Mercy me: Photos show what humans have done to the planet in the Anthropocene age

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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


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Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

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 argue that geologists should recognize it as a distinct chapter in Earth’s history. But after more than a decade of investigation and debate, that won’t happenat least for now.

In a contentious vote earlier this month, a panel of geologists declined to designate a new geologic epoch starting in 1952, when the United States tested its first thermonuclear bomb. The 1950s, proponents contend, marked an inflection point in humanity’s impact on Earth, as globalization, increased burning of fossil fuels and the use of nuclear weapons left unmistakable signs of our influence in the geologic record.

Ultimately, most of the panel considered that too narrow a view.

“There’s no doubt that the Anthropocene human transformation of the Earth is already in the geologic record, the evidence speaks for itself, it’s permanent and embedded in the crust of the earth,” says Earl Ellisan environmental scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. But that evidence extends much farther back in time than the 1950s, he says.

Defining the Anthropocene as this specific chunk of geologic time would limit the usefulness of the term, Ellis says. “[The vote] basically clarified that the Anthropocene belongs to all the sciences, it’s not something that is just up to geology to define in this kind of narrow way.”

Years before this final vote, photographer Edward Burtynsky and filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier were inspired by the ongoing 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, most recently at Taiwan’s Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts.

“[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.

In the wake of the vote, a spokesperson for the project says, “Whether it’s an official epoch or not, reality remains the same.”

Here is a selection of photographs from the project.

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


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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

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.

Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto


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Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

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.

Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Cerro Dominador Solar Project #1, Atacama Desert, Chile, 2017

Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto


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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


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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


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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 reviewhuman beings have now produced enough concrete to cover the entire globe in a 2-millimeter thick layer.

Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto


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Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

A marble quarry in Carrara, Italy. Humans have been mining the city’s marble deposits for 2,000 years.

Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto


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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


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Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco / Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

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