Those of us alive in the early decades of the 21st century live in a world steeped in two conditions: heat and profit. The ever-expanding world capitalist economy is fueled by the continuous extraction of economic gain. There is no limit to its irony. Plastic bottles of corporatized water raised from artesian wells on the Fijian island of Viti Levu are transported thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean and sold–even in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where the community tap water, flowing from the deep underground aquifer from as far north as Natchez, Mississippi, is especially sweet and good.


The profit-inducing product list is endless—semiautomatic firearms, flavored toothpaste, specialty coffee beans, graphic t-shirts, Coca-Cola and its derivatives, petrol, aviation fuel, diesel oil, lubricants, processed foods (at my local South Carolina grocery store, there are 43 different kinds of barbeque sauce on display for purchase), 2-stroke gasoline engines, synthetic yoga mats, nuclear warheads and the missiles to deliver them, smart phones, dumb computers, televisions, surveillance cameras, soaps (both the television shows and bath products), athletic shoes for non-athletes, toilet paper of different grades, condoms of different sizes, plastic bags, straws, and purses, pharmaceuticals, heroin, vitamin supplements, cement for bridges, roads, and buildings, bicycles, cars, airplanes, rocket ships, capacitators, transistors, computer chips, transformers, batteries, soccer balls, baseballs, and movies. The impulses of the capitalist world economy are to monetize everything, turn wants into needs, and demand profit. The iconic heroes of these impulses are Donald Trump and Aristotle Onassis, of whom Nicholas Van Hoffman wrote: “to him, the world was to loot.”


All this profiteering takes work; work takes energy (.40 BTUs per pound to move freight via “semi” moving truck 1 mile in 2016—and 13,760 times that amount to make 1 pound of plastic). The fossil fuels that have powered modern capitalism have also begun to heat (and hence disturb) the planet in ways not yet fully understood by scientists, only dimly understood by citizens, and ignorantly denied by politicians in the pockets of the industries that transform those fossils into fuels and income—the conditions of heat and profit. William T. Vollman, writing in his book Carbon Ideologies (Viking Press, 2018) to future inhabitants of the climate-changed earth, asks:


And what might we remind you of? When I was alive, the smoke of carbon and the sweat and blood of those who burned it in order to bring our machines alive were too often forgotten by the so called “consumers,” but you from the future who cannot forget our deeds, please blame the workers less than the rest of us. They sold their sweat for smoke, and we bought their smoke for the sake of our marvelous toys.


Screenprint and Relief on repurposed fabric, with appliqué and reverse appliqué stitching
18″ x 50″



But our species and its cultures, countries, communities, and persons are not just loot-obsessed profiteers or conditioned consumers, not merely “covetous machines”. We are driven by additional impulses—of love, compassion, community, and justice for example. These impulses are expressed in widespread activities, including art and conservation. The impulse of the artist’s studio is toward creativity and the communication of inspiration; the impulse of the conservationist’s field site derives from the wondrous natural world and the desire to protect it for future generations. (Yes, objective readers, the art world is heavily monetized, embedded in the world economy, with art bought and sold as investments and instruments of profit, and yes, Warhol’s studio was called The Factory as sardonic alarm bell for what was intended, but the impulses that drive and guide most artists to gesso the canvas or begin the sculpting or shoot the first photographs emerge from a creative urge of some kind. And yes, the conservation community is integrated into the economy through law and regulation, the largesse of rich donors enriched by product profits, of course, and the myopic metric of economic value as the measure of ecosystem services, but the impulse to document and struggle to conserve comes from a civic need to have nature protected for the future.)


The relationship between art and conservation is symbiotic, reciprocal, and multi-layered. We note that the restoration of art pieces is called art conservation. At its most foundational, conservation can protect landscapes, seascapes, features of nature such as waterfalls, lakes, mountain tops, coral reefs, deserts, ocean shores, marshlands, river systems, swamps, rain forests, glaciers, and more that serve as sources of artistic inspiration. Art (individual artistic works, exhibitions, public art in public spaces) can inspire and compel the conservation of nature. And art can sound the alarm. In Louisiana, the official maps have removed 31 bayous as they have disappeared due to sea level rise; as warning and remembrance, the wonderful Louisiana poet Martha Serpas, in her collection The Dirty Side of the Storm (W.W, Norton and Company, 2007) writes lovingly of “water that glitters/ water that hardly moves”.


Two examples show the compelling bonds between art and conservation. The American landscape painter Thomas Moran (1837-1926), made his first trip to the Yellowstone region of the United States as part of the Hayden Expedition, and sketched and painted the surreal and beautiful landscapes he encountered. His paintings were shown to politicians in the US Congress, and displayed in the US Capitol. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (properly immense at 14 feet by 8 feet) gave Americans a way to grasp the extraordinary value of protecting these natural features, and played a significant role in convincing Congress to designate Yellowstone as a national park in 1872.


Thomas Moran
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Oil on canvas, mounted on aluminium


A second example is this exhibition, Encountering Our Indelible Mark. The works are divided into sections dealing with global warming, human consumption, and social conflict—all of which make mark upon the global environment. An example is Todd Anderson’s Blackfoot Glacier—The Last Glacier, with its poignant view of the glacier in sun and the brooding shadow of the snowfield into which it will become (full disclosure: work from his and colleagues’ mammoth project The Last Glacier graces the cover of my newest book The Future of Conservation in America: A Chart for Rough Water, University of Chicago Press, 2018). Another is Sean Caulfield’s (I have been a fan of Caulfield’s work from the moment my eyes first lit upon his woodcuts) Fire Tent, and its not-so-subtle reminder to not to destroy our own earthly nests. Yet another is Hannah March Sanders’ Quiltbait II: The 17 Hottest Ice Floes This Summer—using, as she describes “the language of Internet clickbait” and whimsy to tell a harsher story of the homo sapiens threat to nature. To view the works in this exhibition is to ponder not just art and nature, but those capitalist conditions of heat and profit.



Prayer Flags for the World
Screenprint and mixed media


What then, do we need?


We need more artists to describe, interpret, make testament, and confront environmental issues in revelatory ways to a public often befuddled and unsure about environmental issues, and to re-inspire those who strive toward conservation action.


We need more conservationists to work diligently, even optimistically, to protect the places of inspiration that artists have ventured to (figuratively, and with camera or brush or poem) as their natural muse.


Both can make indelible marks about the future of this small, vulnerable, whirling planet. And its fate is our own.

Copyright 2018 Dr. Gary E. Machlis


Dr. Gary Machlis
University Professor of Environmental Sustainability
Clemson University

Dr. Gary E. Machlis is University Professor of Environmental Sustainability at Clemson University. He served as Science Advisor to the Director of the National Park Service from 2009-2017, and prior to that was a professor at the University of Idaho for many years. His most recent co-authored book The Future of Conservation in America: A Chart for Rough Water (2017), was published by the University of Chicago Press. Gary is an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The views presented in this essay are his own, and do not represent the official views of Clemson University, or any institution or anyone else, for that matter.