The Art of Acclimation

ON CLIMATE CHANGE by Ingrid Haftel

I was about eleven when I imagined climate change for the first time. I was up either too late or too early, watching reruns of The Twilight Zone. The episode that left its indelible mark on me opens with a young woman, alone in her apartment.

First we see an unforgiving sun shining outside her window; next, her long, lustful pause over a small glass of water. By the time Rod Serling steps onto the screen, the situation has revealed itself: in this alternate universe, the Earth is moving closer to the sun. “All of man’s little devices to stir up the air are no longer luxuries,” Serling intones, “they happen to be pitiful and panicky keys to survival.” The physical discomfort I imagined watching that episode left the strongest impression; it’s the same anxious feeling I get walking to the L on particularly merciless summer mornings.

Still from The Twilight Zone, 1961.

Serling’s story might not have the science right, but the value of his storytelling is evermore relevant. At the time of my fateful viewing, the clarion call of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had been sounding for seven years, since 1988. Twenty-two years later, weary from decades of governmental inaction and the outright impudence of corporations toward the idea of man-made climate change, activist Bill McKibben let the thermometer break: “What I want to say is: this is fucked up. The time has come to get mad, and then to get busy.”

It took me a long time to get mad, and even longer to get busy. Getting busy has been harder. As a curator and writer committed to the idea that critical interpretation and artistic inquiry shape the world around us, I have no doubt that the humanities will play numerous critical roles in determining the climate of the future. But I imagine I’m not alone when I struggle to envision what these roles should look like. Part of the difficulty stems from the gravitational pull of the politics and passions that continually tug us in so many directions. But another challenge—the challenge that I’d like to explore here—is categorical: the crisis of climate change demands new modes of interpretation. “To call human beings geological agents,” writes Dipesh Chakrabarty, “is to scale up our imagination of the human.”[1] How to exercise this imagination is a question that deserves our attention.

I recently worked on an exhibition designed around the goal of getting people to understand and care about basic sustainability issues: energy consumption, water use, food production, air pollution, waste, and—most importantly—climate change. In one section of the exhibition, we explored what the climate of a future Chicago might look like. In this city, we’re particularly lucky to have the Chicago Climate Action Plan, a comprehensive report from 2010 that outlines current climate scenarios and strategies for future planning. (What will become of this report under the Emanuel administration, however, remains to be seen.) We borrowed the plan’s clear language to describe the summer of the future under a high carbon emissions scenario: by the end of the century, a Chicago summer could feel like Mobile, Alabama, with an average heat index of 105 degrees. We ask our visitors to imagine a future with frequent heavy rain and more heat waves. A sump pump stands on display as a metonym for increased flooding––an easy image to conjure for Chicagoans used to flooded basements.

These are small attempts at making climate change real for people, and I’m not yet sure how successful they are. In many ways, the uncertain future we face confounds interpretation. In his essay “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Dipesh Chakrabarty writes: “It is not surprising [that] the crisis of climate change should produce anxieties precisely around futures that we cannot visualize.”[2] One of Chakrabarty’s theses is that man-made climate change represents a “breach” between the modern separation of human and natural history.[3] This breach demands new modes of inquiry and imagination: “[the] ensuing crisis for humans is not understandable unless one works out the consequences of [global warming]. The consequences make sense only if we think of humans as a form of life and look on human history as part of the history of life on this planet.”[4] For Chakrabarty, this situation requires nothing less than a new concept of history—one that stitches together the “recorded” history of human culture with the “deep” history of mankind as one species living on a very old and changing planet.

Much of my own thinking on how to imagine and interpret this new history has been shaped by looking at photographs. One comparatively popular model for representing and addressing our relationship to environmental crisis is well represented by The Altered Landscape, a recent exhibition of the Nevada Museum of Art. Each photo in the exhibition—and in the museum’s larger permanent collection bearing the same name —offers up evidence of the Anthropocene: unprecedented, man-made environmental devastation and the uncannily “unnatural” environments we humans have constructed for ourselves. Olivo Barbieri’s site specific_NYC 07 (1) tilt-shifts a bird’s eye view of New York City, transforming real bricks and mortar into a scene resembling a child’s model set. Images from David Maisel’s Terminal Mirage series turn the Great Salt Lake into a work of abstraction, morphing the natural and man-made processes affecting the lake and its environs into startling canvases.

Olivo Barbieri, site specific_NYC 07 (1), 2005.

David Maisel, Terminal Mirage 13, 2003.

Both as documents and artworks, the images in The Altered Landscape are an invaluable resource. Yet for the most part, it’s only the evidence of human presence that dominates this work; few people show up here. The perspective adopted in many of these images replicates a divide between the human and the natural, wherein the photographer’s lens bears witness to a subaltern environment. In this way, The Altered Landscape—and other projects like it that have emerged over the past decade—operates as consciousness-raising effort. This is a critically important role to play. But it can be very hard to tell where we are implicated in these images—or how we might create active and affective relationships from them.

In 1972, a newly formed Environmental Protection Agency launched Documerica, a project that charged 70 photographers with documenting “subjects of environmental concern.” More than 22,000 images were produced over the course of 115 unique assignments, documenting every state in the United States. While many of these images would look at home in a collection like The Altered Landscape, the ones that continue to confront me—continue to challenge me to consider what humanities-based inquiry might say to a matter of concern like climate change—are of a very different sort.

The best of Documerica reflects the new ecology of a shrinking and shifting planet. We are everywhere here: crammed onto crowded beachfronts, negotiating traffic, trashing things, caring for things, making things, finding moments to catch our breath.

To pick one: a woman, short hair glistening with sweat, sitting on a pier. A bike is lying on its side next to her. She’s shown facing outwards toward, the caption tells us, the Hudson River, on what looks like a remarkably warm day. The trash and chrome fenders in the background provide the soundtrack: horns, talking, scraping, a low din that ebbs and flows like a wave over the hot pavement. Nature in these images is right where it has always been, at the edge of our own existence, waiting to be fixed by our perception like a photograph.

Wil Blanche, Pause for relaxation on a pier overlooking the Hudson…, US EPA Documerica project, 1973.

David Falconer, The Gas Shortage in the Pacific Northwest…, US EPA Documerica project, 1973.

Documerica has been interpreted as the stylistic and ideological heir of the Farm Security Administration’s photography program of the 1930s and 1940s—Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange in Kodachrome.But as Barbara Lynn Shubinski notes, it’s the very fractured and complex nature of the environmental degradation depicted that sets Documerica apart from the so-called “straight photography” of the FSA era: “In visual terms alone, the environmental crisis was difficult to depict. [Images] of oil spills and smog offered not so much portraits of recognizable ‘national character,’ but an almost insurmountable rupture between content and meaning.”[5] However, for me, it’s precisely this rupture that makes the photos so powerful: it symbolizes a breach between inside and outside, us and it, we humans and our environment. The rupture is less apparent in Documerica’s solemn (and beautiful) images of pollution and environmental disaster—it is most overpowering in the project’s complex collage of bodies, land, and infrastructure. It’s the hybrid portraiture that Documerica achieves—something between social documentary and landscape photography—that makes it worth pausing over.

Paul Sequeira, Calumet Park on Lake Michigan (far South Side), Commonwealth Edison Stateline Plant in Background, US EPA Documerica project, 1973.

One final image, with a prelude attached: I’m a relative newcomer to Chicago. I’ve been here for three years, a transplant from the humbling scenery of the Pacific Northwest. While I miss the stately mountains next to which I grew up, Chicago continues to surprise me with its own topography––smokestacks, skyscrapers, and power lines included. The overlapping of histories here is palpable; brownfields and industrial spaces abut beaches and parks, all of these written atop a great glacial retreat that began 10,000 years ago.   Documerica photographer Paul Sequeira’s 1973 image of the Lake Michigan shoreline provides a compelling visual companion to this layered history. People wander in the middleground, exploring a beach on Chicago’s far south side. In the background looms State Line Energy, a coal-fired power plant built by electricity magnate Samuel Insull in 1929. At the time it was built, State Line was the largest electric-power generator in the world. The size of the plant’s generators matched Insull’s maxim for Chicago and its burgeoning suburbs: more, more, more power. So does its environmental legacy—State Line quickly became one of the largest single-point polluters in the Chicago region.

State Line shut its coal operations in March of this year; plans to demolish the plant are in the works. Residents, developers, and urban designers will no doubt debate the site’s future. But as an artifact, State Line brings together two histories for the Anthropocene era: the story an unbounded tide of consumption, paired with our urgent and complicated retreat to the shore.

Even though it was taken in the 1970s, Sequeira’s photo captures the cognitively dissonant space we must work through––and create, interpret, and critique out of––today. By collapsing the human and the natural, this image allows us to imagine a human presence that at once transforms and is transformed by its environment. Another photographer, Richard Misrach, captured this situation beautifully when he observed “a simple, if almost incomprehensible equation.” In it, “[the] world is as terrible as it is beautiful, but when you look more closely, it is as beautiful as it is terrible. We must maintain constant vigilance, to protect the world from ourselves, and to embrace the world as it exists.”[6] It’s time to get busy.

Ingrid Haftel (MAPH ’10) is a curator and writer originally from Purdy, Washington. She is currently an Associate Curator at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Ingrid is especially grateful to Nicholas Fraccaro for the conversations that led to this article––and for welcoming her to Chicago.

[1] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35 (Winter 2009): 197-222.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Modern history is the imperative here; as some historians have pointed out (Chakrabarty included), the ideologies of human culture and capital have not always been so hermetically sealed from the concept of climate (see Fabien Locher and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, “Modernity’s Frail Climate: A Climate History of Environmental Reflexivity,” Critical Inquiry 38 (Spring 2012): 579-598.

[4] Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History.”

[5] Barbara Lynn Shubinski, “From FSA to EPA: Project Documerica, the Dustbowl Legacy, and the Quest to Photograph 1970s America” (PhD dissertation, University of Iowa, 2009).

[6] Richard Misrach, Desert Cantos (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987).

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