Our Green Communities class has recently focused on two distinct but related themes. One has to do with visualizing and comprehending the scale of resource consumption and environmental impacts. Photographer Chris Jordan’s TED talk, Turning Powerful Stats Into Art, is a perfect illustration. His stunning images show us, for instance, what the 4 million plastic cups used per day on airline flights in the United States look like, or the over 400,000 annual deaths from cigarette smoking.
Our other recent theme has to do with “nature hostility.” For example, Stephen showed us a sickening commercial for the Ford Sportka, in which the car’s sunroof decapitates a house cat on-screen. Apparently, this grotesque disdain for life is supposed to be “funny.”
For today’s post, I decided to bring these two themes together – visualizing the scale of fossil fuel and mineral extraction, and highlighting the intense hostility of those processes as massive scars on the landscape.
Let’s begin with the collage above, which shows the Kennecott Copper Mine – the deepest open pit mine in the world – just outside of my home town, Salt Lake City, Utah. In the top left panel, we see a closeup image of mining machinery: the arrow points to a standard pickup truck, allowing us to see that the bulldozers and cranes are each the size of a residential home. In the top right panel, we see the mine in its entirety: the arrow points to the end of the loop road from the previous image. In the bottom right panel, we see the mine situated next to the Salt Lake metropolitan region, including over a dozen distinct municipalities. In the bottom left panel, we see the whole state of Utah: the arrow shows Kennecott, small but still clearly visible.
This second collage shows an oil field in Utah’s Uintah Basin. In the far right panel, we see a familiar “dipping bird” oil rig, used to drill an oil well and then to pump the oil to the surface. In the bottom center panel, we see an identical rig, situated on its individual drilling pad. In the bottom left panel, we see a network of about a half dozen such drilling pads, including one within a hundred feet of the Green River. In the top left panel, surrounding that same horseshoe river bend, we see much (but by no means all) of the oil field – thousands of drilling pads with thousands of dipping bird rigs, spreading like chicken pox across the Earth.
This third collage shows mountaintop removal – the infamous mining industry in West Virginia, which involves (as the name suggests) scraping the tops off of mountains to gain access to the coal beneath. In the top panel, we see a digging machine the size of an apartment building. In the center panel, we see the associated mining operation: the digging machine, indicated by the arrow, is barely visible. In the bottom panel, we see the whole state of West Virginia. The arrow points to the same mining operation, again small but still clearly visible. We can see that this is just one of several dozen such mine sites, scattered across the southern half of the state.
This final image shows the granddaddy of them all – the tar sands mining complex in Alberta, Canada. What we see is an industrial wasteland equivalent in size to Calgary or Edmonton – the third and fifth largest cities in Canada, each hosting over a million people in its greater metropolitan area.
Violent hostility leaves scars, wherever it occurs. The deeper the wound, the greater the scar tissue, the more permanent the damage. What we see above is violent nature hostility at its ultimate scale – machines the size of buildings, scars the size of cities. As in Chris Jordan’s TED talk, the images are uncomfortable. But understanding the reality of these places is important. We need to do better.