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The Aesthetics of the Wild: From Romanticism to Contemporary Environmental Debates

The aestheticisation of nature is the environmental movement’s most double-edged sword. Our cultural love of unspoilt natural beauty is one of the most powerful incentives to protect habitats and preserve biodiversity, a fact of which conservation campaigners are well aware. However, some of the most vocal opposition to developing onshore wind and solar energy has been on aesthetic grounds: according to the Scottish National Trust, ‘renewable energy developments must consider ‘landscape and visual impacts, including effects on wild land’. The language of this policy statement emphasises the ‘visual’ over the ecological. What happens when there is a trade-off between climate change mitigation and preserving the natural appearance of a landscape for its cultural value? Going further, what constitutes a ‘landscape’ in the first place? Is land ever truly ‘wild’, and does that matter?

At its origins in the nineteenth century, the conservation movement was intricately intertwined with aesthetic concerns. Many of the earliest voices to speak out on the subject—from William Wordsworth to Walter Scott to Henry David Thoreau—were major proponents of the Romantic Movement. Their thinking is entrenched in Rousseau’s binary of nature and culture, summed up in his maxim ‘nature makes everything good, man meddles with it until it becomes evil’. One does not need to read Derrida to see that this imagined binary, although it idealises nature and vilifies the human, is steeped in human exceptionalism and has little correspondence to reality. In his 2010 book The Ecological Thought, ecological theorist Timothy Morton vehemently argued for ‘ecology without Nature’, condemning Western culture’s attachment to the ‘natural’ as ‘a reified thing in the distance, under the sidewalk, on the other side where the grass is always greener’. In this view, the aesthetics of nature are an impediment to ecological progress, and when it comes to aesthetic objections to wind farms, Morton is scathing:

“One could easily read them as embodying the aesthetics of the sublime (rather than the beautiful). But it’s an ethical sublime that says, “We humans choose not to use carbon”—a choice visible in gigantic turbines. Perhaps it’s this very visibility of choice that makes wind farms disturbing: visible choice, rather than secret pipes, running under an apparently undisturbed “landscape”. [...] These fake landscapes are the original greenwashing.”

He is right that, in the age of the Anthropocene, the idea of a pristine natural space is delusory. Birds’ eggs in some of the remotest parts of the globe, such as those of northern fulmars in the High Arctic, have been found to contain chemical additives used in plastics, to cite just one example. The definition of a ‘landscape’ as a ‘prospect of natural inland scenery’ and the dichotomisation of nature and culture both date from the eighteenth century and are therefore embedded in the historical moment that produced the Industrial Revolution. The noun ‘landscape’ had originally referred to paintings depicting natural scenery before being transferred onto the physical environment itself—a case of art preceding life. It is therefore an inherently artificial concept, making the idea of a natural landscape paradoxical. All landscapes are, to a certain extent, ‘fake’.

Yet before our society was interested in protecting ecosystems, there was a push to preserve landscapes, and the practices and rhetoric of conservation have never entirely shaken off this legacy, especially since its success has always been bound up with tourism and those who spend money to visit ‘wild land’ continue to think along very similar terms to their Romantic predecessors. William Wordsworth objected to non-native tree species being planted in his beloved Lake District on the grounds that they cause ‘great injury to the appearance of the country’. He was writing in the wake of the eighteenth-century craze for the picturesque engendered by Edmund Burke’s On the Sublime and Beautiful and William Gilpin’s highly influential Picturesque Beauty. The Burkean sublime is centred on the experience of terror, a numinous awe at a wild and all-conquering force that could obliterate human presence with a single strike, such as tempestuous weather, towering mountains and seascapes, and powerful beasts. It is the ultimate fantasy of the Anthropocene, exaggerating mankind’s vulnerability in the face of this force to make it seem impossible that we could do it any lasting harm.

Henry David Thoreau, who has been hailed as a pioneer of conservation for his writings on natural history and call to protect threatened habitats, portrayed society’s spiritual fertility as being contingent on pristine natural land. Writing at the time of the American frontier, he portrays the search for unsettled territory as a kind of pilgrimage: ‘the future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side’, he wrote of walking westward in his essay Walking. His belief that cultures ‘survive as long as the soil is not exhausted’ demands constant territorial expansion. Although Thoreau advocates minimising the impacts of human presence in the ecosystem, his horror of over-cultivated landscapes justifies starting over elsewhere once spaces have been used up: his philosophy of leaving is also a philosophy of expansion. He could not have predicted the intensification of agricultural practices that would come with mechanisation, but he does envision the amplification of agriculture and acknowledge the territorial dispossession this process involves, writing that ‘the farmer displaces the Indian even because he redeems the meadow, and so makes himself stronger and in some respects more natural.’ In the Rousseauian Romantic discourse Thoreau is working with, what is natural is automatically good, so by suggesting that the settler farmer’s more intensive agricultural practices make him ‘in some respects more natural’ than the Native American he displaces, Thoreau whitewashes agricultural expansion. This veneration of pristine spaces has the potential to translate into reckless land stewardship: it implies that when you have exhausted a space, rather than regenerating it, you can seek virgin territories in which to begin over again.

Thoreau’s language echoes the rhetoric of colonialism—the earliest English authors to discuss the colonisation of the Americas imagined pristine, ‘virgin’ lands, and this fantasy of empty, pure territories trickled into the wider discourse of settler-colonialism over the next centuries. Conservation as we know it today was implemented in the second half of the twentieth century in colonial and newly-decolonised contexts and was influenced by the terms of reference of the settler ideology. Ironically considering Thoreau’s dislike of land enclosure, a line of inheritance can be traced from Walden to the national park movement, which was originally based on the ‘fortress’ model of conservation, which involves expelling local peoples from the designated area, fencing and patrolling its boundaries, and creating the impression of a wild, human-free space to allow wildlife (and tourists) to flourish.

Around the world, this system has led to shocking human rights abuses. In the 1970s in postcolonial Kenya, the Endorois people were forcibly removed from their traditional lands around Lake Bogoria to pave the way for a game reserve. The promise of compensation was not fulfilled, and the homeless Endorois were pushed into the neighbouring territory of other Kalenjin groups, inciting conflict. Similar travesties have continued to occur well into the twenty-first century: in 2020 the UN Development Programme launched an investigation into allegations of human rights abuses and violence taking place at Salonga National Park in the Messok Dja region of the Congo. The World Wildlife Fund, which had held full responsibility over the park since 2015, was found to have violated international law by establishing a fortress conservation site without the consent of the local Baka people, and, even more horrifically, the guards of the park were found to have been terrorising and abusing Baka people for years.

It is vital that indigenous peoples’ rights to their homeland should be inalienable and that the global community recognises and protects the role they have played and can continue to play in stewarding it. As Rainforest Foundation US has pointed out, the fact that 80% of the earth’s remaining biodiversity lies on indigenous lands is no coincidence. The United Nations has consequently begun to encourage community-based models of conservation which protect local peoples’ right to continue carrying out their lives on the land. The future of conservation—given new momentum by the necessity of preserving healthy, relatively undisturbed ecosystems for fighting the climate and biodiversity crises—reflects a wider debate at the nexus of species conservation and agriculture, between those who advocate for ‘land sharing’ as opposed to ‘land sparing’. These two models were put forward in the early 2000s by Cambridge conservation biologists Green and Balmford as alternative approaches to reconciling agriculture with conservation, with the aim of assessing how the trade-off between food production and biodiversity could most effectively be minimised. Land sharing involves enhancing biodiversity on land that is also being used for agriculture and around human habitations—implementing practices such as agroforestry and silvopasture and limiting the use of chemical pesticides. Land sparing, on the other hand, is a model that envisages vast swathes of land being put aside for nature to recover without human interference, requiring agricultural practices to be intensified elsewhere to produce high enough yields to feed the earth’s population–suggesting that our culture’s aesthetic preference for keeping unspoilt landscapes and human developments separate may not be more ecologically sound than recent trends in the environmental humanities, with their rejection of the ‘natural’, would suggest.

Ecologists have strong arguments on both sides, suggesting that we need a combination of both models: species with specific niches will only survive if their natural habitats are spared, but overall biodiversity is enhanced through a ‘sharing’ model that involves transitioning away from industrial agriculture. Similar assessments must be made when it comes to renewable energy developments: before building an onshore wind farm on a stretch of depleted land, the value of reforesting and restoring it for wildlife should be explored first. From this perspective, Morton’s contemptuous comment that ‘wilderness areas are the unconscious of modern society, places we can go to keep our dreams undisturbed’ in response to communities’ complaints about energy developments is over-simplistic. Wind turbines have been shown to have negative effects on bird and bat populations, which in turn has ripple effects on the whole local ecosystem. As well as the threat of ecological collapse, a healthy biosphere would soften the damage of global warming, so it is important that the renewable energy transition does not happen to the detriment of biodiversity. Morton’s scathing attack on those calling to preserve ‘fake landscapes’ fails to anticipate the UN Convention on Biodiversity’s call for 30% of global land to be set aside for biodiversity to recover. It is important to underline the necessity of expanding renewable energy infrastructure, but the trade-off with protecting biodiversity can be minimised, such as by concentrating the developments in urban areas and biological deserts.

It should also be recognised that the aesthetic power that the idea of wilderness untouched by human activity holds over our collective consciousness is more than naive nostalgia and goes beyond its damaging industrial and colonial manifestations. The sense of numinous awe that we feel when gazing at rugged mountain peaks or walking alone through a forest is an important way of relating to something larger than ourselves. That fascination won’t disappear anytime soon, and indeed should be considered an important human right. The UK Government has included ‘enhanced beauty, heritage, and engagement with nature’ as one of the ten goals of their 25-year environmental strategy, alongside promoting biodiversity and mitigating climate change. These goals will require more radical structural changes if they are to be effective, but the strategy’s holistic approach is a reminder that it is possible to find solutions that reinforce one another and create positive feedback loops, rather than tackling one issue at the expense of another. It is vital never to lose sight of the wood for the trees. The earth and all the life it supports have intrinsic value to which it is impossible to attach a price-tag or a certain quantity of carbon credits. We therefore urgently need intersectoral dialogue at all levels of society on the questions at the crux of all environmental action: what we should be endeavouring to preserve, for whom, and to what end.


Aili Channer is an environmental writer currently reading for a BA in English Language and Literature at Oxford, with a specialism in the environmental humanities. She is passionate about thinking historically and philosophically about the cultural patterns that have led to our contemporary ecological crises.

Art by Karolina Uskakovych.

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