Behind the Carbon Curtain: Art and Freedom in Wyoming

“You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can only be free if I am free.” — Clarence Darrow

Burning Books, Burying Art

(For a September 2013 update, read this.)

A week after this year’s commencement, when no one was looking, the University of Wyoming caved into political pressure, removed a shelf of books from the library, stacked them on Prexy’s Pasture and set them on fire. The book burning was done to appease those who believed that writing about environmental issues threatened the extractive industries of the state.

Carbon Sink installation, before and after
Carbon Sink, top, was removed last May from the University of Wyoming campus. (Photos courtesy of Chris Drury & Jeffrey Lockwood — click to expand)

OK, there was no book burning at the university, but there was something every bit as horrifying to those who value free speech. In May, the art installation Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around was destroyed and its remains consigned to the dump, “bone yard” and power plant (of course, the coal was burned).1 The only evidence of this compelling and controversial artwork that implied a connection between fossil fuels, climate change, and dying forests is a circular patch of sod.

A central purpose of a university is to foster discussion of important issues. Drawing attention to the consequences of how modern society fuels itself (the artwork shined a light on the environmental costs of our individual and collective behaviors) seems perfectly aligned with the goal of promoting intelligent, civil discourse. So, why would the University of Wyoming destroy a powerful piece of art that had catalyzed such lively conversation about one of the vital issues of our time?

With no explanation forthcoming, a rumor arose that Carbon Sink had been dismantled to repair a broken sprinkler. It says something that such a patently ridiculous rationale could get traction on campus. Of course, the institution didn’t destroy a politically problematical piece of art because of a plumbing predicament. The official explanation is even more absurd.

We Voted for It before We Voted Against It

According to UW, “There was never the expectation that Carbon Sink would remain in place for an extended period of time.”2  Really? Less than a year earlier, the director of the UW Art Museum said, “There are no plans to uninstall it.”3 And the artist, Chris Drury, said that the piece was, “intended to return to nature through decay and will probably be gone in 5 to 20 years.”

In a recent interview, Drury responded to the destruction of his work: “I was led to believe the piece would be up until it had deteriorated.”4 What deteriorated was the university’s courage to stand up for intellectual and artistic freedom.

Never Buy an Extended Warranty

The other part of the university’s explanation is equally implausible. The artwork was removed “because there was not a permanent source of funding to maintain it.” Carbon Sink was part of a larger program, and some of the other pieces might have needed some upkeep. However, decay doesn’t require a whole lot of maintenance.

Jeffrey Lockwood (Ted Brummond – click to enlarge)

In trying to explain the inexplicable, Susan Moldenhauer, the director of the UW Art Museum noted that even for Carbon Sink, “there are costs associated with ongoing care of the work and promotion of the exhibition: monthly assessments of condition, ongoing placement of tour guides and their production, and the occasional costs of repair if damage occurs.”

By my calculations, the total annual cost for inspection, interpretation, and repairs would’ve been perhaps $200. If anyone had asked, I would’ve paid this bill myself to keep a compelling piece of environmental art on campus. For that matter, the cost of removal ($3,037)5 was greater than 15 years worth of caretaking.

So, we are to believe that the University of Wyoming junked the financial equivalent of a BMW rather than paying for a new tire every year. Being an institution of higher education, the university evidently thinks that we’re all pretty stupid. Or could the institution have succumbed to political pressure? Indeed, this explanation is more charitable insofar as it entails cowardice rather than foolishness.

If It Walks Like a Duck and Quacks Like a Duck…

Given the extraordinary generosity of the legislature to UW, the institution is indebted to the politicians who are, in turn, beholden to the energy industry. Even though the piece was as much about individual responsibility as corporate accountability, legislators from energy-rich counties were unhappy with Carbon Sink.6 The declining demand for coal and the falling prices for natural gas made a fossil-fueled state government grumpy. Commonsense, experience with the Wyoming Way, and conversations with legislators7 leaves little doubt that the university administration traded free speech for political pacification (“extortion” is such an ugly word).

People on the inside of Wyoming politics say that the day the artwork was destroyed, a servile email was sent to the carbonophilous legislators.8 Whether or not this bit of obsequious icing was added to the humble pie, our leaders should consider the warning of Somerset Maugham (a darling of conservatives,9 despite his being gay): “If a nation [or university?] values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom; and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that, too.”

Maybe I’m just paranoid. But like Kurt Cobain (not a favorite of conservatives) said, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” And in this case, what might otherwise be a conspiracy theory became an explicit political policy during the 2012 legislative session.

Legislating Censorship

Carbon Sink closeup
Susan Moldenhauer, director of the University of Wyoming Art Museum, says there was no expectation for Carbon Sink to remain at its location, nor were there funds available to maintain the installation. (Courtesy of Chris Drury — click to expand)

Not satisfied with the destruction of an artwork that conveyed an inconvenient truth, the Wyoming legislature wanted to assure that future artists wouldn’t offend the mineral magnates. So, in the appropriation for the renovation of the campus gym, the politicians mandated:

“In providing artwork for the half acre recreation center pursuant to the provisions of W.S. 16-6-801 through 16-6-805, the university shall require artwork which displays the historical, cultural and current significance of transportation, agriculture and minerals in Wyoming’s history. Notwithstanding the provisions of W.S. 16-6-801 through 16-6-805 [which specifies that a panel representing the local community, art community, architect and state agency advise on the selection of art] the proposals for artwork shall be submitted to the university’s energy resources council and the governor for approval.”

Setting aside the incredibly poor writing (the wording calls for a display of how the present affects the past — a most remarkable challenge!), the legislature both decreed the content of art and nullified existing law to insert the School of Energy Resources and the governor as state-sanctioned censors. One might argue that Carbon Sink displayed the significance of minerals (climate change manifesting as raging wildfires and devastating drought seems significant), but that’s surely not what legislators meant.

Of course, it’s possible that an aesthetically first-rate work could meet this demand and slip past the censors. The Depression-era art of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and Harry Sternberg captured the essence of agriculture, mining, and manufacturing (truthfully, if not always favorably). Left to their own creative devices, artists might have celebrated these human endeavors. However, to require an explicit endorsement of particular industries is deeply troubling.

Foxes Guarding the Henhouse?

Not surprisingly, the School of Energy Resources Council includes some highly competent people when it comes to energy, such as vice-presidents from Marathon Oil and Arch Coal, along with the retired CEO for Basin Electric. As to whether these guys (they’re all men except for an ex officio member) represent a balanced portfolio, consider that this group comprises the Advanced Conversion Technologies Task Force — formerly known as the Clean Coal Task Force. Also not surprisingly, my best efforts to explore their backgrounds came up with no evidence that any of them possess the slightest expertise in the arts, which appears to put them on equal footing with Governor Mead.

The sole qualification of our legislatively appointed censors is the capacity to choose art that will please — or at least not offend — some of Wyoming’s thin-skinned, fat-wallet enterprises (Perhaps tourism was omitted for fear that an environmental theme could creep in if this vital industry was included). This all might appear to be a case of the industrial fox guarding the artistic hen house, except that foxes know something about chickens. No, this is more like an aardvark guarding the hen house.

I also looked up the members of the Wyoming Arts Council. They don’t appear to know much about producing energy. So to be fair and balanced, perhaps we should have the Arts Council approve all energy and engineering projects in the state. Or not. I love artists but I don’t want them approving bridges any more than I want the CEO of Extracta Technologies deciding on art.

Irony: Wyoming’s Abundant Resource

As I understand politics, conservatives are champions of getting government out of our lives. The Republican legislature seems to be all for liberty, except when intellectual and artistic freedom leads to the expressions contrary to the interests of powerful individuals and wealthy corporations.

Consider these quotes taken from the website of Right Wing News that “represent classic examples of conservative thinking.”10

“I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” — Thomas Jefferson

“I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of the freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments of those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.” — James Madison

“I hope we have once again reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited.” — Ronald Reagan

Evidently there are a few presidents rolling in their graves.

On the other hand, it’s safe to assume that no conservative would countenance the policies of the former Soviet Union. But consider this analysis of “Stalin as Art Critic and Art Patron”:

“Art under Stalin developed under unique conditions of total state control which made all forms and means of artistic expression served propagandistic purposes. The state proclaimed the arts to be its ideological weapon, established a monopoly over art production and distribution, and created a system of control over art with strict criteria of what kind of art society needs. All deviations from the state’s demands, either in form or in content, were strictly forbidden and the violators prosecuted.”11

Welcome to life behind the Carbon Curtain.

Art That Speaks to Who We Are

Nuclear Family on the University of Wyoming campus
The Associated Students of the University of Wyoming recently voted to move another installation, Nuclear Family, south of Knight Hall to make way for a new sculpture in the center of Prexy’s Pasture. (Teresa Hooper/Flickr — click to expand)

This spring, the Associated Students of the University of Wyoming initiated a lively discussion about replacing Robert Russin’s Nuclear Family statue in Prexy’s Pasture with another sculpture.12 Megan Degenfelder, a staunch conservative and ASUW president, wanted to find something that would embody the UW’s “feel, tradition, and pride.” Her alignment with the party that touts family values notwithstanding, she advocated replacing Nuclear Family with a statue of Steamboat, given the profound shortage of bucking horse images on campus.

A more apropos possibility might be a sculpture of a cowboy shooting a messenger (maybe a likeness of Chris Drury could be used for the messenger). Or we could have a lovely statue of an ostrich — which might replace the western meadowlark for our state bird — with its head buried in the sand.

Should anyone believe that only the arts are punished for delivering bad news, try to find our state climatologist. Steve Gray left this position  a year ago for a plum opportunity to lead a climate research program in Alaska, and he’s not been replaced. Dr. Gray studiously avoided explicit allusions to anthropogenic climate change, while focusing on the fact that Wyoming really needs to prepare for its consequences. The political message is that projecting warming or drying trends is taboo because it aggravates the Energy Gods (reporting historical patterns and “weather variability” is tolerable). Evidently, even scientific messengers are shot.

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

The Wyoming legislature has set a profoundly worrisome precedent for the people of the state. The mission statement of the University of Wyoming calls for the institution to: “Nurture an environment that values and manifests diversity, free expression, academic freedom, personal integrity, and mutual respect.”13 When I asked a couple of legislators if there was a difference between their mandating the content of art on campus and prescribing the content of courses, they could see none. The very essence of what it means to be a university is at risk.

It’s a package deal. If Wyoming wants a university, this comes with academic freedom. Although tomes have been written about this concept it boils down to students and faculty having freedom of inquiry — the right to pursue, teach, and communicate ideas (even, or especially, those that discomfort society and authorities) without being targeted for retribution. The legislature can no more have a public hospital in which physicians are told not to render aid to political dissidents than they can have a public university in which faculty are told not to render artworks that offend political sensibilities. Such is the cost of freedom.

But this is a small price, given the importance of educating our youth to think deeply and critically about their world. A university is not an echo chamber for the prevailing sociopolitical views. Rather, it is a place where ideas are challenged, the status quo is questioned, and power structures are critiqued. The duty of the scholar, the artist, and the scientist is not to the energy industry or the legislature but to the public. And to fulfill that obligation requires both comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

— The following video is used with permission from UW Television. It was filmed shortly after the installation of “Carbon Sink” in 2011.

YouTube video


1. Email from Jim Scott, Physical Plant director, 20 July 2012

2.  Email from Susan Moldenhauer, 7 July 2012


4. Email from Chris Drury, 9 July 2012.

5. Email from Jim Scott, Physical Plant director, 20 July 2012


7. Notes from my conversation on 12 July 2012 and email from Cathy Connolly 7 July 2012

8. Ibid.






— Read Jeffery Lockwood’s previous essay on the Carbon Sink installation, Art & Energy: Coal’s reaction to ‘Carbon Sink’ sculpture reveals the power of art — and the essence of education, first published at WyoFile in November 2011.

For more on the Carbon Sink issue, read these related posts:

Buchanan on Carbon Sink: UW didn’t kowtow to powerful interests,” an op-ed by University of Wyoming president Tom Buchanan

Wyoming’s leaders reveal weakness in Carbon Sink controversy,” a column by Dustin Bleizeffer

Art & Energy: Coal’s reaction to ‘Carbon Sink’ sculpture reveals the power of art — and the essence of education,” an essay by Jeffrey Lockwood

Jeffrey Lockwood (Ted Brummond – click to enlarge)

Jeffrey Lockwood is a renowned entomologist and accomplished writer/philosopher who first arrived at the University of Wyoming in the 1980s to conduct groundbreaking research on grasshoppers, insecticides and biological controls. In 2000, Lockwood turned his attention to the arts and became a professor of philosophy and creative writing. He is the author of Locust: the Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier (Basic Books 2004), Grasshopper Dreaming: Reflections on Killing and Loving (Skinner House 2002), Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War (Oxford University Press 2008), and many other works. In February 2012, Lockwood was featured on WNYC’s RadioLab for the podcast episode “Killer Empathy.”

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  1. Mr Lockwood wrote: “A central purpose of a university is to foster discussion of important issues.” and ” … with the goal of promoting intelligent, civil discourse.” Yet if we look at alternative explanations for climate change other than the PC orthodoxy of anthropogenic global warming, we are labelled “deniers,” an offensive and dismissive term. Hypocrisy anyone?

    I found Carbon Sink to be an interesting piece of art, but if you accept handouts from the energy industry you may not want to bite the hand that feeds you.

  2. from the academia industry that has saddled our younger generations with a $trillion in near worthless debt, but log circles will save us. Its mediocre art and mediocre political scientology, with a little philosophical academic dumpster diving journalism thrown in. But you are right that the energy industry can be as equally dysfunctional. now what?

  3. The hard reality of our time is that the modern energy affluence we all enjoy has real costs, from the sacrifices made by American soldiers in the Middle East to the melting of Arctic sea ice. The same way of life also has enormous benefits for the people of Wyoming. I think it’s imperative that Wyoming students learn to see those tradeoffs and think about them in a nuanced, adult way. If that means students walk to class pondering the issues of the day rather than grinning horse statues, then I’m all for that.

    Beyond the issue art though, I see a bigger problem in Wyomingites’ perception that fossil fuel interests are good for our pocketbooks, so we shouldn’t make them mad. As if Arch Coal has someplace else to go. The state government and UW prosper from natural resource wealth because Wyoming’s laws demand tribute from those companies. Let’s stop pretending that coal companies are here to do the rest of us a favor.

  4. Thank you Mr. Lockwood for an important and courageous essay. Mr. Garrett, I believe you mistake the point, sir. An essential ingredient to a society which genuinely – rather than superficially – values and promotes democracy, is freedom of expression. When a university, legislature, industry, or individual effectively censors expression, speech ceases to be free. Those who suppress viewpoints contrary to their own are not supporters of this country’s founding values. Such actions are quite the opposite of patriotic and mock the service of every person who has sacrificed to preserve America.

    Bob Mullen
    U.W. 1971 (BS, Zoology), 1975 (JD)

  5. Really Garrett? The peasants rose up? Looks more like the coal mining fat cats and their sniveling bag men in the Legislature rose up. I don’t know any of us Wyoming peasants who had any problem with this sculpture. We’re damn proud of our state, except when state officials let the rich carpetbagging energy producers run roughshod over us just to get a few more dollars in contributions and taxes.

  6. Excellent article, Jeff!

    Depressing (though hardly surprising) that self-styled “limited government” conservatives are so comfortable thinking like communist bureaucrats — art should “make the kids feel proud of the state,” to the greater glory of the “peasant” proletariat dictatorship! Wow, nice. And let’s not forget that old chestnut, “love it or leave it” —exactly what the Chinese government recently said to exiled dissident Chen Guangcheng.

    What goes around comes around indeed!

    Taylor Carman
    UW 1987 (BA, Philosophy)
    Professor of Philosophy
    Barnard College, Columbia University

  7. What Mr. Garrett doesn’t seem to appreciate is that there are two kinds of “political correctness.” I’m sure he’s railed against the the PC liberal vein which frowns on saying rude things about women, racial minorities and the LGBT community. What this essay is about is the right-wing, conservative, business community’s form of political correctness, which when it controls the state legislature, can dictate to UW and get what it wants, because it controls the purse strings.
    Sad that UW would knuckle under so readily and issue such pathetic rationalizations as to why the art was dismantled.
    A similar furor happen just over a decade ago when Deb Donahue published a scathing book about how BLM mismanaged the range. Livestock barons just about blew their fuses, even threatening to defund the law school in retribution. Fortunately, there were a few more legislators and UW leaders back then that had enough spin to resist such threats.
    Can’t say the same for today.

  8. Great piece, Jeff. A real shame. I talked about this installation in a guest lecture last fall, citing both the science message and the courage it took for the university to allow such a point of view. So much for the “courage” part.

    The UW occupies a conflicted space, as all institutions of learning — that occasionally present positions that challenge the power structure — must. We are lucky to have such a (by-and-large) excellent institution here in Wyoming, and it’s true that fossil fuel dollars allow for much of that prosperity.

    To the previous commenter, I’d say the forests, hills, and clean air are also parts of Wyoming the kids should be proud of and feel ownership of. It’s those elements, along with us and all the other animals and plants that depend on them, that are threatened by the fossil fuel industry that currently pays the bills.

    Wyoming is about more than what’s underground, as the art installation pointed out in a very salient and understated way. It doesn’t take an elitist to appreciate the natural beauty of Wyoming, and anyone who feels otherwise is, likewise, free to leave.

  9. I can see it now – a collective of microbrew sipping, organic cheese nibbling birkenstockers seething with indignation knowing that a laughably shabby political statement has been rightfully sent to the dump. How dare the peasants rise up against those who ‘know art’? Why if these peasants had their way they would have statues of horses lining the sidewalks from the dorms to the classroom building (gasp! – more brie please).

    This is a great state. We’re damned lucky to have a lot of coal and a coal industry that gives back to this state – an industry which the current administration is doing it’s utmost to put out of business through regulation.

    Hopefully someone in Laramie might find it in their heart to create a piece of art that makes the kids feel proud of this state as they walk by on their way to class.

    And, yes, we do have academic freedom here is the state. Any academic who doesn’t like statues of horses is free to leave at any time.