Art in the Age of Extinction


Esme garlake

Whilst on the Extinction Rebellion protests recently, I began to question how art history can (and should) relate to the climate crisis… sometimes it’s hard to focus on chiaroscuro when humans are actively heading for mass extinction. My new column ‘Art in the Age of Extinction’ will use a different painting, period or artist every fortnight to explore what art can tell us about human interactions with the natural world, and how an ecological approach might help us reconcile our own turbulent times with the artworks we love. By fighting for climate justice, we are fighting for the survival of our species and, within that, the survival of our histories, and our abilities to continue unpicking and re-writing such histories. The arts play a vital role in raising awareness and encouraging discussions about the world we want to live in, and I hope that this column will play a part in this process.

Green vs. Greenwashing

Friday, 27 November
Illustration by Emily Lashford

‘Seeing comes before words… (so) the relationship between what we see and what we know is never settled.’ John Berger, Ways of Seeing


Advertising is such a ubiquitous part of our urban landscape that it can effectively fade into the background as much as pigeons or postboxes. When we pass flashing billboards, it is easy to forget that products are being sold, pervasively, unrelentingly, and often with damaging effects. As environmental issues move higher up on many people’s agendas, we are being sold claims that, as much as we would like to be true, rarely match reality. Such cases of ‘greenwashing’ – when a company has a ‘poor environmental performance but positive communication about environmental performance’* – present a sinister and increasingly common side of advertising. Today more than ever, critical visual literacy is crucial. I would like to suggest that art historians, who are trained in the study of image-making, are especially equipped to critically question the undercurrents of what we are being sold.

When I think about the phrase ‘greenwashing’, what first comes to mind is the idea of a tint, the sort that might come from accidentally leaving a piece of green clothing in a batch of white laundry. A tint permeates, yet is not overwhelming. Of course, it is also hard to ignore the well-established association between green and the natural world, one used by environmental movements over many years. In artworks, we might associate the colour green with paintings of the natural world – from Claude Monet’s dappled Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies, to Giorgio Morandi’s soft landscapes of leafy country lanes or the greeny-browns of John Constable’s pastoral scenes. For modern viewers, many such paintings remind us that the pastoral ideal remains powerful. One painting by Morandi, characteristically unassuming and with muted greens, has been the only painting to make me cry at first glance. While I suppose it brought up sentimental memories of being outside in the countryside with my father as a child, it was simply a feeling of a distant innocence that triggered such an emotional response. It seems fitting, in this case, that the word ‘green’ can also mean ‘naïve’ or ‘inexperienced’.


It feels reductive to affiliate such works based solely on their use of green in depictions of the natural world. After all, each painting is so personal to the artist’s particular style and context as if a postcard from a far-off landscape. Even less connected are the glossy green landscapes that flash through BP’s #bpnetzero promotional videos; such images can hardly conjure the same effect as when staring into the brushstrokes of Monet’s waterlilies.

Claude Monet, Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies, 1899, oil on canvas, 92.7 x 73.7 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Yet given the emotive potential of green as a colour, it is not surprising that a fossil fuel company like BP has persistently used the colour in its marketing. In 2000, it launched its new logo: a green and yellow sunflower (nicknamed ‘The Helios’ after the Greek god of the sun) to coincide with its updated tagline ‘Beyond Petroleum’. On their website, BP explains that the logo symbolises ‘our greatest source of energy: the sun itself’ and that the colours suggest ‘heat, light and nature.’ They proudly continue: ‘we followed up with 8 billion dollars of investment in wind, solar power, hydrogen and biofuels.’ This may sound hopeful, but BP remains among the top twenty polluters of all time. Alongside multiple oil spills (including 2010 Deepwater Horizon, one of the worst environmental disasters in history), BP donated over half a million dollars to the 2016 inauguration ceremony of President Donald Trump, who has shown unanimous support of fossil fuel industries. Since then, BP has continued to seek out new places to extract oil and gas.


While green may appear everywhere in BP’s marketing, other fossil fuel companies hardly use it (almost certainly due to branding and copyright regulations). Still, these other companies are no less guilty of ‘greenwashing’ and all make shockingly hypocritical claims about environmental progress and accountability. One such example can be seen in a recent YouTube video uploaded by Shell, a company that markets itself as helping customers convert to sustainable energy despite investing 90% of its spending in fossil fuels. In its latest greenwashing-par-excellence series #MakeTheFuture, we watch Shell employee ‘Elvin’ talking about his work to ‘help people reduce their carbon footprints’. The video opens with him looking through an old toolbox, nostalgically explaining how his dad inspired him to pursue a career in engineering. Later, we see him walking through the woodland with his two young daughters. Throughout the video, blissful birdsong plays in the background.

bp Net Zero ad 
bp logo

It is that feeling of innocence, peace and connection conjured from nature (or merely seeing images of it) that corporations exploit. The use of green within the visual realm is a major player, but ‘greenwashing’ amalgamates a whole mixture of emotive sensory effects. Whilst paintings transport us to places imagined or re-visited in our minds, the green of BP or the birdsong of Shell’s video campaigns eerily echo such personal connections between the natural world and our sense of self.


Perhaps it is useful to emphasise the ‘green’ in ‘greenwashing’, then, because it reminds us of how colours belong to a realm of association, memories, imagination and values, simultaneously personal and collective. It is perhaps no coincidence, then, that fossil fuel companies are major funders of the art world, given that art galleries are generally spaces of reflection and escape. Whether a corporation presents itself as ‘green’ in a literal or figurative sense, it constantly draws upon the emotions and joys that we experience in nature. The existential threat of climate crisis already presents us with an emotional minefield. So, it is our task to resist falling into false (and admittedly very attractive) promises and hold these companies to account.

* Delmas and Burbano quoted in ‘Visuality as Greenwashing: The Case of BP and Deepwater Horizon’ by Alexia Panayiotou and George Kassinis (2017), p. 3

Nature Morte

Friday, 13 November
Illustration by Emily Lashford

In Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum there is a small gallery hidden in a quiet corner dedicated to the Dutch still life paintings from the 17th century. Although sadly behind closed doors for the next few weeks due to UK lockdown orders, inside from the floor to the ceiling are canvases that overflow with flowers, fruits, minibeasts, vases, and feathers, creating a space of grand opulence and exquisite detail. When I was working at the museum a few months ago, one visitor asked me why there were so many oranges and lemons depicted in the paintings. Not wanting to let down the ‘Here to Help’ logo embroidered on my jacket, I hazarded a guess that these motifs might symbolically indicate high social status, since access to such fruits at that time required financial prosperity. I couldn’t say much more to the visitor—I was not entirely sure where those lemons and oranges would have come from.

















A few weeks later, I was reading historian David Olusoga’s new book ‘Civilisations: First Contact’ (stemming from the recent BBC series alongside Simon Schama and Mary Beard), which examines art in the Age of Discovery and brilliantly balances a history of colonial atrocities with a recognition of mutual exchanges between societies. At one point, Olusoga discusses the relationship between Dutch still life paintings and the nation’s seaborne empire. Through this, I learned that the images I had assumed were reflections of a flourishing mercantile society had a far more sinister side. He explains: ‘the Dutch embraced their new-found globalism wholeheartedly… (from) blue and white Chinese porcelain, Japanese lacquer ware shipped from Dejima, silk from Persia, spices from the East Indies, (to) pepper from Africa, Turkish carpets from the Ottoman Empire’ and silverware metal from Peru or Mexico. Disturbingly, to serve their luxury food and wines, ‘the Dutch trafficked enslaved African boys, who became one of the great ‘fashions’ of the age among the rich’. I realised that such ostentatious lifestyles were dependent on the exploitation of both humans and environments in many countries across the globe.

Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford,
Abraham van Beyeren, Still Life with a Lobster and Turkey, 1653, oil on canvas, 91 x 112 cm, The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology,

Today, although most of the food products portrayed in the Dutch still lives are readily available on our supermarket shelves, their links to environmental and social injustices remain complex. I think back to a few years ago when I visited an orange factory in Zimbabwe (carbon footprint guilt – yes) I was shown the different categories of boxes that were ready to be shipped: the first-rate oranges would be sent to Europe, the second-rate oranges to neighbouring African countries, and finally, the third-rate oranges would be sold to Zimbabweans. That moment made me reflect on how in Europe we take food products for granted; we receive the best of the batch from Zimbabwe without a passing thought as to where the oranges came from, over 5000 miles away. It is a disturbing phenomenon that air miles allow wealthier countries to avoid responsibility for carbon emissions. When the UK claims to have cut its carbon emissions by more than 40% since 1990, it ignores the fact that emissions associated with imports to the UK (including international travel) have been rising over the same period (316m tonnes in 1990; 358m in 2017; and a peak of 449m in 2007). About half of Britain’s true carbon footprint is made up of international travel and the carbon produced overseas to make goods that are used here.* 


Is shopping locally an effective solution? Many scientists now argue that the concept of food miles has been oversimplified. According to government data, a tomato grown (out of season) in the UK has three times the carbon footprint of a tomato grown in Spain.* The key, then, is to frame the message ‘buy local’ in conjunction with ‘in season’. Yet at the same time, if we were all to strictly follow this message, then the countries currently dependent on Western buyers would lose out significantly (the Zimbabwean orange factory, for example, was heavily reliant on its European market). This dependency cannot be resolved without sustainable alternatives in place.


Clearly, exploring food as a theme can bring a deeper understanding of global trade networks and interdependencies. But it also reveals the disconcerting human impact on the natural world. Soya imports, for example, make up 47% of Europe’s deforestation footprint, the majority of which goes towards animal feed for meat and dairy production (90% of all soya is grown for animal feed). Whilst I had heard that soya was not particularly environmentally friendly, I would never have thought that it formed such a huge part of European consumption habits. Tesco currently buys chicken and pork from two UK companies, Moy Park and Tulip, which are both controlled by JBS – one of the world’s most notorious forest destroyers and violators of human rights. Right now, just 1% of Tesco’s soya is certified deforestation-free, despite its online ad slogans claiming environmental progress. Our demand for meat and dairy means that on the other side of the world, rainforests are being destroyed, and indigenous people are being killed* and displaced, out of sight and out of mind. In a current campaign against Tesco’s role in destroying the Amazon rainforest, Greenpeace puts it starkly: ‘there’s simply not enough land to grow the volumes of soya needed to meet the growing global meat demand without destroying more forests.’


It seems appropriate to translate nature morte* in its most literal way. Our kitchen tables do not display inanimate objects, but rather emblems of dead nature and products of natural destruction. Although we do not post pictures of a lemon or a jar of cumin seeds to show off our status – such objects are neither glamourous nor novel – they still represent global power imbalances between countries and the exploitation of ecosystems and indigenous people. As consumers, we must radically change our eating habits, and move towards plant-based, seasonal diets, in order to increase public demand for responsible food production. It is true that our tables in Britain, especially during winter, may risk looking more like Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters than a lavish Dutch still life. But as these still life paintings show us, habits change; what once seemed radical is now normal, and what once seemed normal is now horrifying. And finally, it is worth remembering that Van Gogh chose to depict the humble Potato Eaters to show ‘that they have honestly earned their food’.* Today we must ask how we can honestly – and morally – consume our food in a way that protects both the people working the land and the very land itself.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters, 1885, oil on canvas, 82 x 114 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam,

*As reported earlier this year by the conservation charity WWF.

* In 2019, 212 environmental activists around the world were killed (women and indigenous people are particularly at risk).

* The term used in French for a ‘still life’

Illustration by Emily Lashford

No Art on a Dead planet

There is simply too little time
Friday, October 30th

We are heading towards mass extinction; it is a fact and it is already happening. Extinctions occur naturally, of course, but our human activity on earth is speeding up this process exponentially. At the current rate, almost one-third to one-half of all species on earth could become extinct within the next 30 years.*

But as writer Zadie Smith points out, ‘It’s hard to keep apocalypse consistently in mind, especially if you want to get out of bed in the morning.’ To continue our lives normally—to continue doing what we love without descending into a pit of existential despair—we inevitably live in a state of moderate denial. Nonetheless, we can still care deeply about the climate crisis without it being on our minds 24 hours a day. It is easy to assume that any form of activism must take over our entire identities in order to bring about change. This assumption is unhelpful both for activists (who all have diverse lives outside of activism) and onlookers; it can cause a ‘them’ versus ‘us’ scenario to arise, potentially making it harder to feel able to get involved.

For students of art history, caring about the climate crisis can feel separate not only from our daily lives but also from our broader personal ambitions and hopes. At the Extinction Rebellion protests in London in September, a friendly protester asked me what I was doing in my life at the moment, and I answered: ‘I’m about to start a Masters in Italian Renaissance Art History’. At that moment, I felt acutely aware of the disconnect between my love for art history and my fears around climate change. It felt selfish doing something that I love when I could theoretically dedicate my time entirely to working in the environmental sector.


Then I went to Tufton Street. This unassuming side street in Westminster is home to the right-wing think tanks that have been instrumental in undermining climate science, producing supposedly ‘independent’ reports whilst refusing to reveal who has funded such reports (mainly fossil fuel companies). Outside its doors, Extinction Rebellion protesters gathered. I sat on the kerb opposite the makeshift stage. For the next two hours, I listened, entranced, to artists and writers speaking about the desperate need for creativity in the fight for climate justice. Tufton Street represents the calculated manipulation of our human capacity for emotion, under a shroud of empiricism. We need to use our creativity not only to imagine but to realise a better world.

It occurred to me that I had been compartmentalising the climate crisis and the arts, relating the two only in restricted (and unimaginative) ways. If an artwork does not directly comment on climate change, I thought it could not possibly help to illuminate the crisis. However, if we treat the arts as a multifaceted tool for climate action, we not only open up space for more voices and minds to engage with the climate crisis, but we also confront uncomfortable nuances within the art world and thus can make real progress. The decolonisation of our art institutions, for example, brings with it the moral necessity to ensure that such institutions are environmentally responsible; climate justice cannot be separated from racial and social justice. Accepting financial aid from fossil fuel industries endorses the destruction of indigenous peoples’ lands and the environmental plights of people living in the global south. Whilst British Museum’s new Arctic exhibition, for example, may be laudable for its emphasis on indigenous voices, it is nonetheless sponsored by Citi, the third-largest investor in fossil fuels in the United States, an industry threatening to drill through sacred Arctic lands. Here in the United Kingdom, we are in a position, for now, to largely ignore the effects of climate change; indeed, it is a privilege to be able to choose to focus on the climate crisis when and how we want. But morally we cannot turn away.


My goal in writing this column is to explore an ecological approach to art history. How do our passions—the forces in our lives that give us a sense of ourselves—relate to the current context of climate change? The process of answering this question discourages the compartmentalisation of art and the climate crisis, revealing new perspectives on established narratives and grappling with the balance between personal and political, as shown brilliantly in The Courtauld’s ‘Art History and Climate Change’ conference earlier this year. I am also aware that an ecological approach to looking at the past, particularly at pre-industrial cultures, will present inevitable limitations. Climate change conjures up intense emotional reactions, and so our academic responsibility to be as objective as feasibly possible risks being abandoned. Where should the balance lie?


As art historians, we cannot allow ourselves to be so absorbed in our academic interests and passions that we end up ignoring present crises. I want future generations to be able to visit museums and to look at artworks as a way of exploring other worlds and eras. But for now, there is simply too little time: we must use everything we can to help us re-frame and re-imagine our place in the natural world, and art will help us do that. What is the point of looking back on history if we do not have a future? After all, there is no art on a dead planet.

*Up to 99% of the animals on the edge of extinction are there because of human activity.

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