Art is science made clear.
The business of art is to reveal the relation between man and his environment.
—David Herbert Lawrence
A work of art is 2½ million times more noticeable than an open pit coal mine. I base this on the physical sizes of—and political responses to—Chris Drury’s “Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around” on the University of Wyoming campus and the Black Thunder coal mine in Campbell County. The coal mine is a monumental sculpture (broadly construed) visible from 700 miles above the Earth; Drury’s art installation fits into a single 270 square-yard pixel on Google Earth. But if you really want to see human handiwork from outer space, check out the swaths of beetle-killed forests stretching across 4,800 square miles of the West. Of course, that would be a rather environmentally sly use of imagery—which is precisely what Chris Drury was up to in using beetle-killed trees to form a vortex at the center of which is a pile of coal.
The point of “Carbon Sink”—or at least the message that the politicians and energy industry drew from the installation—was that burning fossil fuels pumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is warming the climate (which is an intolerable scientific discovery), which has led to higher winter temperatures, which are insufficient to kill off the outbreak (which was fostered by drought and forest management practices), which results in mountainsides covered in dead trees. And to take this one step further, a recent study in Canada revealed that the decomposition of the trees is further adding to atmospheric carbon, making the winters warmer which means—well, you get the picture. Or at least the power brokers get the picture.
In a melodramatic response to the artwork, Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association, asserted that the University of Wyoming, “put up a monument attacking me, demonizing the industry.” Loomis claimed to understand academic freedom, but intimated that liberty has a price. State representative Tom Lubnau from Gillette employed the same sort of roundabout threat: “While I would never tinker with the University of Wyoming budget—I’m a great supporter of the University of Wyoming—every now and then you have to use these opportunities to educate some of the folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from,” (Translation: I’d sure as hell tinker if these uppity artists and impertinent eggheads continue to misbehave.)
All of this leads one to wonder how a small work of art in a corner of a university campus could warrant such outrage. Could the hegemony of Wyoming’s energy industry really be threatened by an elegantly arranged spiral of burnt logs? This whole hullaballoo could be the old ploy of powerful industrial interests playing the victim, but that explanation is too easy. I suspect that the panic was overblown but real. And it arose from Drury’s subversive work being featured in an educational setting. The university is corrupting the state’s youth — and we all know what happened to Socrates (hint: hemlock).
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Anyone who has a soft spot for the underdog has to be doubly tickled by the fallout over “Carbon Sink.” Most obviously, the Goliath of the fossil fuel industry was thumped between the eyes. Even more delightful is that the rock was a piece of art. Not a regulation, or a lawsuit, or a technical report (e.g., an unflattering analysis of water and coal-bed methane) but an evocatively named arrangement of scorched wood. Of course, it’ll take a much larger aesthetic stone to do any lasting damage to Big Coal.
In addition to admitting my deep feeling of schadenfreude, I should also make two other confessions. First, I had a lovely, long visit with Chris Drury when he first came out to Wyoming. And I just might’ve given him the idea about the beetle-forest-coal-climate connection. You’ll have to ask him about the details. Second, although I came to UW as an entomologist, my position is now split between philosophy (where I work on natural resource ethics and philosophy of ecology) and the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing. So in terms of full disclosure, I fancy myself something of a literary artist.
Having worked in the sciences, humanities, and arts, I admit to some frustration when the latter two endeavors are dismissed as frivolous or largely irrelevant to modern life. This past spring, a university committee of scientists was trying to figure out if and how the arts and humanities could offer anything of value to an initiative concerning biodiversity conservation. There was something of a dog-and-pony show to explore the possibility, but there wasn’t much evidence that the scientists were convinced. And then along came “Carbon Sink.”
I suggest that those who doubt the relevance of art to contemporary society consider that Chris Drury might have done more to catalyze a serious conversation about energy, ecology, and climate change than any technical report or research paper produced by the university. And the same goes for those who cut the arts when school funding gets tight—and for those parents who wring their hands when their kid declares a major in art (or theater, dance, philosophy, English, or history). Turns out that art matters.
The irony, of course, is that it took a British artist to stimulate Wyoming politicians. At least we can hope that Governor Mead’s efforts to develop a state-level energy policy might include a recognition that burning fossil fuels has regional, national and global ramifications. Wyoming’s policy will affect others in profound ways. If it is “our” coal and gas, then it’s also “our” carbon dioxide—and “we” see both lucrative profits and dying forests.
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The tradeoff between wealth and beauty is a lesson worth teaching to our children, which brings me to the another political consequence of “Carbon Sink” and other works that provide social commentary (such as the seditious documentary film, Gasland). Wyoming’s Joint Minerals Business and Economic Development interim committee recently took up the matter of energy education. The idea is to develop an “Energy Literacy Education Program” for K-12 students. Two important concepts emerged from the committee’s September 12thmeeting in Casper.
First, the model for our venture is to be Oklahoma’s energy education program. It seems that Sen. Eli Bebout of Riverton is a real fan of the Sooners’ approach to education. Given that I teach natural resource ethics, I have a vested interest in seeing what students will have been taught when they arrive on campus. It looks like my job is not going to get any easier.
At the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board website, one is introduced to the educational program with a video of teachers singing the praises of the Board. The state has cut teachers’ supply budgets to zero, so the educators fawn over the boxes of cool stuff that the energy industry provides for “free.” The teachers seem blissfully unaware that if their state increased severance taxes to the level of neighboring Texas, perhaps there’d be enough state revenue to provide funding for classroom supplies. Then the teachers might not have to settle for the “free” things provided by the energy industry and they could decide to purchase art supplies. We can only imagine what might happen if the kids were able to think about their world and creatively express their hopes—and concerns—without the oversight of the energy industry.
If anyone wonders whether such an educational program in Wyoming might be just a tad tilted toward the views of industry, visit the Campbell County School District website dedicated to the Powder River Coal Company. Sixth graders from the gifted-and-talented program put this site together, and they’re certainly a capable bunch. The text is well-written and the design is quite professional. But try clicking on “Environmental Issues.” You’ll learn that PRCC’s low-sulfur coal is better for the air, that coal mines comply with the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, and that, “Powder River Basin coal mines provide a kind of refuge for wildlife. Besides creating animal habitat with rocks and dead trees, the coal mines protect the animals that are living on the mine site [from hunters].” Coal mining appears to be just about the best thing that could happen to the environment. As for the effects of carbon dioxide on the climate, there’s not a peep. Maybe it’s time for a school field trip down to the UW campus to check out “Carbon Sink.”
The other important concept to emerge from the committee meeting was framed by Lara Ryan, executive director of the Wyoming Land Trust. It seems that the core message to our children will be: “Energy and conservation are not at odds. Rather they are mutually beneficial…We can have it all.” This might be true, depending on who “we” are. If it includes today’s K-12 students, then having it all isn’t so simple. “We” (adults) seek to have it all by externalizing costs—shifting our problems onto “them” (the children and future generations).
The core reality of the modern world of energy consumption is that we can’t have it all. My mother was an artist and wise woman. When people asked her to produce a calligraphic piece, she would tell them that there were three qualities in commissioned artwork: good, fast, and cheap. The client could pick any two of these. For example, if a bride-to-be wanted her wedding invitation to be good and fast, then it wasn’t going to be cheap.
The same limitations hold for energy. Pick whichever two you want, but you can’t have all three. What is good (for humans and the environment) and fast (available right now) isn’t cheap (e.g., solar home systems). What is good and cheap isn’t fast (e.g., large-scale alternative energy systems), and what is cheap and fast isn’t good (e.g., burning fossil fuels). No, you can’t have it all. Even an artist knows that.
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Philosophy and art come together in the field of aesthetics. And environmental aesthetics is a rich interaction of science, philosophy, and art. The great ecologist Aldo Leopold wrote: “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.” His concept has since been framed in terms of ‘thin’ beauty, which appeals to our superficial sense of what is pretty, and ‘thick’ beauty, which arises from our understanding of what lies deeper. The Tetons are postcard pretty to anyone who sees them, but when one understands the geological forces that pushed the mountains skyward and the ecological zones that are layered on the slopes, then a thick sense of beauty emerges. It’s the difference between listening to a lovely sonata and knowing the musical theory, historical context, and composer’s anguish that lie behind the composition.
Many people are aesthetically offended by wind farms, although some find the form and motion of windmills to be elegant. In either case, the initial impression is just that—a hasty judgment. Understanding the marvelous complexity of engineering deepens one’s appreciation. But what makes these structures beautiful in my estimation is understanding that each day a windmill turns on the high plains of Wyoming, 4 tons of coal that are not incinerated—and each year a windmill churns means 4,300 tons of carbon dioxide do not enter the atmosphere. Now that’s a beautiful thing.
Perhaps we should be ethically offended by coal mines and gas wells, or at least by the fact that Wyoming has extracted such wealth while spreading the costs of burning fossil fuels into the future and around the world. Maybe it’s a good thing that our views are interrupted by windmills and that we won’t derive enormous riches from this energy source. Justice entails that we bear some of the burden—whether aesthetic or economic—of energy production.
Windmills are conspicuous. And that’s good. For too long Wyoming has externalized the costs of energy. Rather than shoving the aesthetic costs of energy into places where most of us don’t have to see the ugliness, or spreading health costs across the planet via the atmosphere (sick people aren’t very pretty), or pushing the environmental costs into the future when we don’t have to confront the unpleasant consequences of rising sea levels, windmills make us face up to our consumption and complicity. If carbon dioxide was colored a sickly chartreuse rather than being invisible, we might be much more pleased to see windmills. Of course, there’s another way of making the costs of burning fossil fuels visible—go look at the dying forests in the Rockies. Or perhaps just check out Chris Drury’s artwork tucked away in a corner of the UW campus.
Some pretty things become beautiful when you know the deeper story, but not always. I remember as a kid seeing a pretty, swirling rainbow along the edge of a lake and later learning that this was an oil sheen. The truth isn’t always pretty; sometimes knowledge makes the world a disturbing place. Merely ugly things can become truly awful when we learn more about their appearance—as with the beetle-killed forests of Wyoming. The thin sense of ugliness gives way to a thick sense of awfulness when we understand our role in the insect outbreak.
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After the executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association claimed that his industry had been villainized and victimized by art, Mr. Loomis went on to insinuate that corporate monies to the university were put at risk by the artwork. After all, students could be led to ask hard questions (remember Socrates?). Given that political pressure worked to shut down a photography exhibit that offended the oil and gas industry (“The New Gold Rush: Images of Coalbed Methane,” at the Nicolaysen Museum in Casper) and political extortion worked to shape university policy with regard to unwelcome political views (i.e., the Bill Ayers debacle), Loomis’ warnings are understandable if profoundly disappointing. Of course, he hadn’t actually seen the artwork when he made his threat, but it seems that empirical evidence isn’t all that important when it comes to energy education in Wyoming.
Loomis suggested that the university might, “put up a sculpture commending the affordable, reliable electricity that comes from coal on the other end of Prexy’s Pasture.” Perhaps Mr. Loomis has a good idea. But as much as education is touted by the energy folks, they don’t seem to be fast learners—at least when it comes to the subversive disposition of art. An artist with a keen sense of irony might be tempted to integrate the two messages. For example, s/he might install an electric light to illuminate Drury’s work. Leaving the light on continuously would convey to the viewer a sense that thanks to cheap electricity we believe that we can have it all. And perhaps it’s only fair that the energy industry would get to shed some light on “Carbon Sink,” given that the art did such a fine job shedding light on the energy industry.
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As for representative Lubnau’s admonishment that, “you have to use these opportunities to educate some of the folks at the University of Wyoming about where their paychecks come from,” I’m well aware that my salary is largely provided through mineral revenues—and this is exactly why I was compelled to write this piece. That, along with a real appreciation for the challenge issued by Academy and Tony Award-winning director Elia Kazan: “The writer, when he is also an artist, is someone who admits what others don’t dare reveal.”
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