HOW CAN PEOPLE visualize a future at risk? The dangers of global warming have not deeply aroused the American public, and one reason has been a lack of images appropriate to the problem. Of the many potential harms that scientists foresee, only one has shown a potential for imagery capturing the truly global nature of the problem: future sea-level rise. Recently, one powerful artistic work addressing this has appeared, the large mural painting Manifest Destiny by Alexis Rockman. 11

 “Manifest Destiny,” (2004), reproduced with permission of the artist. 
      Rockman, a 1985 graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York, was already well known for paintings addressing bioengineering and other issues of the relations between technology and nature. Perhaps most famous is The Farm (2000), widely reproduced by opponents of genetic manipulation, which depicts a squared-off cow, a multi-winged chicken and other grotesquely engineered organisms. 2 Manifest Destiny is far larger and artistically deeper.2
      The mural looks toward Brooklyn 3,000 years in the future, following a sea-level rise caused by global warming. An orange sunrise lights up a half-drowned, semitropical world. Gulls and other local flora and fauna that have survived are joined by migrants from the tropics. Humans are conspicuously absent except for the remnants of their constructions, most prominently the ruins of the Brooklyn Bridge. Wrapped with tropical vegetation, the wreckage resembles the classical ruins of many earlier paintings—but in a lurid light and largely submerged. (A portion of the painting is reproduced in color on the cover of this issue.) The painting has caused a considerable stir, with prominent features in the media and reproductions showing up on environmentalist websites. 33
      Manifest Destiny gains force by appealing to traditions of dioramas and landscapes, especially the familiar gorgeous sunsets of the Hudson River School. Rockman himself pointed to Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire, Desolation, an 1836 painting that shows the remnants of a once-flourishing empire in a twilight landscape of overgrown ruins. Like Cole, Rockman meant to warn citizens against grasping too greedily. He told one interviewer that he chose the title Manifest Destiny as a reference to Americans’ “long tradition of entitlement in terms of natural resources.” 4 In the works of the Hudson River School, a common nineteenth-century American theory of climate change was implied by a contrast between paintings of storm-wracked wilderness and paintings of sunny farmlands: Many believed that the advance of agriculture brought not only civilization and liberty but even a better climate. Rockman’s work demonstrates a complete reversal of such attitudes.4
      The mural includes many references to environmental exploitation. Buried in the underwater mud the viewer can spot a seventeenth-century merchant vessel, an oil tanker, and so forth. Likewise submerged are the four towers of a Con Edison power plant and other edifices familiar to Manhattanites. The artist, consulting with professional architects, also painted future constructions, including a grandiose sports stadium (in fact recently proposed) and sea walls built in futile battle against the rising tides.5
      Other features reflect Rockman’s consultation with biologists. The disturbing orange glow of the water includes the rusty stain that tropical rivers often carry from decayed plant matter. The flora and fauna are a reasoned guess at what may live in a New York many degrees warmer, from a palm tree to a monstrous man-o-war jellyfish. A closer look reveals bioengineered organisms (such as a crab with extra claws) and even viruses—Rockman regularly uses such jarring changes of scale in his paintings—which the casual viewer might rightly suspect include West Nile and SARS.6
      Rockman’s realistic portraits of remarkable creatures appeals to our familiarity with the heritage of natural-history drawings and watercolors. But Rockman does not see living creatures in the nineteenth-century sense, as objects of beauty to marvel at. Many of his other paintings center on organisms single-mindedly devoted to procreating with or eating one another. What might at first glance seem a celebration of vigorous life is less cheerful on closer examination. In the damaged world of Manifest Destiny, opportunistic species have ruthlessly taken over the available niches. Humans are such a species, and in manipulating other organisms and our environment, Rockman implies, it is no good thing that we are acting “naturally.”7
      Rockman is capable of exquisitely painterly watercolors, but to portray the future he drew on the one tradition available for such an enterprise: science fiction illustration. Countless pulp magazines have depicted future catastrophes in the mode of “popular illustration,” not “fine art.” One work that influenced Rockman is Chesley Bonestell’s 1950 magazine illustration of New York City lit by the nearly monochromatic orange glow of an exploding atomic bomb. Bonestell likewise presented a sweeping view, too distant to show any people who might survive, with near photographic clarity. 58
      “If you’re dealing with a type of image that is unfamiliar,” Rockman explained, “you want as much credibility as possible.” He chose a straightforward illustrative surface to reach a wide audience; one must study the details to discover the layers of artistic and intellectual complexity. One critic complained, “this socially conscious science fiction illustration will leave many art lovers flat.” Yet it could leave a much larger audience flattened by the display of a truly possible future. 69
      Beyond its realism, Manifest Destiny offers hooks into deep feelings through its imagery of a flooded landscape empty of people. The 1945 panoramic photos of bombed Hiroshima, which showed ruins without people, followed by many 1950s movie scenes of empty cities, helped turn the world public against nuclear weapons. The same imagery is currently used to oppose nuclear reactors in photographic displays of the barren streets of Chernobyl. In the pattern of Cole’s and many other nineteenth- and twentieth-century paintings of desolate ruins, Rockman’s mural is easily recognized as a critique of a civilization that failed to solve its problems. At a deeper emotional level, the imagery of human absence evokes universal personal anxieties about abandonment, connected with the death of the individual and the end of all hopes.10
      Rockman’s strangely colored water and enlarged viruses offer another hook to emotions through the ancient theme of uncanny pollution. Since prehistoric times, many peoples have believed that diseases come as a punishment for personal and social transgressions, associated with disgust of rule-violation or pollution in a generalized sense. Imagery of maladies and pollution connected with radioactive fallout and waste have been a potent force in anti-nuclear movements; adding this to the climate change issue is a serious move. The association can be tight. Many peoples also have blamed climate disasters such as droughts or floods on unhallowed transgressions—a theme of dreadful retribution that stretches back to the story of Noah and beyond. 711
      A variety of quite different images that reflect scientists’ concern about global warming have been available since the 1960s. The first widely seen icon in discussions of greenhouse gases was a graph of measurements by the late C. D. Keeling, showing the steady rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. By the 1990s other widespread graphs showed the unprecedented rise of average global temperature in recent decades. Such displays of data have had a cognitive impact but do not work directly on the emotions.12
      More emotive images of global climate change first became common in 1988, when the greatest droughts since the Dust Bowl devastated many regions of the United States, followed by the worst forest fires of the century and an exceptional hurricane. Cover articles in news magazines, lead stories on television news programs, and countless newspapers offered dramatic photographs of sweltering cities, withered crops, and forests aflame. Political cartoonists illustrated debates over global warming policy with sketches of barren deserts under a huge sun.13
      Later came pictures of flooding, particularly with the devastating European floods of 2002. The media could visually conflate storms and floods with sea-level rise, since in fact the worst effects of sea-level rise will come when storm surges inundate shores. So arguments over policy were sometimes illustrated by television clips of advancing waves, hurricanes, and swirling rivers, and by political cartoons that showed flooded buildings, whirling tornadoes, or both together. A different but important theme appeared sporadically in pictures of smokestacks belching black clouds, crudely symbolizing the industrial emissions that caused global warming.14
      However, the public had long been accustomed to images of storms, floods, droughts, and polluting smog in news reports of everyday problems, limited to a particular region and with relatively short-term effects. Even the appalling images of New Orleans destroyed by the hurricane of 2005 were mostly seen as a local freak of nature, and only rarely noted as an example of the devastation that many scientists predict will become more frequent by the end of the century. As a pair of communications experts explained, “in the absence of a symbol for the greenhouse effect, the media … is limited in its interest and its impact.” 8 The first major movie to address climate change did not appear until 2004: “The Day After Tomorrow.” It was only an action epic exploiting the usual imagery of storms, plus the sudden descent of an ice age—what scientists flatly declared impossible. As one critic wrote, “The very silliness of ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ means that global warming will become, in the minds of moviegoers, little more than another nonspecific fear about which they must uncomprehendingly fret.” 915
      Studies show that many citizens, scarcely understanding the causes or hazards of future climate change, cannot imagine what specific practical steps they or their institutions should take to forestall it. Anxious and baffled, “people literally don’t like to think or talk about the subject,” the authors of one study concluded. 10 This mood of doubt, confusion, and helplessness was deliberately fostered by groups with economic or ideological reasons to oppose greenhouse gas regulation. The risk from such action, already recognized by some corporations, is that the next step might resemble what happened in the nuclear debates: The public may increasingly hold particular groups responsible for potential harm. This becomes more likely as the problem works more deeply into public awareness—a process furthered by the images of desolation and pollution featured in Rockman’s groundbreaking mural. 1116

Spencer Weart is director of the Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics, College Park, Maryland.

NOTES1. 8 × 24 feet, oil and acrylic on wood, 2004. See Maurice Berger, “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” in Manifest Destiny, ed. Alexis Rockman (New York: Brooklyn Museum, 2004), 4–15. After opening at the Brooklyn Art Museum, the mural has been touring. Sites have included the Wexner Center in Columbus, Ohio; the Rhode Island School of Design; and the Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass. Portions of this essay, expanded and with references, may be found in my essay “The Public and Climate Change,” available online or as PDF or CD-ROM at http://www.aip.org/history/climate/Public.htm .2. View online with remarks by the artist at http://www.genomicart.org/rockman-pn.htm (accessed 3 June 2005). See Alexis Rockman, Alexis Rockman, with Essays by Stephen Jay Gould, Jonathan Cary, David Quammen (New York: Monacelli Press, 2002); and Alexis Rockman, Wonderful World (London: Camden Arts Centre, 2004).3. Linda Yablonsky, “New York’s Watery New Grave” (Arts and Leisure section), New York Times, 11 April 2004. Mark Stevens, “Boro Hell,” New York, 10 May 2004. “Manifest Destiny,” New Yorker, 12 April 2004, 14–15. Gothamist website with interview: http://www.gothamist.com/archives/2004/07/14/alexis_rockmans_flooded_brooklyn.php (accessed 7 June 2005). Disclosure: by coincidence, my daughter was one of Rockman’s assistants while this painting was made. I would have noted the painting anyway, as the first major art work on a topic whose history I have been studying for two decades.4. Alice Thorson, “Alexis Rockman: Science, Politics, History, Fantasy—and Prophecy,” Kansas City Star, 23 January 2005. Online at http://www.kansascity.com/mld/kansascity/entertainment/columnists/alice_thorson/10684200.htm (accessed 3 June 2005).5. Atom Bomb Hits New York (oil on artboard), cover illustration for the 5 August 1950 issue of Collier’s, with a related interior illustration.6. Thorson, “Alexis Rockman.” See also “Alexis Rockman: Our True Nature,” Greenpeace International, http://www.greenpeace.org/international/news/alexis-rockman-our-true-natur (accessed 7 June 2005).7. For ruined cities see Spencer Weart, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 19–20, 220–221; see passim on pollution and other nuclear themes. The masterpiece of the genre is Max Ernst’s Europa nach dem Regen (Europe after the Rains, 1942), in which monsters overlook dissolving ruins.8. Lee Wilkins and Philip Patterson, “Science as Symbol: The Media Chills the Greenhouse Effect,” in Risky Business: Communicating Issues of Science, Risk, and Public Policy, ed. Wilkins and Patterson (New York: Greenwood, 1991), 159–76. The difficulty of arousing interest has also been noted, for example, by New York Times science writer Andy Revkin (“It’s a century-scale story, and newspapers are dealing with a day or hour kind of scale,” on “Living on Earth,” distributed by National Public Radio, 9 October 2004) and environmentalist Bill McKibben, in “Imagine That,” Grist, 21 April 2005, http://www.grist.org/comments/soapbox/2005/04/21/mckibben-imagine/index.html (accessed 7 June 2005).9. “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004), directed by Roland Emmerich, was his third “blockbuster” in which New York City is wrecked, respectively by aliens and Godzilla and the climate. Anthony Lane, “Cold Comfort,” New Yorker (7 June 2004): 103. The polar ice caps melted to set the scene for “Waterworld” (1995) including a submerged Denver, another action epic obvious as sheer fantasy. The Stanley Kubrick/Steven Spielberg “AI,” (2001) set its final scenes in a far-future drowned city but chiefly dissected a decadent near-future society.10. John Immerwahr, Waiting for a Signal: Public Attitudes toward Global Warming, the Environment and Geophysical Research (New York: Public Agenda, 1999). Online at http://www.agu.org/sci_soc/attitude_study.html (accessed 7 June 2005).11. See also suggestions by McKibben, op cit. The history of the science and politics as well as public awareness is described compactly in Spencer Weart, The Discovery of Global Warming (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003) and in much greater detail on my website of the same name, http://www.aip.org/history/climate .

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