I took a friend of mine on a brief tour of Occupy Colby. “What does this mean?” she asks as we stand in front of the bear on the pile of junk. “Art is about how it’s supposed to make to you feel.” I reply to her dissatisfaction. We walk to the salt mound. “What does this have to do with climate change?” She is confused. I shrug and respond, “it’s about how it makes you—” “Stop saying that!” she exclaims. I laugh and shrug again. We walk over to Disney World I: “See, this one makes sense. It’s so sad.”
Disney World I does look like everything climate change art is expected to look like. The Mickey Mouse head lays on its side, abandoned and overgrown by vegetation. The Epcot Ball is off in the distance behind a haze that appears yellow in the museum light. The park appears to have been submerged by a swamp with all recognizable structures and trees overgrown in moss and lichen. Why would it not be sad? Disney is sold to us as nostalgic and timeless and here it is abandoned and ruined? Worse yet it is not reclaimed by forest or meadow but by a swamp. Something smelly, hot, full of insects, overall an unpleasant experience. Not to mention that the entire scene is painted in grey scale, tinged a warm and sickly yellow by the museum light.
But if you let me guide you through Disney World I via the lens of a biologist, I am sure we can come to a different conclusion. First, I would point out all the lily pads littered in the foreground and the background of this painting. I would tell you this is an indicator that the swamp is healthy enough to support plant life. That it has clean water, access to nutrients, and plenty of sunlight. The most promising sign is the single lily flower in the foreground, its stark white petals contrast against the grey surroundings. This swamp is healthy enough to support flowering plants. If we celebrate bees as pollinators in modern day, why should we not celebrate the dragonfly for pollinating the lily flower? After all, insects are integral to a healthy ecosystem as they act as pollinators and degraders. They complete the circle of life.
In the midground there are two animals that appear to be mating. At first glance it is vulgar, disturbing maybe, especially because they are boars of some sort. But why should we find this vulgar or unsettling? Are we not being shown that this swamp can support a reproducing animal population?
Maybe I have begun to lose you. You still cannot shake the uncomfortable feeling you have looking at Mickey Mouse’s floating head. The moss and lichen are taking over an icon of your childhood. But you should be celebrating their presence! Lichens are pioneers! They are the first organisms to enter a formally uninhabitable space and prepare it for the arrival of an entire ecosystem! They break down rocks into fertile soil. Here they are taking an ornamental and arguably useless statue and returning its molecules to the ecosystem in a form that can be used by the boar or the lily pad. The haze in the distance could be some horrible chemical smog that has covered the earth as a result of human activity. Or it could be a fog, simple humidity that sustains the plants of the swamp. We have not even gotten into the microorganisms most likely proliferating in this swamp! They recycle nutrients, provide oxygen and live in symbiosis with everything on earth!
Every section of this painting is brimming with life and potential, from the tiny plant growing in Mickey’s eye to the palms in the distance. Then why are we made so uncomfortable and remorseful by this painting? Why is this scene given to us in a destitute grey scale instead of the vibrancy of a thriving ecosystem? In Is Racism an Environmental Threat?, Ghassan Hage tells us that under capitalism everything has a role as the exploited or exploiter and those that do not fit themselves into those roles fall into the third category of the exterminable. Under capitalism, domestication is a constant process of fitting the formerly free and wild into the role of the exploited. It is often violent. The result? Whether in regard to marginalized people or the environment we tame, there is always a fear that the things we have domesticated will turn against us. Hage would say this is the fear that white people have of Muslims moving into their neighborhoods and taking their jobs after committing centuries of white colonization. He would tell us that painting this scene in greyscale is an expression of our anxiety at rewilding and deindustrialization that is not in the hands of humans. It is our fear of losing power.
So maybe the despair communicated in this piece is not actually a despair about the state of the environment, the ecosystem, or the world. Maybe it is our distress that not only have we as human beings been decentered from the landscape, but that the wildlife that we have tamed is actually returning to dominate us. Is our fear of climate change, the fear that the world will no longer be habitable or is it a fear that it will no longer be habitable to us?