Burtynsky II: sustainability and economics

Edward Burtynsky

Manufactured Landscapes, the film, is a good complement to Burtynsky’s stills, showing a closer perspective on the individuals, where the stills show humans ripping apart the landscape for natural resources.

In the extras, a real estate business woman shows the crew around the house in what’s basically the Chinese version of Cribs, complete with westernized teenager on her cellphone. It really hits home what China is now aspiring toward. In another extra scene, a bunch of people are crowded around a small table, rowdily enjoying a meal in a very Chinese way, with an incongruous shopping bag printed with a huge 3M logo on one of the seats beside them. That aspect of the film is missing from the stills. The connection to the West, the huge demand for consumer goods that drives this rapid development, is not directly obvious in the pictures.

I don’t like reading indictments of China in the press, citing human rights violations and politics, and not pointing out that this is a phase that the US also went through, that China is probably where the US was in the ’20s. I’m no historian, but off the top of my head – meatpacking industry, child labor in the textile factories, Tamany Hall, police corruption in LA in the ’50s, etc. Instead of acting as a guide as to what to what mistakes not to make, how to preserve natural resources, etc, the government just condemns China for all these things. Of course, it’s not in US interests to help a rising competitor, but I think that is a somewhat unhealthy capitalist mentality which focuses more on profits than creating a sustainable world community. And we all know where focusing on short term growth and wealth leads.

(Hello, financial crisis.)

Incidentally, following his 2005 TED prize, he donated photos to a sustainability site called WorldChanging.com, a magazine style site whose goal is to connect “people are working on tools for change” in different fields with each other. They recently published an article drawing parallels between the government and economists’ handling of the financial crisis to the government’s unwillingness to address climate change issues.

This crisis is a signal that we need to reassess what we value and what our long term goals are, not as individuals but as a society and a people. The accepted economic mantra of growth, growth, growth has been mirrored and in fact driven by our attitude toward and use of natural resources. (Bill McKibben wrote an interesting book on this topic called Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. Read it.) Corporations want to expand, the rich want to be richer, everyone wants more of this or that.

Burtynsky seems less interested in indictments and more in encouraging people to think of solutions. As a photographer, he doesn’t know what those are specifically, but photography can be a part of it. From the Treehugger interview (gee, maybe you should read it!):

Right now governments — especially in the West and in North America — are painfully lacking in guidance and policy to really assist in allowing people to make better choices. I do believe policy is an important component of the movement towards a more sustainable world.

None of us can work independently of each other. Corporations have to take social responsibility more seriously than they have in the past and begin to kind of reshape themselves to become more sustainable. And individuals have to look at their habits and reshape them to reconsider how it is that we’re using the resources of this world.

How [photographic] work ultimately ends up inspiring people to action — I’m not really sure that it on its own has the capacity to do that. I think there’s a growing concern, and a growing group of people who are I think prepared to really make changes.

When I looked in the history of photography, there are examples: Watkins and his photographs of the West — that was the preservation of Yellowstone and the National Park System grew out of that. You look at Lewis Hine and his work as a photographer in child labor, and child labor laws came into play with the photographs as evidence of the wrongdoing.

I think for a long time, certainly the latter part of the 20th century, the idea that photographs can help shape social change was kind of lost. But… images are shaping and being used as the iconographic representations of the issues that we now need to grapple with in our times.



J.M. Colberg linked to this series of posts in his blog with some very kind words. To be honest, I’m a little stunned. The internet is so huge I don’t actually expect anyone to read this blog, much less than a blogger who I follow and admire! But I’m very glad someone got something out of this, and I wanted to briefly address a point that he brought up here since he doesn’t have comments on his blog. In response to what I say above about indictments of China, he writes:

While the latter certainly might be true, that doesn’t mean that we simply have to accept what’s going on, actually quite on the contrary. To take an extreme example, just because slavery was legal in the US in its early years, that doesn’t mean we now can’t tell anyone not to have slaves now.

I agree. Certainly it would be morally lax. However, the US government does not back its verbal statements with concrete action. Instead of refusing imports from sweatshops or creating economic or political incentives to promote free speech and democracy, there is only a profusion of indictments. Without the action, these verbal reproaches take on the flavor of… well, nagging. Which is fine, they are entitled to their opinion, but I don’t like it. I should disclose that I am in fact Chinese (and an American citizen), so this topic hits a bit close to home.

Frankly, the criticisms and indictments would sit well with me if the connection between western consumerism and Chinese development and sweatshops was emphasized. But it seems that the West would like to place the responsibilty for sweatshops and pollution from industry solely on China’s shoulders, as if the two nations’ actions were completely independent of each other, when in truth the West does shoulder part of the responsibility of creating the demand for goods in the first place.

The bulk of my frustration comes not from the protests themselves, which are valid, but from the fact that while these statements are made, consumers continue to take advantage of the cheap prices of Chinese goods, and corporations continue to salivate over the large target market. With human rights violations coming to light, the demand has not eased up significantly, so it seems the west is willing to say these things with its mouth but not its pocketbook.


~ by Jin on October 15, 2008.

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