The San Pedro River, Doug Tompkins, and the rise of Ecologically Aesthetic Action Part II

Bob Hermann

Photo credit: Bob Hermann

To truly grapple with how an individual or society should build an ecologically aesthetic ethic that informs aesthetic judgments and guides subsequent decisions and aesthetic action toward the natural world, the individual and/or society must see the environment from an understanding of both aesthetic moral philosophy and informed cultural taste. Taste being the result of an educational process and awareness of elite cultural values learned through exposure to academic rigor and mass culture.

Ecological aesthetics then is virtuous judgments and behavior based on the understanding of the principles of beauty and artistic taste within the context of the environment through the act (or art) of thought, sensory experience, and learned historic, scientific, and cultural knowledge, to inform moral action.

In order to produce ecologically aesthetic action, our ethics must be driven by what is good as informed by what is both morally and scientifically known, and we must be able to judge ecological aesthetic value through critical reflection and the ability to discriminate at a rational and sensory level.

This requires a cognitive approach to the environment that means being capable of aesthetic judgments that are sensory, emotional, and intellectual all at once.  The implication being that our response must inherently be one of informed action – mental, physical, and spiritual – and be both objective and subjective, as observer and actor.

I think the hope of this ethic taking root lies in the outdoor industry and through recreationists who sustain it by their love of the outdoors. I think this because I see signs of it already and because I am both a conservationist and a recreationist and I know that recreation is inherently a sensory experience, but can be so much more if it is informed by knowledge and guided by ethics.

Closing in

Backpacker in Buckskin Gulch

Who better to protect the beautiful than those who use it, play in it, and appreciate it? Recreationists are those most poised to be the keepers and protectors of the world’s greatest art.

Nature is nothing if it is not art on a grand scale. When we actively play with it, it plays back with us and infuses us with a solid sense of self. To actively engage nature is a visceral experience that grounds us and helps us vividly realize our place not just in the landscape, but in the grand scheme of life. In other words, the by product is both confidence and humility – the character traits most needed when engaging nature. It is an active relationship and if we want it to continue we must participate beyond sport and adventure.

We cannot afford to just play hard and rest easy. We must work hard also, and that work entails fighting to protect the individual parts in order to protect the whole.

If we need proof that it is possible for one person or a group of people to make a difference, or if we need inspiration for what to do, there are many forerunners to look to, but none so near to us as Doug Tompkins.

In the aftermath of Tompkins’ death we know if we didn’t already, the impact a recreationist-turned-conservationist can have on the world. By his own words, Doug’s love of the land grew out of climbing – the art of touching, and feeling, and being alive – of becoming a moving form among the earth’s most dramatic forms, with the earth’s most subtle elements. His love of climbing set into motion a lifetime of work attempting to protect and restore the beautiful – to live harmoniously in its folds. Like many adventurers before him, he died in nature’s embrace, but I doubt he would have had it any other way.

What Doug Tompkins left behind was a picture or a blueprint of what that relationship looks like. His ethic wasn’t just a land ethic, or a biodiversity ethic, or a conservation ethic. It was an aesthetic ethic informed by deep ecology that was dedicated to protecting the whole – whole rivers, whole landscapes that blend ecologically sound agriculture with land buffers between eco-zones and protected areas, and ultimately, whole places for people to find reprieve, to find rest and beauty, to find solitude, and to find unfettered adventure.

What Doug realized was that our actions on this planet matter. He recognized that we could do better; that he could do better. He realized that is some small way he could do something about it and he acted. Doug embarked on a journey to repair some of the parts in order to bring back balance, harmony, and sanity to the whole. He set out to restore an aesthetically pleasing piece of art, not one that he created mind you, but one that humans had the privilege to use, and through our use trammeled and tore apart.

But rather than a painting, a sculpture, or a poem, he set to restore a golden ratio on a landscape scale. He manipulated, protected, and shaped the land into a piece of art that amounts to the correctly shaped piece that fits into the hole of the picture by working with nature, rather than against it. He has shown us another way.

Tompkins conservation

Campo Laguna Blanca Farm, Project of Kris and Doug Tompkins – Photo Credit: Tompkins Conservation

Doug did not dismiss agriculture or the economy, but he did dismiss the excess that destroys the beautiful. He worked to renovate farmland to work in concert with the natural landscape rather than allowing agriculture to continue to be an aberration on nature.

He worked to maintain the integrity of rivers, thus ensuring the environmental benefits they provide within the riparian areas, but also within the larger ecosystem, and he worked to restore the life-giving properties that benefit humanity. In short, Doug Tompkins was a landscape aesthetician. If one man can do all of that, can you imagine what hundreds of thousands of recreationists could do?

Doug Tompkins said, “I’m an unabashed, shameless conservationist. I know everyone doesn’t have my resources, but I say don’t worry, do things to the best of your ability because you’ll find it rewarding and helpful and it’s paying rent for living on the planet. So just do it. Just do it.”

The astounding truth about seeing the environment as a beautiful object is that it is a living, breathing, shifting and moving essence experienced by all and owned by no one. It is free but priceless. It is complex but simple. It produces the greatest paradox of pleasure and pain and how we interact with it says something about us.

As Immanuel Kant said, experiencing, sensing, and understanding the sublime produces aesthetic pleasure which is a byproduct of the free play between the imagination and understanding when perceiving an object; in this case, nature.


When relationship is formed, Gooseberry Mesa

“Beauty belongs neither exclusively to the subject nor to the object,” said Crispin Sartwell inThe Six Names of Beauty, “but to the relationship between them, and even more widely also to the situation or environment in which they are both embedded.”

When we infuse ourselves in nature, which we are already doing through recreation and sport, and should do on a philosophical and societal level, beauty then emerges in situations in which we and it are juxtaposed and connected. We all inherently know this by the love we feel for specific places and the things we do and experience there. We love what we invest in.

Alexander Nehamas said that beauty is something we share, or something we want to share, and shared experiences of beauty are particularly intense forms of communication. Thus, the experience of beauty is not primarily within the skull of the experiencer, but connects observers and objects such as works of art and literature – or nature – in communities of appreciation.

In terms of this country, and our laws, and our natural resources, we recreationists are a powerful tribe existing in a community of appreciation at a unique time in history. We are in the transitional stage between the end of the industrial revolution and the crest of the recreational revolution. Now more than at any other time we are the largest user group of public lands. Tourism and recreation in this country make up a multi-billion dollar industry which gives us a collective voice with immense power to sway. We, more than any other group, have the power to use our dollars, and our numbers, and our industry to be heard.


Outdoor Retailer Show, Salt Lake City, UT

Following in the steps of arguably one of the most influential recreationists of all time, we could save a threatened river right here in the United States. The San Pedro River is the embodiment of natural integrity. All of the parts that make up the riparian system are a complete and balanced, if not fragile, whole. The running water, the landscape it inhabits and the vegetation and wildlife all come together in an orchestra of unified and harmonious balance. But it could disappear. It could become a phantom river if we don’t act.

Just this year the city council of Benson, Arizona, approved a 28,000 home development that will pull 3,000 acre feet of groundwater annually from the central corridor of the San Pedro River watershed. The developers plan to build an Italian countryside in the Sonoran Desert. The town of Benson will get an economic boost and will swell to what could reasonably be called gargantuan proportions compared to what it is now. The Arizona Department of Water Resources just gave the development approval by certifying that there is enough water for 100 years.

The development sounds wonderful and no one can argue with jobs and quality of life, but this is not just a question of fulfilling societal desires, it is a question of ethical behavior. Desiring economic benefits is not inherently bad, it’s the means we use to get those benefits that is questionable. Sometimes desires need to be set aside in order to do what is right and doing what is right is difficult because it’s almost always the harder option. It requires either creativity to find a better solution, or it requires humility to abandon the proposed action.

What we should be asking in this case is not whether there is enough water for a finite period of time, but whether the San Pedro River will still be there when we are done.

The BLM and conservation groups have raised alarm and complaints about this development, but if they are to be heard or have any hope of success, the San Pedro River needs more than just local support and requires much more attention than it is getting.

We know what is happening there and what is at stake and everyone who enjoys the natural world, from anglers to mountaineers, photographers to snowboarders, families and individuals, extreme athletes and weekend warriors, and everyone else in between, need to wake up because what happens in one localized area does not happen in isolation; it happens to us all. Everything is connected to everything else as they say, and we are connected to each other through our shared experience and enjoyment of the earth. We must care on an intimate and personal level and then amplify it on a wide scale.

San Pedro 1

Photo Credit: John Wark

We may never walk the green fairyland of the San Pedro River making its way through the arid Sonoran Desert. We may never even set eyes on it. But we should attempt to ensure its existence because if there is hope for the survival of any wild or natural place, it is whether or not we rise to the challenge and fight for the provisional and elusive character of the aesthetic qualities found in nature everywhere.

We must heed our restlessness and stay alert in our search for ever new standpoints in our drive for adventure and meaning – and then act. Otherwise we stand to lose it all, whether from industry and pollution, development and growth, by state and local representatives trying to take it for personal gain or local interest – or by nature being so thrown out of balance by our actions that humanity suffers the consequences on a large and frightening scale.

The San Pedro River existed long before we arrived and should carry on long after we are gone. On the canvas of the earth, it is a marvel worthy of preservation at least equal to civilization’s greatest works of art. Ecological aesthetics is the idea that human conduct and behavior should reflect and align with what is natural by respecting limits. Maintaining beauty is the byproduct of acting beautifully. Though we are separate from nature, we are also dependent on and a part of it. This fact alone should compel us to act humbly and in concert with nature rather than against it. Humanity will have accomplished something noteworthy when it is better known for its restraint than its excess.


Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Environmental Aesthetics

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: The Concept of the Aesthetic

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Beauty, Arizona Daily Press: Massive Benson development wins approval,, Arizona Daily Press: Development would make Benson 8 times bigger

Audubon Magazine: Housing development could threaten Arizona’s San Pedro River

John McCain and the Renzy Rider,

Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty, R.W. Hepburn:

Wolin, Sheldon S. (2006). Politics and Vision. Princeton, New JerseyPrinceton University Press.



Posted on January 18, 2016, in Nature and the Environment and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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