Seeing Ecocatastrophe: Environmentalism and the Aesthetics of Climate Change



Bright yellow, red, green, blue, and orange jell-o structures replicate San Francisco in low lighting. The bay and bridges can be seen in the distance. On the left side of the frame, fog rolls in.

San Francisco, Liz Hickok

It’s a truism for Octavia Butler fans: the postapocalyptic California landscape of her landmark Parable of the Sower (1993) is nearly indistinguishable from contemporary reality. In the novel, Butler’s teenage protagonist, Lauren Oya Olamina, navigates a familiar dystopian tapestry of climate crises, pandemics, racial violence, and wealth inequality while beset by “hyperempathy syndrome,” a condition wherein the pain of others is shared by the afflicted onlooker. Lauren’s hyperempathy is triggered not by sound or touch or abstract thought, but by sight alone. “I have to see another person in pain before I do any sharing,” she explains as she trudges through the wreckage of the 21st century, immune to the tortured cries of those beyond her line of vision. After the end of her world and ours, Lauren suggests, visual representations of pain and tragedy are necessary preconditions for the empathy and understanding that drive concerted action.

In Lauren’s climate catastrophe-ravaged Los Angeles, and throughout much of the American environmentalist literary tradition, seeing the marks of ecological devastation catalyzes the impulse to mitigate or avert it. For centuries, famed proponents of ecological stewardship from Henry David Thoreau to Annie Dillard to Rachel Carson have championed the preservation of nature’s sublime wonders and mourned the aesthetic damage done to them. They have insisted that extraction-minded industrialists and consumers might find the inspiration to save the environment in the pastoral elegance of a meadow or waterfall. “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us,” Carson said in 1952, “the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race.” Carson suggests, alongside myriad predecessors and contemporaries within the environmental literary tradition, that just seeing Earth’s beauty might compel its inhabitants to appreciate and conserve it — and to develop the social empathy needed to prevent the “destruction” of humankind — before it is too late.

American politicians have repeated such rhetoric, praising natural beauty as justification for its conservation. In 1913, Theodore Roosevelt lamented that, in the United States, “we turn our rivers and streams into sewers and dumping-grounds, we pollute the air, we destroy forests, and exterminate fishes, birds and mammals — not to speak of vulgarizing charming landscapes with hideous advertisements.” A century later, the Biden administration laid out a policy report entitled “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful,” which aims to “give every child in America the chance to experience the wonders of nature.” The report suggests that these wonders are vanishing into thin air, having fallen victim to climate change’s destruction of all things beautiful, as far as the eye can see.

But what if the hyperempathy elicited by shocking images isn’t enough to reverse the course of climate disaster in the nick of time?

The novelist and literary critic Amitav Ghosh argues that the visual arts have heretofore been more effective — more immediate and more stirring — than traditional literature in addressing the threat of climate disaster. He wonders whether “to think about this era of climate change will be to think in images.” The notion that one might promote sound climate policy by visually spotlighting and lamenting the deterioration of the once-gorgeous natural world seems reasonable to anyone who has seen the now-infamous photos of pelicans drenched in spilled oil, drought-stricken lakes, or forests cleared to make room for smoke-belching factories. Climate scholars and activists assume that widely disseminating these visual representations of irrevocably marred natural wonders might spur viewers’ transformation into more sustainable beings — jarring them, like Butler’s Lauren, into some display of hyperempathy for our disintegrating planet. But what if the hyperempathy elicited by shocking images isn’t enough to reverse the course of climate disaster in the nick of time? And what if the true nature of climate change isn’t so visually shocking after all?

In our popular imagination, climate change looks like an apocalypse — a future marked by dust-dry land, Biblical floods, febrile skies, and soot-choked rivers — but crises are seldom so visually dramatic in reality. Yes, industrial capitalism is hemorrhaging the environment of its resources, biodiversity, stability, and health. But much of the natural world has retained its veneer of storied beauty — concealing profound interior wounds and potentially deceiving onlookers into believing that its ecosystems are more resilient than they actually are. As Lauren observes throughout Parable of the Sower, the stars still twinkle overhead, the lemon groves and backyard gardens still flourish, and the Pacific Ocean glistens perpetually in the distance even as the social world crumbles around her. In our own world, natural beauty remains relatively accessible and nearly as striking as ever, with the scars of industry and deprivation shunted to the peripheries. This holds especially true for wealthier residents of the American regions arguably most culpable for climate change — like Lauren’s Los Angeles, or San Francisco, or New York City. Most days in these places, the imminent threat of climate change might be sublimated because the visible beaches and mountains and forests all appear to be just fine.

Visual representations of distant natural decay and catastrophe might thus gut punch viewers into short-term guilt, ambient distress, and minor behavioral changes, but they seldom catalyze the lasting hyperempathy needed to sustain long-term climate action and transformation. Recent studies have found that Americans who do not already consider themselves environmentalists are less likely to be emotionally stirred by imagery of climate disasters. Even those who are affected by such images are unlikely to adopt sustainable actions in response — and may even feel discouraged from doing so — since the catastrophes depicted seem so impossibly distant.

In our popular imagination, climate change looks like an apocalypse — a future marked by dust-dry land, Biblical floods, febrile skies, and soot-choked rivers — but crises are seldom so visually dramatic in reality.

In contrast, American nature appears, for the most part, reassuringly resilient. A viewer might agonize for a moment over photographs of melting ice caps and burning forests and oil-soaked birds — but they seem so far away, while the trees and mountains and lakes closer to home look relatively fine, if strewn with bits of litter or marred slightly by a new subdevelopment or cloaked by a thin, gauzy layer of smog. And if the natural landscape nearby appears (mostly) beautiful, and promises to remain (mostly) beautiful forever, then its inhabitants might grant themselves license to continue, unperturbed, upon their current course into irrevocable ecocatastrophe.

The superficial appearance of nature remains an unreliable metric of its health, and the health of those most intimately imbricated within it. Crystalline waterfalls might conceal dangerous levels of lead pollution, rolling fields of strawberries might disguise deplorable labor conditions, and peaceful tides might hide tempests brewing beyond the horizon. Climate change is horrific, but not always visually so. Instead of relying primarily on visual representations of natural degradation to stir up conservationist affect, climate scholars, activists, and artists might more effectively promote equitable, sustainable resource distribution and environmental stewardship by amplifying the narratives and experiences of marginalized communities dealing with the socioeconomic effects of climate change — effects that are not always visible.

Print of bright blue crystals growing along a barbed wire fence, in front of a blurry, distant, industrial cityscape and a red-orange sky.

Incident, Liz Hickok

Climate activists cannot assume that visual representations of nature in decline will trigger the requisite hyperempathy among the powerful few who can mitigate the direst effects of climate change. Instead, the narratives and experiences of marginalized people who are already enduring the damage of climate change must be amplified. We cannot always easily see air and water pollution, or temperature fluctuations, or resource scarcity, but we can see, hear, and read the work of the people affected by these phenomena. Like Butler’s Lauren, citizens of the 21st century must reserve our hyperempathy for humans rather than for the abstract concepts of natural beauty and aesthetic conservation. If we cannot, we may find ourselves soon inhabiting a landscape that incarnates Butler’s prescient warning, our already-thin social fabric torn to shreds, devastated by the effects of climate change, all before a lovely pastoral backdrop that betrayed little warning of the dystopia to come.

Photo of author wearing striped button-up, standing in front of flowering tropical plant.



Megan Cole is a writer, editor, and PhD student in English, with a designated emphasis in critical theory, at the University of California, Irvine. She primarily studies 19th- and 20th-century American fiction, ecocriticism, energy humanities, and environmental humanities.


For more of Liz Hickok’s visual art, visit this portfolio.