My first encounter with Edward Burtinsky took place at the Institute for Contemporary Art in London where the screening of his documentary, ‘Watermark’, accompanied by a Q&A session, was organized a couple of years ago. In ‘Watermark’ Burtinsky tackles a very important topic of water, the origin of life, related to survival itself. His film explores different ways in which humanity uses and overuses water, pollutes it, makes reservoirs run dry, redefined whole landscapes in the hope to capture the energy of the water through hydropower and irrigates vast spaces artificially.
Burtinsky famously focuses on the new epoch we are currently living in, the Anthropocene, where human impacts on the landscape become so profound, humanity, in the words of Vernadsky, becomes a ‘geological force’. Burtinsky often attributes his interest in the natural world to his childhood experiences in Canada, where he had a rare privilege to experience firsthand the landscape in its pristine form. For Burtinsky the tradition of the sublime in art, represented by the works of Turner and Caspar David Friedrich is reversed. Humans and human impact on the environment become the new sublime and overwhelming force. The photographer aims to present the story of exponential economic growth in images.
In the image presented here, the drying Colorado river leaves a beautiful tree-like pattern on the desert landscape. Every day the river changes colour. Green and brown water comes from the opposite directions: green from the source and the brown from the estuary during tides. Burtinsky is often quoted commenting that he is not an activist, that he calmly observes the changes in the landscape and is not calling for action. The problem is too big to be tackled by any one individual. But how could this work leave any human being indifferent?
In the absence of strong policy limiting our impacts on the environment, when CO2 concentrations are still rising (reaching 403ppm this year), half of the world’s biodiversity has been lost in the past 40 years and there doesn’t seem to be the end to the plastics pollution in our oceans, environmental documentaries remain the powerful tools inspiring change. Burtinsky clearly reached his goal with me and hopefully his message will be making an impact around the world.
The bigger question remains: how many people will change something in the way they consume and produce things from the mundane multiple-use cotton shopping bags to renewable electricity, no combustion engine car policies and environmental advocacy. Сlimatic change is bound to exacerbate the problems with water as droughts in least developed parts of the world are likely to cause mass migrations. Ecological economists now write about Water Footprints, in other words how water embodied in agricultural products is crossing borders due to international trade and how, for example, Spain exports vegetables that cause severe water stress in the regions where is almost no water at all. Some rich countries which experience severe lack of water create desalination plants and convert salty sea water into drinking water, some other countries, which are not so privileged experience the stress leading to conflicts that could even become violent. We at Environment Europe try our best at doing our part for the planet, using 100% renewable energy and saving water. Lets hope that something will change in the future and right policies will emerge!
Several copies of ‘Watermark’ are still available on Amazon but that won’t last forever: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Watermark-Blu-ray-DVD-Double-Play/dp/B00IIK6BQG
(c) Edward Burtinsky