The Block Museum of Art hosted a virtual talk Thursday morning on the role of humans in driving climate change via analysis of the photograph "Robert Slocombe, Monsanto Chemical Company."

The image, taken by W. Eugene Smith in 1953, was one of 11 Block Museum works selected to complement themes from this year’s One Book One Northwestern selected reading, Hope Jahren’s The Story of More.

The Story of More’s themes of excess, waste and overconsumption, as well as how they’ve led to our current climate crisis, were formative in choosing the works,” said Corinne Granof, the Block Museum’s academic curator and the webinar leader.

Smith’s photo was originally published in Life Magazine as a part of an 18-picture series, titled “The Reign of Chemistry,” which showcased the scientific achievements of the agrochemical company Monsanto. The image features a Monsanto scientist, presumably Robert Slocombe, staring intently at a 3D model of the molecular composition of plastic with neatly ordered bottles in the back.

“The picture was included in the museum’s collection to represent industrial growth in the period,” Granof said.

According to Granof, the creation of such a reverent piece would be unimaginable today. Monsanto was responsible for producing Agent Orange (a poisonous herbicide used by the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War that caused birth defects in 150,000 Vietnamese children) as well as the toxic pesticide Roundup. Monsanto also played a role in the innovation of plastic production, as shown in the image.

“The photographs are a window to understand the time during mid-century America and the quest for more,” Granof said, adding that during this time, plastics were considered the “next wave of the future.”

The impact of plastics on our world has grown exponentially since then. Jahren writes in The Story of More that “the invention of 20 or so different types of plastic since 1950 … has revolutionized almost every aspect of how we live.”

Plastic is everywhere. Scientists estimate that as much as 80% of marine debris is plastic, and microplastics are even making its way into infants' bodies. Not only that, but we are making more: Granof explained that since 1969, the global production of plastic has increased tenfold. The U.S. plays a major role in this.

“Americans disproportionately consume more food and expend more energy than the vast majority of people on the planet,” Granof said.

The spirit of American exceptionalism is evident not only in the image, but also in the copy of Life that it appeared in. Granof showed the cover of the magazine, which featured a happy, smiling white family with the title “The American and his Economy." While Monsanto’s innovations were once a part of a vision of a better future, according to Granof, today they just haunt the present.

“Monsanto has been called the face of technological and corporate evil,” Granof said.

Thumbnail courtesy of W. Eugene Smith