Earlier today, I was looking through some photographs that were taken during a busking trip to Barcelona in 2004. There was one photograph, of La Sagrada Familia, which made me stop and think. Prior to looking through the photographs, I had been having a social media rant about Donald Trump’s approach to climate change and his total inability to see it as anything more than an issue that restricts the rights of the American people to do as they please in their pursuit of economic growth, ‘freedom,’ and ‘prosperity’. The photographs of La Sagrada Familia made me realise that one very important thing is missing from the discourse of climate change. We talk of the science and impacts of climate change, yet there is virtually no discussion of aesthetics in relation to the issue.
For those of us who admire Antoni Gaudí’s architecture, it is clear that he designed buildings that explored the relationships that exist between humans, religion, and the natural world. Gaudí loved nature – he was inspired by the shapes and forms that only nature can create and he used architecture to explore how the natural world was shaped by society and politics. Indeed, his work articulates, beautifully, the tensions that exist between the human constructs of economics and politics and the aesthetics of nature. It is Gaudí’s ability to bring aesthetics into human realms that are devoid of any sense, or even mention, of beauty that is so crucial to the crisis that is climate change.
It should come as no surprise that the word beauty is, as far as I know, never mentioned in mainstream climate change discourse; however, I believe an aesthetic understanding of the issue is essential if we are going to stir peoples’ hearts in a way that will lead to positive behavioural change and universal outrage against Trump’s denial. In order to move forward on climate change, we need to think beyond the rhetoric concerning economic and political imperatives and start to think about what climate change means for the beauty of this little planet that supports such a rich plethora of bio, and cultural, diversity. Unless the discourse of climate change (or at least the narrative that underpins it) changes, we will we have missed the point of what climate change, and other aspects of global environmental degradation, really mean – the destruction of much that we, as a species, consider beautiful.
Importantly, a focus on the aesthetics (or lack thereof) of climate change would call into question the ugliness of a globalised economy – one that grows as nature dies. It would also question the political and economic structures that render billions of people impoverished and vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. An appreciation of the beauty of the natural world would ensure Trump, and his anti-life policies, would disappear into the annals of history as a mere footnote to a period of human history where love, for the natural world, began to ‘trump’ all other concerns.
Surely, we would all agree that the death of nature, and the ensuing poverty, is ugly? If we don’t, then the problems we face are even greater than I thought.
As a species we need wild places – even if we never visit the Amazon or the Canadian Arctic, we need these spaces to make us human – as Henry David Thoreau stated: ‘In wildness is the preservation of the world’. In this context, it is chastening to note that if we do not take concerted action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, up to 85% of the Amazon rainforest could be lost within 100 years. Will a world devoid of wildness be aesthetically pleasing?
Of course we need to continue to build on the Paris Agreement on Climate Change – and ensure Trump does not pull some stunt to jeopardise it – but we also need an agreement that has, at its heart, the protection of Earth – our beautiful planet. Gaudí was an architect who appreciated both nature and politics – he interwove the two into beautiful architectural forms. Let’s hope the world’s politicians can do the same – design a way of protecting the biophysical systems that make life on Earth possible and protects the beauty that is the heart of civilisation.