Feature

What art can teach us about the Anthropocene

Log Booms #1, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, 2016 (Edward Burtynsky Photography)

"Scientists compellingly agree that we have actually entered a new geological epoch in which humans are the primary cause of deep and irremediable alterations to our physical landscape and biodiversity at large: the Anthropocene." — Dax Dasilva

Art has the unique ability to reach deep inside our souls and help connect our thoughts, feelings and perceptions with the outer realities of the world. The language of art speaks in ways that words cannot. It is such a deep and unique individual experience of who we are. It offers the opportunity to make sense of what is happening in the world by engaging the creative part of our minds.

One such thought-provoking art exhibition that helps to clarify the complex environmental realities we are currently facing is the exhibition Anthropocene, presented in 2018 at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in Ottawa and the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto). this exhibition puts together a four-year collaboration between Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. The powerful imagery, high-resolution photography, composition and color palettes combined with installations that immersed the viewer into an augmented reality was aesthetically inspiring. But the most enlightening part of this visual experience was the intense emotional connection it illuminated between the natural beauty of our world and how human actions have been an integral part, yet also, a detrimental factor to the survival of this awe-inspiring beauty. This often-neglected reality suddenly became more than apparent, but palpable and within reach.

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TECHNOFOSSILS

In 1950, less than two million tons of plastics was manufactured globally, per year. By the early 21stcentury, this amount reached 300 million tons per year. The total amount of plastics produced by 2015 has been calculated to be five billion tons; enough to cover the entire earth in plastic wrap. Too small for typical methods of filtration, microplastics are virtually ubiquitous in our environment, and are increasingly deposited in sediment layers, making them a key technofossil for the stratigraphic consideration of the Anthropocene. (Anthropocene, by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier)

Dandora Landfill n.3, Plastics Recycling, Nairobi, Kenya 2016 (Edward Burtynsky Photography)

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URBANIZATION

In the fall of 2017, between 30 000 to 40 000 cars accumulated at the Royal Purple Raceway in Baytown, Texas, as a result of Hurricane Harvey. (...) Petroleum products are the key component of the asphalt that coats our roadways, the fuels and lubricants that power our vehicles, synthetic fertilizers that farmers use to bring in high-yield crops, and the plastic that package our goods. As such, the sum total of its production over history has directly caused the increasing Co2 levels that are now changing our climate. A one-degree Celsius increase in global average temperature would cause extreme weather events, like Hurricane Harvey and Katrina, to occur with seven times the frequency. While these catastrophic events are easily forgotten by those who are unaffected, once the clouds have passed, their cumulative impact on local communities will only increase alongside global carbon levels. (Anthropocene, by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier)

Flood Damaged Cars, Royal Purple Raceway, Baytown, Texas, USA, 2017  (Edward Burtynsky Photography)

The exhibition's title, Anthropocene, refers to the new geological era that we have currently entered. The name "Anthropocene" is a combination of anthropo- from Anthropos, meaning "human" in Ancient Greek, and -cene from kainos, meaning "new" or "recent." Scholars have chosen this word to describe the most recent era of Earth's history as a way to highlight the time when the collective activities of human beings have begun to significantly alter the Earth's surface. Indeed, it is the first time humans have played such a dominant and central role in causing changes to our planet's ecosystems, climate, and atmosphere. Geologists are still debating whether to officially declare our current age the "Anthropocene" or if we are still living in the Holocene epoch until the impact humans have caused to the planet is greater and can be reflected in the rock strata. For those who say that we have already entered the Anthropocene, there is some consensus that this geological era's beginnings can be traced back to the 18th century during the Industrial Revolution. However, it has been especially notable that the middle of the 20th century marks the turning point of the major acceleration of human activities that have irreparably changed and impacted the functioning of the planet.

Mariette Raina - Age of Union Anthropocene exhibition

Scientists use several elements as markers to define the era of the Anthropocene. Here are some of the most notable:

Aspects that have seen a great acceleration of changes to the earth’s systems since 1750 and 1950

- Rise of Co2, N2o, Ch4 concentration in the atmosphere (1750)
- Rise of the temperature of the northern hemisphere (1750)
- Loss of tropical rain forest and woodland (1750)
- Rise of the amount of domestic land (1750)
- Ozone diminution (1950)
- Rise of great flood numbers (1950)
- Ocean ecosystem overexploited (1950)
- Loss of global diversity (1950) 

Aspects that have seen a great acceleration of changes due to human activities since 1950

- World population (Around 650 million in 1750 / 2.5 billion in 1950 / 7.8 billion in 2020)
- Urban centers’ concentration
- Motorized vehicle transportation
- Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP)
- Water use
- Phone communication 
- Foreign direct investments
- Fertilizer use
- McDonald restaurants
- International tourism

The exhibition’s artbook of the same name — written as a collaborative effort by the artists Burtynsky, Baichwal and Pencier — takes us through a prolific visual journey of the Anthropocene under eight themes that represent and communicate the stress the earth is experiencing: technofossils, urbanization, agriculture, deforestation, extraction, energy, biodiversity and extinction.

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DEFORESTATION

It is estimated that between 1990 and 2005, 55 to 60 percent of palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia were planted on former virgin tropical forest. Between 2011 and 2013, 40 percent of the total deforestation across the island was for palm, and a fifth occurred in areas designated for a moratorium on plantations. This trend is not new. Between 1973 and 2010, almost a third of Borneo’s forests disappeared (...) this intensive form of agriculture’s near-ceaseless expansion is a direct result of a global demand for cheap food-grade oils, such as palm, of which Indonesia and Malaysia produce 85 percent of the world’s supply. One of the world’s top commodities, palm oil is found in everyday household products like toothpaste and processed foods. (Anthropocene, by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier).

Clearcut #1, Palm Oil Plantation, Borneo, Malaysia, 2016 (Edward Burtynsky Photography)

Hundreds of years ago, traditional and later institutionalized religions sought to explain human beings' origins, believing they were created by God(s), usually out of clay or other natural substances. Later in the 19th century, Charles Darwin came up with his theory of evolution and described a scientific perspective of how humankind came into existence; as the result of an evolutionary answer to what the planet required. In other words, human beings were contingent to this world, part of its global systems and functioning. Today, it is quite fascinating to realize that our species has managed to take the upper hand over the natural system we came from: we have drastically modified its highly magnificent and complex systems that have been in place for the past 4 million years, in the blink of an eye.

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The geological evolution of planet Earth since its formation 4.6 billion years ago. Infographic by Barr Gilmore.

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Morenci Mine #2, Clifton, Arizona, USA, 2012 (Edward Burtynsky Photography)

Our life depends on the air we breathe, the ground that gives us food, and the water we drink. But human beings have managed to threaten these three essential dimensions necessary for their survival. The photos and virtual reality immersions of the exhibition Anthropocene depict nature's magnificence, parallel to the magnitude of the stress and destruction human beings have brought onto the Earth's crust. The photos depict, without a doubt, that we consume too much. Our needs have reached a spike that made us modify at an extraordinary level that most of us are not even aware of. The Earth does not have time to regenerate anymore, and this is what is causing a massive threat to the natural cycle of the planet, putting life itself in danger. Ours, of course, but also the lives of every single species on this planet, on which we depend, as we are part of a global ecosystem.

What have we learnt about the Anthropocene?

- What have we learnt about the Anthropocene?
- Everything in our modern world has become disposable, and that has made us heavy consumers 
- We are consuming in excess. Our needs demand high production hence exploitation of nature (because anything comes from somewhere, means from nature, being wood, oil, petrol, sand, etc)
- Things we use in one place travel and end up in places we are not really aware of. 

In conclusion, we need to connect more with the reality of where our products come from, and where they end up. Photographs, installations and art can help us connect the dots, by allowing us to make the link between a product we know: those we own, use and consume, how they are being made and where they are going. Knowledge is the first step to making sustainable decisions. More powerful than any governmental decision are the consumers, the individual, you. If we collectively do not consume a certain product, we can stop that product from being made in the first place.  

Remember that anything you do has an impact; just because we may not directly see it, does not make it meaningless, from recycling to not using products made with palm oil, banishing as many single-use plastics from your daily life as you can, or transitioning to a plant-based diet. Small steps can make a huge difference at the end of the line.

Do not forget to:

- Be curious: Follow what triggers your enthusiasm and get to know more about the subjects that interest you.

- Be sensible: Talk about what you learn with the people around you, tell your family, friends. Spark discussions.

- Follow our monthly tips: To easily become more sustainable from home!

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EXTRACTION

Three hundred and fifty meters beneath Berezniki, Russia, tunneling machines, referred to as combines, reveal vividly colored layers from an ancient sea floor. (...) Completely enveloped in darkness, and stretching for an estimated 3,000 kilometers, these tunnels (...) will leave behind a record of our presence through anthroturbation (large-scale human tunneling under the earth)(....) the potash mined here is ultimately destined to fertilize large industrial farms, like those in the Imperial Valley in California. (Anthropocene, by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier)

Uralkali Potash Mine #2 &#4, Berezniki, Russia, 2017 (Edward Burtynsky Photography)

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AGRICULTURE

The Imperial Valley is a low-desert located at the southeast end of the Salton Sea. Since 1940, when a significant amount of water resources was made available through the All-American Canal, the imperial Valley has become an important agricultural region (...). Today, 80 to 90 percent of consumptive water use in the United States is for agriculture. In recent years attempts have been made to reduce water consumption. Several programs pay farmers annual per-acre fees to leave their land fallow. Many hope that this system will motivate the farmers to conserve water even further. However, while fertilizer runoff has encouraged bacteria and algae growth, and significantly increased the salinity of the Salton Sea, reductions in Imperial Valley irrigation may well have their own negative impacts on the rapidly evaporating lake. The historical tension between urban and rural livelihoods continues as farmers, who use 85 percent of Colorado’s water supply, struggle to change their practice. (Anthropocene, by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier)

Imperial Valley #4, California, USA, 2009 (Edward Burtynsky Photography)

CREDITS

PHOTOS
- Landscape photos used in the article made by Edward Burtynsky, captions by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier.
- Exhibition photo by Mariette Raina

BOOKS
-
Anthropocene, 2018. By Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. Steidl edition.
-
Anthropocene: a very short introduction, 2018. By Erle C. Ellis. Oxford Edition

WRITING
Article written by
Mariette Raina and edited by Emma Dora.