Art Interpretation and Climate Change


Jens Galschiot's sculpture Survival of the Fattest features an obese white goddess of justice on the shoulders of a frail African. There's an inscription: "I'm sitting on the back of a man. He is sinking under the burden. I would do anything to help him. Except stepping down from his back." For the duration of the climate conference in Copenhagan, the figure is being displayed in the city harbor, just a few feet from Edvard Eriksen's famous statue of the Little Mermaid.

Ariel's new neighbors

This has prompted a rather histrionic reaction from Americans for Limited Government, which declared the art "obscene," insisted that the West should be "depicted as generous benefactors" instead, and urged President Barack Obama to "demand that the statue be promptly removed." It's an odd response, given that the sculpture neatly encapsulates the developing world's objections to international climate controls. The statue shows a west that industrialized, got rich and fat, then passed rules that restrain the rest of the world; western leaders appear as hypocrites who will "do anything to help" the global poor except getting off their backs. That sounds like a call for freedom, not regulation.

Was that the artist's intent? Yes and no. Here's his rationale for displaying Survival of the Fattest during the conference:

The climate changes are caused by the great consumption of resources in the Western World. The climate changes can only be stopped if the Western World starts massive investments in energy free of CO2 and sustainable production. In spite of this fact we will not change our way of living and really make a difference. On the contrary, all the governments of the Western World call on their citizens to start a new consumption orgy in order to get out of the financial crisis.

Doesn't sound very libertarian. But that's not what was on his mind when the statue was originally conceived. Back then, Galschiot was protesting the west's refusal to live up to its rhetoric on free trade. Here's what he had to say when Survival of the Fattest came to London in 2004:

We westerners regard ourselves as altruistic to the poor. But the altruism is inverted Robin Hood. Our chanted free trade is full of restrictions in defence of our privileges, while the third world is kept in misery. Obviously something is wrong when European dairy cattle receive two dollars per day through subsidies while one fifth of the world's population live from one dollar a day. Cattle in Europe get as much in subsidies each day as half of the world's population have to live for. The western world's delusion must be stopped, so that the developing countries get favourable conditions when selling their products. So we can achieve a more balanced world.

If the sculptor wants to reinterpret his work for the climate change debate, that's his right. But one rereading is as good as another. If you're against the proposals being kicked around in Copenhagen this month, I say you shouldn't denounce the statue. Praise it—and explain why.