.

"Not even Descartes can just think" (Evernden 1993 p.58)- even as he doubted everything he was breathing the air, his heart was beating and his stomach was digesting his last meal. Consciousness, for Merleau-Ponty, is "incarnate in a body and inhering in a world" (Langer 1989 p. xv); and it is the actions of those bodies in that world which have resulted in what we persist in calling "the environmental crisis". World includes us; environment by definition does not. To locate the crisis in "the environment" is to locate it outside ourselves, to see it as another intellectually challenging problem to be solved by tried and tested scientific method, and to deny that it is at least partly our crisis- a crisis in our way of being in the world.

Environment signifies what is around something (environ)-meaning what is in the background, where the action isn't; what doesn't come under any of the categories of foreground objects or actors; in other words, "our environment" is what is not us. Often we speak of "The Environment"; in this case the unspoken object being "environed" is again us, humanity; the sense is the same. The, or our, environment is the totality of the non-human background to human activity.

"Reform" environmentalism, as it is now piously embraced even by governments and corporations, when it goes beyond simply conserving resources for human use, could be said to aim at bringing this "background" out of the shadows and into the "foreground", in order to make it an object of care and concern. But this attempt to "attend to the frame instead of the picture" inevitably perpetuates the "us and it" separation which underlies the crisis and which, unless addressed, will continue to exacerbate it. Foregrounding "environment" necessarily backgrounds the only thing it can be contrasted with, namely humans and their activities, rather than examining the relationship between the two allegedly separate categories, which is where the problem really lies. The cynic might say that this explains the appeal of such a move to those who wish to appear "environmentally friendly" while continuing with "business as usual".

"But environmentalism, in its deepest sense, is not about environment. It is not about things but relationships, not about beings but Being, not about world but the inseparability of self and circumstance. In talking about the mountain the environmentalist seems to be defending a physical entity. But implicitly and emotionally he or she protests the categorisation of 'mountain'- protests the isolation of portions of the world as things to defend or consume." (Evernden 1993 p.142)

"Environment is not a life-world, but simply a surrounding. Indeed it is not a thing at all, but a statement of anthropocentricity: the planet, now expropriated as ours alone, is our surrounding, our environment."( ibid., p. 152)

This is not to suggest that we charge into an abstract battle about terminology. The important thing to notice is that we will not get far with the project of reforming attitudes to the natural world by colluding in its dualist objectification. Uncovering and celebrating our continuity with the world is essential to learning to live well and sensitively within it, escaping our destructive detachment. Experience of such continuity is necessarily subjective- and its expression, whether in simple personal testimony or through the expressive arts, is not effectively translatable into objective data. What is inevitably lost in such translation is not only colour and depth but meaning.



Aesthetics, democracy and the character of a place

In order to avoid this loss we must resist the cultural imperative to translate this personal experience of meaning and value into an objectively measurable commodity. Of course this pressure is present only in certain contexts; our insatiable appetite for art and images of all kinds inspired by, and expressing, subjective experiences of the natural world is ample evidence of this. But art is art, we say, and facts are facts. In a decision-making context, we must have facts, not opinions. For opinions to be fairly considered, they must be translated into something measurable. There are, as I have already mentioned, attempts to translate the perceived value of natural features directly into monetary value by "contingent valuation", by literally asking people what they would be prepared to pay to keep a place intact. This bizarre and controversial practice is unsurprisingly fraught with difficulties.(cf. Clark 1995, in Guerrier et al. 1995; O'Neill 1993, ch. 7).

But even where this is not attempted, there is a genuine problem about how to accommodate subjective experience in a process which values objectivity above all else. One basic principle which informs any attempt to do so is the democratic ideal; if the question at issue can be framed in a simple "yes or no" form, then people's opinions can be categorised into two camps and the "votes" counted. In practice this forms only a small part of, for instance, a planning enquiry; "other factors" can be held to outweigh public opinion as measured by the number of objectors to, for instance, Sizewell B. It might be argued that this is a large part of what is wrong with the process: decision-makers should listen more to "what people want" and less to the whispering voices of commercial and political interests. This is probably true-but it is not the whole story. Those "other factors" might, for instance, be the constraints of environmental protection legislation. Besides practical problems of political bias, counting votes is a woefully inadequate way to measure perceived value.

Aesthetic judgements of nature, as I will presently argue, often contain disguised expressions of meaning and value. Arguing against quarry expansion, for instance, I want to say "this mountain is beautiful"; as someone who experiences the mountain as beautiful this is, to me, a meaningful statement about the beauty of the mountain, with a subtext about its value. But to someone else, who does not share my experience, it is effectively a statement about my opinion of the mountain. In a collective decision-making context, I am "casting my single vote in favour of categorising the mountain as beautiful". My qualitative judgement has been translated into a quantitative datum. Of course there is a sense in which that is all it can ever be; I cannot "speak for anyone but myself". I am simply exercising my democratic right to have my opinion considered along with everyone else's. Yet there seems to be something wrong with this. If ten other people now also find the mountain beautiful, that will not make me feel that it has become, or been revealed to be, more beautiful than it was before; and if fifteen can then be found who do not, that will not make me and my ten friends accept that we were "wrong". No decision has been reached on whether the mountain is beautiful. We have just been outvoted. This might not seem a significant worry in the hypothetical context, say, of deciding by committee on the wording of a guidebook, where what we democratically agree to say about the mountain is irrelevant to my future experience of it. I may encounter it again tomorrow and still find it beautiful, despite the committee's verdict. But if, tomorrow, the mountain has become a quarry because of that decision, worries about the inadequacy of the process by which the decision was reached will become very significant.

In practice, outside acadaemia, the consideration of aesthetic value usually takes place in the context of "weighing it in the balance" against, in planning parlance, "other interests of acknowledged importance". Here whatever it is agreed to say about the beauty of a natural feature may have very direct effects on future experiences of it; the most usual situation is one in which the onus is on those who find it beautiful to convince the decision-maker(s) not to do or allow something which will destroy, or at least reduce, that beauty. Some form of quantification is essential: is it, or is it not, so beautiful that we should not build our much-needed road through it? As the bulldozers scrape off the living surface of the land whose beauty she fought for, the defeated "protester" may well reflect that her one vote did not really capture the essence of what she had to say. Lying down in front of them is an attempt to say more, to physically demonstrate the experiential truth that was lost in agreeing to answer the question, namely that beauty transcends economics.

The "tyranny of the majority" problem is a well-known shortcoming of democratic systems in general, but in societies in which democracy is held to be the "least worst" system of social organisation, it is a shortcoming we live with, and attempt to compensate for by means of laws and conventions about the treatment of minorities and respect for dissenting views.

But no amount of respect for the views of those who lose a battle to save a landscape will bring it back; there is no effective compensation for a lost place. Twyford Down, for instance, is long gone now; it was deemed to be in the interests of society, of the majority, to cut a monstrous trench through it to carry a motorway. How then could we compensate the alleged minority who disagreed with this decision, who feel that the loss of a valued place is not outweighed by a few minutes of "journey-time saving", or in many cases, that the two are not even commensurable? There is no way. The only possible slight compensation would be the glow of good citizenship that may come to the gracious loser of a fair and democratic judicial process; but when that process is perceived as deeply flawed or even corrupt, this is not available. The feelings of bitterness and injustice engendered by such cases are due in large measure to the dramatic and inevitable failure of the decision-making process to adequately consider the power and significance of subjective personal experience of place. Those who resort to direct action after "due process" has failed them tend to regard that process as being just as blind to the experiential reality of the place as the proposed construction activities.

To suggest that the existence of other topographically or ecologically similar areas somehow mitigates the sense of loss is to miss the point, to ignore the essential uniqueness of a place, in terms not only of its geographical co-ordinates but of its character. All the feelings and aesthetic responses it typically evokes, all the mental images and memories of previous visits, all the folk history and myths associated with it, all the traces and stories of previous and current inhabitants, human and non-human, as well as the immediate sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures go to make up the character of a place; and it is this complete package which we value, and in which we find meaning.

"Eric Dardel wrote that "a landscape is something more than a juxtaposition of picturesque details; it is an assemblage, a convergence, a lived- moment. There is an internal bond, an 'impression', that unites all its elements." The bond to which Dardel refers is one of human presence and concern; landscapes, therefore, take on the very character of human existence. They can be full of life, deathly dull, exhilarating, sad, joyful or pleasant."(Relph 1989, in Seamon and Mugerauer 1989, p.23)

Australian aborigines whose sacred places have been literally destroyed by uranium mining are not placated by being told that "there's lots more desert like this all around here". Amazonian forest-dwellers will see their home area, cleared for timber and hamburgers, as very different from the apparently similar part of the shrinking jungle they end up in. The stories of places like Twyford are different only as a matter of degree.

Even if we were to decide that we had made a terrible mistake at Twyford, and set about filling in the cutting and "reconstructing" the landscape, we could never in any meaningful sense undo what we have done- supposing for the sake of argument it were possible to "put it all back just how it was", we could not reconstruct its character, if only because part of that character was a quality of naturalness. This question of substitution is in itself a philosophical minefield which I do not propose to fully explore here-(see Katz 1992)- but I think it is safe to claim that the character of a place is irreplaceable.

The character of a place is intimately connected with experience; it seems reasonable to claim that one cannot fully appreciate the character of a place without having physically been there. It thus undeniably has a subjective component- each person's experience is slightly different, and so each individual's story of the character of a place will be slightly different. But each will be tied to the same geographical location, as well as to the person, and there will usually be many more similarities than differences. Cultural factors will also tend to reduce the differences in experience between individuals within a given society- although there is always scope for a wide range of perfectly genuine responses, the person who finds an opencast mine beautiful, or feels no sense of mystery at the sight of Glastonbury Tor rising out of the mists, will probably find themselves outnumbered.

So the character of a place is a real quality associated with that place, but is not susceptible to the complete and "objective" analysis that allows it to be quantified, measured and catalogued as a "resource" or commodity. There can be no decision-making equation of the form

"1 unit of character = X units of time saved / money / electricity (etc)."

Character thus defies "democratic" measurement by simple vote-counting, or by contingent valuation. The British planning system, to be fair, does to some extent recognise this and attempts to quantify it instead by "expert" designation, using primarily the notions of "natural heritage" and "areas of outstanding natural beauty". But neither of these is satisfactory.

Heritage is something inherited, not something inherent: it is meaningless without an underpinning framework of property ownership and bloodline continuity. To extend the idea of the family silver to the landscape is to cast humanity in the role of aristocracy and nature in the role of our feudal estate. It inevitably makes the natural world an inventory of resources and amenities; while this may be a defensible way of categorising castles and cathedrals it can only ever underestimate the value of forests and mountains.

"Areas of outstanding natural beauty" seems a more promising concept- but if some areas are outstanding, most must be "merely average" and some outstandingly unbeautiful. Perhaps this does reflect our experience- but to expect us all to agree with the "experts" as to which is which is asking too much. Part of the problem here is about the procedures and criteria of designation- but more fundamentally, privileging some areas in this way devalues the experience of others. Anyone arguing for the preservation of an undesignated site on grounds of its beauty will come up against the attitude that "while of course we respect your opinion, it can't be that beautiful or it would have been designated". In fact any system of expert designation shares this drawback.

As well as these conceptual problems (both still rely on quantifying the unquantifiable) neither designation is effective in practice. As was seen at Newbury, AONB's are as vulnerable as SSSI's to the literal and metaphorical juggernauts of economic growth. Bath is not only a local or even national but a "World Heritage Site": but this did not stop the "Batheaston bypass" ploughing through Solsbury Hill. Nor did it help the City Council's failed bid to block the expansion of nearby Whatley quarry, which by lowering the water table in the surrounding hills may well stop the flow of water to the famous hot springs which gave the place not only its name but its raison d'etre.


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