Oh Dear: Photos Show What Humans Have Done To The Planet

Jun 15, 2019

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).

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 is currently on display at the Fondazione MAST Museum in Bologna, Italy. And their film will be shown in the U.S. this fall.

"[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.
Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto
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.
Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto
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.
Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto
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.
Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto
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 2mm- thick layer.
Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto
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.
Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Jonathan Lambert is a freelance science journalist based in Washington, D.C. You can follow him on Twitter: @evolambert. Rebecca Ellis is a Kroc Fellow with NPR.

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