Growing up in the glorious shadow Mt. Rainier, a passion for beauty grew organically in me. As a senior at the University of Washington, I have been searching for meaningful projects to contribute to, and I am excited to be interning with And Beauty for All to help spread the word about protecting, enjoying, and creating beauty.
By Sandra Lubarsky
Words live in companionship with other words. By themselves, they are like a wolf without a pack; in association they gain social position and meaning. The word “sustainability,” now nearly fifty years old in its current usage, runs with a mixed band of ideas: environment, development, management, technology, renewable energy, agriculture. Missing in almost every instance is any affiliation with “beauty.”
The absence of beauty signals a systems error in our understanding of sustainability, mistaking it for nothing more than an inspired effort to keep the clock wound. But sustainability has always pointed to a vision that goes beyond mere endurance or perpetuation of the status quo. Its agenda is more radical than is usually recognized, exceeding even the most exciting technological advances in energy conservation and renewable resource development or scientific breakthroughs in environmental management and restoration. Beyond efforts to insure the continuation of human civilization-as-we-know-it, is a vision of something “not-yet and better”--a vision inspired by beauty.
Unfortunately, we have come to believe that beauty is only “in the eye of the beholder” and we speak of beauty as a superficial and trivial quality, “only skin deep.” Even though sustainability is a movement to correct the dominant paradigm, this understanding of beauty remains largely unquestioned. And so, we bracket beauty out of the sustainability equation, accepting the judgment that beauty is unimportant.
But beauty denotes life’s intrinsic worth and the quality of aliveness. It is the way we speak about the sustaining and flourishing of life-in-relationship with life. When we encounter beauty in one form or another, we feel a heightened sense of being alive and in kinship with life. Everyday beauty—this spring-pink tree, that truss of lilacs, that kindness—holds us fast to this world. To speak this way about beauty—as the value most closely related to life--is to affirm the indwelling vitality of life.
Life is no neutral province, to be treated with impartiality. We are partisans for life and beauty, desiring life-beauty in abundance and intensity. But in our industrial world, the two have been separated and belittled. Life is minimized as a kind of physical substrate, devoid of intrinsic value. Beauty is confined to the quarters of art, cosmetology, fashion, retail sexuality, and consumer marketing. And so we end up with a too-small notion of sustainability—one that leans heavily on science and technology—and a too small notion of beauty—one that fails to understand its value as that which makes life worth preserving.
Beauty is no simple add-on to a sustainability wish list; it is the orienting principle for life-affirming relations. It embodies a value system that challenges the modern materialistic worldview at its core, calling out its life-denying principles and assumptions. It places form and function, efficiency and financial gain into the larger concern for the vigor of life systems. Begin with the question, “How does this project contribute to the beauty of the world?” and function, form, efficiency, and gain are made responsible to the great economy of life. That economy is based on the wholeness of relations and the rule that every act is born from wholeness. To make the aesthetic question primary-- rather than irrelevant!--is to ask about both the vitality of the individual entity and how its vitality contributes to the vitality of the whole.
Apart from beauty—understood as the consequence and aim of life-affirmative relations--it will not be possible to reshape civilization in ways that satisfy and nourish the human spirit and honor the worth of all living beings. There is a relationship between our disregard for beauty and the disfigurement of the earth’s life-supporting habitats, between our aesthetic indifference and our overall devaluing of life.
It is beauty that is at the core of life and at the heart of living in right relationship with all that is alive. Beauty summons a vision of world-supporting structures and processes that not only sustain life but also foster the remarkable creativity of life-in-relationship-with-life. If we are to succeed with the project of sustainability, we must make beauty our orienting principle, shaping our ways of thinking, our languages, our educational systems, and our life practices.
Sandra Lubarsky organized the Sustainability programs at both Northern Arizona and Appalachian State universities. She is the co-author of the book ON BEAUTY, a celebration of the life of Doug Tompkins. She is an activist and writer in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she recently succeeded in getting her city council to pass a proclamation supporting the AND BEAUTY FOR ALL campaign.
Beauty Calls Us to Action
Every month, or perhaps more often, we’ll post a new guest blog on our website. This is the first, written by award-winning author and former Oregon State University professor, Kathleen Dean Moore. Please consider writing a guest blog for us. Keep it to 800 words or less and make sure it’s about making the places where we live, work and play more beautiful and sustainable. Beyond that caveat, be as creative as you wish. Contact me at: email@example.com if you have an idea for a blog, or simply send something to me. Thanks so much!
Beauty Calls Us to Action
By Kathleen Dean Moore
Let the beauty we love be what we do. -- Rumi
I believe that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonder and beauty of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction. – Rachel Carson
What does it matter, that the world is beautiful? That’s the question I want to ask. Or put it more directly: What is the moral significance of beauty? I believe that the Earth’s beauty calls us to gratitude, celebration, and fierce, creative acts of protection and restoration.
We can begin with an aesthetic affirmation: This world is filled with beauty. It’s not just the sun in winter, the salmon sky that lights the snow, or blue rivers through glacial ice. It’s the small things, too, the kinglet’s golden crown, the lacy skeletons of decaying leaves, and the way all these relate to one another in patterns that are beautiful and wondrous. It’s the right relation among humans and nature too – just communities, caring families, curiosity and respect for the truth, healthy and joyful children. It’s green, well-designed cities and birdsong.
Add to that a moral affirmation: What is beautiful must remain. Disdain or disregard for beauty results in ugliness, a wound to the Earth and the soul. And when beauty is created or restored, we humans are lifted and healed. Even the birds sing out.
It follows that Beauty itself calls us to action. If this is the way the world is -- beautiful, astonishing, wondrous, awe-inspiring -- then this is how we ought to act in that world -- with respect, with gratitude, with deep caring and fierce protectiveness, and with a full sense of our obligation to the future that this beauty shall remain.
Kathleen Dean Moore, Ph.D., is a philosopher and writer, best known for award-winning books about our cultural and spiritual relation to wet, wild places. Among them are Riverwalking, Holdfast, Pine Island Paradox, and Wild Comfort. Until recently Distinguished Professor of Environmental Ethics at Oregon State University, Moore’s love for the reeling world has led her to a new life of climate writing and activism. Her most recent book, Piano Tide, winner of the WILLA Award for Contemporary Fiction, imagines how a small Alaskan town defends its natural richness from corporate plunder.