The Present Future

NONE OF US WERE PREPARED for the sight of the Louisiana Superdome lapped by floodwaters and with strips of its roof peeled back by the winds of Hurricane Katrina. In that image we glimpsed the predicament of our moment, a human world newly and suddenly vulnerable to the forces of a changed planet.

But if we’d been looking at the paintings made over the last two decades by Alexis Rockman, we’d at least have had some practice in how to see it. In an era when artists have obsessed mostly about the fractures within human society — class, gender, race — Rockman has been among the very few trying to understand the deep, mysterious, and crucial cleavage between the human and natural worlds. He is, in fact, one of the few philosophers working this critical terrain.

It’s not an easy fracture to get at, of course, this line between man and . . . everything else. One of the pieties of environmentalists is that we’re all part of nature, and indeed this is true. When we imagine ourselves somehow disconnected from the larger, “lower” world, we brutalize it and ourselves. On the other hand, we know that there is something different about us too, in part because we can describe what it is we’re doing to the world around us. Some of the finest description can be found in Rockman’s images. In The Farm, for instance, he manages to situate genetic engineering in the long lineage of human-manipulated breeding but also to evoke the particular nausea of a future when we will have stripped all but self-serving function away, when chickens will have been transformed into featherless meat machines.

Yet Rockman — a journeyer into the wild — has seen enough of the planet, especially its humid, jungly corners, to realize that the fantasy of total human control is simply that: a fantasy. His Biosphere series echoes in mordant tones the ridiculous failed experiment in the Arizona desert, where at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars researchers attempted to create a contained planet of their own. All decays, all transforms; the forces at work in Rockman’s world (and our own), operating in their long evolutionary time, mock the seeming triumph of our technology. (One of his creepiest images, for just that reason, shows what’s happening behind a rec room wall. Not only are rodents breeding, but they’re doing it in a pile of cash — our ultimate medium of control. And the money is shredded. That’s disgusting!)

The great danger, however, of a clear-eyed view of the puniness of man is that it can lead one to an apolitical acceptance of what we do in the natural world. No need to worry about genetic engineers creating designer babies because in the long run our tinkering will be overwhelmed by the sheer massiveness of evolution. No need to worry about the extinction of species because in the long run almost everything has gone extinct. No need to worry about global warming because climate has shifted over the eons and in the long run the sun is going to swell up and wipe us out anyhow. I have heard variations on each of these themes a hundred times. And since they are all indeed true, to one degree or another, you can find them in Rockman’s work as well — he is an artist of the long run, of the timeline, of the pre- and post-human. He has said, at various times, that he is “value-neutral” about topics like genetic engineering; there can be a remoteness to his view of the world — his unnatural chimeras, for instance, are depicted with loving care.

Which is why, in a sense, his newest works are among his most exciting and important. His series of American Icons — Mt. Rushmore nearly submerged in a rising sea, the St. Louis Arch strangled in kudzu — and of Big Weather — shantytowns destroyed by hurricanes, rampaging floods, and dust storms — are less cool, more angry. They are images for a post-Katrina America, one where we are only just starting to come to terms with our own unleashed power. They complement the new satellite photos showing, for instance, that the North Pole has 20 percent less ice than it did when Apollo sent back those loving shots of our island Earth and we all pretended that we cared. They are visual accompaniment for MIT scientist Kerry Emanuel’s study demonstrating that global warming has helped increase the duration of hurricanes by 50 percent in the last few decades — that we have managed to fundamentally change the planet on which we live, in ways that will damage our own civilizations (and most profoundly, of course, its poorest and blackest people).

This damage is not permanent, of course. Eventually some huge asteroid will hit the planet and start our biology cycling in some new direction; eventually the sun really will sterilize our Earth. But it’s permanent enough. And what’s more, changes like global warming are not the same as asteroids crashing, not the same as any of the other older evolutions Rockman chronicles in such tender detail. Not the same because — thanks to artists and writers and scientists — we know that we’re causing them. Not the same because we can decide not to. Here’s what I mean: much that Rockman has painted — putrefaction, evolution, predation, the endless taut-thighed rutting — has no moral dimension. If a deer shits in the forest, no one looks at the pile of droppings and thinks bad deer. But if you come across a pile of beer bottles in the forest, you think asshole. Because he could have carried them out. Carried them to the damn recycling center. That shantytown overwhelmed by wind, that sea-sunk Dakota landscape — those are the products of choices. For twenty years now we’ve understood the physics and chemistry of climate change and yet we’ve kept right on burning coal and gas and oil, more and more with each passing year. That makes us, and our leaders, morally and politically culpable, as if we had passed a law decreeing that the hovel should fall or the sea rise. The same faculty that makes art possible makes choice possible; the capacity for restraint is precisely what separates us from the rest of nature.

But that capacity is hard to summon, especially in a society deeply devoted to the notion that we should do what we want to do. Too many artists have for a century bought into the idea that self-restraint of any kind is anathema and that smashing taboo is a heroic act, without realizing the extent to which that stance now echoes the larger ethos of a consumer age. That is why, I think, so little real art has been made about the environmental challenges of our time, because art that took on those challenges would also take on our sense of perfect individualist freedom. Hyperindividualism is what, in the end, drives global warming: the sense that we each should have a big car and a big house and a big life, that it is an imposition in any way to share with others (share our mobility with others in a bus, for instance). Hyperindividualism is also what drives so much of our social evil. It was impossible to see those refugees in New Orleans, the roof on their obscured lives peeled back as brutally as the ceiling on the Superdome, and not think: there is something very wrong with our society. But too much art has for too long celebrated that same hyperindividualism; it’s far less different than it supposes from the advertising it claims to despise.

Alexis Rockman’s work neither exalts nor degrades the human; it’s only sometimes even about the human. Instead he wonders about forces larger than us, and smaller than us. Those are very good dimensions in which to start thinking.

Bill McKibben is an author and environmentalist who in 2014 was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel.’ His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has appeared in 24 languages; he’s gone on to write a dozen more books. He is a founder of, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement, which has organized twenty  thousand rallies around the world in every country save North Korea, spearheaded the resistance to the Keystone Pipeline, and launched the fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement.