J. Douglas Porteous, Environmental Aesthetics

With summertime here, the academic shifts gears: no, not toward fluffy summer reading, but toward books complicated enough not to fit easily around office hours and marking binges. Next up for me, J. Douglas Porteous, Environmental Aesthetics: Ideas, Politics, Planning.

Environmental Aesthetics was written at an interesting time, appearing as it did from Routledge in 1996, because the late 90s saw significant changes in the four disciplines this book tries to cover. Porteous, a geographer by training, wrote this book in an attempt to bring together thinking about environmental aesthetics from the humanities, experimental sciences, activism, and public policy and planning. In the succeeding years, both environmental history and the "literature and environment" movements got seriously moving in the humanities; experimental scientists got some additional momentum with UN and other public endorsement of assorted ideas and initiatives; environmental activists went global and more consistently added social justice (including aesthetic issues) to their placards; and planning ... well, I don't know much about planning. And I still don't trust governments or corporations, so I don't know quite what to say about that element of Porteous's four-part vision.

The key to the book is to understand that for Porteous, aesthetics isn't a defense or explanation of the neutrally pretty, or even of the (classically defined) beautiful. One of his concerns is that collectively, we've lost some of our sense of what "landscape" really means -- we understand it primarily as "scenery," as a view or succession of views from specific sites. For Porteous, landscape is an immersive experience. Terms like "smellscape" and "soundscape" are part of the book's vocabulary, because the visual has so dominated our understanding of aesthetics, and a sense of home is important here, too. (Not as important as it is in his 2001 book Domicide: The Global Destruction of Home, co-written with Sandra E. Smith, which has gone on my reading list, but important.)

The basic approach here is to see how the four disciplines have worked toward understanding the concepts of environmental aesthetics, toward understanding how we see ourselves physically in the world. Some of the most intriguing sections for me have to with his recounting of psychological work suggestive of distinct personality types based on differential relations to landscape, environment, and/or nature. (Yes, there are all sorts of naming problems in this sort of conversation. You expected something different?) Phillips and Semple's 1978 use of the Environmental Response Inventory for students in the University of Waterloo's Faculty of Environmental Studies, for example, identified seven quite distinct personality clusters, which Porteous summarizes with this gloomy remark:
"those who have a rich and flexible generalist approach, one most likely to contribute to a balanced approach to environmental change, find themselves powerless in the face of the rule-governed, group-cohesive, elitist professionalism of the planners" (p.131).
As with the other sections of the book, Porteous ends this one with a call for different types of research, more research, and more work toward personal and social change.

His work on zoning law seemed to me very insightful, including the idea that understanding landscape as a "visual resource" empowers certain kinds of activist legislation because it allows the financial and otherwise material quantification (however shaky such quantification might be, methodologically) of landscape. As well, I appreciated his call for deeper and more regular conversations between his four groups (especially between representatives of the humanities and the experimental sciences). On the other hand, I don't respond well to his concluding suggestions that for humans to survive, we need to develop some sort of "environmental religion" (p.264). I'm okay when he's talking about an "aesthetic-ethical consciousness" (ibid.), but my devout atheism doesn't give me the tools to assess fairly his call for what would after all represent a fairly different sort of religious experience.

All things considered: Porteous assesses the mid-90s state of these four disciplinary groups very well, so it represents a valuable historical document as well as a useful resource for checking on how things have evolved since then. As a call to specific action, his suggestions for research plans and for activist change seem to me very significant. It's earned a place on my Frequent Reference shelf, I think.


Anonymous said…
I was at school with Douglas - VERY clever boy!!

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