Social Ecologies

Landscape in art has mythologized, documented, and reimagined the intertwined relationship between humans and the natural world for centuries. And it may reflect more changes than we realize: recent writing on the Anthropocene period that arguably began during the Industrial Revolution highlights the significant global impact of human activities on Earth’s ecosystems. An atmospheric physicist, for example, claims that the brilliant, redder sunsets captured in J.M.W. Turner’s paintings were a result of heavy air pollution.1 And currently, changes in ecosystems, biodiversity and species extinction, glacial melting, and rising sea levels confirm shifts in our climates caused by our own activities.

Portrait of Greg Lindquist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui. From a photo by Taylor Dafoe.

In response to these impacts of human activity, mainstream environmental organizations, starting around 1945, emerged from earlier conservation efforts and largely alongside—but not in collaboration with—grassroots movements. These two approaches reflect differences in class, race and gender, as well as a specific politics of place particular to grassroots movements, in contrast to the more global, abstract perspective of mainstream environmentalism. The environmental justice movement is a quintessential example of a grassroots movement that incorporates social concerns. It emerged in the 1980s, as sociologist Robert Bullard’s irrefutable case studies2 demonstrated how many ecological problems are inextricably linked to social problems that disenfranchise and disempower people of color and/or lower economic status. While many mainstream philosophies have ignored these issues, social ecology (developed by Murray Bookchin in the 1960s with an emphasis on Marxist dialectics) grimly argues that nearly all our ecological problems arise from deep-seated social problems.

A growing awareness of environmental concern was reflected in the Land Art movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which, by taking the process of art making directly into the landscape (thus sometimes indicating sites of ecological concern) explored critical issues that may be seen as an extension of the formal and phenomenological strategies of Minimalism. Land artists did not appear concerned with direct solutions for the future perils of their medium.

Younger artists who work across varied mediums (a few represented in this Critics Page) have reinvestigated with an ecological perspective critical threads of Land Art, principally by looking at Robert Smithson’s extensive body of writing and late reclamation proposals. His preoccupation with ruins, entropy, and deep time has continued to inform our understanding of urbanity and ecology.3

Understanding the complex links between human impact on the environment, the relations among people, and the natural world’s response is crucial to seeking solutions. Recent philosophical developments such as speculative realism, object-oriented ontology, and the notion of the nonhuman turn4 envision a world recast in egalitarian interconnectedness and treatment of nonhuman objects and beings with the same regard we have for humans. But there is an inherent glibness to these arguments: they assume that humans unanimously practice a sort of humanistic equality. Meanwhile, if we focus on the environment alone, we forget other people. In the United States, and beyond, rampant racial discrimination, gun violence, misogyny, and income inequality remain. Pope Francis’s recently published Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality declares that climate change is a moral problem that disproportionately impacts the poor. He argues for an integral ecology that seeks comprehensive solutions for a crisis that is both social and environmental, solutions that, in the process, unite us.5

What function, then, should art serve in the context of the current environment and social concerns, and to what degree of efficacy? Should it solely problematize, polemicize or theorize? Or can art provide an aesthetic, emotional, and beautiful experience while empowering direct environmental action and policy change? Can beauty infiltrate and influence public opinion? What audience should it reach? Can direct human action, organization, and creation effectively take art into a public space? Can art convey a message without being overly didactic? How can it find a common in, and tear down cultural, racial, and economic boundaries?6

The preceding questions were included in a cursory version of this introduction sent to writers from varied disciplines. Admittedly, these questions presume a false dichotomy of sorts: aestheticization and direct action could be seen as polarities and thus mutually exclusive, an unintentional effect that some respondents nonetheless picked up on. The prompt’s framing may have become a trap, but its provocation was intentional. It’s imperative to have these voices assembled here as one layer of respectful argument. But it’s also in no way comprehensive or exhaustive. It is my hope that we will take inspiration with urgency for action towards change on individual, social, and global levels.7 


  1. “On Canvas, Clues About Air Pollution.” New York Times, March 31, 2014. Of course, this sole responsibility of human impact is complicated by the volcanic ash from the eruption of Mt. Tambora in the atmosphere during 1816, the “Year Without a Summer,” which created unusually spectacular sunsets during this period and were an inspiration for some of Turner’s work.
  2. See Robert Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (Boulder: Westview Press, 2000).
  3. Also: see Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects (University of Minnesota Press, 2013). A contributor to this editorial, Morton’s writing has been associated with Smithson’s sense of geological and temporal scale of deep time, has been topics of various conversation for this author amongst David Brooks, Tom McGrath, Ellie Irons, Marc Handelman and Kevin Zucker. Other 1970s artists’ practices are being reevaluated, such as Charles Simonds’s “Dwelling” series, which involved the participation, collective efforts, and care of the communities in which he created them. For a critical assessment of the urban environment, younger artists are looking to projects and texts by Martha Rosler such as The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974–75), If You Lived Here… (1989) and Culture Class (e-flux and Sternberg Press, 2015) all of which broadly address the commodification of the creative worker and the corporatized structures that circumscribe their labor.
  4. In “On Human Equality and The Nonhuman Turn” (the Brooklyn Rail July / August, 2015) I presented an in-depth consideration of the nonhuman philosophical development and its relation to the environment justice movement and current social concerns.
  5. Michael Zimmerman, one of the authors of Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on a Natural World (Integral Books, 2011), in his recent critical appreciation of the Pope’s Encyclical, states that while the Pope does address multiple perspectives to seek solutions, there are key aspects of integral ecology that the Pope doesn’t address such as connections between exploiting nature and oppressing women, cultural evolutionary theory, and modern and postmodern discourses required to speak about interrelated environmental and social problems.
  6. The intention was to burrow into deeper issues: How can art both be research and poetry, why does politicized art seem unartistically closed to interpretation? And, perhaps paramount, why does it rarely shift public opinion or policy? The goal was to use a privileged position of a culture publication to push the conversation beyond aesthetics and polemics, into the discourse of other disciplines.
  7. A special thank you to Orit Gat, Ben Gottlieb, Maya Harakawa, Yates McKee, and Laila Pedro for editorial support and guidance throughout this project. An extra special thanks to my intrepid brother, Bill Lindquist, for his editorial support and tolerance of work this prompt involved during our summer ventures across Brazil.


Greg Lindquist

GREG LINDQUIST is an artist and writer, and will be participating in the 2017-18 Whitney Museum of Art’s Independent Study Program’s Studio Program.