Posted by: David Offutt | April 22, 2017

Earth Day 2017 and Thomas Cole’s “The Course of Empire”

Thomas Cole’s “The Savage State” (1834)

Earth Day is upon us again. It’s intended as a national day of service, for discussions and for learning about what we need to do preserve our environment for the sake of all living plants and creatures. Unfortunately, April 22 falls on a Saturday, so that means that the schools will surely plan accordingly and participate on the previous Friday or later Monday.

Don’t expect much mention of Earth Day from the Trump Administration or from the Republican congressional leadership. Both are stacked with strong opponents of the environment and are determined to reduce regulations that protect the quality of our air and water and are obsessed with doing nothing about climate change. They want to protect polluters instead of consumers, workers, and future generations. They also caused me to reflect recently on a series of five paintings that I finally got to see in northwest Arkansas.

My first visit to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville was in late July 2012 – the hottest month on record at that time. I made a point to go that summer because of a special exhibit organized by the New York Historical Society – The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision. I knew that several paintings by one of my favorite artists, Thomas Cole, would be there, but I never dreamed that I would see The Course of Empire (1834-1836).

Thomas Cole’s “The Arcadian or Pastoral State” (1834)

Cole imagined a grand landscape that included a harbor and a mountain peak and used it from different angles and perspectives in each painting. The first in the series is The Savage State: Nature dominates, and a hunter and canoeist share the wilderness. The second is The Arcadian or Pastoral State: Nature is being tamed; there’s a permanent temple; there’s farming and shepherding; and there’s leisure time for dancing, painting, and thinking. Next is Consummation of Empire:  Nature is gone; the peak is barely visible; the harbor is full of commerce; a Greco-Roman city dominates the landscape with thousands of people overcrowding the streets. The fourth is Destruction: Nature returns in the forms of barbarians who rape and pillage the once mighty city and a storm that wrecks havoc in the harbor. Finally, there is Desolation: No humans exist; nature is triumphant and reclaims the landscape; the moon casts its reflection over a tranquil harbor; there’s a face in the moon, and he is smiling.

Doing post-graduate work in the mid-seventies, I spent many hours and days in various libraries at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville searching books and magazines for reprints of Cole’s The Course of Empire series. As I found each one, I took photos of them with the old Kodachrome slide film to use in my history classes. Today, of course, you can instantly find them on Google Images. It seems hardly fair.

Thomas Cole’s “Consummation of Empire” (1835-36)

The first time I used them was in my 12th grade humanities class at the American School of Quito, Ecuador.  When I projected the first painting onto the screen in front of the classroom, I heard a collective “Wow!” I hadn’t expected how awed and overwhelmed my students would be. I experienced varying degrees of that excitement from my students over the years in all my U. S. history and world history classes.

I utilized Cole’s paintings in conjunction with teaching historian Arnold Toynbee’s cyclical concept of the rise and fall of civilizations: 1. Primitive State, 2. Creative Period, 3. Time of Troubles, 4. Universal State, 5. Fall of the State, and 6. Successor State(s). Historically, the life of the various civilizations has averaged about 200 years.

Cole was clearly influenced by Edward Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776). But he was also influenced by what he saw during his visit to Europe. Activities such as the building of ships from ancient Rome to the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries had decimated the forests and natural landscape of much of Europe. Ruins of the past Roman civilization were evident through much of the continent. Cole feared the same thing would happen in the ever-expanding and ever-developing United States.

Thomas Cole’s “Destruction” (1836)

It is easy to see why my students of the 1970s and 1980s could relate to Cole’s masterpieces and especially Destruction and Desolation. It was a time when we were not only aware of what we were doing to the planet but actually wanted to do something about it: Lake Erie died and the Hudson River caught on fire. It was also the time of the Cold War in which both the United States and the Soviet Union were gambling that neither of us would commit suicide and wipe out the other guy at the same time. “Mutually assured destruction” was the motive behind the escalation of our nuclear arsenals.

Here in the 21st century, nuclear power surfaced again as a self-inflicted source of potential Armageddon, making Cole’s Destruction and Desolation relevant once again. We are aware that some of the former Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons are unaccounted for. At the same time, our planet is plagued by assorted terrorists who seem to think nothing of committing suicide if it gives them a chance to murder large numbers of innocent people. The earthquake and tsunami that recently brought nuclear tragedy to Japan has also reminded us that we still have no realistic idea as to what to do with the nuclear waste that’s produced by nuclear power plants.

As in Cole’s paintings, nature is reacting and seemingly reaping revenge for decades of abuse by humans.  Ever since the 1860s we’ve increasingly relied on fossil fuels such as oil and coal. The result, of course, has been an unnatural increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and a corresponding increase in the earth’s temperature. The repercussions have been the ever-increasing intensities of tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, melting ice caps, rising ocean levels, floods, droughts, and forest fires.

Thomas Cole’s “Desolation” (1836)

And don’t forget that the multiplying effect is causing the earth to heat up faster than many imagined. As we continue to heat the earth by burning fossil fuels, the thawing of the Arctic tundra releases methane into the atmosphere, and methane is an even greater greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.  And consequently, as snow and ice melts in the Arctic and Antarctic, there is less snow and ice to reflect the sun’s heat and it gets ever warmer. Dead forests don’t inhale carbon dioxide – they exhale it. Nature reacts to what we do.

The climate pact agreed to in Paris in December 2015 would have been a commendable first step 35 years ago. Unfortunately, the nations of the world have procrastinated so long that emergency actions are surely going to be necessary in the not-to-distant future.

Without leadership from our current national executive and legislative branches, hopefully, the states, localities, individuals, power companies and other industries will rise to the occasion to try to save our planet. We can’t just give up and hope the rest of the world will do enough to save us.

by David Offutt

A version of this essay was published April 22, 2017, in the El Dorado News-Times.

Note: A previous version of this essay – – was published on this website August 15, 2012, and published in the Arkansas Times on August 22, 2012.



  1. “As I found each one, I took photos of them with the old Kodachrome slide film to use in my history classes.”

    You did an exceptional job of making history come alive with music and photographs.

    When I was student teaching in Boise, I tried to do the same but usually came up empty handed. The high school library only had children’s books — seriously. Even though Idaho features prominently in their journey, Lewis & Clark’s journal’s were banned. The school’s entire audio-visual library had been confiscated as part of a lawsuit.

    Of course today tons of material are available on the internet. Computers and the internet are one of the few modern technologies that I appreciate.

    “We can’t just give up and hope the rest of the world will do enough to save us.”

    Even if the world stopped emitting greenhouse gases overnight, the earth would continue to warm for a long time. Absolutely no one has a plan to reverse climate change. Mass extinction is already happening. So there will be no saving the world. Bad things will happen. The only question remaining is whether some humans and other mammals will survive somewhere on the planet.

    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, since no one knows for sure how things will play out. If nothing else, reducing emissions will buy more time.

  2. Very informative. What God created was never intended for a wastebasket. Shame on humanity. I have never seen these pictures – they speak volumes. Thanks

    Sent from my iPad


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