At Aeon magazine, Rebecca Giggs reflects on sakura, Japan’s cherry blossom season, and draws some conclusions about the lack of environmental imagination in environmental politics.

“Gazing into the throats of flowers is surely one of the most trite, and universal, acts of environmental appreciation. From hand-picked posies displayed on a mantelpiece to the questing of the German Romantics for the impossible blue flower — a symbol of inspiration for the 18th-century poet Novalis — flowers induce an apparently effortless contemplation of aesthetic beauty in nature. Yet, for all the stock wonder of cherries crowned in blossom, contemporary Western environmentalism has an uneasy relationship with notions of the beautiful.

“Political environmentalism has learnt to take a functional view of nature, turning a blind eye to cultural values such as beauty and to aesthetic practices such as hanami. In striving to establish an impartial, globally consistent means of gauging nature’s value, local forms of environmental imagination have been relegated to the work of poets. Nature is viewed as systemic and quantifiable, neither mysterious nor resplendent. In an overburdened world, this is how we have come to debate the comparative significance of habitats and organisms: as ecosystem services.

“Perhaps, for environmental thought to be accepted in the political mainstream, it was always necessary to discard the drippy spiritualism of a former age and embrace the numbers game. Yet, something important has been lost in the exchange. Sidelining the environmental imagination — particularly its manifold local variations in different cultures — has narrowed the green movement. Better science, accountancy and leadership might well be essential to confronting the realities of our current environmental crises, but without developing a way to talk about the unreal aspects of our environmental relationships and our imagined attachments to natural phenomena, progress will only ever be tenuous.”

Environmentalism, Giggs says, has adopted the very same instrumental vision of the environment as the environmental “rapists” that it castigates. 

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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