Saving the Cultural Environment

THE Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that begins this week is a response to the piercing of the ozone layer, the despoiling of rain forests, the polluting of oceans and rivers, and the endangering of species from the whales to the spotted owl. But a complete environmentalist should be concerned with more than damage to our natural habitat. Just as vulnerable as nature to a noxious environment are the artifacts of civilization.

A few years ago the plight of Venice attracted attention, because of the prospect of an enchanting city's being swallowed up by the waters over which it was so ingeniously constructed. But except for Venice, the apocalyptic scenarios that make the headlines tend to deal less with the risk to cultural monuments than with primal threats to the very existence of the Earth.

As the 100 or so world leaders gathered in Rio work out their so-called Agenda 21, the issues of sheer survival must take priority. What is the eroding nose of the Sphinx compared to the greenhouse effect? Yet the havoc wreaked on cherished and irreplaceable masterworks by the vandalism of a polluted environment should not be ignored. The great expressions of culture are themselves integral parts of humankind's moral and spiritual environment.

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June, the month of the Earth Summit, is also the month when tourists by the millions begin their pilgrimages to cultural shrines, from medieval cathedrals to Stonehenge, from the Acropolis to the Pyramids. But how many of those who visit Chartres know that Europe's medieval stained-glass windows are turning opaque and slowly disintegrating because they are susceptible to the gases from automobile exhausts and coal-burning factories? Of the 6,000 tourists a day who gaze in awe at the Parthenon, how many a re aware of the vandalism committed upon it by the smog rising from Athens, known by the Greeks as "the Cloud"? In Cairo, where the Sphinx crumbles, scholars estimate that up to 90 percent of the historic structures in the city should be classified as in desperate need of restoration - some undermined by sewage leaks, some shaken by the vibration from new construction.

Nature knows nothing of national boundaries. A poisoned environment affects all living things on the planet. This is the theme at Rio. Art - built upon the power of symbolism - can and should reinforce the theme, illustrating by every deteriorating work of expression that the toxic byproducts of civilization assault not only nature, but also the precious treasures of civilization itself.

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