Imagine Mussorgsky’s Pictures at An Exhibition playing in the background. Purely as a thought experiment, what famous paintings would you choose to depict the plight of American society since the Clinton-Bush administrations, a dissolution dramatically worsening the last ten or fifteen years? For isolation and loneliness there’s Edward Hopper’s work, maybe even Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, Master Bedroom or Wind from the Sea. Much depends on frame of mind and interpretation. Perhaps you draw parallels between current bloodshed in Europe with Picasso’s Guernica or Goya’s The Disasters of War. Reflecting on centuries of domestic abuse, sexism and gender-based disparities in pay, some women might include Caravaggio’s depiction of Judith and Abra decapitating the Assyrian general Holofernes. The longer our nation permits such inequities the less likely women will resist the urge, as Raymond Chandler opened in his noir classic “Red Wind,” to “feel the edge of their carving knives and study their husbands’ necks.” But even if you live where hot Santa Anas come down through the mountain passes making “your nerves jump and your skin itch,” please rely on artistic representations alone and don’t put Caravaggio’s graphic images into practice.
Four paintings come immediately to my mind: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel, described in ekphrastic poems by William Carlos Williams and W.H. Auden, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, The Gulf Stream by Winslow Homer, and Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights. Perhaps it’s their depictions of bleakness and impending disaster that seem apropos. On several occasions over the years, I’ve stood mesmerized by Nighthawks and The Gulf Stream in the Art Institute of Chicago and Metropolitan Museum of Art, respectively. But all four works symbolize an aspect of America’s convergent crises and impending perils, whether climate change and COVID vaccine refusals (still 30% of the population) or entrenched radicalism and gun-manias turning fractured and isolated loners into mass-murderers. In an age of digital communication, they display the ironic remoteness of our times, juxtaposing our obsessions with “self,” our inability to recognize the obvious; our shunning of moral imperatives. It’s an exhibition where profligacy, violence and greed are prices considered too dear to be paid for protecting the environment, biodiversity and lives ─ a night gallery of imagined ambiguities, where truth gets entangled in a barbed wire no man’s land of disinformation, false narratives and lies.
Like Bruegel’s ploughman, shepherd and angler, we go about our work oblivious to the problems of others, engaged in self-deception; denying fallouts of how and what we decide. Take, for example, the recent mass shootings in Uvalde, Buffalo, Tulsa, Furman, South Carolina and Oxford, Michigan. Thirty-two percent of the population owns over 400 million guns. The Gun Violence Archive has tracked over 690 U.S. mass shootings (defined as 4 or more victims) in less than a decade; 225 so far this year. In the last two weeks, there were 30 such murders, some occurring in schools, convenience stores and hospitals. Last weekend alone, mass shootings occurred in 10 different states. Far fewer firearms slaughters, usually only one large-scale, compelled New Zealand, the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany and other countries to enact strict firearms laws and bans, all of which have mitigated gun violence. Here, we perpetuate mass shootings by lighting candles and mouthing prayers to supernatural entities that either don’t exist or are indifferent to suffering. Forty percent of all the guns in the world are owned by Americans, 5% or more of whom, according to psychologists, are sociopaths. When our citizens are surveyed, vast majorities approve of mandatory background checks, expanding “red flags,” limiting gun clips and magazines, and banning assault weapons altogether. Politicians, meanwhile, take money from gun lobbyists and trot out the archaic 2nd Amendment. U.S. gun advocate groups spend over 5 times more money than gun control supporters to “influence” Congress and state legislatures. Result: random homicides continue. To put the situation in British terms, the country is bent.
Whether gun sales or fossil fuels, no one exploits America’s foibles more than Madison Avenue and corporations. In late April, Chevron and ExxonMobil announced record profits in the first quarter of 2022 prompting calls for windfall taxes to be imposed on the U.S.-based companies. Big Oil has undoubtedly used the war in the Ukraine to spike gasoline and heating oil prices and lobby for unnecessary expansion of drilling and pipeline construction. U.S. oil giants are not only guilty of manipulating production to finagle price hikes, but their decades-long role in expanding Russian oil and gas production helped underwrite Putin’s invasion. Furthermore, global dependency on that oil continues to undermine unilateral boycotts, embargoes and sanctions against Moscow. The EU’s recent stoppage of most of its Russian oil and natural gas imports is exemplary; its citizens’ overwhelming support of the measure even more so.
Compared to the same period last year, Chevron’s profits quadrupled in the first quarter of 2022, soaring by $6.3 billion. Exxon’s treasure chest more than doubled, a jump of $5.5 billion, even though the corporation recently shut down operations with Russia. After that PR move, Exxon then used part of its windfall to reward shareholders and Wall Street speculators, tripling its stock buyback program to $30 billion. In a nutshell, America’s big oil producers fixed costs of production while market prices skyrocketed due to post-pandemic increases in demand, topped-off petroleum stockpiles (prompting less extraction and refining) and warfare in Europe. Big Oil’s earnings are the result of managerial price-gouging at the pumps not, as some are duped to believe, government restrictions on drilling and pipeline expansion to pump the brakes on climate change. To combat such profiteering, progressive lawmakers have proposed a windfall tax assessed at 50% of the difference between current oil barrel prices and the average pre-pandemic price from 2015 to 2019. Revenue from the tax will be paid to us consumers as quarterly rebates. Additionally, I’d like to see the government take some of that money and drill for oil at one or two of the existing leased locations Chevron, Exxon-Mobil and other corporations haven’t used. Then the Feds could set up a few public option not-for-profit gasoline stations, just to show our citizenry what a gallon of gasoline would cost without predatory profits and enriching CEOs and shareholders. If I were president, I’d darn well do it.
In my next column, I will share some of my thoughts about expanded responsibilities in a world far more interconnected than ever before and how global economies widen impacts of our actions like ripples in a pond. Proof of such harm, often the result of intensive and complicated study, sometimes takes years to catch up to our powers to effect change. Threats to endangered snail darters, posed by the Tellico Dam Project (Little Tennessee River) in 1973, were not fully appreciated when the Tellico Reservoir was first being considered. The reservoir would alter the habitat of the river to the point of killing off the last known population of the endangered fish (Percina tanasi). Congress, by taking positions in the House and Senate against stopping the project, put the entire species at risk of extinction, thusly violating the Endangered Species Act (NEPA). Although the Supreme Court upheld the snail darter’s protection under NEPA, Congress narrowly passed a bill in 1979 which exempted the Tellico Dam from the law, an onerous piece of legislation President Jimmy Carter ultimately signed. Fortunately, by the time reservoir inundation began November 29, 1979 large numbers of snail darters had been successfully “transplanted” to Tennessee’s Hiwassee River, where the species thus far has avoided extinction.
It’s time to escape those mythologized 15th century illusions envisioned by Hieronymus Bosch of unsustainable, improvident gluttony without awareness of consequences. When knowledge eventually does catch up to our power to injure or destroy, moral obligations become clear and inescapable. That has been the case with anthropogenic climate change at least since the 1980s. The greenhouse effect was postulated 200 years ago by Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier. The many decades of highly rigorous, comprehensive data collection and analyses that followed have converted the complexity of global warming into a single clarifying moral responsibility. We humans, as the primary causal agents of climate change, must do something about it, and fast. Innumerable lives, human and nonhuman, depend on us from desert tortoises and Joshua trees in the American Southwest to pikas on the Rocky Mountains’ “escalator of extinction,” pushed by increasing temperatures to America’s highest peaks. People are constantly on medications because materialism, a byproduct of imprudent capitalism and political ineptitude, has created a toxic culture of stress and alienation which stands in our way. Socially and environmentally vulnerable, especially minorities and lower-income groups, we’re Winslow Homer’s allegorical figure at the mercy of the elements, adrift upon stormy seas of hungry sharks and waterspouts.
Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.