LIFEAFFIRMING BEAUTY

SANDRA LUBARSKY

a bout th e author
Sandra B. Lubarsky is a writer and professor whose research interests focus on the intersection of aesthetics and
sustainability. She founded the master’s program in sustainable communities at Northern Arizona University and currently directs the Sustainable Development program at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.

This publication is an excerpted chapter from The Energy Reader: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth, Tom Butler, Daniel Lerch, and George Wuerthner, eds. (Healdsburg, CA: Watershed Media, 2012). The Energy Reader is copyright © 2012 by the Foundation for Deep Ecology, and published in collaboration with Watershed Media and Post Carbon Institute. For other excerpts, permission to reprint, and purchasing visit energy-reality.org or contact Post Carbon Institute. Photo: George Wuerthner

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There is a relationship between sustainability and beauty. Beauty is our way of describing encounters with life-affirmative patterns of relationships. The current energy Pull economy quote here produces lorem ipsum ugliness, a form of violence against the dolor world sit amet and its creatures, which have aesthetic worth and intrinsic value. Does our inability to speak forthrightly about ugliness make us unintentionally complicit with this ongoing obliteration?

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s it possible to look at a strip-mined slice of the Appalachians and demur from a judgment of ugliness, insisting that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and complaints against mountain ruin and valley spoil lack objective measure? Or do we deceive our senses when we refuse to enter into an aesthetic judgment on, say, the drill pads pockmarking Wyoming’s upper Green River Valley, a landscape being desecrated in pursuit of boundless energy? Can we treat the obliteration of a mountainside or the disfigurement of land that has been road-carved and pipelined as coolly as a gallery artifact, amused that someone, somewhere must find these reshaped landscapes appealing? Or does our inability to speak publicly about ugliness make us unintentionally complicit with this ongoing obliteration? The word “ugly” is derived from the Old Norse word ugga, to dread. It is to this original meaning that we must return for a word that can endure the weight of environmental desecration. “Dread” implies “fear,” both words gaining their emotional strength from a threat of violence. The word “repugnant,” a synonym of dread, wears its relation to violence in its root, pugnare, to fight, bringing to mind a foul, sickening fist. Etymologically, there is a direct line between ugliness and dread, dread and violence, and this line recovers the relation of ugliness to things that blunt or reduce life. It is a mistake to think that the judgment, “ugly,” is

merely an expression of one person’s opinion with little basis in shared, public experience. Though cultural habit plays a part in aesthetic judgment—we live our lives, after all, in a fine mesh of expectations and sensitivities—patterns that are brutally life-denying are repudiated cross-culturally. The calculated torture of a living being is one such pattern. The despoilment of nature is another. Their common measure is violence. It is another mistake to think of ugliness as simply a synonym for “displeasure” or beauty as a synonym for “pleasure.” When we do, we continue the modern conceit that the world’s worth is a matter of human judgment. Such thinking turns nonhuman life into objects for our enjoyment—and for our use and abuse. “What good is a mountain just to have a mountain?” asked a representative of the West Virginia Coal Association in a public debate over whether Blair Mountain would remain a mountain or become a slagheap. Clearly, one of the best ways to objectify the world is to deny it a value of its own and to think of its worth only in terms of what we like or dislike. All the many forms of life possess their own aesthetic worth; they do not depend on our pleasure or displeasure for confirmation of their value. When we think of value as intrinsic to all living beings, objectively present in the world, the worth of the world is secured in a way that exceeds human favor or disfavor. Whatever
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Luba r sk y

Life-A ffir ming Be aut y

pleasure or disgust we register is in response to the objective factuality of beauty or its absence. A reintroduction of value into the world deposes materialism and its claim that the really real things that make up the world are senseless and valueless units of some quantifiable measure. We begin to see the world as filled with value and with feeling beings whose value contributes to the richness of experience. To know this is to realize that displeasure is too small a word to carry the freight of disorder and abuse barreling down on our natural systems. Because the world is permeated with value, there is no neutral landscape; the world is never a blank slate, a neutral palette, a valueless fact. Between beauty and ugliness is a zero-sum relationship. When beauty is lost, it is replaced by ugliness. Just as evil is not simply the absence of good but a very potent force for attenuating life, so ugliness is not simply the absence of beauty but a devitalizing force, disruptive of the delicate adjustments of life. When particular forms of beauty are gone, they are as lost as the passenger pigeon or the great auk. To mourn the loss of life is also to mourn the loss of beauty. There is a relationship between beauty and life, ugliness and the diminishment of life. Beauty is a marker of vitality; it is our way of describing encounters with life-affirmative patterns of relationships. To think of beauty in this way is to free it from the narrow constraints of either art or advertising. Beauty is one of the plain facts of experience, a part of our deep, evolutionary memory, kept alive in our daily consort with the world. We associate beauty with life-affirming conditions, arising as part of the miracle of relations that constitute the structure of life. A healthy ecosystem is predicated on countless fine-tuned adjustments. In biological terms, these adjustments are to a range of variables that includes such things as temperature, humidity, genetic variation, and species distribution. In aesthetic terms, millions of life-patterns are interwoven, each pattern enhanced by the others and contributing to the enrichment of all scales of life. What we have come to identify as beautiful are those patterns of adjustment that both enable and express life.

There is a relationship between sustainability and beauty. We need to name that relationship in order to give emotional honesty to our lives. A world in decline is a world that has become less beautiful. If we are to understand the widespread destructiveness of our current energy-hungry culture, we must attend to the loss of beauty and the increase of ugliness. Our inability to admit this and to address it will keep us imprisoned in the materialistic framework that bears much responsibility for the deterioration of the planet. The poet Li Young Li once said, “When you become an artist, the material speaks back to you.” As with poetry, so with beauty in general: Attend to beauty and the world speaks back, making its beauty evident or its lack palpable. In its presence and its absence, we are called to language and its power to make us responsible to the world. To admit neither to beauty nor ugliness is to live delinquently in the world. In speechlessness is acquiescence to the status quo. It is all of a piece: the need to move to a worldview in which value is in the world and not only in the mind of the beholder, the need to reconnect beauty with life and our efforts to sustain the world, and the need to restore the language of beauty so that we can make judgments of value in the public domain. As things now stand, without accusations of “ugliness” and affirmations of “beauty,” the deterioration of the world will continue apace.

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Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth
Edited by Tom Butler and George Wuerthner
We have reached a point of crisis with regard to energy... The essential problem is not just that we are tapping the wrong energy sources (though we are), or that we are wasteful and inefficient (though we are), but that we are overpowered, and we are overpowering nature. — from the Introduction, by Richard Heinberg

ENERGY

In a large-format, image-driven narrative featuring over 150 breathtaking color photographs, ENERGY explores the impacts of the global energy economy: from oil spills and mountaintop-removal coal mining to oversized wind farms and desert-destroying solar power plants. ENERGY lifts the veil on the harsh realities of our pursuit of energy at any price, revealing the true costs, benefits, and limitations of all our energy options.
Published by the Foundation for Deep Ecology in collaboration with Watershed Media and Post Carbon Institute. 336 pages, 11.75” x 13.4”, 152 color photographs, 5 line illustrations. $50.00 hardcover, ISBN 978-0970950086, Fall 2012.

The ENERGY Reader
Edited by Tom Butler, Daniel Lerch, and George Wuerthner What magic, or monster, lurks behind the light switch and the gas pump? Where does the seemingly limitless energy that fuels modern society come from? From oil spills, nuclear accidents, mountaintop removal coal mining, and natural gas “fracking” to wind power projects and solar power plants, every source of energy has costs. Featuring the essays found in ENERGY plus additional material, The ENERGY Reader takes an unflinching look at the systems that support our insatiable thirst for more power along with their unintended side effects.
Published by the Foundation for Deep Ecology in collaboration with Watershed Media and Post Carbon Institute. 384 pages, 6” x 9”, 7 b/w photographs, 5 line illustrations. $19.95 paperback, ISBN 978-0970950093, Fall 2012.

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