This is a post about structures. It is a post about illusions. It is a post about what lies beneath the apparent beauty of our privileged culture, and what else might be possible. It is a post about beauty as a way out of our current crises.
What is in a rose? This flower that we give as a sign of our love is now grown in hothouses all around the world, sprayed with toxic chemicals, and flown in for Valentine’s day through a vast network of night-flights. There is beauty in the action, there is beauty in the flower, but the beauty is tainted by the structure it rests on. Beneath the rose, there is something not-beautiful.
In the society we live in today, this is the nature of beauty: it is on the surface, and we have been taught to look away, not to consider what lies beneath. Consider the traditional family dinner: the roast on the table, potatoes, a starchy vegetable of some sort, and a lovely rich dessert. What could be a more pure offering of love? Except that over the years in the pursuit of efficiency, all the paths to our table have become contaminated with compromises made on our behalf that add up to a situation we would not have chosen. Did we choose cows standing shoulder to shoulder, fed grain instead of grass, leading to zoonotic diseases, antibiotic resistance, and e-coli 0157? Did we choose salmonella in our greens, persistent organic pollutants in our breast milk, early puberty, and poverty-stricken migrant labourers kept in locked compounds between shifts? Or are we just trying to feed our families, have a good dinner conversation, and enjoy something wonderful for dessert, possibly with a nice glass of wine or cup of coffee?
It shouldn’t be this hard. We shouldn’t have to look away from reality to be comfortable with our lives. And we shouldn’t have to bow out of society to be able to do the right thing.
Now and again (a couple of times a week) I see somebody triumphantly mocking a blogger or writer who is trying to live a more ethical or greener lifestyle: “Ha! Do you still drive a car? Did you purchase your shoes? Then you’re entirely enmeshed in this structure, you hypocrite! Give up, there is no other way. Plastics rule the world! Bow to our corporate overlords!” (or something to that effect… the most recent one was a relatively mild explanation of how litterers provide employment for the people who have to clean up after them, so they shouldn’t be considered a problem.)
And I find myself thinking, “That. Right there. That’s the problem.” It is not whether we should eat vegan or omnivore, or whether we should dress in new organic cotton (which displaced food crops in a food-insecure part of the world) or recycled synthetics (which are plastic). It is not that we have to choose between organic and local, stainless steel or glass, low VOC or milk paint. It is that the very idea of “choice” that is supposed to be part of this imaginary free market is ludicrous: in so many cases, we have nothing to choose amongst but “less bad” offerings. The system itself is the problem, not the individual components of it, and certainly not the choices we make in good conscience, trying to do the best we can. We need a new system. And the new system has to include a different aesthetic. It has to hold up to scrutiny. It has to be something that we wouldn’t be embarrassed to explain to our children.
Make no mistake: efficiency is an aesthetic choice. We have made efficiency our highest priority, and have allowed it to trump kindness, adequate nutrition, meaningful work, clean air and water, peace, and beauty. It is the foundation of our system, and it leads logically to exactly the crises we are in. We do not have economies of scale; we passed those long ago, probably around the time that our fields became so big that the bees couldn’t fly to the middle of them. What we have instead are economies of externalization. Things are not affordable (for us) because they are cheap to produce in such massive quantities. They are affordable because somebody else is picking up the tab. Whether it is the farmer who takes all the risk and barely squeaks out a profit from 500 dairy cows, or the dead zone off the coast from the river runoff, and the fishers who can no longer fish there, the urban peasant who moved to a slum for a better life because their land was sold off to grow cash crops, or the species of orchid that went extinct when that towering giant in the rainforest was cut: the costs are there. We just aren’t paying them. Except in the dis-ease that we must live with every moment of our lives, because we know that we must never, never look beneath the covers, for fear of what we must find there.
So. I call for a new aesthetic. One in which our decisions are checked against their consequences by the system as a whole, not by each of us struggling to make good choices in the face of impossible, misleading, or absent information. One in which I can put things on my table, and on my walls, without having to lie to my children about who suffered to bring it to us. One in which I can point to beauty, all the way down.