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Ethics & the Environment 8.1 (2003) 22-36

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Art or Nature?
Aristotle, Restoration Ecology, and Flowforms

Trish Glazebrook

He to whom nature begins to reveal her open secrets will feel an irresistible yearning for her most worthy interpreter: Art. 1

Aristotle believed strongly in a distinction between artifact (technê) and nature (physis). He intended by "technê" more than is generally understood by the contemporary term "art," for he meant anything produced by human intention. For example, for Aristotle medicine was technê in that the doctor produces health. The key point in distinguishing art from nature for him was that things in nature grow and develop on the basis of an internal principle of change, whereas artistic production requires an outside agent. There are some complications with the Aristotelian account: are the spider's web and the bird's nest art or nature? Aristotle can respond to this problem easily enough by arguing that spiders and birds create on the basis of instinct, while reason is requisite for artistic production. Yet some art may not meet this definition: artists may not always have a full conception of the work to be produced prior to its execution. Creativity can be emergent rather than intentional during the productive process, and may arise, for example, from the artist's interaction with the chosen material. [End Page 22]

Despite these objections to the Aristotelian distinction, however, his analysis of the differences between art and nature can be usefully applied to recent debates in restoration ecology in order to argue that the human capacity to restore nature does not justify its destruction. Nature cannot be "faked," that is, recreated through art. Furthermore, the Aristotelian analysis has been influential historically by providing a conceptual basis for the technological domination of nature, as if nature were nothing more than matter upon which form can be imposed. Yet there are alternative possibilities in Aristotle's account that ecologically-minded art can bring to fruition. I will use Aristotle's analysis to suggest a potential resolution of the "faking nature" debate, and accordingly to show how contemporary, ecologically-minded art can promote an ideology of production that works with rather than against nature.

Robert Elliot argues that restoration ecology does not justify environmental destruction, because faked nature (that is, nature re-created by human artifice) is not as valuable as the original. 2 I will call this claim, which is based on the idea that restoration is analogous to artistic production, "the Elliot view." I will first assess the Elliot view, and give reasons why I sympathize with his conclusions, yet find his arguments unconvincing. Second, I will present Aristotle's distinction between nature and art, with emphasis on his arguments that nature is goal-directed, in order to give content to the claim that nature has intrinsic value. Third, I will look at restoration policies and practices in the oil industry in Alberta, Canada, to establish a praxical notion of restoration, and to support Elliot's claim that nature cannot be faked. I have chosen oilfield restoration as a working example for the sake of the general methodological principle that praxes without reflections are blind, while reflections that transcend the lifeworld are empty; and specifically because Alberta leads the industry in restoration standards and practices. Finally, I will use Flowforms to argue that ecologically-minded art can demonstrate how production of artifacts need not affirm a logic of domination, but rather can open a space for an alternative conception of the human relation to nature.

The Elliot View

Elliot's view depends on distinguishing nature from art, and attributing a greater value to the natural. On what basis should we accept this value-hierarchy? The reasons Elliot gives are less than convincing. Ultimately his arguments rest on two points: that copies are not as good as [End Page 23] originals; and that even if an ecosystem's value could be fully restored, the value lost in the time between despoilation and restoration is irrecoverable. He simply finds "naturalness" to be more valuable than artifice. But he is not alone in...


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