I want my great-grandchildren to live in a place that is…
Anyone who has traveled in the developing world during the past 30 years has seen the vast slums that engulf the cities. Slums occupy decaying sections of old cities and newly built shantytowns that often surround more affluent urban areas. About a billion people, worldwide, live in slums today and the United Nations expects that number to double by 2030.
Slums are densely populated aggregations of minimal human shelter. Generally speaking slum dwellers are barely protected from the weather. Their sewage is not treated. Their children are not educated. Increasingly, the world’s slums host a variety of toxic occupations such as recycling used computer parts and scavenging landfills.
Slums are not beautiful. I’m sure their residents find some beauty in them, but ugliness remains one of their defining factors. The slum’s residents want to make it smell better, look better and provide better shelter.
An absence of beauty often indicates an absence of health, and the slums metastasizing around the world are indicators of a profound economic disease. As we’ve enhanced the lives of the world’s riches human beings, economic disparity has advanced like a cancer. It’s not that the poor live a lot worse than ever. As far back as recorded history can take us, there were unfortunate people who lived without shelter, clean water or adequate food. Their condition hasn’t changed appreciably in the entire span of human history. The richest residents of the 21st century, on the other hand, live lives of luxury that kings and emperors couldn’t have imagined until very recently. The rich need not ever smell an unpleasant smell or see an unpleasant sight. From birth to death they have access to temperate air, clean water and beautiful things. They can reach any terrestrial destination that pleases them in a few hours. They have drugs that soothe almost any pain. Almost any form of entertainment is available to them at the touch of a button.
And they live, quite often, within walking distance of a slum.
The ugliness of the slums is striking for its proximity to wealth and beauty.
To spread beauty in my vision of our human future, the poor must be elevated.
I don’t imagine a world in which economic disparity has been eliminated. I think that would be a bad idea. Economic disparity and the opportunity of improving our individual standard of living is a tremendous source of energy fueling enterprise and innovation. It’s a motivator.
But I envision a human world that no longer tolerates “inhuman” conditions. I see a world in which people don’t go hungry, because we no longer put up with starvation. Today we have enough food to eradicate hunger, but we lack the collective will to do so. We could feed every hungry person tomorrow but we haven’t collectively decided to do so.
In my beautiful vision, we would tolerate nothing less.
The poor will, by some definition, always exist. But we have the power to change the definition. The poor should have food in their pantries, doctors in their neighborhoods and beauty in their lives. In my vision, no nation in the world will tolerate anything less, even for its poorest residents.
But perhaps I’m not setting a high enough standard. Perhaps I’m being too realistic. Raising the lifestyles of the poor is a relatively simple matter of reallocating resources we already possess. I’m not meeting my own standard for an idealized, unrealistic vision.
So I think the poor, and everyone else, should also have access to beautiful, unaltered nature.
In nearly every literary tradition across the world, untrammeled nature remains a standard for beauty. A Libyan novelist writes movingly about the virgin sand dunes of the deep Sahara. A Canadian poet describes a frozen lake in the north woods and a pygmy storyteller sings of the subtle, changeable beauty of the African jungle.Nature’s beauty is, often, the standard against which we measure manmade art. Art elaborates on nature’s image. Without reference to nature, could we even define beauty?