Appreciation from afar: preserving nature’s “hidden gems”

I’m on an environmental aesthetics kick and I think it’s going to last a while.  So I hope you like this stuff as much as I do.

Glenn Parsons recently published an article that took me by surprise.  Here’s the problem:

It’s hard to say what nature’s “intrinsic” value is.  It’s a lot easier to argue that its value is instrumental – that it leads to an end outside of itself.  For instance, we can say that nature is valuable because it causes humans to experience aesthetic pleasure.  (Similarly, we can say it is valuable because it provides us with food, building supplies, fuel, medicines, etc.).  In other words, nature is a means, not an end.

But there are problems even with this “easier” approach to describing nature’s value.  Professor Parsons focuses on one – what he calls the “Hidden Gems” problem.  If people cannot visit a particular natural area because of its ecological fragility or inaccessibility, this area can’t be a means to its aesthetic appreciation.

Since no one can actually enjoy the aesthetic value of the natural area, its aesthetic value seems tantamount to no value at all, and useless as a justification for its preservation.


Perhaps we can appreciate it indirectly via our imaginations.  But then why bother preserving it?  We could just as easily imagine a place that once existed but no longer does.

Or we can appreciate representations – e.g. photographs, movies, drawings, etc.  But is it really possible to aesthetically appreciate a place through a representation?  (Maybe using artificial reality goggles…).  And why bother preserving the place once we’ve made enough representations to enjoy?

Professor Parsons’s answer is that the people who do get to visit the place – like research scientists – can act as “true judges” of environmental aesthetic value.

Good literary critics, for instance, make appraisals of the aesthetic value of literary works that call our own preferences into question, help us to see key things that we’ve missed, and draw us toward works we may have unduly neglected. In doing these things, they lead us toward the improvement of our own aesthetic judgement. My suggestion is that true judges of aesthetic value in nature can help improve all of our tastes in landscape in a similar way.


Even if only a handful of people get to see a particular place, that experience will improve their aesthetic judgment and benefit us all.  Of course, they’ll need to share their experience with us.  Perhaps scientists who are allowed to conduct research in an area that is closed to the public will be required to write about the area’s aesthetic value.  Professor Parsons imagines governments making such demands:

It may seem strange to think of government bureaucracies parsing such aesthetic issues with respect to the landscape, but such bureaucracies commonly, if imperfectly, regulate analogous issues of historical, cultural and aesthetic value in other contexts. For example, they routinely establish criteria for handling valuable artefacts — archaeological specimens, literary manuscripts, and so on.

What do you think?  Is this a solid reason for preserving a natural area that few of us will ever get a chance to visit?  

The Farallon Islands are off the coast of San Francisco and closed to the public.  I'd love to see them first-hand, but I'd probably have to first get a PhD in biology...


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