Beauty Is My “Why”

Even if fossil fuels were clean, or even if electric cars came with zero environmental problems from mining the materials for the batteries and so on … do you like the landscapes we have built around cars? I find these landscapes desolate, alienating … and ugly.

Even if we could engineer some way to survive without flowers and bees and birds … would you want to live in a world where all the flowers and bees and birds were gone? Even if we could engineer a way for humans to keep cool without needing any shade, would you want to live in a world without trees? I find our endless acres of scalped, edged, and vacuumed turfgrass hot, desolate … and ugly.

I am staggered sometimes at our culture’s tolerance for ugliness in the name of “practicality” or profit or convenience.

My parents used to love traveling to Italy. My Mom said she loved how the culture seemed to put beauty first in all things, or at least seemed to have zero tolerance for ugliness.

Sometimes I wonder if I would care about the environment as much if my deep need for beauty were not a factor. I don’t have a quick answer for that.

One thing I do know is that the city-owned empty lot next to me is constantly being mowed, to the point that it’s usually brown with huge bare patches of sand. It also gets straight-edged and (until recently, when I succeeded in my efforts to get the city to at least stop the chemicals) drenched with pesticides and herbicides. That lot is being turned into a desert; the mowing and edging is causing unnecessary financial expense, unnecessary noise pollution and air pollution. And it has an unacceptable opportunity cost in terms of the ecologically valuable plants we could be growing in that space. Native plants for wildlife; edible plants for humans. And, it is ugly. And this is supposed to be our mainstream standard of a properly cared-for landscape: the straight-edged buzzcut grass rectangle.

Another thing I do know is that the best fuel for eco activism (or any other kind of activism) is love of something. My something just happens to be beauty. At least it’s my main something. And I don’t want a beautiful world for just me (I can easily create that, and often have); I want a beautiful world for everyone.

On a related note, some categories of ugly that I find particularly vexing: unnecessary noise; unnecessary and destructive labor (such as removal of Spanish moss from the oaks in the historic cemetery diwn the street from me); fancy gadgets that are not intuitively easy to understand, and make the users feel stupid; casual everyday violence from ripping out “weeds” (plants that one has not bothered to learn the value of) and scraping up leaves and grinding stumps — to gentrification and “urban renewal” and HOA landscaping standards; to unkindness on social media.

That’s all for the moment; I think about this subject a lot and may have more to say later.

In my book, I talk about the power of “finding your ‘why’.” My main “why” seems to be beauty. (And, for me, the sounds of nature unspoiled by mechanized noise are a subset of beauty, as is the natural darkness of night.) What’s yours?