4 arguments for deliberate descent, part 2: aesthetic

This is part 2 in a series of posts on a taxonomy of arguments for deliberate descent.  Part 1 is here.

Aesthetic arguments.  An aesthetic argument concludes that we ought to initiate deliberate descent from the premise that doing so will yield a more beautiful world or way of life.1  Few if any writers make purely aesthetic arguments, but aesthetic concerns show up in all sorts of places to buttress other sorts of reason.  Kunstler’s criticisms of suburbia certainly have a prominent aesthetic component, but it’s not hard to find offhand mention, in the middle of almost anyone’s piece about any of industrial society’s environmental harms, of just how ugly the damn thing is.  Coal-dust haze, lagoons of pig shit, sprawling cloverleaf highway exchanges, smog layered over a city, erstwhile mountains scraped flat by strip mining, rank eutrophied “dead zones”—images of such things arouse the reader’s aesthetic sense in addition to the harms they communicate.  (The food movement has, because of its subject-matter, been able to take particular advantage of aesthetic imagery; witness ‘Frankenfoods’, ‘pink slime’, ‘factory farm’.)

Manhattan, 1973

Manhattan smog, 1973

Aesthetic arguments, for all their ubiquity, aren’t exactly respectable these days.  Anyone who argued for deliberate descent simply because it would yield a more beautiful world would be called “deeply unserious;” in the main it’s economic issues that so-called serious people care about, and sometimes moral issues, too (usually where the moral and economic spheres overlap, e.g. in concern for standard of living in developing economies).  Nonetheless, to the right kind of audience an aesthetic argument can resonate, and I suspect that’s why aesthetic concerns show up so often, although never to carry the full weight of an argument.

Aesthetic claims are evaluative, or—to use the philosophers’ term of art—normative.  ‘Beautiful’, ‘composed’, ‘elegant’, ‘inviting’, ‘garish’, ‘hackneyed’, ‘unbalanced’ and the like are used to evaluate a thing relative to some norm, and this normative dimension of aesthetic claims lends both strengths and weaknesses to arguments made on their basis.

The chief weakness, which can be crippling in the wrong contexts, is that contemporary audiences are on the whole skeptical about aesthetic norms.  Of course the idea that there’s no accounting for taste has a long pedigree, and art criticism continues to be practiced in a handful of tenacious publications, but I’d guess that today’s typical response to the claim that something is aesthetically good is: “according to whom?”  The idea that aesthetic norms could be objective, that a person could be wrong when they enjoy or fail to enjoy an artwork, sounds quaint and snobbish.  So if an argument for descent is backed by aesthetic claims, it risks being charged with snobbery, classism, and the putting down of others’ equally valid aesthetic judgments.  And indeed, this is just the kind of rejoinder that shows up, notably in response to the food movement. Caitlin Flanagan provides a snarkily excellent example:

Waters … is, of course, the founder of Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, an eatery where the right-on, “yes we can,” ACORN-loving, public-option-supporting man or woman of the people can tuck into a nice table d’hôte menu of scallops, guinea hen, and tarte tatin for a modest 95 clams—wine, tax, and oppressively sanctimonious and relentlessly conversation-busting service not included.

(Not that I think Flanagan’s arguments against school gardens are any good; she’s just very good at peppering her essay with ad hominem gestures at the sort of snobbery people love to hate.)

Rigler school garden

Rigler school garden

The chief strength of aesthetic arguments’ normative dimension is that normative claims have a peculiar independence from certain empirical facts.  If something is beautiful, harmonious, or what have you, that’s a reason to admire or produce it even if it’s rare, costly, or unpopular.  (Not necessarily conclusive reason, but reason nonetheless.)  So aesthetic arguments for descent are unaffected by pointing out that e.g. suburban sprawl is ubiquitous, or that millions of Americans buy (and thereby endorse) factory-farmed meat.  And neither are they affected—this seems crucial to me—by quibbling over empirical details of the sort that matter for prudential arguments.  As escapefromwisconsin put it well in an excellent and vital essay:

What “reversalist” authors like Kunstler and Greer and others represent is a long-standing criticism of industrial culture as progress at all. These authors believe that the way things were done in the past, before the widespread use of fossil fuels were more humane, rewarding, and appropriately scaled to fundamental human needs for community, trust, and sociability. They see the vast complexity, fragility, and alienation produced by technology as a step backward, not forward. … But here’s the thing: their criticisms would be just as valid even if the most optimistic fantasies of the cornucopians were correct.

We do not need peak oil to promote local economies, walkable communities, civic engagement, cooperative businesses, low-carbon energy, regenerative agriculture, or composting. These ideas are valid for their own sake. Just because I question whether Peak Oil will naturally force us to adopt such concepts does not mean I don’t think they are a good idea. I emphatically do, and I would actively promote them as the best way forward even if we had a thousand years of oil left in the ground ….

Because they rely on normative claims, aesthetic arguments provide reasons for descent that are independent of the facts about the threat of peak oil, climate change, or any other threat.  But as the sentences just quoted illustrate, aesthetic concerns are just one species of the normative.  In part 3 of this series, I’ll take up another species: moral arguments.

1 I’m using ‘beautiful’ here as the most general term of aesthetic approval, although my sense is that other, “thicker,” aesthetic terms like ‘elegant’, ‘obscene’, ‘fluid’, etc, are more common.  An appeal to any positive aesthetic claim will count for my purposes as an aesthetic argument.

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