I. Deleuze and Community Outrage. What is it and why does it hurt so much?
In terms of environmental policy, community outrage is a term that gained currency with John Elkington’s Cannibals with Forks: The triple bottom line of 21st Century business. It is defined as the product of increasing community concern for the environment and a decreasing level of trust in public institutions, especially in terms of protecting the environment. In part, community outrage is a reaction against antiquated Enlightenment concepts of the environment, which lay in Kant’s aesthetic virtue ofdisinterestedness (1790) – a distanced contemplation of the environment as artifactual rather than natural. This anthropocentric perspective dominated artistic appreciation of the environment into the mid-twentieth century.
Today, we live in a techno-somatic culture where everything is interpreted as an extension of the human condition. This is most evident in our relationship with the built environment – the city – however our expectations have changed since the city was built. As a life support system, the city is out of kilter with the community and its enviro-social values. We have lost our appreciation for the connection between individual action and its effect on the natural environment: the light switch and global warming, the cistern and water purity. A growing awareness of this self-deception has provoked community outrage, as evidenced in the recent conflicts between Government and community interest groups over such regulative reform as the Green Wedges legislation.
This tension between the natural and built environments resembles that between Deleuzean smooth (or nomad) and striated (or sedentary) space. For Deleuze (1980), the two spaces are always mixed, always at the interface of each other. From a public policy perspective it is no different, and addressing the interface between the natural and built environments is crucial. Our current Victorian State Government’s future is very much dependant on how well it addresses the urban and rural divide from social, economic and environmental perspectives.
State Government initiatives – such as the Green Wedges legislation – reflect community demands that we explore this interface between the natural and built environments. Although there is an ontological identification with the natural environment, contemporary life is played out in the arena of the built, just as Deleuze asserts that all becoming occurs in smooth space but progress is made by and in striated space. There is lack in our experience of the city, a disconnection between human action and the natural environment, which is why the community so identifies with the Green Wedges legislation. The initial community expectation of the legislation was, in Deleuzean terms, a ‘nomadic transit in smooth space’, a potential suture of the rupture in our experience of the natural environment that happened so long ago on our anthropocentric path.
Deleuze distinguished between our engagement with smooth and striated space as the difference between haptic and optical perception. It is useful to consider this distinction in terms of our aesthetic engagement with the interface between the built and natural environments. It is the eye that gives parts precedence over the whole. As we have discovered with the community outrage provoked by the Green Wedges legislation, subdivisions divide in more ways than one. They striate smooth space. Urban sprawl is digitising our engagement with the natural environment.
The Government has predominantly identified its role regarding the environment in terms of natural resource management rather than cultural custodianship. In actuality, it is both. According to Deleuze, the smooth space of the natural environment is “a space of affects, more than one of properties.” Conversely, the anthropocentric view of the world is one of utility, environment in terms of its properties. This perspective is Kantian – environment as artifact – and leads to the striation of the natural environment. However, community values stress the importance of the natural environment’s affects. The urban-rural divide is as much about this Deleuzean distinction as it is about population growth and economic equity.
II. Nietzsche and the Triple Bottom Lie. Metaphysics not aesthetics, sustainability not conservation.
As I have mentioned, in the mid-twentieth century there occurred a paradigmatic shift in our engagement with the environment. Hepburn (1966) promoted emotional and cognitive engagement with the environment – a metaphysical relationship rather than the aesthetic relationship maintained since the Enlightenment. Or rather, an aesthetics of engagement, which I characterise as metaphysical to distinguish it from Kantiandisinterestedness. I believe this changing perspective is significant not only in terms of art theory, but also in terms of environmental policy. It subverted the prevailing paradigm and deeply influenced the transition from conservation (old environmentalism), which had been around in various forms since the late nineteenth century, to sustainability (new environmentalism) in the 1990s.
The initial concept of Environmentally Sustainable Development (ESD) (World Summit on Sustainable Development, 1987) was a product of this paradigm shift. The World Summit on Sustainable Development promoted essentially an aesthetics of engagement, and warned against Kantian disinterestedness – but not in so many words. It was, though, a profound rally against anthropocentric views in environmental discourse. However, in all acts of subversion, maintaining currency of language is crucial, and already the new paradigm of environmental metaphysics, sustainability, is being subsumed by the language of the old and losing traction. ESD is being replaced by triple-bottom-line sustainability, which is infected by the pleurisy of radical pluralism and easily hijacked to serve the agenda of particular interest groups. It is anthropocentrism by another name.
Anthropocentrism, this very human tendency towards humanness, this cannibalism of the soul, is probably best articulated by Nietzsche (1887) in The Gay Science when he considers The Four Errors. It is the third and fourth of The Four Errors [of Man] that are of most interest to us from an environmental policy perspective: “[Man] placed himself in a false order of rank in relation to animals and nature, [and man] invented ever new tables of goods and always accepted them for a time as eternal and unconditional”.
It is the lie of the triple bottom line that provokes community outrage towards Government initiatives, as illustrated in the recent public outcry in relation to the Green Wedges legislation. Economic growth is such a pillar in public policy that it is seen as one of these eternal and unconditional goods. When urban sprawl digitilises what remains of our rural landscape, when in pursuit of growth we have destroyed the last remnant of indigenous culture within a 50-kilometer radius of Melbourne, how meaningful is the term triple bottom line then? When the single economic bottom line has eclipsed the other two?
The World Summit on Sustainable Development report was responsible for formulating the precautionary principle in relation to the allocation of our natural resources, but equally dangerous is what you might call the exclusionary principle – Nietzsche’s first great error of man, that “he always saw himself only incompletely”. There is a human, all-too-human, tendency with any new frame of discourse, to use it as a crutch to prop up our own particular agenda. You could be forgiven, when listening to some economists talk about the Dow Jones sustainability index, for thinking that sustainability was actually about sustainable profit margins. However, to consider sustainability in any limited, “incomplete” – but, admittedly, more comprehensible – capacity, we must do so at the exclusion of anything that might compromise our particular perspective, and in doing so we cannot “add value” to the sustainability policy debate.
Nietzsche’s first error, unfortunately, has multiple manifestations in our engagement with the environment. The expression of current environmental theory in culture – and, in turn, the influence of culture on emerging theory – elucidates and expresses the apparent inexpressibility of community outrage, but it also limits the framework in which sustainability is viewed, i.e., from a policy perspective, a framework about everything is actually about nothing at all. Government can work towards ameliorating community outrage and regaining trust by developing policy which reflects not only the change in the enviro-social relationship from the aesthetic to the metaphysical, but also by offering leadership in sustainability discourse. This winning back of the agenda will ensure that environmental sustainability remains sustainability of, by and for the environment.
Our appreciation of the environment post-Enlightenment has remained in the constructed culture of art and literature – where environment exists as artifact. However, the more primal appreciation of the environment that is promoted by contemporary environmental theorists lies in the metaphysical appreciation evidenced in ancient cultures – in mythology, folklore and religion. According to these beliefs imagination interprets the natural environment, and is no better exemplified, as Deleuze asserts, than by the haptic quality of nomad art.
This reaction against the distanced contemplation of Kant has led some theorists to argue that this paradigm shift in environmental aesthetics resonates so deeply that it challenges the way that we interpret art in general. Berleant (1990) argues that the appreciation of art excludes the natural environment, that prevailing paradigms of engaging with art are limited due to this, and that the “aesthetics of engagement” – our metaphysical appreciation of the interface between the natural environment and our techno-somatic culture in the built environment – is potentially a new way to appreciate all art.
It is certainly true that a by-product of the blurring of the interface between the built and natural environments is that environmental aesthetics has come to embrace even our most intimate, porcelained spaces. Carlson (1981, 1984) has always maintained that aesthetic appreciation must be informed by science and natural history, and this is nowhere more evidenced that in the demand on Government to fill the theoretical vacuum that has contributed to community outrage.
Foster (1998), who also stresses the aesthetics of engagement, characterised the ineffability of this relationship as a “feeling of being surrounded by or infused with an enveloping, engaging tactility.” This expression, which Foster also describes as ambient, certainly reminds us of the haptic quality of Deleuzean smooth space. It is my concern, and the argument of this paper, that we have not truly engaged the environmental policy debate while we maintain that triple-bottom-line sustainability is a measured, balanced, ‘proper’ approach. If the Victorian Government persists with a triple-bottom-line approach to sustainability while it maintains, as it does in its Sustainable State policy commitments, that it aspires to be “a world leader in environmental sustainability”, the Government would commit the second and last of Nietzsche’s great errors of man by “endowing itself with fictitious attributes.”
III. In Conclusion.
In our reaction against the sensory and formal qualities of Kantian disinterestedness, the new paradigm of aesthetics of engagement – a metaphysical contemplation of the environment as natural rather than artifactual – has provided a foundation for the reevaluation of environmental policy development.
Despite all the apparent confusion in defining sustainability, the enviro-social value of sustainability essentially rests with maintaining the currency of its discourse. Conservation was an anthropocentric reaction to the environmental crisis, it enabled government to appear to be responding to the problem without addressing the cause: the sense of disconnection between the smooth, natural environment and the human experience of living in the striated, built environment.
Policy is a form of praxis – the ability to turn principles into action. I believe robust sustainability policy development – that recognises the community’s metaphysical engagement with the environment, and the cultural synergism between art appreciation and the appreciation of the world-in-itself – can address the current environmental policy vacuum. Initially, it can do so by being selective in what it brings to the table when we talk about sustainability, i.e. the environment.
Community outrage can only be ameliorated through providing certainty about the environment. The Bracks Government was re-elected, in part, on its offer of certainty in addressing environmental issues. The recent Green Wedge controversy is due to a perceived lack of certainty by the community. Sustainability and economic growth, although potentially not mutually exclusive, are distinct paradigms. To obtain its desired outcome of becoming a world leader in sustainability practices, the Bracks Government will need to demonstrate that it has read its Nietzsche and no longer views economic growth as an eternal and unconditional good.
Arnold Berleant (1990). Art and Engagement (Philadelphia, Temple University Press)
Allen Carlson (1981). “Nature, Aesthetic Judgment, and Objectivity,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 40: 15-27.
Allen Carlson (1984). “Nature and Positive Aesthetics,” Environmental Ethics 6: 5-34.
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1980). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, tr. B. Massumi (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press)
John Elkington (1997). Cannibals With Forks: The triple bottom line of 21st Century business (Oxford , Capstone)
Cheryl Foster (1998). “The Narrative and the Ambient in Environmental Aesthetics,”Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56: 127-37.
Ronald Hepburn (1966). “Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty,” in B. Williams and A. Montefiore (eds), British Analytical Philosophy (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul)
Immanuel Kant (1987 ). Critique of Judgment, tr. W.S. Pluhar (Indianapolis, Hackett).
Friedrich Nietzsche (1974 ). The Gay Science (New York, Vintage Books)
Victorian Department of Infrastructure (2002). Melbourne 2030: Planning for sustainable growth, (Melbourne, Victorian State Government)
World Commission on Environment and Development (1987). Our Common Future(Oxford, Oxford University Press)