Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Aesthetics and Sustainability

  • Aaron S. AllenEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_403-1


Common current English usage of “aesthetics” usually means “pretty” and almost always relates to visual perception. With this simplistic understanding, the idea of aesthetics is evident in connection with many disciplines. Anthropologists are often called upon to curate museum displays of cultural artifacts, dance and theater rely on visual elements of costume and sets, maps are fundamental in geography, and the study of history may rely on illuminations and handwriting in manuscripts. Even the sciences have a role for aesthetics: the visual representation of molecules helps make sense of the otherwise inaccessibly microscopic world of atoms in chemistry and physics, while biology and natural history have long relied on artistic representations of life forms of all types to explain concepts and disseminate findings. Even in the more abstract worlds of data and statistics, in disciplines such as sociology and mathematics, the elegant, logical, and truthful display of graphic information is crucial. Given this wide array of academic relevance, it should be no surprise that aesthetics has an important role in environmental and sustainability studies and in the context of institutions of higher education.

Understanding “aesthetics” in relation to sustainability requires that we consider broader meanings of this keyword. Yet the study of aesthetics is vast: its disciplinary range is wide, so an explicit aesthetics can be traced for a few centuries in the Western context – although the idea more generally is fundamental to most life forms on the planet (not just humans) and thus could be endless in its scope. In the present article, a brief review of the etymology of aesthetics will help to broaden the definition from the simplistic “visual beauty” to a more robust and meaningful term regarding sensory perception. Thereafter, a brief review of aesthetics in a variety of general sustainability contexts will expand the concept beyond the visual and into a multisensorial understanding. Mitchell Thomashow has emphasized the synergy of aesthetics and sustainability for universities and colleges, and his work will serve as a useful case study to deepen the understanding and relevance of aesthetics for sustainability in higher education contexts. Aesthetics is a useful, if unusual, concept for a great variety of advocates, practitioners, and theorists of sustainability.

Definition and Etymology of Aesthetics

Notwithstanding the commonplace usage of aesthetics meaning “visual beauty,” philosophers and critics use the term with varied and more robust meanings. The term aesthetics is derived from the Ancient Greek αἰσθητικός, relating to sensory perception, and it entered into modern usage in the eighteenth century via the German philosopher A. G. Baumgarten, who defined the term in two ways: the “science of cognition by the senses” and the “criticism of good taste” (OED, s.v. “Aesthetic”). The broader historical meaning of “sensory perception” is helpful to understand applications of aesthetics in sustainability because it does not limit the meaning only to “beauty” or the sense of sight (or to criticism or science). Rather, this meaning of “sensory perception” can also relate to not-beauty, to the personal or social, to all of the senses, and to emotional responses to such perceptions. (Although beyond the scope of this essay, it could also be applied to the sensory perceptions of nonhuman organisms.)

Sensory perception and subjective reactions are fundamental to human arts and culture – from the fine and performative arts to food and architectural traditions and from folk and popular to religious and elite cultures. It is also helpful to conceive of aesthetics in both subjective (individual, emotional) and objective (collective, rational) ways, which correspond to Baumgarten’s two uses. Thus, in addition to the more common subjective understandings (as with the expression “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”), and even the less common scientific approaches to perception, aesthetics can also enter the more common sustainability realms of policy and science. For example, oral rhetoric and written language are important for crafting, proposing, and disseminating policy ideas (Romm 2012); and aesthetics play a significant role in the presentation and understanding of quantitative data (Tufte 2001).

Aesthetics is widely understood to relate with ethics, which takes it well beyond the mere “pretty” and into the realm of justice and fairness, which are central to sustainability. The aesthetics-ethics connection is perhaps most evident via religion (see below), but American ecologist Aldo Leopold linked aesthetics and ethics in a biological context that would come to be known as sustainability. His widely cited concept of the “land ethic” has become a central tenet in environmental philosophy. “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land” (Leopold 1989, p. 204). Leopold insists we must “examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (pp. 224–225). In this influential formulation, Leopold expanded ethics from an anthropocentric perspective to a more ecocentric one while also arguing for including aesthetics and ethics in decisions regarding land management (i.e., sustainability). Leopold took up this topic also in his chapter on the “Conservation Aesthetic,” which emphasized perceptions of experiences in nature (e.g., tourism, hunting, farming) and thus furthered the connections between aesthetics, conservation ethics, and ecology.

Building similarly on environmental philosophy and ecology, Thomashow (2014) summarized aesthetics as “concerned primarily with the extent to which beauty (or ugliness) is inherent or whether it is in the eye of the beholder, and the moral implications of such distinctions” (p. 205). This moral element is a key feature of education for sustainability, which institutions of higher education effect through both curricular and operational elements on campus. Thomashow’s approach to aesthetics is moral/ethical, particularly related to education for sustainability. Moreover, his conceptions of art and sustainability aesthetics (discussed below) are based primarily, although not exclusively, in visual understanding. Aesthetics in relation to sustainability, however, is a necessarily broader, pan-sensorial, and more interdisciplinary topic.

Aesthetics in General Sustainability Contexts

Taking a multisensorial approach related to human arts and culture, aesthetics is evident implicitly and explicitly in a wide array of disciplinary pursuits, all of which have relevance to sustainability efforts in the operational and curricular sectors of higher education. Although a comprehensive survey is out of the scope of this entry, a selection of these disciplines includes design, art, literature, music, food, tourism, religion, philosophy, and nature protection. Of these, design and art together with food, tourism, and philosophy stand out as particularly rich fields of inquiry and practice that blend aesthetic and sustainability matters, although nature protection efforts have been synergistic and influential.

Design is a key realm for the connections between aesthetics and sustainability. In architecture, industry, planning, and allied fields, sustainability has often been seen as something that is about functionality but not beauty. Consider, for example, energy efficient but clunky cars or drab colored but responsibly sourced and organically produced fabrics. Meanwhile, designers have emphasized beauty at the expense of environmental and social impacts: important architectural monuments end up wasting materials and energy, clothing is stylish but exploitative, or furniture is appealing to look at but not pleasant or safe to make or to use. Contrary to such trends, Lance Hosey (2012) makes the case that sensory appeal is necessary to life and not at all superficial. As sustainability integrates culture and nature, and as aesthetics is fundamental to both, then sustainability must have an aesthetic dimension. Hosey claims that productively joining aesthetics and sustainability “could save the planet” (p. 7). “Reversing the devastation of nature requires reversing the devastation of culture, for the problem of the planet is first and foremost a human problem. We created the crisis, but we can correct it – by appealing to both morality and sensuality, to both sense and spirit, together. Designers can promote sustainability by embracing what they have always cared about most: the basic shape of things” (p. 10). As Tufte (2001) put it succinctly, “Design is choice” (p. 191); as such, in crafting humanly constructed environments that govern so much social interaction and natural resource use, designers choose to include or exclude sustainability considerations.

As with design, the arts – drawing, painting, photography, sculpture, and other fields – rely predominantly on visual aesthetics. The twentieth century has seen the rise of the connections between aesthetics and sustainability in the field of eco-art, which, similar to design, is a prominent pathway for exploring such synergies. Linda Weintraub (2012) justifies writing an eco-art textbook to pursue sustainability by elaborating the following linked points: the environmental crisis is humanity’s most important contemporary challenge; eco-artists have excellent communication skills and can advocate reform and preservation; humans draw inspiration from art that can create positive behavioral change; it is necessary to develop creativity that aids problem-solving and that is life-sustaining; and we need art that serves as a cultural conscience (p. xiii). Eco-art is process or mission focused, rather than stylistic or content oriented; further, it is ecocentric rather than anthropocentric. There are four principle ways that art can relate to ecology. First, the topics of eco-art works “are derived from the rigorous methods of ecologists and the subjective considerations of environmentalists” (p. 6). Ecologists’s sources include nonhuman organisms, the nonliving environment, and human actions, all within any temporal or spatial context; environmentalists add intuition, opinion, and interpretation. Second, eco-art makes contextual interconnections, which involve “the inescapable law of links and relationships that govern all materials, all processes, and all events on Earth” (p. 6). Synonyms for such interconnections include symbioses, systems, networks, feedbacks, etc., and new such interconnected disciplines include “[b]ehavioral ecology, urban ecology, social ecology, acoustic ecology, political ecology, industrial ecology, Christian ecology, and media ecology” (p. 7). Third, eco-art involves dynamism, which is the idea “that anything occupying space also transforms through time” (p. 7). Eco-art therefore involves action and change rather than just static objects and ingredients. Finally, ecocentrism guides interpretation and decision-making in eco-art. Ecocentrism is “the principle that humans are not more important than other entities on Earth” (p. 7), and it is opposed to anthropocentrism, which prioritizes humans. Within this eco-art framework of aesthetic work for sustainability, Weintraub provides 47 case studies of “twentieth-century eco art pioneers” and “twenty-first-century eco art explorers” (p. xiv). One of the 13 pioneers is Friedensreich Hundertwasser (Friedrich Stowasser), a designer and architect who railed against rational modernism and promoted the integration of literal and metaphorical natural biological systems into buildings – and thus was “an early practitioner of biomimicry” (p. 85). His Hundertwasser House is a public housing complex in Vienna that has green roofs, compositing toilets, and a living machine to clean water, varied (and user-altered) exterior decorations, stipulations for nonhuman “tree tenants,” and, perhaps most astonishingly, no straight lines or flat planes. Of the 34 explorers, consider just 3 brief examples. Chinese artist Lilly Yeh worked with war-torn Rwandan Tutsis to help heal spirits, communities, and local environments through art and social action projects that included water treatment and sanitation facilities, renewable energy production, cooperative employment, microlending, and agricultural and human health. The projects melded metaphorical aesthetic elements (such as mosaics to represent rebuilding after fragmentation) with a dynamic dialogue between villagers and the artist to achieve practical, sustainable, and beautiful outcomes. As the “Tissue Culture & Art Project,” the Finnish Oron Catts and the British Ionat Zurr established in Western Australia their bio art research laboratory SymbioticA, which now hosts over 70 research residents. The Project involves culturing cells to create “victimless” leather and meat and to address the ethical, social, and environmental problems of consuming and manufacturing products made of animals. Works from the Project have been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City – and have even been prepared by chefs and consumed! Artist Amy Franceschini and environmental scientist Jonathan Meuser teamed up to develop and display the “DIY Algae/Hydrogen Bioreactor Kit,” which addressed the need for small-scale production of hydrogen for renewable energy. The Kit addressed both the scientific challenge of using algae to efficiently split water into oxygen and hydrogen as well as the psychological challenges (associated with fear of hydrogen bombs) of distributed hydrogen storage and use. In addition to an exhibit displaying the backyard-scale and down-home elements of the Kit, the duo made available free plans (in the form of a punk rock zine rather than a technical manual) for citizen artist/scientists to further such renewable energy testing and research.

Eco-art certainly involves senses beyond just the visual, such as tactile elements of Hundertwasser’s undulating floors or the taste of Catts and Zurr’s artificial meat. Other disciplines and fields of study are helpful to broaden predominantly visual aesthetics into the emotional, aural, and gustatory. The literary field of ecocriticism has been applied broadly to a great variety of cultural products – from legal texts to films, from advertising to drama, and from poetry to prose. Inspired by movements in sustainability and environmentalism, ecocriticism seeks to understand how we represent human-environment relationships and the emotional responses we have to such representations (Garrard 2004, 2014). Building on ecocriticism, the field of ecomusicology considers music and sound studies in relation to ecology and the environment (Allen and Dawe 2016). These fields along and others such as media studies have broadened to consider the natural resource implications of their subjects, as with the sustainable and unsustainable woods used for musical instruments (Allen 2012), the materials necessary for music recordings (Devine 2015), the production and afterlife of digital technologies (Cubitt 2017), and how the pleasures of food relate to sustainability and literary study (Philippon 2012).

Food, in fact, is more than just a basic necessity of human existence: it is also a central element of human aesthetic experience, as the Slow Food Movement has made so prominent (Philippon 2012). Furthermore, food systems are a regular concern for sustainability efforts (e.g., Alkon and Agyeman 2011). As the topic of food so fundamentally synthesizes aesthetics and sustainability, so too does the topic of tourism. The largest industry in the world, tourism, involves the pursuit of a variety of aesthetic experiences, often with significant environmental and social impacts. The sustainable tourism industry has arisen to address this challenge, and international agencies such as the World Tourism Organization of the United Nations have aimed to address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals through responsible tourism (Edgell 2016).

Studies of religion and philosophy have also contributed to synthesizing aesthetics and sustainability. As Viladesau (2014) has outlined, the arts function both as theological texts complementing the written word and as communication strategies containing religious messages that connect with ethics. Religious thinkers regularly link aesthetics, religious belief, ethical behaviors, and sustainability efforts. In the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has taken a strong position advocating the place of sustainability efforts in care of both human life and the nonhuman world, and these are intimately related to the practices, traditions, and cultures of Christianity. Such efforts exist in many different religious traditions. As scholars of religion Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim (2007) put it, “though science and policy approaches are clearly necessary, they are not sufficient to do the job of transforming human consciousness and behavior for a sustainable future. Values and ethics, religion and spirituality are important factors in this transformation.”

In addition to religious traditions, the connections of aesthetics and ethics relate especially to secular philosophical inquiry. Philosophy is the disciplinary home for the separate fields of aesthetics and of ethics, and as a subfield of the latter environmental ethics is of great importance to sustainability. Ethics and aesthetics are connected by more than just a shared disciplinary home; they come together primarily through the concepts of judgments and values: judgments of beauty or the value of artistic goodness or judgments of duty and the values of how actions can be good. Plato’s concept of kalon synthesized physical beauty and moral goodness in a singular, inseparable concept. In neo-Kantian moral philosophy, one can understand that the arts provide a sort of moral education via the senses. In these ways, aesthetics and ethics are inseparable and help “in thinking about the artful and meaningful construction of a life” (Eldridge 2005, p. 731).

In relation to sustainability, such aesthetic-ethical thinking is evident in environmental aesthetics and natural aesthetics (Fisher 2005). Environmental aesthetics considers an environmentalist approach that has been informed by thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Leopold, among other people and that can be seen in, e.g., Thomashow’s advocacy for aesthetic sustainability (below). Natural aesthetics considers human emotional and ethical responses to features of natural and built environments; it is less concerned with advocacy for environmental and sustainability purposes, although natural aesthetics responses may certainly lead to such advocacy. These two paths – environmental aesthetics and natural aesthetics – are most evidently related to each other and to sustainability in Allen Carlson and Sheila Lintott’s (2008) anthology Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism: From Beauty to Duty. The authors in this volume trace the centuries of connections between these concepts and explore particular ramifications in the contemporary world. J. Baird Callicott observed that natural aesthetics influenced environmental aesthetics, especially with regard to American preservation efforts. Such influence is distinct from more utilitarian conservation efforts (i.e., for resource availability) that relied significantly less on aesthetics. In fact, Callicott claims that beauty (in terms of natural aesthetics) has been much more influential than duty (in terms of environmental ethics) (in Carlson and Lintott 2008 and in Callicott 1994).

Nature protection efforts (especially preservation, in distinction to more utilitarian conservation) include both aesthetic appeals and instrumental scientific arguments. Perhaps it is more common to see advocates relying on the more objective elements of ecological studies, measurements of pollution, demonstration of harm to humans and other life, and the usefulness of nature to humans (e.g., clean air, clean water, resources for food and shelter, etc.). But such protection advocacy also relies on more subjective claims about aesthetic experiences. For example, the Wilderness Act of 1964 (USA) established human “enjoyment of wilderness” as a foundation for the Act (Section 2a). In defining wilderness, the Act stipulated that such a place “may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, education, scenic, or historical value” (Section 2c, emphasis added). Similarly, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970 (USA), which has been a model for other nations’ similar efforts, also draws on aesthetic concerns regarding the “enjoyable harmony between man [sic] and his environment” (Preamble, emphasis added). In the international arena of nature protection, the framework for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) incorporated aesthetics with regard to the cultural services of nature. Although the idea of “ecosystem services” predates it, the MA synthesized and made the ecosystem services idea more widespread. Ecosystem services are those “benefits people obtain from ecosystems” (Alcamo et al. 2003, p. 3). The MA organized such ecosystem services into provisioning (food and fuel), regulating (climate maintenance and water purification), supporting (soil formation and nutrient cycling), and cultural. The cultural services are those “nonmaterial benefits people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, cognitive development, reflection, recreation, and aesthetic experiences” (p. 8). By incorporating aesthetics and culture into their framework, the MA makes the case that detrimental changes to ecosystems (i.e., through contamination, depletion, extinction, etc.) result in “negative impacts on cultural life and human experience” (p. 77). Such nature protection efforts rely on objective science, and they make subjective ethical and aesthetic appeals to achieve their ends.

Addressing climate change is a twenty-first century approach to nature protection, and Roman Krznaric (2010) offers an argument for aesthetics that links knowledge and action with aesthetics and ethics. Krznaric makes the case that, in order to bridge the gap between knowledge of and action on climate change, we do not need just more or better economic or moral arguments; rather, we need more empathy across space and through time. In short, confronting “climate change requires nothing less than a revolution of the empathetic imagination” (p. 155). Empathy can be understood either as a shared emotional response (affective empathy) or, the idea that is more important for Krznaric, as perspective taking (cognitive empathy). To achieve social equity and more just political systems, we need more empathy (as, e.g., happened with the fight against slavery). To generate more empathy for people and places distant to us in time and space, Krznaric proposes an approach to education that relies on aesthetics: novels, stories, films, the arts, etc., as well as conversations and direct experiences with other people, e.g., through tourism and cultural exchange. Thus, aesthetic experiences generate emotions and perspectives to increase empathy, which in turn is channeled to addressing climate change – showing yet another role for aesthetics in sustainability.

Aesthetics and Sustainability in Higher Education

Connecting aesthetics and sustainability has been well developed and widespread, although there has been less attention given to the specific relationship of aesthetics and sustainability in the context of institutions of higher education. Mitchell Thomashow, the former president of Unity College, Maine (USA), is one leader who has given significant attention and thought to connecting sustainability and aesthetics in higher education.

Thomashow groups the chapters of his Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (2014) into three categories: infrastructure (energy, food, materials), community (governance, investment, wellness), and learning (curriculum, interpretation, aesthetics). The book hinges on the idea of higher education promoting the sustainability ethos: “a spirit of creative innovation in support of civic responsibility and ecological resilience” (p. 7). The concluding chapter on aesthetics begins with a discussion of the Art of Stewardship Project, and Thomashow relates an anecdote about when Unity College made the campus into a “canvas for art that conveys, expresses, and inspires ideas about sustainability, stewardship, and ecology” (p. 191). In this case, aesthetics is about using the visual arts to engage communities about sustainability and to further educational efforts. Yet Thomashow makes it clear that the synergies of aesthetics and sustainability can be much more than straightforward audience engagement for education and outreach. In fact, a sustainability aesthetic supports the sustainability ethos. His argument for a sustainability aesthetic develops out of a series of concatenated points: the arts enhance biospheric perception, imagination is a foundation for creative sustainability, art can transform culture, and both human values and natural principles inform a sustainability aesthetic.

Biospheric perception results “in a state of enhanced wonder” (p. 193). Learning about complex planetary processes (e.g., biogeochemical cycling, atmospheric patterns, biodiversity, evolution, natural history, etc.) is a foundational part of biospheric understanding, which supports a sustainability ethos. When learning about the biosphere, the addition of aesthetic elements – lyrical text, visuals, metaphor, soundscapes, dance, etc. – accentuates an individual’s biospheric perception. Building on the subjective foundations of aesthetics, Thomashow writes in the first person to elaborate on the enhanced sensory capacity of his biospheric perception as inspired aesthetically: “I’m more likely to pay attention to phenomena that I typically take for granted. I have a broadened view of ecological space and geological time. I’m further compelled to use my artistic imagination to interpret, express, and communicate these impressions” (p. 193). Because a “basic understanding of biosphere processes is fundamental to well-conceived sustainability initiatives” (p. 194), and because such processes are difficult to grasp, the addition of aesthetics helps both with basic learning and with the higher-order effort of eliciting wonder. Studying the environment (or people, or anything), through art improves and heightens an individual’s capacities and responses. Thus art “can transform everyday observations,” and through arts “the campus cultivates the imagination” (p. 195).

Imagination has been significant in science and natural history. Scientists have had new ideas and made discoveries as a result of artistic and literary inspirations. Concomitantly, artists and creative thinkers have fueled their work with the discoveries of science. Such mutually reinforcing exchanges converge to fuel imaginative creation in all realms, and they “provide a conceptual foundation for an aesthetic and educational approach to sustainability” (p. 197). If the aim of sustainability is to “improve the quality of human life,” then we must be able to “project a vision of what is possible” – and that “requires imagination” (p. 197).

Imagination fuels creative sustainability, which involves the virtuous integration of human possibility and ecological possibility. Creative sustainability “aspires to apply ecological principles and awareness to human behaviors and decisions, linking the quality of human life to the evolving biosphere” (p. 200). As process, creative sustainability also brings out the “emotional challenge” of pursuing sustainability. Despite, or precisely because of, such personal impacts, creative sustainability “requires community collaboration” and intergenerational processes (p. 201).

Thomashow advocates various imaginative forms to manifest such creative sustainability, but he focuses on his own experiences with the Art of Stewardship Project, which used “art as a vehicle for campus transformation” (p. 201). In essence, “Sustainability art has the potential to creatively transform the culture of a campus ... by tangibly illustrating sustainability principles in multiple settings, using a variety of artistic mediums, and engaging all campus constituencies” (p. 201). Rather than keeping artistic practices and displays private (in galleries, studios, residences), they should be interactive, public, and engaged with sustainability topics. A portfolio of potential art projects (pp. 202–205) includes graffiti, recycled sculpture, landscape art, soundscape designs, and installations inspired by the work of the artist Andrew Goldsworthy. The campus canvas “becomes a template for innovation, imagination, and experimentation, conjuring the art of the possible, linking research and learning to campus infrastructure, while encouraging broad participation” (p. 202).

Such an approach takes complex ideas understood via biospheric perception and imagination and presents them in an educational context for the ultimate goal of changing culture. A sustainability aesthetic is both a driver for and the result of such an approach. A sustainability aesthetic “implies that our conception of what is elegant and beautiful is informed by sustainability principles, which are in turn derived from ecological patterns and processes, and ultimately biospheric processes” (p. 205). Extrinsic and intrinsic influences form an individual’s sustainability aesthetic. Extrinsic factors include values from sustainability practices and behaviors, such as energy use, material composition, location and process of manufacture, durability, etc. They are not direct reflections of beauty but do inform aesthetic preferences – why, for example, a field of solar panels may be more appealing than a coal-fired power plant. Intrinsic factors involve “how aesthetic appeal is informed by patterns in nature” (p. 206), explored in such fields as nature photography, landscape painting, sustainable architecture, green design, biomimicry, etc. Developing a sustainability aesthetic involves both cultural perspectives (extrinsic factors) and biospheric perceptions (intrinsic factors).

Thomashow is careful to note that not all intrinsic factors of nature are appealing, as with invasive species and catastrophes. Moreover, not all extrinsic factors, such as knowledge of clean power, make wind turbines inherently beautiful. It is difficult to define what is appealing for everyone because each individual has a different set of experiences and backgrounds that influence taste. Even then, scale and place can change an individual’s tastes further (as with the example of a large-scale wind farm on a distant hill versus in one’s own backyard). Nevertheless, “it is important to recognize the extent to which our values predispose aesthetics” (p. 207). Thus, a sustainability aesthetic is not a predetermined truth. Rather than seeking some perfect or correct aesthetic position, the “more important issue is how and whether the art of sustainability can change the way we see the world” (p. 208) and hence influence such a sustainability aesthetic. Thomashow believes that, indeed, “art can change the way we see the world because it challenges us to find beauty in unexpected places” (p. 210). The college campus should be a place for art because it supports the educational mission of all disciplines and especially “sustainability initiatives, ecological processes, and biospheric principles” (p. 210).

According to Thomashow, the “ultimate rationale” for advocating aesthetics and sustainability together is that art “changes the way we see the world, it makes the world more meaningful, it provokes astonishment and delight, it inspires scientific inquiry, and it encourages human flourishing” (p. 210). The practical upshot for institutions of higher education pursuing aesthetic sustainability is that “sustainability art improves the quality of campus life, has the potential to enhance our understanding of the basic principles of sustainability, and facilitates collaboration and community. Ultimately, sustainability art promises a deeper awareness of how we understand our relationship to nature” (p. 209).


Aesthetics may seem an unlikely, even impotent, source for the profound changes necessary to move toward sustainability, on campus or anywhere else in the world. But as this entry has shown, there are numerous ways for aesthetics to connect with ethics and, in turn, to impact knowledge, emotion, and action in the face of human-environment challenges. Aesthetics and ethics are germane to sustainability efforts on campuses due to higher education institutions’ environmental and social impacts, locally and globally, as well as their educational missions, which result ultimately in cultural changes for sustainability. Explicit integration of aesthetics into sustainability at the institutional level in higher education is an uncommon approach, but the University of North Carolina Greensboro (USA) does so with its official campus definition of sustainability: “the enduring interconnectedness of social equity, the environment, economy, and aesthetics” (n.d.). This definition applies to learning, operations, and service throughout the institution. Implicit evidence of approaches integrating aesthetics can be found throughout the higher education sustainability movement, but more explicit efforts could be brought to bear on creating a culture of sustainability. To paraphrase Thomashow (2014, p. 209), the synthesis of aesthetics and sustainability makes campuses better and more beautiful places, which in turn helps change culture and move toward a better and more beautiful relationship between people and planet.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Environment & Sustainability ProgramUniversity of North Carolina at GreensboroGreensboroUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Ingrid Molderez
    • 1
  1. 1.KU LeuvenLeuvenBelgium