Aesthetics, Socio-Economics, and Ecology

A Brief Summary of Problems and Possible Solutions in an Eco-centric Worldview 

The Bioregional Classroom 

Disclaimer: though I "wrote" the following entry, it is the summary of a discussion by a group of 5 students in Dr. David Stacey's English 600 class at Humboldt State University. As such, I feel it is important that the reader be aware of the original context of this piece.

Aesthetics, Socio-economics, and Ecology

Our conversation on ecocriticism covered a lot of ground, and it is advisable to read the forum thread titled “Eco-centric Discussion,” as this summary is just that – a summary – and can in no way hope to fully capture the complexities of that discussion. That said, our discussion seemed to focus largely on issues of definition. Once we moved past the initial conversation of ecocriticism as an eclectic approach, the problems of various terms and concepts bandied about in both the field of ecology and literary studies arose as a central concern in our discussion. The problem of aesthetics in relation to “Nature” emerged as a possibly problematic area in ecocriticism. This problem was resolved to some extent by consideration of new aesthetic approaches, such as that proposed by Barry Lopez in his book Arctic Dreams, where he cautions against a picturesque aesthetic in viewing the natural world, calling instead for an aesthetic that merges scientific and traditional and indigenous cultural conceptions of landscape.

The problem of the human conception of nature – and more specifically what determines those parts of nature that humans consider “valuable” was not resolved in this discussion, nor do I think it could ever really be resolved in any discussion (!) The question became not, “if a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, will it make a sound?” but rather, “if a tree falls in a forest, does it matter, and if so, to whom does it matter, and why?” One way that ecocriticism can continue to progress in the face of such unanswerable questions is by recognizing that meaning and value are constructed by human being, and as such they arise out of and are inexorably bound to specific contexts. This leads into the next part of our discussion, which focused on the problem of ecology as something traditionally associated with the white middle class.

The question was raised as to the relevance of ecocriticism to urban dwelling African Americans. Seeing as how I am not African American, nor an urban dweller, I feel unqualified to speculate on this too far. But as one group member mentioned, recent activity by groups of African American activists in the bay area show that ecology is not a solely “white” concern. Consideration of specific contexts – i.e. specific human/ environmental situations -- rather than the imposition of artificial, abstract concepts of “Man and Nature” seems to resolve the possible problem of ecology as something practiced and practicable only by the white middle class. The specific cultural concerns of any given group need not (in fact must not) be glossed over in the interest of taking a broad view (something central to ecocriticism). Instead, the particular ways in which human beings affect and are effected by their environments in concrete everyday situations should be the central concern of ecology, and by way of extension of ecocriticism.