Paula Gaetano Adi: I want to thank of course every­one for being here again, and Damian for putting this togeth­er. My name is Paula Gaetano Adi and I’m an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor here at RISD in the divi­sion of Experimental and Foundation Studies. And I’m here to intro­duce our next pan­el, that is titled Liberatory Aesthetics for a Just Transition? And it was for­mu­lat­ed as a ques­tion mark rather than an affir­ma­tion, with the hope that we could real­ly insti­gate a much-needed con­ver­sa­tion about the role of aes­thet­ics in shap­ing more social­ly and envi­ron­men­tal­ly just futures, and in par­tic­u­lar the ways in which the Green New Deal could bring us an oppor­tu­ni­ty to rethink and decen­ter the aes­thet­ics and cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion that had emerged out of the dom­i­nant imag­i­nar­ies of white US-centric environmentalisms. 

So for that, I’m just going to intro­duce our three pan­elists and our respon­dent here. I’m going to do them all, so that I can just be out of stage and allow them to speak. 

We have Yuriko Saito, who is join­ing us to speak about the aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence of every­day life and the many ways in which our dai­ly aes­thet­ic reac­tions form pref­er­ences, judg­ment, design strate­gies, and cours­es of action. Professor Saito is a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry, phi­los­o­phy, and social sci­ence here at RISD

Artist and design­er Anastasiia Raina will intro­duce us to her posthu­man aes­thet­ic and will invite us to spec­u­late and imag­ine just tran­si­tions for our cyber future, or cybor­gian future I’ll say. And Anastasiia is also a RISD per­son. She’s an assis­tant pro­fes­sor in the depart­ment of graph­ic design. 

And last­ly it’s a real great joy for me per­son­al­ly to invite Dr. Priscilla Ybarra, from whom I’ve learned every­thing I know about Chicano lit­er­a­ture, I guess. In this pan­el Dr. Ybarra will show us how Latinx cul­tures hold the poten­tial to make vis­i­ble key aspects of the exploita­tion of the Earth and how the main­stream envi­ron­men­tal fails to account for the diverse envi­ron­men­tal ethics at work in com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, includ­ing indige­nous and Latinx peo­ple and schol­ars. Priscilla is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of English at the University of North Texas, and she’s the coed­i­tor of Latinx Environmentalisms: Place, Justice, and the Decolonial. And you can read more about every­one’s bio…there’s more details of their bios in the paper that you have there.

And our respon­dent, last­ly, who’s going to give us a nice sum­ma­ry at the end of this pan­el is Nicholas Pevzner, who is a full-time lec­tur­er at the depart­ment of Landscape Architecture in the University of Pennsylvania. 

So with that I’m going to intro­duce Yuriko to the stage. Thank you.

Yuriko Saito: Well thank you very much for invit­ing me to this won­der­ful pan­el, out of my retire­ment. And it’s my plea­sure to be here. And one of the dis­ad­van­tages of going after the morn­ing ses­sions is that so many won­der­ful things have been said, so I feel a lit­tle bit… Well, any­way. And also, my talk is on envi­ron­men­tal aes­thet­ics and every­day life, so what I’m going to be talk­ing about is very very mun­dane. So I hope you’ll bear with me. 

It is com­mon­ly rec­og­nized that artis­tic strate­gies are effec­tive in pro­mot­ing social, polit­i­cal, and reli­gious agen­das. We only have to think of the pop­u­lar music accom­pa­ny­ing the American civ­il rights move­ment, RISD’s own Shepard Fairey’s Obama poster and Yes we can” cam­paign (by the way, he was one of my first stu­dents here), and the uti­liza­tion of arts and media by Nazi Germany and today’s ter­ror­ist organizations. 

What is less rec­og­nized is that many deci­sions and actions we make in our dai­ly life are also guid­ed by aes­thet­ic pref­er­ences and judg­ments. In the United States today unfor­tu­nate­ly, the pop­u­lar aes­thet­ic taste seems to work against the ideals of sus­tain­abil­i­ty and jus­tice pro­posed by the Green New Deal. Green objects and prac­tices are often reject­ed for aes­thet­ic rea­sons. The prime exam­ple is wind tur­bines. And we talked about this a cou­ple times already. 

Take Cape Wind Project, which was nev­er real­ized. The talk giv­en at RISD by the head of this project, and my sub­se­quent research, con­firmed that the pub­lic out­cry over this pro­pos­al was pri­mar­i­ly aes­thet­ic. Wind tur­bines in the ocean are con­sid­ered to be an ugly eye­sore that destroys a pris­tine nat­ur­al beau­ty. The pow­er of the aes­thet­ic to make or break a project is sur­pris­ing­ly strong. However this ini­tial bad news also sug­gests good news. That is, this pow­er of aes­thet­ics can be har­nessed to sup­port the envi­ron­men­tal goals out­lined in a Green New Deal. Indeed I believe it is imper­a­tive that an aes­thet­ic par­a­digm change accom­pa­ny the Green New Deal ini­tia­tives so that sup­port­ing and prac­tic­ing sus­tain­abil­i­ty and jus­tice can be aes­thet­i­cal­ly enjoy­able rather than deny­ing plea­sure. The aes­thet­ic appeal of objects and prac­tices is more like­ly to encour­age us to pro­mote, pro­tect, and care for them than if we do so pure­ly out of a sense of duty. 

As point­ed out by David Orr, We are moved to act more often, more con­sis­tent­ly, and more pro­found­ly by the expe­ri­ence of beau­ty in all of its forms than by intel­lec­tu­al argu­ments, abstract appeals to duty, or even by fear.

Because of the Green New Deal’s obvi­ous ref­er­ence to the orig­i­nal New Deal, as reflect­ed in the posters, I want to exam­ine the aes­thet­ic impli­ca­tions of some of its lega­cies. One of the best-known pro­grams of the orig­i­nal New Deal is the See America First cam­paign that was designed to pro­mote tourism of the American nation­al parks. True to the orig­i­nal pur­pose of nation­al parks to pro­tect sub­lime and mistakenly-regarded as untouched wilder­ness, these posters high­light the grandiose land­scapes of the West to char­ac­ter­ize what is dis­tinc­tive of this nation. 

This American sub­lime was fur­ther enhanced by anoth­er well-known tourist des­ti­na­tion of the New Deal, Hoover Dam, which was also ref­er­enced before. Not only was it a tech­no­log­i­cal won­der but also a carefully-crafted land­scape to com­pel a max­i­mum dra­mat­ic affect. The vis­i­tors were awestruck by the tan­gi­ble evi­dence of human con­trol over nature, which helped instill a sense of opti­mism, as illus­trat­ed by Charles Sheeler. 

This dis­tinct­ly American land­scape aes­thet­ic was thus cre­at­ed by focus­ing on the dra­mat­ic and the extra­or­di­nary, often places away from our every­day envi­ron­ment. In com­par­i­son, the gen­er­al pop­u­lace remained indif­fer­ent to less-dramatic land­scapes such as prairies, wet­lands, and our back­yards, mak­ing them vul­ner­a­ble to exploita­tion and devel­op­ment. Aldo Leopold’s land eth­ic and aes­thet­ic are thus con­cerned with the fate of those vul­ner­a­ble lands. 

There are those who are wait­ing to be herd­ed in droves through scenic” places; who find moun­tains ground if they be prop­er moun­tains with water­falls, cliffs, and lakes. To such the Kansas plains are tedious. 

The weeds in a city lot con­vey the same per­son as the redwoods.
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (1949) [slide]

The lega­cy of this scenic aes­thet­ic still remains, as it is eas­i­er to gain pub­lic sup­port and fund­ing for pro­tect­ing awesome-looking species and land­scapes com­pared to oth­er non­de­script species and landscapes. 

In addi­tion to cre­at­ing this quin­tes­sen­tial American land­scape, the aes­thet­ic of places away from our every­day envi­ron­ment, the orig­i­nal New Deal was also respon­si­ble for estab­lish­ing a land­scape aes­thet­ic clos­er to home. The green turf became a sig­na­ture fea­ture for var­i­ous pub­lic works projects such as urban parks and play­grounds, which also pro­vid­ed the aes­thet­ic norm for domes­tic landscapes. 

Accordingly, in the 1930s, many arti­cles appeared to advise home­own­ers how to pro­duce and main­tain a perfectly-smooth green car­pet with no weeds or brown spots. Furthermore, this task was often asso­ci­at­ed with civic duty and work ethic. 

Today we know the heavy envi­ron­men­tal cost incurred by main­tain­ing a lawn, par­tic­u­lar­ly because this aes­thet­ic ide­al was adopt­ed with­out con­sid­er­ing the spe­cif­ic geo­graph­i­cal, cul­tur­al, and cli­mat­ic context. 

We also need to be aware of anoth­er lega­cy of the orig­i­nal New Deal era pro­mot­ed by indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion as a way of cre­at­ing more jobs. In 1932, Bernard London, a real estate bro­ker, penned an influ­en­tial essay extolling planned obso­les­cence titled, Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence.” He pro­posed that the gov­ern­ment man­date a rel­a­tive­ly short lifes­pan for all man­u­fac­tured prod­ucts, and the con­sumers return the prod­uct at the end of its life to be dis­posed of, regard­less of its con­di­tion, and gain cred­it toward pur­chas­ing a new prod­uct. Promoting more indus­try pro­duc­tion is nec­es­sary for the econ­o­my and job cre­ation because, accord­ing to him, the prob­lem under­ly­ing the Depression is that People…are using every­thing that they own longer than was their cus­tom before the depres­sion, there­by dis­obey­ing the law of obso­les­cence.

I don’t know where the law comes from. 

I find it rather fas­ci­nat­ing that he char­ac­ter­izes obso­les­cence as an aes­thet­ic mat­ter, fore­telling the con­tem­po­rary notion of fast fash­ion. When he describes how peo­ple used to replace old arti­cles with new for rea­sons of fash­ion and up-to-dateness because fur­ni­ture and cloth­ing and oth­er com­modi­ties should have a span of life, just as humans have. When you used for their allot­ted time, they should be retired, and replaced by fresh mer­chan­dise.

I could­n’t help think­ing about peo­ple, too. 

For today’s fast fash­ion, new­ness is a desir­able qual­i­ty in two ways. One sense of new­ness refers to being up-to-date and fash­ion­able, as men­tioned by London. Today’s fren­zied pur­suit of the most fash­ion­able and up-to-date is well-documented, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the appar­el indus­try and high-tech indus­try. Today’s new style is sure to be replaced by anoth­er trendy style tomor­row, cre­at­ing a host of prob­lems includ­ing resource deple­tion, envi­ron­men­tal harm, and human rights vio­la­tions where fast fash­ion items are man­u­fac­tured and even­tu­al­ly dumped. Although artificially-manipulated by the indus­try, this fast fash­ion taste in favor of the fash­ion­able or trendy is a pow­er­ful aes­thet­ic per­suad­er to direct con­sumers’ pur­chas­ing decisions. 

The oth­er sense of new­ness fast fash­ion pur­sues priv­i­leges objects that are free of inevitable aging effect due to wear and tear and dam­age. This aes­thet­ic desider­a­tum encour­ages con­sumers to dis­card old objects in per­fect work­ing con­di­tion in favor of the brand new ones, except for items like well-seasoned jeans and tools. Furthermore, this aes­thet­ic obso­les­cence is exac­er­bat­ed by the dif­fi­cul­ty, even the impos­si­bil­i­ty, of repair. Unrepairability of many prod­ucts today regards no longer func­tion­al­i­ty but also the smooth, uni­form, and slick sur­face appear­ance that does not tol­er­ate scratch­es and dents. 

Even when repair is pos­si­ble the pre­ferred mode is invis­i­ble repair that hides the signs of dam­age and repair. Those of you who are at RISD know the won­der­ful exhib­it at RISD Museum last year on the notion of repair, which fea­tured both vis­i­ble repair and invis­i­ble repair. It was won­der­ful. There is a book­let to go with that. It’s called Manual, a RISD muse­um pub­li­ca­tion. And I real­ly encour­age you to take a look at it. 

Another aes­thet­ic con­se­quence of pro­mot­ing indi­vid­ual indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion under the orig­i­nal New Deal era regards clothes dry­ers. First invent­ed in 1938 by J. Ross Moore in North Dakota, of all places, to address the prob­lem of dry­ing laun­dry out­side in win­ter there, it was soon pro­mot­ed by GE as a means of free­ing house­wives from the time-consuming and weather-dependent drudgery of hang­ing laun­dry out­side and sup­port­ing them to join the work­force out­side of home. Outdoor laun­dry hang­ing soon became asso­ci­at­ed with pover­ty. Today it is esti­mat­ed that 80% of American house­holds own a dry­er, con­sid­ered to be the sec­ond most energy-consuming home appli­ance next to the refrig­er­a­tor. What con­cerns me is that as of ten years ago, 300,000 home­own­ers’ asso­ci­a­tions in the United states pro­hib­it­ed laun­dry hang­ing, because it is con­sid­ered an unsight­ly eye­sore. So an aes­thet­ic reason. 

So these are the bad news regard­ing the aes­thet­ic impli­ca­tions of the orig­i­nal New Deal pro­gram and the long-lasting lega­cy of that era. The ques­tion then is how the Green New Deal can and should address this bad news. In light of the rather sur­pris­ing pow­er of aes­thet­ics, I don’t think we should dis­miss its role in guid­ing our deci­sions and actions. Instead, we should har­ness its pow­er to help shape the future out­lined by the Green New Deal. It is true that aes­thet­ic mat­ters are the prime can­di­date for peo­ple’s right to exer­cise indi­vid­ual lib­er­ty. We can not, and should not, leg­is­late aes­thet­ic taste. However, the fact is that aes­thet­ics has been oper­at­ing as hid­den per­suaders effec­tive­ly. And, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein point out, There is…no way of avoid­ing nudg­ing in some direc­tion, and whether intend­ed or not, these nudges will affect what peo­ple choose.

Fortunately we don’t have to start from scratch when try­ing to shift the aes­thet­ic par­a­digm to align with sus­tain­abil­i­ty ini­tia­tives. There have been promis­ing grass­roots move­ments as well as art projects already, and these bottom-up ini­tia­tives should be sup­port­ed and devel­oped even more. One of the pre­dom­i­nant themes embraced by the con­ven­tion­al aes­thet­ic implied by the orig­i­nal New Deal and its era is uni­for­mi­ty. And actu­al­ly, lis­ten­ing to Daniel’s pre­sen­ta­tion about com­fort this morn­ing, it struck me that the notion of com­fort by air con­di­tion­ing and so on—that’s also sort of aim­ing for con­sis­ten­cy and uni­for­mi­ty of the tem­per­a­ture and so on. 

For one, this uni­for­mi­ty guides the mono­cul­ture aes­thet­ic of green lawns. In response, wild­flower gar­dens, com­mu­ni­ty gar­dens, and edi­ble estates pro­lif­er­at­ing today chal­lenge this aes­thet­ic desider­a­tum by cel­e­brat­ing the cacoph­o­ny of var­i­ous sen­so­ry qual­i­ties pro­vid­ed by diverse plants. These gar­dens are also live­ly and viva­cious due to the vis­its from birds and but­ter­flies as well as com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, passers­by, and neigh­bors, who become engaged in con­ver­sa­tions and care­tak­ing. In light of their land­scape aes­thet­ic, the con­ven­tion­al mono­cul­ture of green lawns starts appear­ing eeri­ly ster­ile and devoid of life. 

Countering the aes­thet­ics of uni­for­mi­ty can be extend­ed to farm pro­duce as well. In response to the fact that one third of fresh pro­duce in the United States was thrown away for aes­thet­ic rea­sons, some super­mar­kets are sell­ing them by fea­tur­ing their unique aes­thet­ic char­ac­ter­is­tics. The right side, by the way, that’s from a French super­mar­ket chain. But the left one is American, Pittsburgh-based I think. 

The norm of uni­for­mi­ty also under­lies the indus­tri­al pro­duc­tion because the prod­ucts at the end of the assem­bly line must be con­sis­tent and per­fect. What some thinkers call pro­duc­tion­ist bias” dis­cour­ages con­sid­er­a­tion of the life of the object after pro­duc­tion that con­tin­ues to evolve with the inevitable aging process, break­age, and inter­ac­tion with the user. 

An alter­na­tive, bro­ken world think­ing” is pro­posed to high­light ero­sion, break­down, and decay, rather than nov­el­ty, growth, and progress as the pri­ma­ry focus. While ero­sion, break­down, and decay all have a neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tion, the new aes­thet­ic par­a­digm can turn them into a spring­board for cre­ative, imag­i­na­tive, and aes­thet­i­cal­ly appeal­ing solu­tions that embrace diver­si­ty and imperfection. 

In this regard, con­sid­er var­i­ous grass­roots ini­tia­tives that pro­mote the prac­tice of repair. Repair Cafe, estab­lished in the Netherlands in 2009, is slow­ly but sure­ly spread­ing in the United States with ninety-eight loca­tions now. To date, twen­ty states have passed right-to-repair leg­is­la­tion to counter the indus­try prac­tice of mak­ing repair dif­fi­cult or some­times impos­si­ble and forc­ing con­sumers to pur­chase new products. 

What is note­wor­thy from the aes­thet­ic point of view is that today’s repair activists pro­mote vis­i­ble repair, chal­leng­ing the con­ven­tion­al aes­thet­ic that favors objects that are in mint con­di­tion or hide the signs of repair. 

Often inspired by the Japanese tra­di­tion of kintsu­gi (repair by gold), and boro (tat­tered clothes), not only can vis­i­ble repair have its own aes­thet­ic appeal but also it cul­ti­vates an aes­thet­ic that cel­e­brates our active engage­ment with the mate­r­i­al world. 

Activists in sup­port of out­door laun­dry hang­ing, spear­head­ed by Project Laundry List’s right to dry ini­tia­tive helped pass leg­is­la­tion ban­ning pro­hi­bi­tion of out­door laun­dry hang­ing in nine­teen states to date. The argu­ments in sup­port of out­door laun­dry hang­ing include not only the envi­ron­men­tal ben­e­fit, but also the var­i­ous aes­thet­ic appeals such as the fra­grance of dry clothes and the joy, rather than the drudgery, of sen­so­ry engage­ment with the sun­shine, wind, and fresh air. 

Thus, aes­thet­ics has a crit­i­cal role to play in sup­port­ing Green New Deal’s envi­ron­men­tal ini­tia­tives. We can learn from the orig­i­nal New Deal that the aes­thet­ic par­a­digm result­ing from its polit­i­cal eco­nom­ic ini­tia­tives has had sig­nif­i­cant pow­er to shape peo­ple’s every­day life. It there­fore behooves all of us as cit­i­zens and con­sumers to raise aware­ness about the role aes­thet­ics plays in our every­day deci­sions and actions, and to cul­ti­vate both aes­thet­ic lit­er­a­cy and vigilance. 

Finally, and most impor­tant, the artists and design­ers have both the oppor­tu­ni­ty and respon­si­bil­i­ty to invite cit­i­zens to embrace and cel­e­brate the new aes­thet­ic par­a­digm that sup­ports diver­si­ty and imper­fec­tion. Thank you.

Further Reference

Climate Futures II event page