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The human factor

I had a discussion recently with futurist colleague Wendy Schultz about defining the change that happened in Europe and America in the late 18th century. It was the enlightenment, certainly, through which a whole host of new political views about public voice and the independent integrity of the individual emerged into the mainstream, even if took another 150 years, or even 200, to work themselves out. And at the same time it was the beginning of the age of extraction, when humankind started to use the stored resources of the planet at scale for their profit and endeavour. Both of these ideas are still the dominant frames of our public discourse, certainly in the richer world, and shape (almost completely) competing arguments about sustainability. So I was lucky – even privileged – this week to hear the Canadian landscape photographer Ed Burtynsky talk about his work at a private event organised by Arup in London.

The largest manmade landscapes

Of course, the word ‘landscape photographer’ makes one think of Capability Brown, perhaps, or photographers who go to find the landscapes that are still ‘wild’. This is not Burtynsky’s ambition. He set out – after an epiphany in the American town of Frackville, and what better place to have such an epiphany – to photograph the largest manmade and industrial landscapes on the planet. His work acquires a strange beauty, but the places he photographs are not beautiful places: quarries, oilfields, breakers’ yards, rail tracks, freeways, mines (usually opencast), tyre dumps, and more recently both the huge manufactories of China and the aquifers of Texas, apparently invisible and depleting increasingly quickly.

He works at scale. As he showed us a picture of a copper mine, he told us that it was three miles across and a mile deep, and that to drive along the tracks which run round the edge of the mine from top to bottom would be a 500-mile drive. And he is quick to the story of the place and its flows. The copper mine, in a remote part of Canada, was responsible for a significant proportion of the world’s annual output, he told us; it’s fairly certain that all of you have owned something that had copper in it which came from here.

Festivals of oil

His interest in flows has taken him, inevitably, to the subject of oil and of what he calls ‘oil culture’; our festivals that celebrate oil and its uses. (I’m not quoting directly here, but this is the way that listening to Burtynsky speak, and this is a good thing.) And so we have pictures of the tens of thousands of fans at a NASCAR race, or the small town on which several hundred thousand Harley Davidson fans descend every year.

And also the endless tract housing that makes up the Los Angeles suburbs and the edge sprawl of gas stations and drive-though McDonalds. The waste, too: a huge tyre dump that was struck by lightning shortly after he photographed it, and burned for two years; the lots where planes go to die; the oil tankers being broken by hand on the beaches of Bangladesh. A picture taken in Baku of a disused oil well shows the oil gathering in pools on the surface. “Oil is like blood”, he said. “If you can see it, something’s wrong.” Of course, there are pictures of BP’s Gulf disaster as well.

From a Prius to a Hummer

But then, our desire for oil pushes us to extremes. As he talked about the Canadian tar sands, he reminded us that the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) of the tar sands is only 3.5:1, which is astonishingly low by any historical standards (any: going back to Roman times). The CO2 impact of the tar sands oil is so high that if you use it to fuel a Prius you give it the environmental impact of a Hummer. Flows matter.

From oil to water. His pictures of one of the fossil Texas aquifers, taken from the air, looked like nothing so much as the abstract pictures of Victor Pasmore. Different shapes and different colours. But again, they came with a story. The work is embedded within the flows which it records. The dominant crop used to be cotton, which takes 11″ of water to grow. But the incentives to farmers to produce ethanol for biofuels has changed that, for corn takes 22″ of water before it can be harvested. The result is that the aquifer, a fossil resource doesn’t replenish, is being used far faster than previously. The other story was about the Colorado river, which irrigates much of the area, no longer reaches the sea. 93% of the water us used by the United States, the rest by Mexico.

Dammed for power

The pictures of the largely dry Owens Lake, re-directed to Los Angeles 60 years ago by the water engineer William Mulholland (the real story that was adapted for the movie Chinatown) seem like they might be the shape of things to come. In China, meanwhile, the Yangtse River is being dammed twice for power. The second dam will produce 14,000 megawatts. The turbines for the first dame were built in Canada by GE; the those for the second are being made by the Chinese. Indeed, the scale of China’s industrialisation is a theme of some of Burtynsky’s more recent work, and also of a film about his work, Manufactured Landscapes, directed by Jennifer Baichwal. The youtube trailer is embedded here; the whole film can be watched on youtube.

And that dispute about the Enlightenment and the extractive economy? Catch these images on a bad day and you’ll feel certain that the extraction has long since trumped the enlightenment. On a good day, it will be fuel for why this has to change.

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The photo in this post is © Ed Burtynsky, and is used with thanks. Burtynsky was in London partly to attend the opening of an exhibition of his work on oil at the New Photographers’ Gallery in Romillies Street, which opens its doors to the public this weekend. It runs until 1st July.

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