Biodegradable Pink Flamingo Lawn Ornaments and Climate Change

Before the exhibition Work Out at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Rebecca Uchill – cultural producer and contributor to the exhibition catalog – interviewed me about the piece.  Her questions were thought provoking – encouraging me to write down thoughts that were already bubbling in my head and my conversations as I was developing this installation.    I’m glad to share some of them here, with more posts to come.





Uchill: Can you explain to me more concretely the relationship to climate change and this piece?

Sutton: This piece is about the future vis a vis climate change.  About asking the question: is what we see now what we will see in 20 years? 50 years?  100 years?  And if what we see now in the landscape is not what we will see, what do we think about this?  What should we do as a result?

Early in my research and exploration into the piece idea, I came upon this piece in the New York Times, “Chicago Prepares for a Warm Long-term Forecast”.


In it, the author talks about how the city of Chicago is making planning decisions under the assumption that the climate in Chicago will be more like that of Baton Rouge, Louisiana by century’s end.  One strategy as they prepare for that future and that climate is to, from here on out, only plant trees that are zoned for southern climates. I’m from the Midwest, and imagining a Midwest summer that is as hot and muggy as Louisiana is pretty intense. Imagining that level of change in that moment, I could feel on my skin in my bones the drama and intensity of global warming.  In that moment, climate change was not just an abstract concept. It was a hot, sweaty, muggy, and unrecognizable near future.


In thinking about this piece, and about my growing body of work about climate change, I was particularly interested in the clear thinking and feeling that happened right then: the fear and the mourning and the sense that I could almost feel, smell, and see this a changing world. And I wanted to bring that sense in to this piece; and using the flamingos as seeding vessels for (speculative) gardens of the future.


There are climate projections for Massachusetts and New England that are just as extreme as the Chicago situation.  One scenario indicates that Massachusetts will have a climate closer to that of North or South Carolina in 50-100 years.  The problem is, the ecosystem that we have now was built on New England’s temperate 4-seasons. If this changes, we will loose many of our iconic vistas and iconic species. Sugar maples will not be able to survive or bear sap without enough days with snow cover and nights below freezing.  Our deciduous trees will not turn their vibrant colors in the fall without cold enough fall days and nights.  Migrating species will move at different rates and some will not match up with their food supplies or the companion species where they reproduce. (And, all this is already happening… it will just happen at a faster rate as warming speeds up.) There are numerous interactions that are necessary to the complex health of our ecosystem that are disrupted by this quick and dramatic shift in the earth’s temperature that we’re experiencing.


So, the question that I ask with the piece is: if global warming happens at that rate, and in the year 2060 Massachusetts feels like North Carolina, what will happen to the landscape? What species will belong then?  Will southern species be able to make it up north in time to ensure their own survival?  Where will “our” species need to be if they no longer can survive here?


Now, if I ask these kinds of questions, I inevitably intersect with the conservation practice assisted migration.   Assisted migration is a practice where species are transported to habitats that people speculate could be better suited to them in the long range (warming) future.    This is a controversial technique.  Some ecologists or eco-activists embrace it; others reject it entirely as irresponsible or a waste of resources. Others call for more research or are open to it should it be a slow, carefully managed process.


I am interested in this controversy.  I’m interested in its underlying questions: how do we know what to do about the future when the future is unknowable?  If we don’t know much, but inaction is not enough, then what do we do?

I draw upon the language and strategy of assisted migration,  a controversial conservation technique, as a question-asking device (“what can be done?”) as opposed to a question-answering strategy (“what you should do.”)

In assisted migration I see a brashness and hopefulness and resistance; in a way it spits in the face of the unknown.   Like other conservation strategies, it’s motivated by a deep care of what is and also deep fear of what could be lost in the near and the long range future without human intervention.  It is not the best solution to preserving biodiversity and easing all species through our transitioning planet.   It is not the least complicated; it is not the safest; it is not the most prudent.   But it is interesting. It is performative.  It is provocative. It is flagrant.  And the flagrance of the gesture will, I hope, spark deeper thinking about what to do as human witnesses to and agents of climate change.