Raymond Williams with a word on climate aesthetics


industry_power-generation_1Two short excerpts from Raymond Williams’ essay ‘Culture is Ordinary’ (which is nice for lots of reasons) – but these two are important things to keep in mind for climate activists and action. The first is about the working class’ relationship to (industrial/mechanical/electrical) power and the real benefit to life that it brought, which is worth keeping in mind when we talk about energy, etc.:

For one thing I knew this: at home we were glad of the Industrial Revolution, and of its consequent social and political changes. True, we lived in a very beautiful farming valley, and the valleys beyond the limestone we could all see were ugly. But there was one gift that was overriding, one gift which at any price we would take, the gift of power that is everything to men who have worked with their hands. It was slow in coming to us, in all its effects, but steam power, the petrol engine, electricity, these and their host of products in commodities and services, we took as quickly as we could get them, and were glad. I have seen all these things being used, and I have seen the things they replaced. I will not listen with patience to any acid listing of them – you know the sneer you can get into plumbing, baby Austins, aspirin, contraceptives, canned food. But I say to these Pharisees: dirty water, an earth bucket, a four- mile walk each way to work, headaches, broken women, hunger and monotony of diet. The working people, in town and country alike, will not listen (and I support them) to any account of our society which supposes that these things are not progress: not just mechanical, external progress either, but a real service of life. Moreover, in the new conditions, there was more real freedom to dispose of our lives, more real personal grasp where it mattered, more real say. Any account of our culture which explicitly or implicitly denies the value of an industrial society is really irrelevant; not in a million years would you make us give up this power. (Williams, ‘Culture is Ordinary’, 1958, p.9)

Williams description puts paid to the idea (widely held among some back-to-nature types) that power is somehow an inessential and a luxury (think of the way that boomers talk about the number of unnecessary “devices” that young people use today, Cf: this tweet by old mate Donnie).

The second excerpt is about the relation between power–technology and aesthetics, and the idea that power technology = ugly:

[This] false proposition is easily disposed of. It is a fact that the new power brought ugliness: the coal brought dirt, the factory brought overcrowding, communications brought a mess of wires. But the proposition that ugliness is a price we pay, or refuse to pay, for economic power need no longer be true. New sources of power, new methods of production, improved systems of transport and communication can, quite practically, make England clean and pleasant again, and with much more power, not less. Any new ugliness is the product of stupidity, indifference, or simply incoordination; these things will be easier to deal with than when power was necessarily noisy, dirty, and disfiguring. (p.10)

I highlight this point precisely for how, well, obvious and banal it seems even at the same time as so much power generation still does produce incredible ugliness. Tesla seems to get that aesthetics are important. Of course, others disagree but that’s the nature of taste. One of my favourite photographs (one i’ve linked here on the blog before) illustrates the sharp contrast between modes of power generation and their effect on the landscape. I also think one of the reason Joe Hockey’s “wind farms are ugly” type comments gained so much traction is that people, instinctively or intuitively, understand the importance of regimes of taste in the making-or-breaking of technology. My work on the aesthetics of renewable power generation has tried to contribute to that sense, and I think it will only become more and more important.

Of course, the other thing that the photo of the open-cut coal mines next to the wind farms makes clear is the way that fossil fuel production gets to neatly shift or obscure its impacts away from the public eye, while new technologies like solar and wind come under immediate and intense scrutiny just for their ‘newness’. By contrast, legacy industries and their impacts are just facts of life.