earthweal weekly challenge: IN THE WAKE OF PROGRESS

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,, 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, 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.

19 thoughts on “earthweal weekly challenge: IN THE WAKE OF PROGRESS

  1. Sigh. Every time I look at these images, my heart sinks. They really show what is often hidden from our eyes – the utter devastation of what once was a lush and biodiverse landscape. All images are copyright Edward Burtynsky. They are used with permission and may not be copied without his permission. Thank you.


  2. This post just feeds my inner (maybe outer) misanthrope. Sometimes I almost believe we didn’t evolve on Earth at all, but are an alien species that displaced earlier species of humans. The sooner we go extinct, the better. Unfortunately many innocent creatures will perish before we exit the scene.
    Good for Edward Burtynsky for holding up this mirror to humanity. But it’s hard to look at.


    • It is hard to look at what humans have done. I have had similar thoughts, when it comes to those with reptilian consciousness – as if there are among us an alien species who seem to have no hearts. It is the creatures’ suffering I find the hardest, for they are innocent of poor choices, and they follow the natural law. I’m happy you are part of the conversation.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Burtynsky words should hit a cord in all of us: “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.”

    If we’re not yet desensitized (what a scary word!) if we’re not yet there, these photos should light the urgent fire in us.
    Hoping it’s still not to late for the future of our children.
    Prayer is not enough.

    Thanks for sharing. XoXo 💗


    • With heat domes and wildfires everywhere, I feel the urgency. And the angst that governents are still ambling comfortably along, talking about 2050 as target dates for lowering emissions. O.M.G. Indigenous people have always been aware of the other beings who live on earth with us. We somehow began thinking we are the only species that matters. Big mistake. Happy you stopped by.


    • They shock me, too, even though I thought I was aware – these are the costs of industry we don’t see, the corporate stranglehold on earth’s resources. Governments turned a blind eye, allowed them too much power, and now we are all powerless – unless enough people globally unite, vote for green representatives and vote the greedy and power-loving out. We can also not give our dollars to climate offenders. Sigh.


      • I lived near an open cut coal mine for 10 years in the area where the electricity for this State is generated. I never saw the mine from the air but certainly saw the environmental impact all around me. It also had a huge impact on the health of the community. It always amazed me that people across the country had no idea their electricity came at such a terrible environmental impact.


  4. “Future generations, if such survive, will be appalled at how we choreographed our own demise and destruction.” Grateful, too, I imagine, if history can teach. The next book might document, alongside the devestation, efforts–no matter how small–to stop/reverse/restore/reclaim.


    • I love the hopefulness in your comment, Susan, and in the thought a book might document peoples’ efforts to restore and heal places. I know that work is going on, but I forget sometimes. Thanks for reminding me.


  5. Suzanne, I think that is the problem. If we all saw what it took to allow us to live at this level of privilege, and what it costs the rest of the world, we would FORCE the government to act. They use political-speak to keep us all assuaged. Trudeau is great at spouting “clean energy AND a thriving economy” but, sorry, it isn’t what’s happening. Corporations win. Everything else loses.


  6. What a splendid post with all those amazing pictures….I will read this a few times. Thank you.Yes this progress has all come at a great cost….Now what to do? Recycling is only one but important solution. I was horrified to know that a lot of folks only wear their socks once then throw them out because they are so cheap. The waste of everything is obscene in the west. If my grandmother was alive she ( and her ilk) would have a lot of solutions. Common sense is very much missing from our “educated” society . As you said the adoration of money and materialism rules our planet…you can never have too much of everything . Keep writing It’s your best weapon and hope of making change. Also thanks for mentioning the floods in Sydney. Another week forecast of daily rain for another week….The long range forecast is la nina for the rest of the year…It’s time like these that one gives thanks for being able to immerse oneself in solitary pursuits of the mind such as writing,writing poetry, pondering,playing music. : La vie interieure ” is essential at times like these. Your post could inspire at least five poems but I will only write one . Diva Domestica calls,laundry , doing the dishes, cooking need to be done.Who was it who said that a writer’s place must be spick and span to produce great work?….No one:)


  7. Rall, I appreciate your comments. I often think of how horrified my grandma’s face would be if she saw the state of the world today – who knew RENTS would ever be two thousand dollars a month? Buying a house unaffordable? Political “leaders” who are deranged and spiteful? She raised her kids through the Depression – nothing was ever in excess – she owned the same couch and two chairs her entire adult life, and lived till almost 100 – her kitchen drawers had brown paper folded for re-use, lengths of string………they lived so modestly and would be HORRIFIED at the scale of what folks expect today. We need to go back to those ways.


  8. Just a devastating indictment of our dismal failure at being stewards of the planet that sustains us.All for the imaginary concept of wealth. The photos are appalling in their arid deathscapes, and yet have such a beauty of pure form, as if death and sterility make a different creation with its own rules and aesthetics, however inimical to the living.Thanks for bringing all this out here for us to see, and to weep over, Sherry. I have no words for it as of now, it’s hard to think as the temperature hits 110 today , doing its own devastation to the living world around me. I wish you a cool breeze where you are.


  9. I’m happy you stopped by, Joy. Stay in out of the heat, it sounds terrible. Hard to find words indeed, these days. I struggle myself, growing ever quieter, observing all the denial, lust for money and power, all galloping down the wrong path as the world burns. Hard to understand with nature raging around us.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.