Public Smog, Amy Balkin

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Amy Balkin, Public Smog, 2004-

American environmental artist, Amy Balkin became struck by carbon offsets and the consequent reality that the atmosphere has become a commodity that can be purchased and sold on the free market. Carbon offsetting is a trading scheme in which individuals or organisations can offset the negative environmental impact of their activities by purchasing credits. These credits go towards funding a variety of initiatives such as building renewable energy sources and forestation projects.


The trouble with the scheme is that it doesn’t do anything to curtail the sources of pollution. It is a band-aid on a bullet-wound. Don’t get me wrong it has positive effects and is doing wonderful things to neutralise our carbon footprint, but there is little sense of responsibility. It is like having a party at your house, encouraging blatant disregard for your home and saying meh, I’ll just pay for a cleaner. Full disclosure, I have most definitely done this. Am I proud? No. But did I feel smug lying hungover in bed the next morning as somebody cleaned up the mess I had made? Yes. As I am sure the environmentally irresponsible do as they throw money at their guilt and handball their problem off to somebody else. But just as the cleaner can’t fix the broken window, put life back into the lawn or heal the scorned relationship with the neighbours – carbon offsets cannot undo all the damage done. So, whilst I appreciate the value of the scheme, I can’t help but wonder that it must be more effective to make changes at a grassroots level?   Little things - downsizing the party, putting more bins out, banning glass…. inviting the neighbours?


In response to the commodification of the atmosphere, Balkin created ‘Public Smog’ a conceptual art piece centred upon creating a clean public park in the sky. In 2004 Balkin purchased the right to emit nitrogen oxide, a greenhouse gas, in Southern California but instead of exercising her rights, she withheld them thus exploring what happens when air becomes a commodity. In doing so Balkin manipulates the system. She has purchased the rights to emit greenhouse gases, but isn’t exercising this right. The gases are now off the market, unable to be purchased by anybody else and a company has spent x amount of money to offset these gases, which never actually existed. What results is a clean pocket of air, where Balkin had the right to emit nitrogen oxide but didn’t. The public park, obviously not a location one can visit thus becomes a satirical response to a serious environmental issue.


Balkin has since attempted to have the Earth’s Atmosphere listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Whilst realistically a fanciful, unrealistic request, the reality is that the other 1073 existing world heritage sites, such as the Great Barrier Reef and Kakadu National Park remain at risk if earth’s atmosphere is not protected. Balkins’ work is very successful in forcing us to rethink our relationship with the atmosphere. It is upsetting that it often takes a monetary price-tag and an open market to appreciate the value of something, as if something needs to be commercially viable in order to be acknowledged as a resource. But for all its downfalls it may very well be that it is our consumer culture that ignites the recognition that the atmosphere requires. 

Celia Mallard