What role does an appreciation of beauty play in serving as a faithful steward of the environment? Is natural beauty all that matters?
Roger Scruton, in his book, “Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet,” argues that it should be a central component of our approach to environmental conservation. As an intrinsic value, beauty offers the natural world an attribute that can transform it from a means to an end. Rather than viewing the environment as a resource-rich asset, we can attend to conserving and cherishing the natural world in and of itself.
In his exploration, Scruton acknowledges that a post-Christian culture is much more willing to prize aesthetic value over religious conviction. Or, in other words, what is beautiful has gained ascendency over what is sacred.
The primary challenge of placing beauty on such a pedestal is the common view of beauty as a subjective value. Scruton trots out on a tightrope by positioning beauty somewhere between subjectivity and objectivity. Like moral judgments, aesthetic judgments are deeply personal, even ingrained in one’s sense of identity, but they also are inextricably anchored in the external world.
Scruton presents an example of a neighbor who has a very different style of decoration for Christmas from your own. Initially, the subjective differences are bothersome but not significant. With each passing year, however, the neighbor’s decorations become increasingly gaudy and visually obtrusive. With this image in mind, the subjective and objective elements of beauty come into clearer focus.
In spite of beauty’s cultural ascendency over piety, the sacred and the beautiful have, nonetheless, collapsed into one another. Scruton cites the Gaia Hypothesis, as well as the religion of deep ecology, as examples of beauty taking on the rhetoric of religion. In practice, this looks like respect for the sacred being divorced from traditional religious meaning and then attached to some other entity, like the natural world.
I want to affirm Scruton’s appreciation of beauty’s role in motivating environmental stewardship and conservation. However, true stewardship demands that we subvert the cultural norm of viewing beauty as having more value than piety. Aesthetic value has tremendous significance for motivating sound conservation practices, but it is subservient to the fuller notion of ‘goodness’ offered by morality. Within a biblical framework, the richest sense of beauty is only realized when something, or someone, is in alignment with God’s created moral order. Natural creation groans in the pains of childbirth, as it awaits the moral redemption and rejuvenation of mankind (Romans 8:22-23). For, creation will be renewed and beautified along with its stewards.
At a more general level, determination of beauty, in its fullest sense, naturally follows recognition of moral goodness. In the example of a neighbor’s Christmas decorations, you do not ultimately respond the difference in taste so much as you respond to the exhibition of excess and possibly consumerism. On the positive side, the faithfulness of a wife to her husband, and of a husband to his wife, displays a sense of beauty that is fuller and more meaningful than any other man or woman can come to appreciate.
By reordering the prevailing hierarchy of the beautiful above the sacred, we can clarify the purpose of stewardship as an obedient response to the God of Scripture. Within this view, natural beauty is a valuable good that is worthy of our protection. However, that commitment is balanced against the economic requirements of certain regions and the energy needs of the poor.
The role of mankind, as God’s vice-regents upon the earth, saddles us with a commitment to conserving the natural world that emphasizes the value of our fellow man. The beauty of a community raised from poverty or of disadvantaged children having a greater life expectancy is reproducible. When the world becomes more beautiful in these ways, the opportunities for natural beautification increase as well. As phrased by Dr. Calvin Beisner: “A clean environment is a costly good.” Therefore, the alleviation of human poverty and suffering is a primary means of advancing a cleaner environment.
In light of this, the pursuit of moral beauty is not over and against the pursuit of natural beauty. (Although, engaging in redemptive, moral action is of a higher class of beauty than cleaning up the environment.) Rather, caring for the poor and loving our neighbor elevates people so that they may faithfully steward the world around them.