Friday, January 11, 2013

Art in Irrevocable Times

This essay is published in the Catalog of Climate of Uncertainty a must-see show at DePaul Art Museum.

If we are to have no future, consolingly, there will be no one to look back and blame us. If there is a future for us, however, those who reflect back from their future perch will recognize that which is hard for us to see: that we lived in times of irrevocable transition. The generations living right now are the first to live on a domesticated planet; undomesticating it is not an option. To put it another way, an undomesticated future planet is one without humans.

It is an urban planet besides — that which is not urban is in the resource shadow of our cities, or enjoys the benign neglect of those in cities in areas set aside as “wilderness.” This is a planet upon which the diversity of the biota is diminishing and its distribution reflects confusingly both natural and cultural forces, a planet on which the scale and amplitude of elemental cycles are vastly altered, a planet on which the winds now howl with an almost human voice.

Domesticated Earth is a planet partly of our own making; it is challenging, disturbing, and in innumerable ways beautiful. It is, in other words, the largest artwork ever made. And we now have to learn what it is to live inside this art. But what is the role of art-making from within the frame of Domesticated Earth? How well does it mirror this moment of transition? How does art determine the nature of the very future from the perspective of which it will be judged? Did it illuminate the transition prettily (not an inconsiderable thing to do) or, after our having paused under the lintel and reflected on the irretrievability of the past, did artwork illuminate the possible routes to be taken, routes that were otherwise unimagined?


Only  rock is environmentally friendly; living entities are environmentally transformative. It’s a distinction that defines life. To maintain homeostatic organization organisms take in substances, metabolize them, and dispel a stream of waste in their wake. The analysis of this mild environmental turbulence on local scales is called ecology.

Though it is not always the way in which ecologists evaluate these matters, all organisms produce an impact on the environments in which they are found. One could  perform an environmental footprint analysis on a soil mite, a protozoan, a lion and so forth, though it is unlikely that the aggregated footprint of these organisms exceeds the geographical limits of the systems in which they are immediately found. In fact, wildlife managers calculate a so-called carrying capacity of local ecosystems: islands, national parks and other habitat, in order to calculate the optimal size of a given population. When capacity is exceeded the consequence is death.

Humans  differ from most organisms when the complexity of defining their local environment is considered. The world’s more powerful and exploitative human populations do not fit readily into a local environment.  For humans, ecologically, there is no such thing as local anymore; said differently,  the globe itself is now our local environment. This is why our survival is linked to the fate of the Earth.

Collectively we are a stunningly large species. A way of illustrating the global nature of our species comes from calculations of our own ecological footprint; Invariably we exceed the amount of productive land available to us. For example, the population of the Chicago Metropolitan Statistical Area contains around 9 million people. The amount of land required to sustain each person (the physical footprint of our buildings, land for agricultural productivity and so forth) is about 20 acres. Collectively this is 180,000,000 acres (281,250 square miles). Illinois's land area is 55,593 square miles, making the ecological footprint of Chicagoans five times larger than the state of Illinois. In fact Chicagoans do not live in Illinois - they live wherever their environmental shadow is cast. In turn, the US population is larger than the country which contains us, and the global population footprint is now larger than the globe. We can overshoot on the global scale only by drawing down on global environmental capital. And the planet may prove to be a rather taciturn banker when accounts come due.

The resource gluttony that got us to this point has had extravagant consequences on a global scale:  despoliation of the biosphere, vast eutrophication of the hydrosphere, depletion of soils, and atmospheric changes resulting in climate disruption.

We are in the seemingly paradoxical position of not knowing the number of species on Earth to the nearest order of magnitude (are there 5 or 50 million?) but knowing that we have accelerated species loss to rates comparable to that of a mass extinction event. That extinction is the fate of all species is beside the point, since ultimately the loss is measured in repercussions to us. Not the least part of this is the implication for our ethical self-conception. Is it good to be asteroid-like, comparable to the one that took out the dinosaurs?

There are three principal ways in which we accomplished a task that formerly required an intergalactic event. Of the three, the human transformation of natural habitat into human habitat has been most consequential. One study of the amount of land converted to cropland concluded that it increased globally from 3-4 million km2 in 1700 to 15-18 million km2 in 1990. This mainly occurred at the expense of forests. Meanwhile the amount of grazing land area expanded from 5 million km2 to 31 million km2 during this period.  Consider Grand Prairie in Illinois: in the 1830s its area was about 150 miles by 60 miles, though because it was connected to other Midwestern prairies one could walk in a southeasterly direction away from the newly founded city of Chicago and remain on unbroken prairie for over 300 miles. There is only a fraction of 1% of original Illinois prairie remaining, and a walk across grassland is the work of an afternoon. In addition to habitat transformation, the direct over-exploitation of individual species and the global mixing of biota have added their toll to species loss.

Accompanying the conversion of wild habitat to farms has been the accelerated rate of soil erosion. This has arisen, in part, from the simplification of habitat associated with agriculture. Nature abhors a monoculture, but farms are monoculture by strenuous design. Additionally, we have reached the dramatic point where about half of all nitrogen taken out of the atmosphere and transferred to the soil — a process formerly performed by lightning and soil microbes — is now industrially accomplished.  Agricultural systems are increasingly dependent on fertilizers to compensate for losses due to erosion and to keep pace with productivity demands, but the result has been an intensified transfer of excess nutrients into waterways. This process of loading nutrients into water is called eutrophication. It stimulates excess plant growth; often toxic blue-green algae. When such plants die the amount of oxygen demanded by microorganisms responsible for their decay is so great that other life in these systems cannot tolerate it. Fish die.

The artificial fixation of nitrogen is energetically expensive. After all, we have to replicate the power of a lightning strike to accomplish it. The energy for the process comes from the burning of fossil fuels. The complicity of energy and food production is such that some have suggested that we are essentially eating oil. But of course, we have increased our energy demands almost immeasurably for a variety of other purposes. By one calculation per capita energy use has increased by a factor of 8 since preindustrial times — this means that each one of us is now eight times the size, energetically speaking, of a person living in the 1800s. From the early 1800s to now the global population size has increased about 7 times (from 1 to 7 billion) so the total energy demands have increase over 50 times preindustrial levels. When we flick on a switch we call to order vast processes that ripple unseen away from our fingers, processes that plunge deep into the pools of oil and gas and that rummage among endless fields of coal. This is how contemporary work gets done.

Since the dawn of the industrial age we have reunited enormous quantities of ancient plants and zooplankton with their long postponed fate of decomposition, by cremating their remains. However, that which took millions of years to accumulate is being burned in a matter of decades, and the resulting elevation of CO2 is creating havoc with the atmosphere. To deny this is to deny chemistry, physics, and biology. That the burning fossil fuels volatilizes carbon is chemistry, that carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, alters atmospheric temperature is physics; and that elevated temperatures modify the ecology of systems is biology. Pure and simple. To obfuscate against the conclusion that we are raising planetary temperatures is the argue with every National Academy on Earth that has pronounced on it.

More than anything else the elevation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the signature of our times. Elevated CO2 is to the Anthropocene, a term geologists informally use to designate the epoch in which we live, what the mushroom cloud was to the Nuclear age. In fact the Anthropocene is primarily defined by atmospheric changes that we have wrought. It signifies that we have accomplished the unimaginably difficult in domesticating planet Earth — we have left the Quaternary period and irreversibly entered a new phase of Earth history.


This is not the first age in which art responded to climatic challenges.  Running concurrently with this exhibition, the British Museum is exhibiting works of the last great Ice Age. That show’s title, Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind, suggests that the art of that age was both a response to the climatic challenges and helped shape the emergence of the contemporary mind.  In commenting on that show anthropologist Steven Mithen remarked: “Art was increasingly involved in communicating ideas and passing on knowledge from one generation to the next."  So we can ask: In what way does the work exhibited in Climate of Uncertainty, the work of this new age of Domesticated Earth, communicate both to this generation and pass knowledge on to the future?

As its Latin root (domus) suggests, to domesticate is to make a house. On Earth it has been a clumsy process as we have seen above.When I wrote above that Domesticated Earth is a work of art, I didn’t mean to be argumentative or perverse. I simply mean that the earth as modified by collective human action reflects an act of poesis, of making, and functionally the earth therefore performs as art. The human planetary domicile it is made with deliberation, if not intention, and provides both aesthetic challenges and satisfaction. It is less clear that Domesticated Earth is procedurally a work of art. It emerges, however, as a collective product of many smaller installations, at least some of which are artistically produced for pleasing effect. More clearly, though, the produced Earth stands in a defining relationship with much( I might argue, all) art that gets produced on its surface. Just as Cubism, say, is in part a relationship with other artists in that tradition, and in part defined by relations with that which it is not, all art collectively reflects a relationship with the things of the earth. It is constrained by laws of the universe such as this one is, on a planet such as this and produced by a species such as we are. The art of any age will reflect, one supposes, its universe, planet and the beings that we are.

With this in mind all the works in this show can be seen in relation to one another and in relation to the large piece of work, Earth, that enframes them. This is not to diminish the autonomy of each piece, rather each can be regarded as a detail illuminating the large piece and each other. Some of the work unconceals our current situation in all its vertiginous qualities, some suggest a path to the future, and some, of course, do both.


The relationship between the scale of a work and the time it takes to create is perhaps at best a rough one. The creation of Domesticated Earth has been the work of billions of people over hundreds of millennia. It is the ongoing work of our species. If we look only to the past to create a sustainable future we become mired in romance and fey impossibilities. If we knew what a sustainable future looked like we could create an art form that gets us there. But the real beauty of this world is that we don’t know what’s around the corner. It is one of the functions of art, it seems to me, to survey the terrain and to birth possible futures.


  1. Liam. I think the Chicago example is a great way of demonstrating the impact of developed world humans - but where are you getting the data from for 20acres etc. I'd be interested in learning more.

  2. Liam, great article. I'd like to know more about the sources for the figures attributed to the need for 20 acres a person in the Chicago example. This would be very useful for some of my own writing/analysis work.

  3. Munaf - many thanks. The 20 acres is derived from multiple surveys I've taken on my students over the years. It is a very conservative number though. Here's a link to more systematic assessments: "The average American has an Ecological Footprint of 9.0 global hectares (23 acres) – the size of 17½ American football fields. The average European has a Footprint of 4.5 global hectares, half that of the average American, but still well above both the world average and what is available per person."