There Is More Than One Way to Discuss the Aesthetic Dimension in Sustainable Development

Author: Noora-Helena Korpelainen

Alex loves colour and taste, a holiday abroad, and sunshine with morning coffee. This Alex is you and me, a citizen of a wealthy country. It is Alex who is asked to change his/her preferences, choices, and practices for the sake of the planet and forthcoming generations – to be a hero of our time, and for a good reason: it is humans who have, with their way of living, caused global climate change and biodiversity loss to mention only two of the many grave phenomena of our time. It is also because of Alex that we eagerly develop new technology to compensate for the necessary changes to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Does unsustainability then boil down to our preferred taste of living?

Photo by Todd Quackenbush on Unsplash

Consider Aesthetics

It is all too easy to blame our aesthetic inclinations, for example, Alex’s drive for colour and taste, for exotic and familiar, for our unsustainable practices. In fact, doing so implies a lack of aesthetic literacy. It also undermines that, which is pointed out, for example, by the etymological root of the word ‘aesthetic’: aesthesis (Greek) means sensory perception and that which is (dis)valued through perception, for example, beauty, delicacy, ugliness. Although the meaning of the aesthetic may remain open to dispute, much of the recent aesthetics’ research understands Alex, as well as other human beings, as doomed to deal with the aesthetic.

Aesthetics may also be Alex’s practice. Sometimes s/he ponders what art is. S/he makes pottery and aquarelles, has a season ticket to opera, and eagerly discusses the latest tv-series. Public artworks arouse his/her opinion, and novels keep him/her company. Although Alex might gladly avoid analytically scrutinizing questions around meaning, senses, values, emotions, imagination, and affect, for example, as is done in the philosophical discipline of aesthetics, s/he is not totally unaware of that realm of being and doing. After all, s/he prefers particular fragrances, moves, textures, and atmospheres. And while Alex’s aesthetic interest in environments through gardens, urban green infrastructure, and friluftsliv or in everyday experiences through cooking, jogging, and home decoration might tell something about Alex’s time, such discussion is not novel for an aesthetically minded meaning-making and discussion.

Sustainable Aesthetics? No Thanks!

Alex wishes to support sustainable development. Yet, s/he is often heard saying out loud, and sometimes on an aesthetic basis, “No thanks!” to veganism, pedestrianism, and unfashionability, for example. Is sustainable aesthetics then too much to ask for?

What about if developing sustainability paradoxically necessitates unsustainable aesthetics?

Don’t get me wrong. The efforts towards environmentally more sustainable and socially more just practices are invaluable, nay crucial. Those efforts also shape that complexity we seize in perception, eventually influencing various aesthetically related practices. In this sense, artists are exemplary, for example, when engaging in such use of materials that can be considered more sustainable. But our environmental awareness can also play a role in our experiences of nature through the organization of space and matter, for example, in built environments and urban and national parks. Nevertheless, to achieve long-term sustainability transformations, we may need to accept that no particular type of aesthetics sustains – not even the one that could be currently regarded as ecologically sustainable.

By referring to the temporal meaning of sustainability, I wish to say that aesthetics, as a practice involving inquiry, cannot be limited to that understanding of the human experience we currently have or want to preserve. On the contrary, through committing to experiment and exploration, aesthetics offers assistance in changing our experience.

Luckily there is more than one way to discuss the aesthetic dimension in sustainable development.

Photo by Noora-Helena Korpelainen

Broadening the Conception of Sustainability

The aesthetic dimension can be, for example, discussed as a critical lens to the ecological, economic, social, and cultural dimensions of sustainability. It means enabling a reflective approach to individual experiences through time. Recently, such use has been suggested by aesthetics’ researchers with the complementary category and concept of aesthetic sustainability.

Aesthetic sustainability concerns, first and foremost, the perceptible reality. Also in our aesthetic domain, some elements sustain changes while others do not pass the “test of time.” It can be revealing to study the relationship between those aesthetic elements and the various dimensions of sustainability. Thus, instead of conceiving sustainability only as a challenge to our aesthetic appreciation and experiences, aesthetic sustainability underlines that the aesthetic dimension can also broaden the conception of sustainability.

Developing Capabilities for Sustainability Transitions

The aesthetic dimension can also be discussed through the practices of developing one’s sensitivity and cultivating our sensibility. As many aesthetics’ researchers have recently argued, using imagination, artistic skills, and sensitivity may support building individual and societal resilience during contemporary multiscale transitions. For example, artistic skills are used to detect and reflect, in works of art, our unsustainable practices in a way that leaves room for critical thinking as well as building awareness and changing attitudes. In short, some works of art have the power to touch and move us. Another example is to draw power from deepening one’s sensitivity within a changed everyday environment, say, through focusing on the experiences brought about, for instance, by sounds, sceneries, smells, and bodily postures in an unfavourable situation. Aesthetic experiences often uplift Alex’s well-being, thus enhancing her/his opportunities to participate also in sustainability transitions.

Being part of a transition, in turn, calls for adaptation to which open-mindedness, caring, and perceptual skills can be supportive. Alex’s aesthetic practice may thus mean learning to find beauty in new ways. In some cases, accepting the un-fixedness of the aesthetic – or beauty – can mean turning to more sustainable practices, for instance, engaging in the circular economy or aesthetically appreciating the experience of being in the dark when appropriate. And as our aesthetic choices and values transform, so may our shared aesthetic sensibility, as can be deduced from the previous large-scale cultural transformations discussed in aesthetics.

Of course, this is not to say that artistic and aesthetic practices could provide the solution to speeding up sustainability transitions but that developing one’s sensitivity and the changes in aesthetic sensibilities may also have a supportive role in those processes.

Motivating Practices with Concepts

Yet another way to discuss the aesthetic dimension in sustainable development is to consider the role aesthetics’ concepts have. Thoughts and ideas motivate our practices, and aesthetics’ concepts show like a spotlight the realm of experience we may not have noticed before. Think about, for example, urban aesthetics and food aesthetics. Such concepts invite us to experiment, for example, to taste food and ponder how various aspects of our experience with food amount to the experience being precisely aesthetic. For some, this means adopting utterly new practices and an overall interest in broadening one’s conception and experience of food.

In terms of climate change, the recently appeared concepts of weather aesthetics and cryosphere aesthetics are especially inspiring concepts because they provide attempts to bridge perception and climate change – the phenomenon that affects our perception but which we are nevertheless unable to perceive directly. To get a grasp of what to perceive and value in experiencing weather or ice and snow, one needs to practice being in diverse weather conditions, imagine living that is based on the relationship with ice, and reflect on appreciating the experience of those to whom such conditions form the everyday environment. By bringing us in experiential and imaginative contact with climatic changes, those aesthetic practices inspired by weather aesthetics or cryosphere aesthetics may support broadening our awareness of the human and possibly also non-human condition.

In thinking of motivating practices with concepts, one could even follow some aesthetics’ researchers to consider the aesthetics of sustainability. With that concept, what kind of practices are, and would be, induced?

Cultivating Sustainability

There is more than one way to consider the aesthetic dimension in sustainable development. But what would it mean for aesthetics, as a practice, to be genuinely sustainable? That question may remain open for Alex to be thought about case by case already because the multitude of aesthetic practices eludes generalization, as also the use of “Alex” in this text indicates. However, if aesthetics can ever be sustainable, it needs to mean reconfiguring our aesthetic capabilities. But that reconfiguration lies in the very heart of aesthetics, which means we should support endeavours in aesthetic literacy. Therefore, let’s keep on practicing, Alex!

This blog post is based on the following research article:

Korpelainen, Noora-Helena. 2021. “Cultivating Aesthetic Sensibility for Sustainability,” ESPES. The Slovak Journal of Aesthetics 10(2), pp. 165–182.

For further reading:

Brady, Emily. 2021. “Global Climate Change and Aesthetics,” Environmental Values 31(1), pp. 27–46. Doi:

Lehtinen, Sanna. 2021. “Aesthetic Sustainability,” in Situating Sustainability: A Handbook of Contexts and Concepts (ed. Parker Krieg & Reetta Toivanen). Helsinki University Press.

Mikkonen, Jukka. 2021. “Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature and the Global Environmental Crises,” Environmental Values. Doi: 10.3197/096327121X16245253346567.

Mikkonen, Jukka, Sanna Lehtinen, Kaisa Kortekallio & Noora-Helena Korpelainen (eds.) (forthcoming) 2022. Ympäristömuutos ja estetiikka. The Finnish Society for Aesthetics.

Saito, Yuriko. 2017. Aesthetics of the Familiar: Everyday Life and World-Making. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Writer introduction:

Noora-Helena Korpelainen is a grant-funded doctoral researcher in aesthetics in the University of Helsinki’s Doctoral Programme in Interdisciplinary Environmental Sciences (DENVI). Her research aims at understanding the notion of cultivating aesthetic sensibility in the context of sustainability transformations. She is also a HELSUS member. Currently, her research is supported by the Finnish Concordia Fund. Thanks for reviewing and commenting on this text go to Usha Mohanraj, Tuija K. von der Pütten, and Sanna Lehtinen.

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