Christina Conklin’s art in ‘The Atlas of Disappearing Places’ sounds the alarm on the climate’s future, but she also sees reason for hope.
In a typical atlas, you’d find the Bay Area as a tangled mess of freeways and side streets, tourist stops and city blocks.
In “The Atlas of Disappearing Places,” you’ll see the Bay Area as a flood liability, dotted with superfund sites, at-capacity landfills and wastewater treatment plants emitting non-biodegradable petrochemicals linked to asthma, infertility, and cancer.
And yet, just like the Thomas Guide of days gone by, “The Atlas of Disappearing Places” tells you exactly where you’re headed: that is, unless serious action is taken to reverse global warming.
The book from local authors Marina Psaros and Christina Conklin, a Half Moon Bay resident, zeroes in on 20 coastal locales, from Antarctica to the Arabian Sea, to deliver the big picture perils of sea level rise.
Each section describes threats like warming waters and strengthening storms as they are, then reimagines those threats in 50 years time with intervention from work that’s starting now but struggling, like grassroots activism and government intervention. (In the case of the Bay, it’s a social awakening in the next generation of teenagers, driven by social media).
The resulting tone is not prescriptive nor instructive but, rather, imaginative. And further helping to balance the hope and urgency are Conklin’s illustrations – many of them maps taken from scientific studies, rendered with ink on dried seaweed. The artist, whose work explores the intersection of natural systems and personal belief, is the first to admit that living by the sea has left her “a little obsessed with salt.”
We caught up with Conklin ahead of her Saturday talk at the Bay Area Book Festival, diving deep on local activism, the harm of nihilism and why she’s thinking a lot more about the color red these days.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Six Fifty: Why did you decide to structure this book as an atlas?
Christina Conklin: My publisher, the New Press, approached us about doing a book on sea level rise, but I thought it was really important we look not just at sea level rise, but at the whole ocean system.
Sea level rise is framed as being about us, because we built our cities on coast lines. But in terms of ecological change and ecological systems, there’s much more going on right now. Understanding the ocean as a system does a better job of putting us in the context of the world.
We divided the book into four sections: changing chemistry, strengthening storms, warming waters and rising seas. Two of those chapters, strengthening storms and rising seas, are based on the effects that happen to people. The other two, warming waters and changing chemistry, also affect people, but they have much broader implications. We wanted people to see that everything is connected.
The Six Fifty: And one thread that ties these chapters together is this metaphor of the ocean as a human body that’s becoming violently ill – catching a fever, seeing organs shut down, etc. You wrote in the introduction that the intention behind that metaphor was to induce empathy. How did you personally start to develop empathy for the ocean?
Christina Conklin: Some people are mountain people, some people are forest people. I’m an ocean people.
I grew up in Oregon, going to the coast a lot. The work I pursued in grad school and after had to do with the ocean as a very contemplative and poetic body.
I started really getting into climate education about 15 years ago, starting to understand how systems work and how bad things are. That’s when I really started to think about the ocean as a real place and wanting to do more public outreach.
The Six Fifty: Has living in Half Moon Bay shaped that perspective?
Christina Conklin: Living right next to the ocean has been a joy and a privilege. But I’ve also found living in the 650 so, so frustrating. There’s so many shiny doodads here. There’s so much money and power and intelligence and ability, and so little of it is being focused on the real issues.
The Six Fifty: Even here on the Peninsula, there seems to be an ethos that a love of nature is enough to get people to protect the planet. In reality, education proves much more impactful, but it’s so much harder to get people to pay attention to.
Christina Conklin: Yeah, a love of nature is not enough. If you go hiking, you might go to the store and buy some nice gear that’s made from plastic that destroyed some mountains just across the ocean from you. So I think we all have to take a good hard look at ourselves.
For me, it has to do with a fundamental realignment with nature itself. It’s not about going out and appreciating nature as if nature were something distinct from us. It’s about re-membering – as in becoming a member again – of the world in a way that doesn’t destroy the world. To actually be a member of the living world, with all the other animals.
The Six Fifty: Do you ever struggle personally with your role as an artist in this conversation? I mean, on the one hand, art is the best tool for sparking dialogue, contemplation and reflection. But on the other hand, the volume of content on climate change is already enormous. Do you ever get frustrated?
Christina Conklin: Oh yeah. It’s such a tricky balance. The work we need is far more than any one person can do.
I believe it’s important to live with a lot of personal reflection and integrity. But then we all just have to do our best and keep going. We’re in this weird transitional moment where all the systems are completely broken. It’s nearly impossible to buy food without buying a lot of plastic.
Transitional periods are messy. But defeatism and nihilism and dystopias are not helping. I think you have to do what you can without becoming a martyr to misery.
The Six Fifty: Tell me more about the decision to paint on “sea lettuce.” What attracted you to that as a canvas?
Christina Conklin: I tried a number of things, but it turns out that using a product of the ocean to convey the science of the ocean has the impact that I was looking for.
I love that the seaweed kinda looks like parchment, which reminded me of atlases and manuscripts over time. But it also kinda looks like skin, which made me think of this idea of the ocean as a body.
The maps are all copies of maps I found in science journals. I didn’t make up any information there. I thought this would be a beautiful book full of blues and greens like the ocean. I thought it’d all be so pretty. But the red just started appearing everywhere: red for danger. It was in every study.
Every scientific study that I read ended by saying, basically, ‘the only way to change the trajectory of this research is to stop climate change by removing carbon from the atmosphere, getting back down to pre-industrial levels.’ That’s the only way.
The Six Fifty: That consensus is pretty powerful. Maps and data can sometimes be subjective in the way they’re framed, but it feels impossible to say that here.
Christina Conklin: The desperation is coming through. (Last month), a climate scientist self-immolated on the steps of the Supreme Court. Even in the most high-level, polished studies I read, there’d just be this little plea for somebody to pay attention. That’s what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to pay attention.
The Six Fifty: Have you had any reaction to the book from the people who live in the 20 coastal communities you cover?
Christina Conklin: Yeah, the reaction has been mainly two different types: People who haven’t had a science education or haven’t spent much time thinking about this say, ‘Oh my God. This is terrifying.’
And then the people who know more. They say, ‘Thank you for all these hopeful stories.’
The reality is that it’s both those realities and more. Maybe that’s the thing I bring as an artist – art is always about the ‘both and,’ exploring the in-between spaces.
We chose to end each section with a fictional future scenario – called ‘the view from 2050’ – to propose some ideas about what could happen, and highlight work that’s already happening.
All sorts of interesting things are already happening in science, law and politics. I wanted to be able to share as much of that as possible with these speculative stories. We wanted to land on some pragmatic possibilities to move us forward.
I want people to walk away from this book with an active hope because there’s definitely a way to get involved. Everyone should get involved. Everyone matters.
“The Atlas of Disappearing Places” was published by the New Press in 2021. Christina Conklin will discuss the work as part of a panel on “New Visions for Conservation” at the Bay Area Book Festival this weekend. For tickets and more information, head here.