A question of aesthetics

By Pascal Gielen

We need to work on our aesthetics, our sensory and emotional capacity to interact with the world.

Just before the Russian invasion, Ukrainian singer-songwriter Sacha Boole released the prophetic novel Klimop. In it, he paints an apocalyptic picture of his country after the war. All that remains is a desolate landscape with shattered ruins. No people left. Yet there is still life, even proliferating life. Ivy everywhere. Fauna and flora finally shoot back into full bloom. Our ecological problem seems solved because the biggest threat has gone. Humanity has finally disappeared from the scene. There is still hope for our planet…

It may be an absurd and dark thought, but it points to something important. Our concern for nature is, first and foremost, a concern for ourselves. In the climate battle, it is not nature that is central, but humanity. We want to save our own skin first. The future of our children is at stake, isn’t it?

Deep down, the climate battle is anthropocentric, and there is nothing wrong with that at all. On the contrary, it goes awry when we deny that humane perspective, when we think that the solutions to the climate crisis must be sought entirely in nature. From this follows quickly the easy reasoning that we will figure it out with some cutting-edge technology. Eco-capitalists like to make us believe it. With the right innovations and high-tech inventions, we can simply continue our familiar way of life. We may continue to drive the car as long as it is electric. We certainly still need to grow economically, as long as it is carbon-free. To save the world, it is enough to switch from fossil fuels to green energy, from nuclear fission to nuclear fusion; from business trips to digital meetings; from university campuses to Teams or Collaborate. That the entire IT business today already leaves a bigger footprint than the global airline business is soon forgotten. While scrolling, we hardly feel that we are overheating and polluting the world from the comfort of our armchair – if we did worry about that at all, and not just hope on other planets, and count on people like Elon Musk.

The original name of Green

Such a blind faith in redemption through science and technology displaces the fact that the whole climate issue is a human issue, that the crisis of nature is in fact a crisis of culture. Don’t forget the original name of GREEN! point to that? AGALEV: Living differently. That was a call for a different lifestyle, for different habits, values and norms. Indeed, an appeal to our culture.

Scientific arguments apparently cannot convince us completely. Climate report after climate report, there are more and more of them. Lots of empirical evidence, but we continue to eat meat, consume plastic, take planes and ‘doomscroll’. Even after COVID-19, business as usual. We seem to be missing something that can really convince us. If scientific evidence doesn’t help, what does?

Changing behavior and culture is not done with rational arguments alone. Affects, emotions and our entire sensory capacity play a decisive role in it. For instance, environmentalists have discovered the importance of eco-aesthetics for a while now. Making people realise the beauty of a landscape can convince them to take care of it ecologically as well. So aesthetics matters, but it is about much more than a pretty picture.

Sensory experiences matter

Aesthetics connects all our senses to emotions, moods and atmospheres. Designers know this all too well. Sounds, colours, smells, and temperatures can make us feel anxious or happy. Sensory experiences matter. They can stress us or make us concentrate. They can make us feel at home somewhere or just scare us away. Our physical environment contains a mass of information that we take in mostly unconsciously. That too is a matter of aesthetics.

The current digital environment, however, teaches us to deal with that information. Online culture is an audiovisual culture. An aesthetic of mere watching and listening. Moreover, the visual stimulus culture interferes nicely with our concentration and rhythmicity. Our sensory capacity is affected. It is an aesthetic deprivation that also leads to less empathy: less empathy for the vulnerability of people and things around us. After all, aesthetics relies partly on viscerality, also on semiochemistry and mirror neurons. These are chemicals and neurons that we constantly exchange with our physical environment, permanently informing us about the state of our fellow humans and our ‘fellow nature’. Thus, a polluted air climate is equally physically responsible for our mental and social anxiety climate. Anxiety can literally be breathed in. It involves data that we easily evade and repress behind our screen. It constricts our aesthetic capacity and disturbs our affect management. Anyone with an adolescent gamer in the house immediately understands what I mean. The online world has a huge effect on our behavior and thus on our culture.

What I want to say

Culture relies not only on ethics and morality, but also on our aesthetic experiences. Our lifestyles do not navigate purely on rational coordinates, but also on our sensory minds. Here then lies an important task for education and culture. To stretch our sensory capacity as far as possible. No longer allowing smartphones in the classroom is teaching that aesthetic capacity. But banning is a negative pedagogy that also calls for a positive interpretation. That is why the subject of aesthetics needs to be nicely upgraded. After all, it is much more than a talk to a picture. Our entire sensory economy is at stake. Our behavior will hardly change if we do not learn to balance it again. To overcome the climate crisis, we will therefore also have to put our aesthetics in order. Learning to feel again in the two senses of the word: sensory and emotional – touching the earth and being touched by it.

Pascal Gielen is full professor of cultural sociology at ARIA, University of Antwerp. Pascal Gielen has been researching the relationship between culture and nature in recent years. One of his most remarkable observations: science and technology alone will not save the earth.