Burtinsky @EdwardBurtynsky: OIL

Given the current state of the world with CO2 emissions concentration at 407.96 ppm (Maua Loa Observatory),  over half of the world’s biodiversity lost in the last 40 years (Living Planet index declined 58% between 1970 and 2012 according to WWF Living Planet Report) and 8 mln tonnes of plastic waste entering the oceans every year (WEF)  we better be worried.

Edward Burtinsky (https://www.edwardburtynsky.com/) has devoted his photographic career to exposing the processes that normally go unnoticed, namely the full life cycle of the products we use, from the mining of resources to production and, finally, consumption. Not many people know that it was in fact Professor Robert Ayres, who first introduced the concepts of material flows analysis, life cycle analysis and industrial ecology into the discourse of ecological economics (Robert Ayres). Ecological economists present the material flow of a particular country in the form of a diagram:


Figure 1. Material Flows of Japan in 2000, mln tonnes.

What we see here is that in total the economy of a country (Japan in the year 2000 in this case) processed 2,130 million tonnes of material. Where did it come from? Well, 1,124 million tonnes have been mined in the country itself, but 788 million tonnes have been imported and 218 million tonnes have been reused and recycled. What happened to these flows? A huge proportion has been ‘added to stock’ (1,107 mln tonnes), which means that this material has gone towards an increased mass of buildings, car stocks and so on. 420 million tonnes of materials have been used in energy production, 127 million tonnes were consumed as food and 132 million tonnes have been exported. It is worth noting that 600 million tonnes (just under 1/3 of all material input) ended up as waste. This raises profound questions about the efficiency of our resource use and ability to create more with less.

It is clear that we urgently need to move to new business models, which will avoid producing and selling goods that could be thrown away at the end of their life cycle. What is required is a de-materialization of our economy, be it mobile phones, computers, vehicles or food and its packaging.

Edward Burtinsky creates aerial images that are designed to tell the untold story of our consumption, in other words, what happens at the other end, the end of production. Every time we fire an engine we should think about what happens in places where the ingredients for the fuel we use are produced. The image below uses the power of a visual metaphor to depict a stream stemming from the oil production in Nigeria that from high above looks like a a dead tree. What seems like a contamination of an ecosystem from the oil pollution conquers the living system like a cancer overtakes a healthy cell. The pattern and the emotional echo it can evoke are truly extraordinary and raise important questions about complexity of nature and the rules that guide the formation of such patterns from a visual point of view. Such contamination happens not only in the real landscapes but also in our minds, when we become unresponsive to the world’s environmental problems. We are all in it together and should act in a collaborative manner to work out the solutions, ruthless competition and profit maximization has been the dominant neoclassical paradigm for far too long.

In one of the recent books entitled ‘Oil‘, Burtinsky assembles a collection of images aimed to explain to us, urban and rural dwellers, what happens before we fill our tanks with petrol. The devastating effects of oil spills like the recent ones in East China Sea and Gulf of Mexico include destruction of habitat, extermination of species, damaged livelihood of local residents, detrimental effects on tourism in the region and the life of the planet itself.

Photography can indeed act to catalyze public consciousness, raise awareness and inspire change. The change could start small at the level of safety in production and transportation of oil and oil products, but also at the level of whole systems, rethinking our travel patterns and infrastructure, investing in high speed rail, multi-modal public transport, including underground systems, pedestrianization of our cities and creating a robust and safe cycling infrastructure, shifting to hybrid and electric cars, using solar panels to produce additional energy by airplanes and vehicles and ultimately urban planning and design.

In this context, he question I would like to explore is to which extent the extraordinary photography of Edward Burtinsky, Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Sebastiao Salgado, David Maisel, Richard Misrash is actually making an impact. What I would like to understand is how the image could lead to a paradigm shift and a change of perspective, bringing about new business models, wide awareness and responses. The recent UK policy of a 5p charge for using plastic bags has recently been extended to all shops in the country (FT), it is a small step, but a great beginning, which leaves one optimistic to hope that more could be done to achieve true sustainability.


Image (c) Edward Burtinsky (2016) “Oil Bunkering #2, Niger Delta, Nigeria



Ayres, R. (2016) Energy, Complexity and Wealth Maximization, Springer: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Energy-Complexity-Maximization-Frontiers-Collection/dp/3319305441/

Burtinsky E. (2010) Oil, Steidl: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Burtynsky-Oil-Edward/dp/3869300329/

WWF (2016) Living Planet Report: http://awsassets.panda.org/downloads/lpr_living_planet_report_2016.pdf



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