Understanding aesthetics in the era of climate change calls for philosophical approaches - Lahti

Understanding aesthetics in the era of climate change calls for philosophical approaches

What aesthetics means in the era of climate change? Would it be easier to answer if one first thinks what physics means in the same era? From a philosophical perspective, both ideas are fascinatingly perplexing. In a practical sense, also philosophical aesthetics is influenced by numerous environmental changes that affect research questions and methods.

Utua Pikku-Vesijärven päällä

To understand aesthetics in our age, one could start from considering the meaning of the era of climate change and conclude that it is characterized by heightened awareness of climate change both as a phenomenon and a discussion topic. The era’s ingrained features consist of, for example, debates on the root causes and consequences of climate change and efforts to make sense of the catastrophic state of the planet. The perspectives are typically then both environmental and political. Adding an aesthetics perspective into the mix is challenging and not the least because aesthetics is not that widely known as a discipline. Nonetheless, aesthetic values affect all our lives in one way or another and the discussion about them dates back to centuries. For that reason, aesthetics research could, on its part, assist us to better understand our era.

But what do we mean by the notion of aesthetics in the era of climate change? For example, is it about a search for the essence of the lifestyle of our time? If that is the answer, aesthetics could almost be synonymous with fashion or style trends. If so, are we then driven by the wish to know what is contemporarily considered beautiful or otherwise aesthetically pleasing? This thought could imply that our motive really is to change people’s tastes and preferences. The question follows, if our current aesthetic preferences and choices are strengthening climate change and biodiversity loss, how could we reshape our aesthetic tastes to accelerate the transition to sustainability? But perhaps there are also other ways to understand aesthetics.

Considering beauty is an age-old phenomenon

Aesthetics is a philosophical discipline. One of its central research questions concerns beauty. In philosophical aesthetics, though, beauty can also be used as an umbrella term for a wide range of concepts referring to aesthetic values, from sublime to grotesque and from picturesque to kitsch. Especially in this technical sense, we can hold that considering beauty is an age-old phenomenon. Independent of the era, aesthetic judgements and experiences form a part of people’s lives. And there is no reason to think that future generations would differ in this sense. In essence, aesthetics, as the search for an understanding of value and meaning, is still similar to how it was practiced thousands of years ago.

However, also aesthetics research can be influenced by climate change and awareness of it. For example, the question about aesthetic values’ transgenerationality has become especially topical

now that the effects of global warming are becoming acutely perceivable within a single lifetime. This perspective makes us ask, should we assess also beauty by taking into account future generations? To answer, we need to anticipate in what conditions future generations form their aesthetic appreciations. For example, what kind of environments are people perceiving in fifty years’ time? What kind of art will be practiced and appreciated? And who will be then thought as capable to experience aesthetic value?

A possibility of sustainable aesthetics

In my doctoral research, I approach the question about aesthetics in the era of climate change by exploring a possibility of sustainable aesthetics. My premise is that understanding the role of aesthetic values in accelerating the transition to sustainability requires considering the aesthetic dimension with a holistic approach to sustainability.

There has been little research into the problematics of sustainability from the perspective of philosophical aesthetics despite the demand for this kind of research. Sustainability as a concern and an approach is not new in art and art studies. This was demonstrated, for example, by the University of Helsinki’s recently developed sustainability course of art studies. Ecocriticism, ecomusicology, and ecodramaturgy are a few examples of the frameworks which reflect the self-understanding of human being and human-nature relationship in our era. In philosophical aesthetics, such approaches are discussed to understand those theoretical arguments which are about our propensity to perceive and discuss beauty and other aesthetic values.

Can aesthetics be sustainable? Certainly, it can in the same way as physics research, for example, can be sustainable. Current research and teaching practices can be, at least partially, replaced by more ecologically sustainable and socially fairer alternatives. This could mean, for example, re-evaluating the need for physical international symposia. Perhaps a more interesting approach, however, would be to return to the fundamentals of aesthetics and explore whether key factors of aesthetic valuation and experiencing can promote a systemic sustainability transformation.

Noora-Helena Korpelainen
The writer is a doctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki and its Doctoral Programme in Interdisciplinary Environmental Sciences (DENVI). Her research aims to understand aesthetic sensibility within the context of sustainability transformation. Currently, the Finnish Cultural Foundation funds her research. Korpelainen works as a Specialist in the Lahti University Campus Coordination Unit and in relation to the International Institute of Applied Aesthetics' (IIAA) functions.