Since sometime between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, an era generally known as the Bronze Age, humans have been remarkably adept at identifying precious resources and ripping them from the Earth.
For a while, working with bronze or gold or copper meant working with your hands, and with only as much of it as one person could handle. But the 20th century, followed by the 21st, brought marvelous new ways to exploit Earth’s elements, namely with industrial beasts that could tear apart landscapes with terrific volume and speed.
Every part of modern life is touched by technology, and every part of technology requires something that once came from the ground: the silicon dioxide (glass) in your cell phone, the phosphorous it took to grow your food, the copper in the wires that brought this article to your eyes, and a thousand other examples. This is the imprint that photographer Edward Burtynsky felt compelled to capture in his latest book, Essential Elements, the work of more than a dozen trips and assignments over the past 15 years. Burtynsky, now 61, has spent a career photographing the changing planet. But, along the way, he’s also captured how we are changing the planet. His aim isn’t to show the wistful disappointment of destruction. It’s to photograph the indelible footprint of change, even if that change is usually negative.
Such a quest has taken him to every corner of the world. He has photographed quarries, blasted rock faces, coal fields, container ports, homesteads, oil fields, and salt mines. He tends to shoot from the air, but never too high. Anything above eight hundred feet and the detail fades away, the tiles become the mosaic. It’s the granularity that he wants. And, in each image, the disruption. Sometimes by shovel, sometimes by bulldozer, and sometimes by explosive—but always by humans.
This sort of work tends to lead to China, the planet’s most potent collection of people, ambition, and demand. Burtynsky, who is Canadian, has visited China more than a dozen times and always finds reason to return. Having seen the raw effects of such unbridled appetite, he curiously believes that China’s desires can’t be so easily demonized. “The scale of what is happening there is bigger than anything we’ve done in the West,” he says. “But it’s interesting because it’s affecting us in ways you don’t expect. We’re losing jobs [in the U.S. and Canada], but it’s lifting China and putting people to work.”
That’s the conflict in Burtynsky’s work: Stories of devastation and destruction also tend to be stories of birth and growth. Oil drilling gives a worker a life, and felled trees can make someone a house.
It can be equally hard to know what destruction even is, exactly. The opposite of a rural landscape is an urban nerve center, held up as an example of modernity, progress, and cultural refinement. Never mind that building a city requires far more environmental carnage than pulling metal from the ground. But scale may not be the most flattering way to view this all, because identifying the culprit always leads to the same answer. “It’s a natural reaction to the needs that we’ve built,” says Burtynsky. “This kind of devastation is the scale of us.”
You can see more of Edward Burtynsky’s work on his website.