What's Wrong with Plastic Trees?

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Science  02 Feb 1973:
Vol. 179, Issue 4072, pp. 446-455
DOI: 10.1126/science.179.4072.446


With some ingenuity, a transformation of our attitudes toward preservation of the environment will take place fairly soon. We will recognize the symbolic and social meanings of environments, not just their economic utility; we will emphasize their historical significance as well as the future generations that will use them.

At the same time, we must realize that there are things we may not want to trade at all, except in the sense of letting someone else have his share of the environment also. As environments become more differentiated, smaller areas will probably be given greater significance, and it may be possible for more groups to have a share.

It is likely that we shall want to apply our technology to the creation of artificial environments. It may be possible to create environments that are evocative of other environments in other times and places. It is possible that, by manipulating memory through the rewriting of history, environments will come to have new meaning. Finally, we may want to create proxy environments by means of substitution and simulation. In order to create substitutes, we must endow new objects with significance by means of advertising and by social practice. Sophistication about differentiation will become very important for appreciating the substitute environments. We may simulate the environment by means of photographs, recordings, models, and perhaps even manipulations in the brain (48). What we experience in natural environments may actually be more controllable than we imagine (49). Artificial prairies and wildernesses have been created, and there is no reason to believe that these artificial environments need be unsatisfactory for those who experience them.

Rare environments are relative, can be created, are dependent on our knowledge, and are a function of policy, not only tradition. It seems likely that economic arguments will not be sufficient to preserve environments or to suggest how we can create new ones. Rather, conscious choice about what matters, and then a financial and social investment in an effort to create significant experiences and environments, will become a policy alternative available to us.

What's wrong with plastic trees? My guess is that there is very little wrong with them. Much more can be done with plastic trees and the like (50) to give most people the feeling that they are experiencing nature. We will have to realize that the way in which we experience nature is conditioned by our society—which more and more is seen to be receptive to responsible interventions.

Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, was very concerned about the uses of the dead to the living and suggested (51):

If a country gentleman have rows of trees leading to his dwelling, the autoicons [embalmed bodies in an upright position] of his family might alternate with the trees; copal varnish would protect the face from the effects of rain—caoutchouc [rubber] the habiliments.

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