by Sherry Marr
All images © Edward Burtynsky, All Rights Reserved
Used with permission
Since 1980, around the time I became aware of climate change, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky began taking photos illustrating the impact humans are having on earth. In his 40-year study, his obvious takeaway is that “Human expansion has a casualty – the natural world.” This is not news to us. But I remember, in 1980, when I began studying with futurist Bill Floyd at Okanagan College, he had to close the classroom doors to teach us, because a lot of people considered him crazy, back then, an outlier. My family scoffed at anything I said about what I was learning. “Resources are endless. We will never run out. That’s ridiculous. There are millions of trees.” Etc.
Turns out everything he taught was true. The only difference is it didn’t happen as fast as he thought it would.
Pennsylvania USA 2008
At his website, edwardburtynsky.com, Burtynsky states, “Nature transformed by industry is the theme of my work. These images are meant as metaphors to the dilemma of our modern existence; they search for a dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by desire – a chance at good living, yet we are consciously or unconsciously aware that the world is suffering for our success … For me, these images function as reflecting pools for our times.”
Houston Texas 2004
Oxford tire pile #8 Westley California
Oxford tire pile #9 Westley California 1999
Burning tire pile Stockton, California 1999
The human population, within Floyd’s and Burtynsky’s lifetime (and mine), has risen from two to eight billion.
At theconversation.com, they report:
For real populations, doubling time is not constant. Humans reached 1 billion
around 1800, a doubling time of about 300 years; 2 billion in 1927, a doubling
time of 127 years; and 4 billion in 1974, a doubling time of 47 years.
On the other hand, world numbers are projected to reach 8 billion around 2023,
a doubling time of 49 years, and barring the unforeseen, expected to level off
around 10 to 12 billion by 2100.
This anticipated leveling off signals a harsh biological reality: Human population is being curtailed by the Earth’s carrying capacity, the population at which premature death by starvation and disease balances the birth rate.
Santa Ana freeway, L.A. 2017
Imperial Valley, California USA 2009
Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria 2016
The greatest impact has been in the last hundred years of exponential growth, sparked by the Industrial Revolution, development of combustion engines, addiction to oil and a plethora of plastic, as well as technology and the change in agricultural methods. Extraction capitalism, which has made a handful of people very rich, comes at a cost to the rest of us, including the beyond-human realm. Payment is now coming due, everywhere.
What futurists and fantasy writers envisioned as happening in some comfortably distant future is happening here and now. The pace is accelerating exponentially. (An example: the entire B.C. town of Lytton burned down last summer. There is only rubble left on the ground. In Sydney, Australia, they are experiencing flooding for the third time this year. This is why target dates of 2050 for zero emissions leaves me in despair that there will even BE a livable world by then.)
Burtynsky has produced books and films featuring his work. His newest project is In the Wake of Progress, a scathing, immersive multimedia installation by which the viewer experiences, in photography and film, images which illustrate the impact human “growth and development” has had on the planet in the name of our great god, the Economy. It had its world premiere in Toronto in June this year.
Los Angeles freeway, 2003
Los Angeles freeway, 2009
Oil refineries, Houston, Texas, 2004
“I became an observer of the human condition at the scale of industry – building cities and transport systems, making clothes, all that stuff,” Burtynsky says. “There is a whole other world that exists that we don’t see. I thought the camera was the perfect tool to bring that world into our consciousness.”
Open pit coal mine, Sparwood, B.C., 1985
Nickel tailings, Sudbury, Ontario, 1996
Marble quarries, Carrara, Italy, 2016
Coal train, Wyoming, 2015
Tyrone Mine #3, New Mexico, 2012
Phosphor tailings, Lakeland, Florida, 2012
“I began to think about oil itself: as both the source of energy that makes everything possible, and as a source of dread, for its ongoing endangerment of our habitat,” Burtynsky states.
Alberta oil sands, 2007
Alberta oil sands, Fort McMurray, 2007
Bakersfield oil sands, CA, 2004
Oil spill, Gulf of Mexico, 2010
Oil spill, Mississippi delta, 2010
(These photos actually hurt to look at.)
When people ask Burtynsky why he takes such graphic and disturbing photos, he replies, “Art can say: ‘Look, here it is. This is what it looks like.’” And it isn’t pretty. Poetry can do that too. Our job as poets is to record the times we live in, and, sadly, we live in historic but terribly unenlightened times. Future generations, if such survive, will be appalled at how we choreographed our own demise and destruction. We are the only species that destroys its own habitat (and that of every other creature) without remorse or even the most basic awareness, blinded by lust for the false god of money.
Ivory tusk mound, Nairobi, Kenya, 2016
Dandora landfill #1, Nairobi, 2016
Burtynsky’s work In the Wake of Progress challenges us to take a hard look at how human industry is impacting the planet, not just now, but also affecting the future of sustainable life on this planet – the world our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will live in, if human life is still possible then.
“The story is very much about what we’re doing to nature, how our success is pushing back the biodiversity,” Burtynsky says. “It’s changing the nature of the oceans – we’re watching coral die off; we’re watching fisheries collapse.”
Owens Lake, California, 2009
Salton Sea, eastern shore, California, 2009
Clearcut, Vancouver Island, 2017
Clearcut, palm oil plantation, Borneo, Malaysia, 2016
“We’re seeing all kinds of issues – deforestation, desertification, droughts, storms, heat domes. Thirty years ago, you could say climate change is something out there. Now, we can’t brush that off. It’s at our doorstep.”
It’s at our doorstep
Ontario, Canada, 2010
Burtynsky attempts to present his work in a revelatory, not an accusatory, way. He says he hopes people will go away from his work thinking deeply about the impact humanity is having on the planet.
“The high price of gas, as much as it hurts, will be a great motivator for us to get off gas. These changes never come without some pain. Once we get the economics right on this, change happens fast.”
“I hope it facilitates a conversation,” he continues. “When you touch people emotionally, it gets their minds thinking a different way. It’s a universal story that starts with nature and ends with nature.”
Because, in the end, nature will always have the last word.
Avatar Grove, Vancouver Island, 2017
(As yet, still standing, to give us hope and beauty)
For your challenge: Express your thoughts and feelings about how humankind has brought Mother Earth to this critical point in time, and what you think and feel about where we go from here.