The May 2014 National Climate Assessment, a report of over 300 scientists, lays out climate change effects for the United States in a dozen broad categories. Rising temperatures, ocean acidification, dwindling biodiversity—the predictions are sadly familiar by now, and yet our adaptations to these conditions seem tentative and wary. Few coastal cities are pulling up stakes; regulatory responses, such as California’s new restrictions on the unchecked pumping of water to counter the region’s “extraordinary drought,” will take many years to implement.
Many Americans seem willing to wait out what they believe to be temporary aberrations in climate, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Already on the West Coast we are starting to see flare-ups of class contention over water, the present-day equivalent of California’s gold. The sense of an imminent crisis is inescapable: Something is likely to crack.
Something already has—our psyches. A June 2014 study by social scientists charts the ill effects of climate change on people’s emotional states. Beyond Storms and Droughts: the Psychological Impacts of Climate Change, a fifty-page report by the American Psychological Association, gauges human reactions to environmental disturbance and catastrophe. At the community level, it finds climate change causing a loss of social cohesion, as well as increased violence, crime, social instability, aggression, and domestic violence (30). Our planetary disturbance infiltrates our own inner lives, with alarming and often unacknowledged effects.
These social ills have been with us for a long time. But today, for those of us who are fully aware of—who are dreading—the seemingly inevitable unfolding of climate change, the consequence(s?) may be even more personal and interior. The APA report refers to this condition as “ecoanxiety “ and cites a trio of disastrous symptoms—“helplessness, fatalism, and resignation” (22). This is what a lot of us feel. We may not put a name to it, but a sure sign of ecoanxiety is the humorless tone of environmental discourse. I would label this state as eco-depression, or more dramatically, eco-despair. I suspect anyone paying close attention to ecological effects feels it.
Eco-despair presents an interesting challenge. We want to remain engaged in actions that work to understand and communicate, as well as to reverse or slow climate change—but taking action requires excitement, excitement with a sense of mission. Keeping up protracted, often fractious connections to others can drain a lot of energy. Depression of any sort can sap motivation and leave one isolated with a triumvirate of mental pains: that “helplessness, fatalism, and resignation” that can leave one overwhelmed, bitter, and cynical. How might we treat eco-depression?
Art can help here—specifically, a certain kind of art, art that deliberately depicts and imaginatively confronts us with climate change.
Two exhibits with that very focus and, uncannily, with the exact same title–Environmental Impact—bring home to us the effects of climate damage. David Wagner’s large, multi-year traveling show has 75 works by over thirty artists, while a short term exhibit at the Weisman Museum in Malibu, CA has half as many works, all selected from the Weisman Art Foundation.
Part documentation, part meditation and reverie, and part creative expression, works in these exhibits jump out of the current cultural matrix as if called by our age of ecological catastrophe. This art wants us to witness what’s happening climate-wise, but mainly through the hand and eye and imagination of the artist.
Artist Chris Doyle creates a light box entitled History of the Twentieth Century I, illuminating the discarded, un-recycled junk of our “Waste Generation.” Old televisions dominate, with abandoned, obsolete factories and oil rigs in the background, and appliances to one side. On first look, the colorful jumble has a fantasy, theme-park aspect; the blue skies and boundless clean gear intrigue us. Yet, what sort of “History” have we here? What about this arrangement?
It seems a history of technology, or rather yesterday’s technology, before we began tossing out computers, displays, printers, tablets, and phones in ever-increasing numbers. Who does this? Most of us, certainly scientists, environmentalists, academics, publishers, students, climate-change worriers—and artists. Our Waste Generation’s “20th Century History,” powerfully illumined by Doyle, includes us most painfully even in the absence of our particular junk.
As we condemn smoke stack industries, lament cars and oil, and scorn empty, frivolous tv entertainments, we need to remind ourselves that we are major buyers and discarders of electronic devices. Even our recycled e-waste may just get dumped in a landfill in China or Ghana or be dismantled for materials by the poorest of people. This awareness connects us to both the world’s wasters and wanters, humanizes us and the problems we face, together. De te fabula: “the tale is about us.”
This could lead to guilty despair—our junk eats up enormous resources and carbon-based energy. Or, it might lead to revised policies that work to ensure recycling, or to devising e-products easy to dismantle or simply to holding on to our gear for longer periods of time. Careful reflection on the content of Doyle’s work opens us up to a wider vision of who the culprits are, scaling back our anxious anger at large ominous forces and giving us pause about what we might individually do to lessen the waste stream.
But focused attention to art’s quiet, engaging though confrontational content is only part of its remediative process.
Ed Ruscha’s LAX-Sunset-Malibu (1981) depicts a murky panorama of the Pacific and its famous coastal highway, with three lightly-lettered place markers barely discernable through the blackening haze. This is a land- and seascape from the dog days before the Clean Air Act would clear the smog from the atmosphere. The Weisman Museum itself perches right on the coast in Malibu, but the prospect these days is pristine, the air transparent with a healthy glow. Some things we apparently can improve. But this encouraging note is incidental, based on current local knowledge of coastal prospects. Ruscha obviously meant to indict not praise.
(Ed Ruscha LAX- Sunset Malibu1981)
What this work originally stimulated was what great art induces, a contemplative meditation on the subject, form, and colors carefully assembled by the artist, an aesthetic experience that induced a shift in consciousness and mood. This kind of attentive, detailed viewing shifts awareness away from facts and discouraging figures about hydrocarbon production in the LA basin, now understood as a prime source of climate change everywhere. The work invites reflections on both the broadest and most personal meanings of the scene. Detailed question-asking follows.
What about that title? Ah, “Sunset” refers to the street, not just to the time of day. Viewers who have driven along Sunset Boulevard to the beach will recognize themselves in the picture, perhaps enjoying the iconic drive through downtown, to Hollywood, the Strip, Beverly Hills, and finally PCH. Confronted not with the anticipated grandeur of the ocean but a dark layer of what looks like fiery smoke, viewers can be pulled out of their presumed fascination with tourist spots and celebrity culture and realize that our “goodtime” excitement itself causes the stain. This early sign of climate change spreads ominously along the coast and into our consciousness.
This can make us guilty, anxious, depressed. Yet we are viewing the problem at human scale, with an implied human perpetrator—us, and by extension, a human remediator. We can change our ways, become more conscious of how our recreations and simple pleasures can blight the landscape, and take stock of the unseen consequences of tootling around the country clueless about its effects.
Ruscha’s painting, rather than overwhelming us with atmospheric data or depersonalizing the problem, instills a kind of calm, a slow, deliberate looking around ourselves to see what is so obviously there, but unseen. (Scientist too move into this reverie and observe and reflect before they analyze and experiment.) Art wishes to sustain that reverie as long and intensely as possible and draw personal insight and human wisdom from it.
We could go on with our aesthetic ruminations—that big blur of the sunset has a kind of beauty and power to it. What should we make of that, as we are drawn in further?
In the Weisman exhibit, Gina Phillips’s painted fabric Tree No. 2 shows a pair of vultures perching in a towering, weather-beaten tree, its autumnal shades and gnarly branches signs of desiccation. The open, two-dimensional form of the tree nonetheless evokes a Mexican Arbol de La Vita with its vibrant ceramic blossoms, fruits, birds, and religious figures. Phillips’s nearly barren, dark Tree of Death seems a perfect contrary to that devotional symbol of enduring life.
(Gina Phillips, Tree No. 2, 2010, fabric thread, ink and paint, 116 x 99 in., Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation)
But a bit of folkloric knowledge reveals that while for us vultures stand for death and decay, they were climate-change savior birds to certain Native Americans. Coincidently, we are in Chumash territory in Malibu and it’s their story that has the vulture volunteering, after other animals fail, to nudge the sun away from an over-heating planet—way before there were people around to cook up the place. The vulture’s once feathered head, the fable goes, gets burned red and clean in a successful quest to stop global warming. Then we might notice that while the leaves on Tree No. 2 appear spare, some are turning red—are they about to drop off or are they newly leafing out? We might then see Phillips’s Tree as a launching platform for a contemporary climate change rescue, with the vultures harbinger of sustainable life.
Such latitude in interpretation might yield a whole new line of questions. Can we expect help from unforeseen, even non-human quarters? Can old, perhaps totemic symbols bring us to modern activist intervention? Does history throw its weight across our negativity and catalyze us to new forms of sacrifice and renewal? We have a number of iconic animal figures that we use to market “green” solutions to our energy and environmental problems: Smokey the Bear, Energy Ant, Woodsy Owl. Do we need other, multi-cultural animal icons to get the message across? Do we need more radical stories, tales, and myths to illustrate our ecological dilemmas and speak to our deep uneasiness and fear?
Scientific data and environmental papers rightly avoid fantasy but lack the power of mythic images and narrative to stir ordinary folks to action. This Tree No 2, with proper interpretation, could do just that. A rescuing vulture figure revises our assumptions about what sort of solutions we might look for—decay imagery becomes renewal energy. New areas of inquiry open and provide insights about such things as selling environmental endurance and repair to a new audience of listeners. More importantly, what we might preconceive as evidence of deterioration in our climate-changed world could become a sign of courageous rescue.
Nonetheless, a seemingly simple work, such as Ron Kingswood’s Clear Cut, can reverberate not with resignation—that massive tree is lost—but with useful, tough instruction. Nothing is as clear and as stark as that stump topped with frigid gray snow. That’s the only thing that is clear-cut. Hardly anything else is, in trying to save trees or the planet.
(Ron Kingswood Clear Cut 2003, Oil on Canvas, 60 x 54 inches)
We all can recommend clear-cut solutions— live simply, abandon fossil fuels, ban fracking. These cries rally activists, while at the same time they can lead to profound discouragement. The painting potently reminds us of both the swift and seemingly irrevocable consequences of destructive practices. But as well it can evoke through contrasting imagery and its title the long haul campaigns of politically shaded commitments and nuanced policy needed to change them, with very little clear cut along the way. Dealing with climate change is often an ad hoc scramble for partial solutions.
There are clear strong indictments of our environmental ruin in both exhibits, drawing us to desperate reflections about our species and the future of the planet under our control. And yet we can see alternate visions in the imaginative artistry of many works. These works can shift our perspective, pose fresh, liberating questions and connect us to the inner consciousness of another fully engaged, sensitive human viewer of our shared problem. Such works and our conscientious practice of interpreting them can alleviate our despair through engaging their intriguing ambiguities, leading us out of our darkest thought and emotions.
National Climate Assessment. US Government 2014. http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/report
Bettina Boxall, “In virtual mega-drought, California avoids defeat,” LA Times, October 5, 2014; report on Lund and Stine’s drought simulations.
Clayton, Susan, Christie Manning, Caroline Hodge. Beyond Storms and Droughts: the Psychological Impacts of Climate Change, Washington, DC: ecoAmerica and American Psychological Association, June 2014.
David J. Wagner. Environmental Impact. traveling exhibition, various US venues: September 2013 to January 2016. http://davidjwagnerllc.com/Environmental_Impact.html
Billie Milam Weisman and Michael Zakian. Environmental Impact: Selections from the Weisman Art Foundation. August 6-Nov 30, 2014, Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA. http://arts.pepperdine.edu/museum/2014-2015/weisman-foundation-fall-14.htm
Ed Ruscha, LAX-Sunset-Malibu (1981) in Weisman exhibit.
Gina Phillips, Tree No. 2, (2010) fabric thread, ink and paint, 116 x 99 in., in Weisman exhibit.
Chris Doyle. History of the 20th Century I light box (2009) in Wagner exhibit.