Sunday, October 18, 2009

Goethe and the Natural World

Among intellectuals today, a prevalent view is that humans are wrecking the environment. (Don't worry: I am not going to write about Goethe and "climate change.") I don't deny that our scientific and technological progress has altered the face of the earth, and in his own time Goethe was noting this as well. In recent years scholars have been writing about the "Green Goethe," for instance, Alfred Muschg, in Der Schein trügt nicht.

But Goethe cannot be appropriated for one ideology or another. He was, for instance, interested in the development of the Suez and Panama canals, both of which were being contemplated in his lifetime. A very strange poem, from 1828, entitled "Die ersten Erzeugnisse der Stotternheimer Saline ...," concerns deep drilling near Erfurt. The drilling led to a new field of geological observation (the Upper Permian formation), but it also produced important economic benefits for Thuringia in the recovery of salt. In the poem Goethe shows appreciation of the role of new technology based on scientific knowledge and mathematics over traditional craftsmanship.

Like Goethe, I cannot help noticing the effects of technology on the earth, but I try to avoid the danger of being nostalgic. Technology has given people a better life. When I think of all the hard work that generations before me have engaged in so that I now enjoy a pretty comfortable life, I cannot get too moralistic about the conditions of workers in the kinds of factories pictured above. They are no doubt making some product the rest of us would like to have. I am also certain that they prefer being in that factory than slaving in rice paddies. William J. Bernstein, in The Splendid Exchange, writes that, before modern times, 90 percent of the world's population engaged in subsistence-level farming. Even the "satanic mills" of 19th-century England were preferable to that.

Yesterday my friend Barbara Schulz and I visited galleries in Chelsea, including the Hasted Hunt Kraeutler Gallery, which is now showing the photos of Edward Burtynsky. Burtynsky specializes in large-format industrial imagery. According to his Wikipedia entry, Burtynsky's most famous photos are "sweeping views of landscapes altered by industry: mine tailings, queries, scrap piles." You might think that such subjects could not be beautiful, but you would be wrong. As the Wikipedia entry says: "The grand, awe-inspiring beauty of his images is often in tension with the compromised environments they depict."

I like that phrase: "compromised environments."

I like Burtynsky's photos so much that I can't resist posting a few here, including the one at the left, which I took at the gallery. The one of tires is from a series called "Urban Mines." Schiller made a distinction between our response to natural beauty (a rose, let us say) and our response to the beauty produced by art (a painting of a rose). Burtynsky's images challenge this distinction: the "landscapes" he photographs have become "ugly" (or compromised), but the photos themselves portray something beautiful, as in the photo below of "Silver Lake Operations #1, Lake Lefroy, Australia, 2007." I find something grand in this "landscape," but not as a result of its nature (as with, say, the Grand Canyon), but because of what humans have done with it.

As one blogger writes: the technological make-over of the world has resulted in the improvement of daily life for ordinary people. Our illnesses are treatable, as is the pain of illness. We have done damage to the earth, but continue to make the lives of the earth's inhabitants more livable.

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