Doug McCauley on Ecosystem Services

Claire and I interviewed ecologist Doug McCauley to talk about how to value ecosystems.  Should we value them based on the ecological services they provide?  If natural systems are economically useful and valuable in their natural state, we might have a better chance at preserving them.  Can we conserve nature by putting a dollar value on it?

Have a listen.

Here are my takeaways from the conversation:

  • If we as individuals find nature to be valuable for non-economic reasons, we should expect our political discourse to refer explicitly to such values too.
  • We can avoid framing the discussion in terms of intrinsic vs. extrinsic values by focusing instead on nature’s non-economic value to us.  Conservation can be valuable to us for non-economic reasons: it is aesthetically important, we enjoy being in it, it links us to the past, to other species, etc.
  • Conserving the natural environment has historical value. We too often forget that the built environment is a very recent one.  We’ve lived in it for only a sliver of our evolutionary history. By conserving natural areas, we preserve a link to the past.  History can be empowering.  By remembering that the way things are is not the way they’ve always been – and therefore not the way they must be in the future – we remember that we have the power to change the present.  This environment that we find ourselves in isn’t necessarily “the best of all possible worlds.”  It’s one possible world among many.

Claire says:

  • The best way to ensure that our society values nature and wildspaces for their intrinsic, aesthetic, or joy-making possibilities is to imbue our youth through education and real experience in the outdoors. While this may seem like a simple idea, it is a necessary element that needs to find a place in our current academic community.

Emily Brady on the Aesthetics of Nature


I recently spoke with Emily Brady of the University of Edinburgh about the aesthetic appreciation of nature.  We talked about the sublime, which is that feeling you get when you are standing before something much bigger than yourself.  That something could be a mountain or a skyscraper, making me wonder whether the sublime is really just a feeling of “wildness.”

We might not find as much beauty as we’d like in the man-made world, i.e. the very environment that supports our civilization and dwarfs our bodily and intellectual capacities.  But perhaps we can find the sublime.  Perhaps we can view it as a wilderness of sorts.  An environment of awe-inspiring places and objects.

The internet circa 2005 by

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“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary…”

I just read a haunting philosophical paper.  (What, you didn’t think philosophical papers could be haunting?)



In nature, we recognize the limits of language.

In environmental philosophy, we push those limits.  And we confront and re-make them within language itself.  

Professor Cheryl Foster says:

As philosophers, we are confined to the narrative in making a case for the non-narrative.

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Audio interview: Steven Vogel

Following up on an earlier post, Matt Leudtke and I interviewed Professor Steven Vogel about his article “The Nature of Artifacts.”

Professor Vogel says, “nature, shmature,” Matt compares Vogel to an old man telling riddles, and Zach’s mind is blown – live, on radio – by a comparison between wilderness and the free market.  Oh, and Matt’s dog makes an appearance as a natural object/artifact/you decide.

Enjoy the ideas, and please comment below.  Background music from composer Chris Zabriskie.

Is there a moral duty to appreciate un-scenic nature?

Philosopher Yuriko Saito argues in “The Aesthetics of Unscenic Nature” that there is. She reminds us that people once used to find mountains ugly; now, we spend our free time climbing them.  Our aesthetic judgments are still evolving.

We are witnessing another revolution in this country which started a century ago. Its primary purpose is to overcome the pictorial appreciation of the natural environment, a legacy left by the picturesque aesthetics established during the latter half of the eighteenth century.

The “picturesque” refers to appreciating nature as a picture, composed of formal qualities like shape and color.  Think postcards.

Professor Saito says in a separate article, “Appreciating Nature on Its Own Terms,” that it’s okay to begin our appreciation of nature in the picturesque:

Even Aldo Leopold, the champion of aesthetic education concerning nature, recognizes that “our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty.”

But as in art, we should refine our taste.  Some philosophers think that the picturesque  is a shallow mode of appreciation, and that if we are to “truly” appreciate something as it actually is – whether it be art or nature – we must first acquire knowledge about the object.  For artworks, that’s art history. For nature, that’s science.

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