Alexis Rockmanís Manifest Destiny

Strategies/Tragedies of the Commons
Surprise. Astonishment. Dismay. Regret. Solace. Hope. Uncertainty.
The ‚Äėcommons‚Äô can evoke all these powerful emotions.

Surprise: SO MUCH!

You are the proud owner of great swaths of this nation‚Äôs arctic/alpine tundra, grasslands, prairies, deserts, and forests that are coniferous, deciduous, and tropical, along with an array of aquatic ecosystems. In addition, you possess a dazzling diversity of flora and fauna residing within these ecosystems as well as the renewable and non-renewable resources deposited upon and within them. Of course, you must share this wealth with every other citizen of the United States. Yet these riches exist for you and me because much of our nation‚Äôs incredible wealth is still held in the ‚Äėcommons‚Äô.  Consider this, about one third of the nation‚Äôs land mass is forest, and around 43% percent of that resource is publicly owned! In the Hudson Valley, 60% of the forested land is held in private, non-industrial ownership.As such, the sponsor of this project, the Greene County Cornell Cooperative Extension‚Äôs Agro-Forestry Center, is playing a formative role in reviving a fundamental concept of the commons by demonstrating that ‚Äėcooperative‚Äô management can augment land productivity.  The Center is not only committed to preserving the vitality of these land holdings, but to using forests for the production of berries, wild fruits, chips, medicinal herbs, honey, mushrooms, nuts, and maple syrup.

Astonishment: SO MERCENERY!

New York State provides a compelling example that the popular concept of ‚Äėcommons‚Äô has strayed far from sharing this nation‚Äôs bounty of innate assets. Instead, the concept of shared space, shared access, and shared rights has migrated from productive natural resources to produced commercial commodities.  Evidence of this global shift abounds close to home in the Hudson Valley. Consider Woodbury Common Outlet in Harriman, Croton Commons shopping center in Croton, Vineyard Commons in Highland, Blue Hill Commons in Orangeburg.  These centers are ‚Äėcommon‚Äô because they are accessible to all without the need to pay admission fees or meet qualifications or receive invitations. The single criterion for entry is the desire and the means to make a purchase. This ‚Äėright‚Äô is a valued American principle that is enacted and reenacted fervently year round by the wealthy and the poor. Indeed, locating the ‚Äėcommons‚Äô in the commercial sector is foundational to contemporary market economies around the world.


The American version of the ‚Äėcommons‚Äô, whether it is the sharing of natural assets or the convening of shoppers, bears little relation to the historic definition of the ‚Äėcommons‚Äô that prevailed in Medieval England and persisted for hundreds of years. In its original form, the commons meant that land was held as an open, public asset. As such, peasants were allowed to conduct a form of subsistence farming known as ‚Äėhouseholding‚Äô. It assured the poor access to land they did not own for grazing small animals, collecting wild fruit and vegetables, and gathering firewood.  The idea that one family could possess exclusive rights to a stretch of land was inconceivable to medieval peasants. Nonetheless, this age-old system started to crumble in the 1450s when wealthy farmers began encircling plots with fences and claiming it for their own private use. By the 18th century, half the common fields in England had been appropriated as private property. Even heaths, moorlands and highlands were enclosed. Then, between the 17th and 19th centuries, parliament began to back these un-deeded claims with the force of law. Peasants, stripped of their historic rights to the land, became dispossessed. Many people starved. Survivors were forced to seek alternative survival strategies.

It is no coincidence that England is known for two culturally transforming innovations. On the one hand the English spearheaded the ‚Äėenclosure‚Äô of common land by converting it into privately owned land. On the other hand, England became the epicenter for the establishment of industrialization. These historic changes are linked by the dislocation of a population that coincided with industrialization‚Äôs need for cheap labor. Stripped of access to land, the peasants had no alternative but to abandon their agricultural way of life. In order to provide for their own subsistence, they moved to urban centers and offered their labor in exchange for a wage. In the process, the ‚Äėcommons‚Äô that once provided the source of fuel, nourishment, culture, and community vanished. These conditions gave rise to the following limerick, and  ‚Äėthe tragedy of the commons‚Äô. 

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But lets the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose[1]


The tragedy inherent in the ‚Äútragedy of the commons‚ÄĚ is founded upon the assumption that publicly held assets will be exploited and depleted, while privately owned assets will be maintained and improved. Advocates of privatization base this policy upon the expectation that if many people have access to a piece of land for gathering plants and firewood and for grazing animals, each person will selfishly take as much of the natural resource as they can and the resource will be eradicated. In order to preserve the land and its resources, according to this thesis, it must be identified as ‚Äėproperty‚Äô and owned privately. This belief is currently driving efforts to privatize this country‚Äôs common holdings.

What this theory fails to take into account is that people are selfish and competitive, but only in situations that cultivate these behaviors. That is likely to occur when land is stripped of its history, customs, codes of behavior, emotional bonds, and functional affinities. Multi-generations of peasants maintained the vitality of land held in common because they it was fully invested with these sustainable values.


Enclosures divided up and erected fences around land that was declared private property. In a similar manner, fences were constructed around research and intellectual accomplishments to protect private information. The copyright laws that were instituted came to comprise an elaborate and rigorous system of protections that fit neatly within the theoretical and ethical rubric of privatization. Recently, however, ‚Äėcopyleft‚Äô provisions emerged to challenge ‚Äėcopyright‚Äôs‚Äô authority.  It is supported by the Creative Commons, an organization that seeks to enhance creativity of all kinds by providing public access to original research and cultural products. It offers artists, scientists, authors, and others the tools to make the products of the creativity available to the public for sharing, repurposing, and remixing. Now ‚ÄúAll rights reserved" can easily become "Some rights reserved‚ÄĚ or ‚ÄúNo rights reserved‚ÄĚ. Such Utopian copyleft efforts capitalize on the Internet‚Äôs capacity to facilitate the free exchange of information.


Many environmentalists are currently directing the Commons away from the commercial malls and digital technologies. In the process, they are vastly expanding the commons to include all the Earths waterways, flora, fauna, air, minerals, soils and every other feature because every component of an ecosystem and all ecosystems are interconnected.  This totality comprises a population‚Äôs shared joys, its shared inventory of resources, and its shared responsibilities.

‚ÄėBiocentrism‚Äô is being offered by many Environmentalists as an alternative to privatization and an antidote to the ‚Äėtragedy of the commons‚Äô. Twin beliefs serve as the foundation for the biocentric means of protecting eco system assets and assuring they will be sustained for future generations. One, all forms of life are equally valuable ‚Äď microbes, plants, trees, fungi, fish, rodents, and humans. The other, people will behave responsibly, manage the Earth‚Äôs systems conscientiously, and utilize its resources prudently if land maintains its history, cultural traditions, and community foundation. 


Although the challenge of the Commons is being confronted in valleys across the globe, the Hudson Valley may again establish its reputation of as a leader of this nation’s environmental incursions and reforms as it has for the past 400 years.

  • The region‚Äôs reputation for exploration and innovation was established in 1609 when Henry Hudson arrived at the mouth of the river that now bears his name. His travels had a profound influence upon the continent that existed as a vast commons stretching from coast to coast. The nation‚Äôs ecosystems, resources, and populations all underwent radical transformations after his arrival.
  • The presence of a whale oil refinery in Hudson produced an economic boom in the region that lasted from 1783 until 1850 when petroleum-based fuels of the land replaced a mammal-based fuel from the sea. As such, an unclaimed resource harvested from the commons of the open seas was pitted against a resource that is contested when it is located on land held in trust by the nation.
  • The Hudson River School of painters established a deep and abiding reverence for the physical splendor of the Hudson Valley‚Äôs land, waterways, and skies. They sensitized an entire nation to this country‚Äôs shared natural treasures.
  • American tourism began in the Hudson Valley because of was well-situated and well-endowed with majestic forests to serve as a popular destination for the urban traveler. This tradition contributed to the history of the commons in the U.S. because it is perpetuated in the National Park System.
  • The Hudson Valley also provides a vivid example of early environmental blight. The incursion of industry throughout the 19th c into the Catskills, for example, decimated the region‚Äôs forests. Trees were clear cut on a massive scale, causing soils to erode and slump into the water. Lumber was shipped downstream, turning the Hudson River into a giant traffic jam of mud, debris, and bark.
  • But there is a redeeming side to the industrialization of the Hudson Valley. The environmental damage was so appalling that the philosophy that remains at the heart of the environmental movement, current notions of ecology, and popular concepts of the commons was formulated out of their indignation. It might be said that the nation‚Äôs environmental movement started in Hudson Valley.
  • The Ashokan reservoir, completed in 1915, impacted the U.S. concept of the commons by instituting ‚Äėeminent domain‚Äô to appropriate private properties in areas that were slated to be flooded. ‚ÄúThe town must die so the metropolis can live‚ÄĚ became a popular motto during the era.
  • The Ashokan reservoir was also instrumental in establishing  the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. The predecessor of this agency was established to police the camps where African-American laborers and Italian immigrant workers ate and slept.
  • In 1962, Consolidated Edison Company proposed building a giant hydro-electric plant on the Hudson River at Storm King Mountain near Cornwall. A 17-year legal battle ensued, generating a landmark ruling regarding jurisdiction over the commons. For the first time in U.S. history, a court decided that protection of natural resources was equally important as economic gain. This ruling prompted Congress to pass the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969.
  • The American counter-culture of the 1960s and 70s is also rooted in the history of the Hudson Valley. The Beatniks and Refusniks who congregated in Woodstock and its environs contributed to the evolution of the commons by ignoring laws that contradicted their liberal and utopian ideals. Privatization of resources was included on this list.

The future of the commons in the Hudson Valley and the nation as a whole is unknown, but the artists contributing to this exhibition may provide a clue to this unfolding scenario as they can engage this region’s inherent natural wonders and its rich cultural history.

[1] Unknown author. 17th century. Quoted by Peter Linebaugh - Magna Carta and the Commons. Talk by Peter Linebaugh, Professor of History at the University of Toledo on "Magna Carta and the Commons" given March 13, 2009 at the Law of the Commons Conference at Seattle University and sponsored by the Seattle Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

Manifest Destiny
by Linda Weintraub
Copyright Linda Weintraub

INTRODUCTION: Alexis Rockman‚Äôs mural-sized painting "Manifest Destiny" (2004) was created on the occasion of the Brooklyn Museum's recent re-opening. Instead of selecting a triumphant scene typical for such celebratory occasions, Rockman depicted Brooklyn in the year 5,000 following the complete demise of Brooklyn‚Äôs infrastructure. The mural depicts the release of the air, the waters, the land and the creatures from their conscription by humanity because civilization was vanquished by a great environmental debacle. The forty-one years old artist has been honored as a visionary for conveying an urgent social warning, but he has also been criticized for exploiting people‚Äôs insecurities. Why did Rockman reject the opportunity to uplift people‚Äôs spirits? He explains, ‚ÄúI noticed there was a niche available for paintings that concern ecology. Especially a political image that needs a broad audience. This is a populist project. I want people from different demographics to be aware of global warming.‚ÄĚ

Manifest Destiny

‚ÄúLondon Bridge is falling down.‚ÄĚ This familiar nursery rhyme intones that this ‚Äėfair lady‚Äô must either be locked up or shored up. The ditty offers several shoring strategies. ‚ÄúNeedles and pins will bend and break. Wood and clay will wash away. Stone so strong will last so long.‚ÄĚ If the designers of the Brooklyn Bridge were to contribute a fourth verse, it might be: ‚ÄúIndustry is so robust. Structural steel deserves our trust.‚ÄĚ Alexis Rockman has created an image that has inspired a fifth verse. The 24 foot mural envisions the future of the Brooklyn Bridge and all the structures that comprise this bustling borough of Manhattan. The equivalent of this visual panorama in verse, is:

“Brooklyn Bridge has fallen down.
It lies in waters neon brown.
Though no fair lady’s left alive
Critters creep and microbes thrive.‚ÄĚ

In the mural, bridges provide an opportunity to interrogate the present from the perspective of the distant future (3,000 years from now when human indiscretions are glaring) and the recent past (one hundred and fifty years ago when industrialization empowered humans to extend and expand control over the environment). The painting offers two interpretations. One interpretation bemoans the tragic demise of civilization. This gloomy prognostication is conveyed by the massive suspension cables which once epitomized technology‚Äôs role in assuring progress. In the painting, they lie collapsed upon the ocean floor. The theme of devastation is reinforced by the pitiful remains of the Brooklyn Bridge‚Äôs ornamental arch and its monumental colonnade. These ruins are potent symbols of the collapse of human aspirations. Bridges ‚Äėkeep our heads above water‚Äô in a literal manner, but the phrase also means that they keep us safe. Rockman explains, ‚ÄúWhen a bridge is under water, it is a complete symbol of failure. There is nothing more disturbing.‚ÄĚ

The end of civilization, however, does not signal the end of time. Rockman utilizes urban disintegration as an opportunity to display the resilient adaptive powers of ecosystems. After the artist worked with Chris Morris, an architect, to create a futuristic rendering of a collapsed suspension bridge that might have once connected Brooklyn and Manhattan, he gave it prominence within the rendering of Brooklyn‚Äôs city blocks that was created by Diane Lewis, another architect. This imagined bridge of the future, however, does not share the misbegotten fate of the Brooklyn Bridge. Although its intended function is defunct, it now services the globally-warmed ecosystem of the future. In the painting, the bridge has become a rooting platform for plants, a feeding ledge for birds, and a shelter for sea life. Rockman explains how this image evolved, ‚ÄúI rejected the first drawing because it looked too retro-futuristic and too boxy. I suggested a suspension bridge with its platform under water which could serve as a support for a mangrove swamp, the nursery for the new eco system. The bridge was transmogrified. It was claimed by natural succession. It provides a new opportunity for renewal. The collapse is a disaster from the human perspective, but it is a boon for other organisms.‚ÄĚ

The painting‚Äôs historical time line leads the viewer back to 1845 when a rallying cry was issued to all the citizens of the United States. It supplied the painting‚Äôs title, ‚ÄúManifest Destiny‚ÄĚ. The proclamation asserted "... the right of our manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federative development of self government entrusted to us. It is right such as that of the tree to the space of air and the earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth." With these impassioned words, John L. O'Sullivan declared that the citizens of the United States had a god-given mission to extend the boundaries of freedom. When O‚ÄôSullivan issued this statement, he envisioned the lateral expansion of U.S. boundaries across the western plains. Alexis Rockman has applied the phrase to the changes that are occurring in our vertical borders, those wrought below upon the soils and waters, and those that extend to the ozone layer above. Then as now, the principle of Manifest Destiny is controversial. It has been interpreted by some as an inspiring vision of duty, ambition, and progress. The mural presents the side of those who blame if for justifying dominance, greed, and exploitation.

By presenting the panorama of Brooklyn as it might appear in the future and not in its current state with littered banks and scummy waters, the mural makes ‚Äėmanifest‚Äô the jeopardy of pursuing ‚Äėdestined‚Äô aspirations, goals believed to be blessed by providence and foretold by fate. In the painting, once-littered banks are submerged under water. They have sunk along with bridges, streets, stadiums, power plants, banks, and other buildings that formerly comprised this densely populated borough. Submerged dikes and sea walls testify to the futile efforts to stem the raging tides. A beached oil tanker and stealth bomber lie useless in the muck while outsized SARS, West Nile, Mad Cow, and AIDS viruses flourish amid the wreckage. The principle of Manifest Destiny relates fueling ambition to a warming globe.

In order to render the sordid grandiloquence of this epic narrative, Rockman studied the legacy of great history paintings, science fiction movies, and photographs of tropical ruins. One example of this encyclopedic cataloguing of different genres is the allegorical suite of paintings titled ‚ÄúThe Course of the Empire‚ÄĚ which depicts the inevitable fall that follows the rise of empires. Created by Thomas Cole, the renowned 19th century painter, the five part suite originates with a depiction of the American wilderness prior to the encroachment of European civilization and culminates with the return of wilderness after civilization‚Äôs demise. As in Rockman‚Äôs mural, Cole‚Äôs scene is devoid of humans but it is not devoid of life. Broken pillars and ruined structures have been reclaimed by mosses and encircled by plants while the surviving animals have settled into a new equilibrium. Although nascent industrialization and advanced technologies comprise their contrasting cultural contexts, both Cole and Rockman contemplate the future beyond the collapse of civilization and discern signs of emergence, renewal, and continuance.

The imagined part of the scenario in Manifest Destiny is balanced with the rigorous projections of ecologists, botanists, zoologists, hydrologists, architects, engineers, pathologists, and other professionals. Rockman’s own computer serves as the depot for the massive collection of images generated by his far-ranging research. Each is filed methodically under categories that reveal the breadth of study invested in the mural’s production: urban ruins, neo-tropics, bird wings, Brooklyn buildings, bio engineered crustaceans, film history, viruses and bacteria, weedy species, and many more. For example, The Golden Guide: Fishes serves as the source for the lamprey fish which is assigned a dominant role in the mural’s composition. First published in 1955, the book has been Rockman’s lifelong personal companion, nourishing his childhood curiosity about the diversity of creatures that comprise the great commonwealth of biological organisms. Today, the illustrations in the field guide are models for Rockman’s meticulously detailed portrayals. In addition, they provide information about aquatic species that might survive the great ozone deluge. The sea lamprey is one such species. Lifted from its neutral setting of a field guide, the fish contributes its hideous appearance to a distressing narrative. A gaping surrogated mouth flares open at the end of its eel-shaped body. It supports the creature’s nasty habit of sucking the life fluids from victims, thereby assuring their slow and agonizing deaths. As the Draculas of the fish world, lampreys evoke the gruesome spectacle of civilization as an aggressive, devouring parasite.

At the same time, the contorted relationship between lampreys and humans gave Rockman an opportunity to suggest society’s role in causing and preventing environmental cataclysm. Human action was a boon for lampreys who took advantage of the Welland Canal that connected the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Erie. These uninvited users of the canal rapidly colonized all of the upper Great Lakes, threatening recreation and the fishing industries. In the 1950s, just thirty years after the opening of the canal, humans responded with chemical poisons. Now, once again, humans are determining lamprey fate. Eleven conservation groups have recently petitioned to list these aggressive and unsightly creatures on the Federal Endangered Species Act. These environmentalists assert that lampreys now occupy an important niche in the food chain. They not only transport ocean nutrients into freshwater ecosystems, they become dinner for predators who would otherwise feast on salmon and other desirable fish.

‚ÄúManifest Destiny‚ÄĚ dramatizes the urgency of addressing today‚Äôs environmental dilemmas. Can the relentless march toward global warming be diverted by human restraint? Can our actions prevent some populations from swelling beyond measure and others from shrinking to extinction levels? Can humanity avert the death sentence it has decreed upon itself? What is the fate of the earth? Rockman summons his impressive skills as a draftsman, colorist, researcher, commentator, and futurist to confront viewers with a likely answer: The earth‚Äôs waters will rise and inundate the cities that once controlled its harbors and enjoyed its ocean views. Humans will vanish from this site, but is this scenario hopeful or hopeless? This expansive artwork leaves the question unresolved. Viewers may conclude that the mural‚Äôs orange glow derives from the sun rising in the east. The dawn of a new day is a potent symbol of renewal. Alternatively, they might decide that the lurid glow stems from the toxic fall-out of past human indiscretions spewing into the atmosphere. The mural‚Äôs visual splendor and its captivating narrative are powerful tools summoned to instigate such crucial considerations.