Why Man Destroys: Creativity Gone Awry

Creativity is one of the principal qualities that make humans so unique, yet that same creativity has ushered the destruction of the planet. Through a discussion of creativity, legendary designer Saul Bass’ Oscar-winning short documentary Why Man Creates inadvertently tells the tale of how man has destroyed Earth.  


It is perhaps the most influential force at play in shaping our world; it isn’t politics, the economy, not even ‘stuff’, but creativity, that odd feeling that often feels like it goes away as suddenly as it comes. Despite its unpredictability, creativity is responsible for everything we interface with from the moment we wake up to when we go to sleep – and even after that!

In 1968, legendary graphic designer and director Saul Bass created the Oscar-winning animated short Why Man Creates for Kaiser Aluminum. He sought to explore the question about why man creates through an exploration of the forces that drive human creativity. However, it is that creativity that has also ushered in the climate crisis which we find ourselves struggling against today.

Bass begins the film with what he calls the Edifice, a massive vertical timeline of human industry, spanning from the stone age to our own polluted world. The scene is cartoonish, reminiscent of the Flintstones, depicting early humans on their first hunts, the propagation of political ideology, and eventually the automated world that was coming to the fore in the mid 20th century.

Somewhat inadvertently, while he seeks to capture the energy of human creativity, the Edifice also serves as a documentary of humanity’s destruction of the natural world. Through the journey, the fact that man has separated the natural from material worlds becomes ever more apparent. At the start, the necessity of survival drove us to extract from the environment, but as our industry and politics became increasingly complex, extraction has been centrally placed in the function of our entire civilization and we have distanced ourselves from the natural world in an effort to justify our own practices.  

the fact that man has separated the natural from material worlds becomes ever more apparenT.

The Edifice shows that our own human history is inexorably entwined with the progressive degradation of the planet. In our own contemporary debates, this is an especially important fact to recognize as it provides a critical framing to the question of why we have allowed the climate crisis to become so acute and why we continue to struggle addressing and even discussing it.

Perhaps the most pertinent sequence of the film discusses what Saul Bass calls ‘the search.’ The process of putting idea into practice is the most daunting step of creative endeavor.

Through the story of a cancer research and a global hunger specialist, the importance of technology to our understanding of problems and how to solve them is clear. Particularly in the case of global hunger, technology has been peddled as the solution to what is a human and environmental problem. Although there has been some success, technologies such as modified seeds and new strains have not lived up to their promise.

Although there has been some success, technologies such as modified seeds and new strains have not lived up to their promise.

The discourse of the climate crisis is much the same: technological solutions have failed to alter the fundamental problems that underly climate change and ecological destruction. The problem with technological approaches is that they are inherently intended to prevent the need for adaptation and allow the continuation of ‘business as usual.’ As the Edifice illustrates and sustainable development scholars have pointed out, it is ‘business as usual’ that has enabled and perpetuated the climate crisis.

Integral to the process of ‘the search’ is the possibility – and acceptance – of failure. As the film says, “you get what you think is a marvelous idea, and it just doesn’t pan out.” With time rapidly running out to save the planet, the acceptance of defeat may be a bitter necessity. The creative process would have no hope of evolving without the acceptance of defeat and the birth of a new, refined idea. This is the same approach that much be made to the climate crisis; we must recognize our defeats and why we failed to effectively re-assess and move forward.

With time rapidly running out to save the planet, the acceptance of defeat may be a bitter necessity.

This is, obviously, much easier said than done. In the final moments of the film over double exposed images of ancient art and barren landscapes, the narrator reads “man has struggled against time, decay, destruction, and death.” Ultimately, this is the creative conundrum: we only have such a finite amount of time to leave a mark. Humanity has left a massive mark, but the power of creativity lies in the potential of the individual.

Equipped with the perspective of the past, an understanding of the present, and hope for the future, we can each carry enormous weight to make change. At the least, we should appreciate the importance of creativity in framing both the ways we think and the journeys we embark on.  

Art by Oliver Walter

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