Art

The Age of Stupid

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A transparent sealed enclosure holds a limited supply of oxygen. Inside that small space is a person struggling to survive on the allotted oxygen supply. Sooner or later, all oxygen will be expended. Those standing outside the space witness a horrific scene – the person inside gasps for air and writhes in agony until the enclosure becomes his tomb.

The scene is emotionally wrenching, but does not cause undue agitation among its witnesses. This is performance art, yet another creative installation staged by a modern artist to simulate reality. Hence, no reason to be worried. Perhaps, it is difficult to identify closely with a person in agony because of a shortage of air. It seems much more real afterwards leaving that exhibition, stepping outside, taking a deep breath, and leaving that apocalyptic vision behind for good.

Apocalypse has always been a matter of extreme concern for mankind. A theory of catastrophes emerged thousands of years ago, even as early as Sumerian-Akkadian mythology. Since then, the topic has given birth to countless myths and much philosophical reasoning. In recent years, the issue of apocalypse and global catastrophe has provided serious inspiration not only for philosophers but for artists too. The issue has also propelled the so-called 2012 phenomenon.

Three years ago, the television documentary series Life After People created and directed by Australian filmmaker David de Vries speculated about what might happen in an hour, in two days, in a week or five year’s time… after humankind disappears. That same year, in 2009, French director Luc Besson released his environmental documentary Home, warning about impending ecological catastrophe and the pivotal role people play in global warming, the carbon crisis and the shortage of energy. No less interesting was British documentary director Franny Armstrong’s The Age of Stupid, set in 2055 after the Amazon rainforest has burnt up, London has flooded, snow has vanished from the Alps and an unnamed archivist tries to understand why humankind failed to address climate change and where it all went wrong.

In his film Melancholia, Danish director and screenwriter Lars von Trier presented apocalypse from a personalized and rather interesting angle. That cinematic work forces us to mull over the end of the world from different perspectives. It does not assuage the unsettling feeling that the destruction of life as we know it may not require a celestial collision between a rogue planet that has deviated from its orbit and our planet Earth. As scientists reckon, Earth will do that it itself anyway as a result of ecological disaster and energy crisis.

It is noteworthy that several decades ago the word “ecology” was applied only in its narrow sense in the field of biology. In recent years, ecology has been elevated to the religion of the new century with its number of adherents increasing daily. It has only one commandment: Do unto the universe as you would have done unto yourself. That is consonant with a key “function” of any religion – the denial of death through the conceptualization of afterlife. Today, the ecological condition has become that factor on which the existence of humankind may depend.

Of course, there is a skeptical view of all this as well: Calamities are natural phenomena which happen a priori irrespective of how ecologically correct our path of development. Some experts contend that global warming is not even a legitimate concern and that no significant increase in temperature has been observed in the last century. Cynics attribute the popularity of all things apocalyptic to all things financial – “green” investments are very profitable.

Controversial aspects of global warming do not reduce the probability that unreasonable use or misuse of finite energy resources will

create energy crises for future generations or that genetically altered crops may not prove to be beneficial for health and so on and so forth. This makes sustainable development an idée fixe not only for governments but for ordinary people as well. A separate “green” direction has emerged in the arts – in painting, in photography. Ecological architecture has become a particularly fashionable trend; it is a rather complex trend which no longer simply implies constructing buildings from only ecologically-friendly and natural materials. With thirty percent of energy consumed in the world used to light, heat and cool buildings, architects have concentrated their own energies on utilizing and optimizing natural ventilation and solar heating systems and the like. Modern “green” architecture is focused above all on saving energy and, in fact, it has been developing successfully.

The slogan “Save the Future” inscribed on the popular T-shirts of English designer Katharine Hamnett at once makes a political and fashion statement: “Conventional cotton represents 10% of world agriculture and uses 25% of the world’s pesticides. 20,000 people die every year from accidental pesticide poisoning in conventional cotton agriculture. 200,000 cotton farmers commit suicide annually due to spiraling debts incurred from buying pesticides. However, if farmers grow cotton organically and can sell it as such, this dire situation is reversed. By growing organically, farmers get a 50% increase in their income.” Does such worrisome information behind the “Save the Future” slogan not sound too credible?

In reality, the problem of producing conventional cotton is relatively insignificant when compared to the very unreasonable waste of resources in the fashion industry. Every year, unimaginable heaps of demoded and poor quality clothes are discarded as rubbish. No matter how “ethical” the collections produced by H&M or any other fast-fashion giant may be, they have a hard time justifying their giant transportation carbon footprint. Such brands as Stella McCartney, Edun, Kuyichi are perfect examples of how fashion may become truly ethical by using natural and recycled materials, but the eco-direction has not yet made it into the mainstream industry.

In recent years, consumer interest in organic products has increased substantially. While that interest is an egotistical one for members of humankind more concerned about their own health than the health of the planet, some people in the West have started thinking altruistically about foregoing fertilizers and pesticides which produce short-term profits but make land less productive and may even cause worldwide famine for future generations. Many so-called “extremists” in modern society not only care for the environment but also set up separate groupings and even settlements. An ecological mode of life has developed gradually into a subculture.

One can see such “extremists” in eco-villages in which people cultivate land without applying pesticides and consume energy minimally. There, they face like everyone else an equal danger of being “locked up in a sealed, oxygen-free space.” That extreme force is backed up by people who seem to entertain less radical views and have decided to shift the focus from saving life on Earth to the front line, i.e. life in big cities.

They live in buildings designed by Stefan Behnisch which consume about twenty-five to thirty percent of the energy which ordinary non-green building need to function. They do not read much in the evenings because their rooms use only light-emitting diode bulbs which – unlike luminescent bulbs – last for twenty years and reduce toxic residue but do not light well. They download music only from torrent sites because vinyl discs are a selfish indulgence – processing vinyl releases poisonous gases while manufacturing compact disc expends unnecessary material and energy. The main trend in fashion for them is clothing made of natural or processed cloth like that fashioned by Stella McCartney, Howies, People Tree. They hate fast-fashion brands and are frequent visitors of vintage stores because they consider the ideology of consumerism dangerous. Given the created situation, they view reasonable asceticism as the only sensible solution.

Georgia is not overpopulated with such “extremists.” H&M is a beloved brand. One rarely sees organic products in Georgian stores. The idea of an eco-village emerged in the Georgian society several years ago but never materialized. A small patch of green land would not in any event save our massively polluted country from ecological disaster. Two years ago, when speaking about agricultural priorities at the opening of a world wine congress, the Georgian President noted correctly that a small country such as Georgia could not “digest” genetically modified products and, therefore, each square meter of land must be tended and applied properly.

That, however, is not the only problem. Seeing the seashore and rivers terribly contaminated with polyethene, watching people standing next to garbage bins still littering streets, we are left only with the hope that the ecological situation might be improved by the unfailing desire of Georgians to follow Western fashion. Social psychologists have their opinion about that tendency and see its roots in our socialist past. In their view, if people are convinced for a long period of time that whatever happens around them comes from higher governmental bodies and that personal intervention makes no sense, then people after a while will entrust the ruling force to settle problems which people could – and should – deal with themselves. From the Soviet era, one can recall only brief periods when people were actually able to change anything in their environment – Perestroika, the late 1980s…

As the prominent Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardishvili once noted in an interview with Latvian journalist Uldis Tirons: “Our Georgian courage was demonstrated in that everyone took care of themselves. Therefore, all in all, we survived but each of us survived as an individual while a social environment disintegrated. Look at doorways in residential buildings – how they look. The thing is that they starkly contrast with what apartments look like inside. Apartments can be spectacular. A dirty doorway is an external expression of structure of perception of one’s own self as well as of acceptable and tolerable environment.”

More than twenty years have passed since Merab Mamaradishvili’s observation, but little has changed in the mentality of our society. If we have survived to the present day, we will somehow keep on living. We think and buy lots of H&M; we hone our technique of inscribing seats in public transport instead of “green” art; we embellish nature with polyethene and repeat the reasoning of Ninetieth Century French naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier that each geologic period ends with catastrophe after which a more perfect world emerges. Who would ever have thought that caring for environmental pollution would have been a bighearted step toward perfection….?

 

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 111, published 30 July 2012.

 

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