Is beauty dying?

One of my favourite novels is George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides. It’s one of the most beautiful, haunting novels I’ve ever read and it holds up amazingly well when you think it was published in 1949. Earth Abides is a post apocalyptic novel but it’s really more than that. It’s a lament for civilisation; human history unravels, devolves. But even as humans shrink, nature reclaims what it’s lost. There’s a wonderful scene at the end of the novel where Ish looks at the hills and knows that soon he shall return to the hills and the earth, and so shall his children, and the world they leave will be nothing like the one he knew. But life will go on; earth abides.

Reading all the posts about Blog Action Day has reminded me of Earth Abides. We seem to be at something of a crossroads right now about the environment ourselves. 20,000 blogs were involved in Blog Action Day and people are angry, worried about what world we’re leaving to our children. I’m concerned as well but I don’t think we’re at the final tipping point just yet; we have to accept our role in the problem, change our policies and the impact we have on the environment, but I still think if given the chance nature will reclaim what its lost. That’s evolution, the way of life; earth abides.

But having said that, responsibility is key. We need to understand that we all have an impact on the world we live in and accept the responsibility to make changes in our lives. If we all put off the changes, say someone else will do it, then the effect is negated. Likewise we need governments to be responsible for making changes, for making industries to adopt more environmentally friendly policies. And the only way politicians are motivated to make changes is if they know it’s a community issue, something they can’t ignore. That’s why Blog Action Day was a great initiative; it got us talking about the environment in ways that matter to us, and hopefully we’ll keep talking about it.

Blog Action Day also got me thinking about something else: Beauty. It was MusEdition’s great post which started it; she described her surroundings and it sounded so beautiful, to turn and look out the window at mountains and birds. Then I read Sulz’s entry and I knew just what she meant about walking through the woods or a park as the sun rises; one of my favourite pastimes is to walk along the beach, see the tide and the sun reflecting off the ocean. It’s something I take for granted sometimes and I shouldn’t; I’m going to try not to from now on.

But then I looked out my window. I don’t really know how to describe it; I live in one of the nicer residential parts of Sydney but I’m surrounded by cakeboxes. The street is filled with blocks of flats and the occasional house; I live near one of the largest parks in Sydney but I can’t see it from here and I’m high up in the flats. In fact, I can’t see trees at all; it’s just a concrete and brick jungle. Well, there is this one scrawny thing opposite that looks like it should be put out of its misery, but I don’t know whether that counts or not.

I live in one of the world’s most beautiful cities (and I do mean that) but today it just struck me how manufactured a lot of it is. And how manufactured our society is. We seem to have this idea of beauty that nothing can really live up to; a person has to look a certain way to be beautiful, our clothes are in fashion one minute and ugly the next, our homes have to have the latest trends, our gadgets have to be new and shiny. If something doesn’t match our standards, we don’t just get it fixed, we remake it in our image; cosmetic surgery, makeup, renovations, there’s always something which can make us or our possessions more “beautiful”.

I’ve never been someone who buys into the whole idea of image; I’m not going to say I don’t care how a person looks, but that’s not everything. I care more about personality and if the person is interesting than their looks or if they’ve got the latest iPod. I think at heart most people would say the same thing. But we still cling to this modern ideal of beauty just the same. And I’m wondering if this is spreading to how we think about the environment as well. When was the last time you saw a natural feature that made you stop and appreciate it? Not something you planned for, but just saw by accident? I know the last time for me: it was a sunset that caught my imagination just the right way. I took a picture of it. But before that I’d gone weeks, maybe months without even thinking about it, without even noticing what was around me. I think that’s true for a lot of people living in large cities.

It’s so much easier to turn a blind eye to the environment when you feel like it’s just your surroundings; when you’re so busy with your daily routine that you barely notice anything outside of it. That’s apathy and that’s the biggest danger of all, that we just exist and don’t care. We don’t see it so we don’t care that cities are taking over more and more land to cover growing populations; we don’t see that animals are being displaced from their homes by bulldozers for a new shopping mall to go up.

That’s why Blog Action Day was a good initiative and hopefully will continue to be; it’s got people thinking about it, noticing again. And as I said, I believe that if we play our role, nature will recover, and that’s why having a message of hope is a good balance. But something which concerns me is the thought that we might save the environment but replace the beauty that surrounds us in the process, and we might not even know what we’ve lost.

One of the biggest problems we’re facing now is overpopulation and crowding. How do you deal with it? With an ageing population and a steady birthrate, how do you extend a city and manage resources without impacting the environment? You can’t spread out further; you can’t take over new sites. The only viable option is to build up and make better use of the space we have; for more apartment blocks to be built, taller and with more vacancies, and for more people to live together, sharing costs. I think that’s the only way we can do it… but it means knocking down more houses, replacing them with flats. It means in 30 years that cities would become much more uniform, dominated by cakeboxes and dull towers, and what beauty we do have around us would be even less noticeable. I find that a very sad thought.

Perhaps it won’t be like that; perhaps I’ve simply used my imagination too much and envisioned something more like Blade Runner than a realistic future. But with the way we value our own ideal of beauty and the trends that come with it, it seems like something that might happen; that we’d place even less value on real beauty, artistry and design. That’s probably a worthy trade, but I find it sad just the same.

Still, life goes on. And earth abides; that’s the whole point, isn’t it? That’s what Blog Action Day was all about, spreading the message and making people think. It’s certainly made me think and I was proud to have played a small part in the day. Congrats to everyone. πŸ™‚

4 thoughts on “Is beauty dying?

  1. Just a quick note – your link to “a picture of it” is broken.

    CJ: Thanks TT. I was trying to avoid a pingback and mustn’t have entered the address properly. Should be fixed now. πŸ™‚

  2. I’ve never been someone who buys into the whole idea of image; I’m not going to say I don’t care how a person looks, but that’s not everything. I care more about personality and if the person is interesting than their looks or if they’ve got the latest iPod. I think at heart most people would say the same thing. But we still cling to this modern ideal of beauty just the same.

    that is exactly how i feel sometimes! i hate that i preach ‘inner not outer beauty’ but at the same time how something or someone looks still affects how i feel about it at moments.

    and ditto timethief.

    CJ: Yeah, I feel just the same way. I hate it that I say I try to see the real person, but still the first thing I notice is their hair or something like that. I guess we’ve all been conditioned like that, so it’s our first instinct; it’s if you can look past that and I think on the whole we can. πŸ˜‰

    Thanks for checking the link. I think it’s fixed now. My bad.

  3. Well, here I am in tears again. I’m either going to have to stop reading your blog (not gonna happen! πŸ˜‰ ), or just accept that your posts often affect me that way. I am honored to be included in your post on beauty. It seems I have a more beautiful view outside my window that you do–at this moment. But I envision that changing for you as you hold the ideal of beauty inside. I was having a discussion recently about the Navavjo spiritual directive to walk in beauty. I’ve lived quite close to the Navajo Native American reservation. They invoke:
    β€œI walk in beauty: Beauty before me; beauty behind me. I walk in beauty: beauty above me, beauty below me, beauty beside me.”
    This is a spiritual path for them, and they don’t necessarily mean physical beauty, although it can certainly include that. In fact, much of their reservation is on dry, rather featureless land. But they see beauty as more of an inner quality, a lens if you will to view the world.
    We can all look through this lens as you suggest in your beautiful post, and allow the world to change to meet our expectations.

    CJ: LOL, I do seem to have that affect on people, though usually for different reasons! πŸ˜‰ Seriously, though, I’m very grateful for your thoughts, Muse; and I’m not normally as melancholic as this – give me a day or two and I’ll be back to normal. πŸ™‚

    My view probably isn’t as bad as I made it seem; there a few more trees and there are certainly worse things to look upon. I’d just hate to think that this would be the future, that cities would become more industrial, and to see real nature and beauty you’d have to leave the city. But on the other hand cities are so large that there’ll always be someone who cares and wants to preserve beauty, either natural beauty or art; so I doubt we’d ever truly lose it.

    I’ve always been fascinated by the Navajo and that seems like such a beautiful outlook; that because beauty is inside everything, it’s your choice, your path to see it. I think the Aborigines here have a similar outlook going back to their Dreamtime. That’s the path I’d like to follow; not so much enlightenment, but acceptance… perhaps as you grow as a person, you find the path you want to walk. I guess I’ve just got some more searching to do first. πŸ˜›

  4. and yeah forgot to say thanks for the link love!

    by the way, when you get past how something or someone looks… you can really see something amazing in that thing/person and that knowledge makes you see the beauty in that thing/person! i’ve experienced this myself on several occasions.

    CJ: Now worries, sulz. It was a great post – I couldn’t not link to it! πŸ˜›

    And I know the feeling too. It’s sort of transcendent, like you’re connecting with something on a level you don’t quite understand… and once you’ve felt it, you know that everything else isn’t as important. Maybe that’s what real beauty is, that connection.

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