Photos Show What Humans Have Done to the Planet

July 17th, 2023 - by Jonathan Lambert and Rebecca Ellis / National Public Radio

In Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta, oil bunkering — the practice of siphoning oil from pipelines — has transformed parts of the once-thriving delta ecosystem into an ecological dead zone, according to the U.N. Environment Programme. (All photos courtesy of Edward Burtynsky/Robert Koch Gallery/San Francisco/Nicholas Metivier Gallery)

Photos Show What Humans Have Done to the Planet
Jonathan Lambert and Rebecca Ellis / National Public Radio

(July 16, 2023) — Humans have made an indelible mark on the planet. Since the mid-20th century, we’ve accelerated the digging of mines, construction of dams, expansion of cities and clearing of forests for agriculture — activity that will be visible in the geological record for eons to come.

Some scientists are calling it the Anthropocene era, or the age of the humans (“anthropos” is Greek for human). And this week, geologists announced that a lake in Canada could be used to identify the start of this era. The body of water holds layers and layers of undisturbed mud that have collected human pollution and radioactive elements, signs of the way humans have transformed the planet. Geologists will vote on the official Anthropocene designation next summer.

Photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier were inspired by this ongoing discussion of the debate over this new geological era. These three Canadian artists traveled to 22 countries to research and document “places of obvious, physical human incursions on the landscape,” says filmmaker de Pencier.

They created over 50 images capturing the impact of humans on the Earth, like a sprawling, 30-acre garbage dump in Kenya, large swaths of deforestation in Borneo and waterways damaged by oil siphoning in Nigeria.

Their expansive, multidisciplinary body of work is called The Anthropocene Project.

The project, which includes photography, film, virtual reality and augmented reality, took four years to complete and launched in September 2018. The exhibition has been shown at museums around the world; it opens in Taiwan at Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts in a month.

“[The Anthropocene Project] is almost looking back from a projected future, from the future geologist investigating what will remain in the rock record long after we’re gone,” de Pencier adds.

Here is a selection of photographs from the project.

This aerial photo depicts the sawmills of Lagos, Nigeria. The timber from the country’s rainforests, some of the most heavily deforested in the world, are processed in this coastal city, polluting the lagoons.

A 3,400-acre Exxon Petrochemical plant in Baytown, Texas, produces materials for tires, car bumpers and over 500,000 barrels of crude oil per day, according to the company.

The Dandora Landfill in Nairobi, Kenya, is a sprawling 30-acre dump that grows by an average of 850 tons of solid waste a day, according to the U.N. Environment Programme.

An underground potash mine in the Ural mountains of Russia. The potassium-rich salt is mined to produce fertilizer. The team says that the mine shows the impact of modernized agricultural practices that help feed Earth’s 7.5 billion people. The spiraled pattern seen here is caused by the machines used to extract the salts. 

A tetrapod factory in Dongying, China. These concrete blocks are dropped into the ocean to create a barrier that protects low-lying oil refineries from rising sea levels. According to a recent scientific review, human beings have now produced enough concrete to cover the entire globe in a 2-millimeter thick layer. 

An aerial view of a palm plantation on the island of Borneo. Enormous tracts of tropical rainforest have been cleared to grow the lucrative crop, which is used to create palm oil, a vegetable oil that is also used in food processing.

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