Thursday, April 6, 2017

Beauty can save the world

The following piece made it into the final ten for a writing competition for the magazine New Philosopher and is previously unpublished.

It is becoming an accepted scientific idea that we are living in a new geological age, the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is characterised by a profound disruption of the relatively stable climate humanity has enjoyed over about 12,000 years, during the period known as the Holocene. We have come to take this stability for granted; it’s the period where civilisations have arisen, characterised by structured states reliant on agriculture to feed growing numbers, writing, art, religion, trade, and the beginnings of science. Few of us can appreciate a time when summer did not follow spring, when crops were not disrupted for more than a season or so, and food was not plentiful.

This is not to say that the Holocene has been all beer and skittles. The Little Ice Age in Europe saw the rise of witch trials in politically insecure states, played a role in the French Revolution, and was a factor in the writing of Frankenstein. A prolonged change in the state of El NiƱo helped drive the collapse of the Mayan Empire. History is littered with such examples. But the Anthropocene is different; it involves moral agency. Not only do we remake the world in our ignorance, but we also do so intentionally. We have released enough carbon dioxide to warm the planet and make the oceans more acidic, manufactured enough nitrogen based fertiliser for agriculture to produce dead zones in lakes, rivers and oceans. We’ve filled our oceans with plastic, cleared vast tracts of land and threaten many species with extinction, maybe as many as 50% by 2050.

One could make many pragmatic arguments for protecting a natural world that gives us clean air and water, food and medicines, timber and other raw materials. But these don’t seem to work. And while an impulsive survival instinct will drive us in adrenaline driven sprint to protect what we have, it is neither sustaining nor effective. Instead, I believe beauty will save us.

For some, beauty is ephemeral, subjective, and a luxury at best, if not a distraction. Philosophy has not always done us favours. How do we approach beauty? For Kant, our experience of beauty is a “disinterested delight.” Beauty is something to be catalogued, analysed, and objectified. We analyse what makes something beautiful and miss the beauty itself. We need to transcend such analyses.
What seems to me a right reaction to beauty can be found in the writings of Alfred Russell Wallace. Wallace spent many years in the Malay Archipelago, collecting species and theorising about their origins. He was the co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of the theory of evolution. His paper was read at the same time as Darwin’s at the royal society. Wallace’s reaction at discovering a new species of butterfly is worth quoting at length from The Malay Archipelago

“The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement produced by what will appear to most people a very inadequate cause.”

Note Wallace’s reactions. The experience of beauty is indescribable, i.e. it transcends his training and experience as a naturalist. It goes beyond language, and hence represents a visceral, emotive response. And yet at the same time, his expertise is what brings a certain attention to detail, a way of framing this discovery in the context of the search for true knowledge about the world. He acknowledges that to some, his strong reaction will seem over the top. Yet this is not a man who has lost leave of his senses or himself, but has discovered them in the presence of the other. That other happens to be a species of butterfly.

I’m reminded of Keats’ poem about Newton. Keats accused Newton of unweaving a rainbow and conquering mysteries. And yet any scientist will tell you that the scientific discipline will never run out of things to probe or objects yet more beautiful to appreciate. What if we understand laws that govern how light bounces around in a rain drop, or how natural selection works, do we marvel any less? Are not the grains of sand under a microscope or dark voids shown to be filled with galaxies by telescopes, all the more beautiful for our technological wizardry?

Beauty is part of the fabric of what exists, both the things that prompt our sensory, intellectual and personal experiences as Richard Cartwright Austin noted, but also the existence of beauty perceivers themselves. Beauty exists for a reason, it is true in that it exists as a quality or experience meant for creatures other than us, and is therefore is independent of humans. Beauty is also good, in that it fulfils the purposes for which it exists. Those purpose might be to warn off predators that you are protected by toxins. It does no good to die in the process of killing your killer. Beauty might be to attract a pollinator, or a mate. It might be the display of fitness that says ‘don’t eat me’ or the fleetness of foot that escapes the jaws that are also beautiful. Beauty might be the destructive power of shifting plates in forming pleasing mountains, ice sheets scraping away to produce deep lakes, forms of beauty quiet independent of an eye to see.

Beauty’s appreciation is found in the eye of female birds of paradise choosing a mate, or bower birds admiring their own constructions. It is hard to imagine that the complex mind of a cuttlefish does not in some deep sense appreciate the beautiful patterns a mate produces. And what creature does not enjoy the taste of their favourite food? Is it survival instinct alone or aesthetic appreciation also? Do humans alone make art? Do we alone appreciate the beauty around us? Surely our aesthetic senses are finely honed, but let us not miss the forest of beauty for the tree of objective analysis.

And neither let us become so reductionist that evolution explains away beauty. Am I back tracking on my disavowal of Keats’ charge? Not as such. Take for example evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson’s idea of biophilia, the contention that we find beautiful in nature that which reminds us of life in the Pleistocene on the African Savanna. Our tendency to like habitats that resemble this environment have been mirrored in observations made by Europeans new to North America and Australia, who appreciated those landscapes that made them think of orchards or an English gentleman’s garden. The flipside of this preference was the attitude toward Australian rainforests, or native fauna, and the desire to import British wildlife. We can become stuck in our aesthetics, either by biology alone or also by culture. Surely then we need to transcend either thinking we are, or being bound by our genes in what we find beautiful.

The flip side of beauty is ugliness. English theologian John Wesley preached against ugly predators because he didn’t understand them. Predation might be hard to stomach, yet the Platonic triad reminds us that what is beautiful is also true and good. In the Anthropocene, what is not good and therefore not beautiful is what we have done to planet Earth. Australian politician Tony Abbott find winds farms ugly, but polluting, greenhouse producing coal fired power stations are not beautiful, what they do is not good for any creature, and to deny this is not being truthful.

The future must be one of pursuing beauty. Humans must live and eat, we seek a good life marked by truth and beauty in our relationships. Shouldn’t our technology be more beautiful, not just more efficient? Alain de Botton says that our buildings should do justice to the land that they occupy and the creatures that they have displaced. Perhaps even more now, our civilisation can become more beautiful by displacing less, more being in harmony with its surroundings, like architect Elora Hardy’s magical houses of bamboo.

The last word must be given to love. Austin claims that ‘the experience of beauty creates and sustains relationships.’ And what are relationships founded on, if not love? Can we come to love the world, form relationships with landscape and creature and appreciate their beauty in a manner analogous to the way in which we appreciate the beauty of a lover or spouse? Surely we must, for while having an environment that allows us to survive is important, humans long for more than mere survival. In learning to love the beauty of the world around us, we will do more than survive, we will thrive.


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