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Cover the Earth
5/11/23 – The insult of the Sherwin-Williams logo, revisited
In the coming weeks I’ll be interviewing my friend Jennifer Lunden, author of the new book American Breakdown: Our Ailing Nation, My Body’s Revolt, and the Nineteenth-Century Woman Who Brought Me Back to Life. The book is “a Silent Spring for the human body,” a beautifully-written memoir of chronic illness and an indictment of bias in medicine and the toxicity of our industrial society. As without, so within: What we’re doing to the planet, Lunden reminds us, we’re also doing to our bodies. American Breakdown is in stores now, and I highly encourage you to pick up a copy.
Also, birds are migrating! Check in with real-time BirdCast mapping of the migration (787 million birds moving in U.S. airspace as I write this) and read Bryan Pfeiffer’s beautiful essay When Songbirds Fall to Earth over at Chasing Nature.
As always, please remember to scroll past the end of the essay to read some curated Anthropocene news.
Now on to this week’s writing:
Over the last couple years, every time I’ve driven into town I’ve had to drive by the new Sherwin-Williams store and its godawful planet-drowning logo. The Anthropocene insults of its existence loom over me as I wait at one of the town’s two traffic lights, with a McDonald’s and its yellow “billions served” arch across the street.
It’s spring now, and Heather and I have been walking amid spring ephemerals and the unfurling fiddleheads of sensitive ferns, and listening to woodcocks and warblers and the voices of damp, lustful amphibians. As life burgeons, though, it enters a world of threat and risk. I’ve already rescued two snapping turtles from their headlong passages across busy roads.
Pulling up to the light, feeling the first tendrils of summer heat building on the pavement, I remember the big beautiful cedar tree that stood where the Sherwin-Williams store now squats; I wonder why the hell we needed another paint store when there are five other places in town to buy paint; and I grimace at the logo.
Complicating (or underlying?) this scene is the fact that Heather and I still take on some paint jobs to supplement our income. It’s honest work that pays well and makes clients happy. We mostly work outside in the fresh air, and we make our own schedule. There are many, many worse jobs. But we’re very conscious of the meaninglessness of the task in a burning world.
We live in a culture full of Anthropocene insults, of course, many of which we’re forced to participate in against the nature of our better angels. As the climate and life-on-Earth crises intensify, it’s more important than ever to focus our attention on the meatier issues than the symbols, but sometimes a narrow dive into a symbol brings us right into the meat of the issues anyway. So it is with the Sherwin-Williams logo.
I wrote this piece nearly two years ago, but have updated it for this week. Enjoy.
“It’s a small world,” the comedian Stephen Wright used to say in his trademark monotone deadpan, waiting a moment for the audience to contemplate the cliché, “but I wouldn’t want to paint it.”
Maybe he was riffing off the Sherwin-Williams logo. For 130 years, since 1893, Sherwin-Williams has represented itself with an image of a can of thick paint pouring over the Earth. In 1910 the company etched the catchphrase “Cover the Earth” into the flood. The logo’s view is god-like but also weird, as if we’re looking from the Moon at the waterboarding of the planet.
What seems to be the northern hemisphere is completely smothered but, on closer inspection, you can see that the planet is tipped on its side with Europe and North Africa visible at the bottom. The original black-and-white logo became quite vivid in 1961, with blood-red paint “spilling down from the heavens to a helpless planet,” as a brief history at Money Inc put it.
The ambitions represented by the logo – the god-like view, the hint of global conquest in the slogan – have been realized by Sherwin-Williams. According to a Statista report on the industry, they are the largest paint and coatings company in the world by revenue, earning 21.64 billion dollars in net sales in 2022. That’s up from 11.1 billion dollars in 2014, so the company’s growth prospects seem just fine.
Humans are quite busy painting their small world. 10 billion gallons of paint and coatings were sold in 2019; that’s roughly the volume of 36 Empire State Buildings. The revenue forecast for the industry in 2025 is 179 billion dollars.
The logo has its critics, unsurprisingly, and I count myself among them. Perhaps it was cute and normal during the Great Acceleration of the 20th century – the several decades that transformed the planet and gave us the Anthropocene – but now it just looks like the environmental equivalent of a “harmless” racist joke.
Sherwin-Williams had their own misgivings about the logo back in the 1970s, amid that short bright bipartisan environmental era in the U.S. when the EPA was formed and the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were passed. In 1970, 20 million people marched in the street for the first Earth Day. That was nearly 10% of the entire U. S. population. Those marches remain the single largest public protest in American history. It made sense, then, for politicians and corporations to pay attention.
If the Blue Marble photograph – a blue-green Earth floating in space – represented a new cultural focus on environmentalism, Sherwin-Williams’ image of a bloodied planet symbolized the error of our Anthropocene ways. The company replaced it in 1974 with the anemic bit of text you see in the collage above, with just their name and a couple painterly swoops at the bottom.
It was a lackluster concept, and the rebranding failed. But conservatives were swinging the pendulum, and it wouldn’t be long before the nation suffered under the Reagan administration’s successful unwinding of social and environmental progress. In 1979, the company reverted back to their nearly century-old cheerful metaphor for planetary destruction.
44 years later, Sherwin-Williams clearly doesn’t feel the need to update its image to improve its market share, or to appear more enlightened than the 130-year-old image would suggest, or to coax the newest generation of environmentalists to buy its products. The company has 4000 stores, mostly in the U.S., and I don’t think any of them are being picketed.
Waiting at the traffic light, though, the thought has occurred to me.
The company has a long, detailed Sustainability Report from 2021, with the usual soft-focus goals for reducing its impacts (greenhouse gases, water usage, etc.) and promises to improve the lives of its workers and customers. There’s not much there to belie the image of a bloodied Earth. In the end, either Sherwin-Williams likes the look of the logo or they like the 21.64 billion dollars enough to forget about the look.
They don’t have a lot to worry about. The paint and coatings industry is one of many that will always increase in value so long as global population and consumption keep increasing.
The industry relies on mining for natural pigment ingredients (e.g. titanium dioxide for white, metallic salts for yellows and oranges) and on processing coal tars and other petroleum products for synthetic pigments. Other petroleum products serve as solvents (to make paint spread more easily) and resins (to make it dry faster). Various additives are used as thickeners, anti-settling agents, anti-skinning agents, defoamers, and more. All are sourced and shipped around the planet to fill those 10 billion gallons which are, in turn, shipped around the planet.
In other words, these paints cover the Earth before they even leave the can.
All of this resource usage is just for the skin of civilization, or really just one of the skins. Think about all that lies beneath the paint or resin or powdercoating or stain: construction materials, furniture, tools, boats, houses, vehicles, appliances, aircraft, and innumerable industrial applications. Each of these categories in turn is built on massive extraction of raw materials from around the globe, at a rate growing quickly in lockstep with increasing population (a net growth of about 2.5 humans per second), with increasing global affluence (esp. in China, India, and Southeast Asia), and with widespread technological growth.
This is a good reminder of the useful I=PAT formula. Total environmental impact (I) is generated by human population (P) in combination with that population’s affluence (A) and its use of technology (T). Affluence is defined in this case as the level of material consumption, and technology is defined as the means by which resources are extracted and processed.
I=PAT is not a clean equation in which each factor exists independently of the others, and it doesn’t predict a particular impact level or help set sustainability goals, but it is an excellent tool for roughing out the ways in which we’ve created the Anthropocene and for thinking about how to reduce our impacts. Improvements in recycling and electric transportation, for example, are forms of increased Technology that should reduce the impacts of Population and Affluence.
There are so many other ways in which we cover the Earth: with agriculture, roads and dams and cities, radionuclides from atomic bomb tests, introduced and invasive species, antibiotic-resistant microbes, and much much more. At the root of all this is a still-burgeoning human population, able to go anywhere, live anywhere, bulldoze anywhere, and erase anywhere. And now our single largest Impact is our heating of the planet. Replace the Sherwin-Williams paint can with a flamethrower and you get the picture.
I mentioned antibiotic resistance a moment ago as example of one of our many ubiquitous impacts. Take a look at this video of bacteria racing through increasingly high concentrations of antibiotic-laced agar. The video was produced by a lab at Harvard Medical School, and is called “The Evolution of Bacteria on a ‘Mega-Plate’ Petri Dish.” Keep the sound on to hear the experiment being explained.
This is an incredible demonstration of evolution in action. It helps me understand how the flood of antibiotic-laced waste from cities and farms into rivers is permanently altering wild populations of microbes. I see also, in metaphor, the spread of any invasive species, including our recent profit-driven colonization of the globe.
And, finally, I’m reminded that our spread across the globe is nonetheless a natural phenomenon. It’s starting to look catastrophic for much of life on Earth, and depending on how we respond in the next decade or two, possibly catastrophic for us as well. But it’s natural, in the way that a forest fire or pandemic is natural. The fire or infection or invasive species, if not controlled, races through its environment until it exhausts its fuel or hosts or resources.
So yes, it’s a small world, and diminishing by the day. But we shouldn’t be painting it, nor smothering in any other way the fabric of life. Instead, the task at hand is to rescue it, and ourselves, from our headlong passage across the road.
P.S. One final note on the logo: I don’t know why the Sherwin-Williams planet is tilted on its side, or why they’ve kept it that way, with just parts of Africa and Europe visible beneath the flood, for a century and a half. Maybe they’re indicating that the company has spread out from North America, which lies directly under the paint can. Regardless, it’s a weird coincidence that, according to a Fast Company article, Sherwin-Williams paints are available everywhere except in much of Europe and Africa. Make of that what you will.
Thanks for sticking with me.
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In other Anthropocene news:
From the BBC, a wonderful 97-second overview of Sir David Attenborough’s remarkable life for his 97th birthday. It’s an homage to a man who has devoted his life to the natural world and to the necessity of our re-engagement with it:
From Mother Jones, a good reminder that the use of nature metaphors in technology is often used to camouflage their true purpose and real impacts on society. Our data is not in a “cloud,” and the internet is not a “web.”
From Reasons to be Cheerful, two good news stories on locally pioneered conservation efforts. In the warm salty lagoons on the Pacific coast of Baja Sur, where gray whales come to give birth, a successful long-term relationship between a local-run tourism industry and the attention-seeking whales has produced a huge benefit for biodiversity and the human connection to wildlife. And in the mountain village of Khonoma in northeast India, a decision 25 years ago to protect the forest from their own hunting practices has led to sustainable life and a healthy ecotourism industry.
From Sam Matey and his Substack The Weekly Anthropocene, a wonderful interview with the writer Sy Montgomery, who has written 30 books about wildlife and our relationship with animals. Highly recommended for anyone interested in helping wildlife survive the world we’ve built.
From the Times, it’s No Mow May and if you’re thinking about how to turn your lawn into a meadow, this article is a good place to start.
Also from the Times, a new study reveals that many common consumer products still contain one or more hazardous substances “linked to cancer or reproductive and developmental problems.” These are mostly personal care and cleaning products. One easy way to avoid some of the hazardous chemicals is to choose fragrance-free products, but you would do well to read the article to begin your research on what products are unsafe.
From Vox, an excellent overview of the wonders and biological importance of kelp forests, and the threats to their future. It is hard to overestimate the importance of kelp to ocean ecosystems:
One study found that a single stalk of kelp in Norway supported roughly 80,000 organisms across 70 distinct species. Over 1,000 species of plants and animals are found in some kelp forests in California.
From Yale e360, an interview with a quiet but dedicated environmental hero in Finland, rewilding hundreds of thousands of acres of biodiverse, carbon-storing peatland. I love his organization’s attitude toward the offer of carbon credit payments for their work:
When our rewilding program started, many big corporations offered us huge amounts of money if we certified carbon credits. We consulted with communities. But our answer was that we don’t sell nature. We know that peatlands are extremely effective in storing carbon. We monitor this in detail. But we don’t think it is right to go to a degraded site, restore it, and then claim economic benefit for doing so. We accept donor support for the actual restoration work; but that’s it.
This approach has meant turning down millions of euros. But so what? Our approach supports traditional knowledge and Sámi rights, and recognizes that nature has its own distinct value, separate from financial value. We are proud of that.
Also from Yale e360, some good news about attitudes changing toward a very strange but vital species: the lamprey. Once widely loathed, lampreys (a boneless, jawless, eel-like fish with toothy, suction-cup mouths) are recognized as a keystone species:
In their native habitat, marine lampreys are “keystone species” supporting vast aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. They provide food for insects, crayfish, fish, turtles, minks, otters, vultures, herons, loons, ospreys, eagles, and hundreds of other predators and scavengers.
From Inside Climate News, fixing nitrous oxide emissions is low-hanging fruit in the climate battle. Nitrous oxide is 273 times more powerful than CO2as a greenhouse gas, but eleven chemical plants in China and one in the U.S. are spewing out the equivalent of greenhouse gas emission of 31 million cars, despite the availability of cheap pollution control technology:
“It’s wild that you have a super-pollutant that is not regulated by the U.S. government,” Gillespie said. “EPA could show more leadership here by regulating N2O emissions…”