Images of the Anthropocene

When I went to the AGO back in the fall I mentioned that there was an upcoming exhibit I wanted to see called "Anthropocene". I didn't make it back to the gallery while it was on, so I watched the accompanying film on iTunes.

Anthropocene was made by Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky. It is narrated—lightly, since the visuals are supposed to speak for themselves—by Alicia Vikander (I thought she was great in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Tomb Raider; Tulip Fever had awkward pacing among other weaknesses, but the acting in it was fine). The title comes from a proposed geological epoch in which "humans have changed the earth and its processes more than all natural forces combined."

As you would expect from a project that was shown in art galleries, the cinematography for this movie was very well done. I also appreciated that although it deals with serious environmental topics it avoids being preachy and lets viewers draw their own conclusions. It is divided into seven sections: Extraction, Terraforming, Technofossils, Anthroturbation, Boundary Limits, Climate Change, and Extinction. It visits places as diverse as a foundry in Russia, a rail tunnel in Switzerland, an ivory shop in Hong Kong, and a coral reef during a bleaching event. Rather than try to recap the entire movie, I'm just going to focus on a few scenes and points that stood out to me. First, here are a couple of screenshots (apologies for the low quality—iTunes doesn't let you use the screenshot function while a movie is playing) that I found had striking visuals:

Scenes from Anthropocene movie

  • The movie begins and ends with an ivory burn in Kenya. The tusks being destroyed came from a staggering 10,000 poached elephants. The film doesn't get into this, but there is debate about whether destroying confiscated ivory helps protect elephants from poaching or not, though. On a happier note, Anthropocene profiles an ivory store in Hong Kong that only uses mammoth tusks, recovered from permafrost in Siberia.
  • The screenshot on the left above is from evaporation ponds for lithium in Chile (see here if you want to view them on a map). The colourful ponds concentrate lithium using the energy of the sun. The workers there were proud to be contributing a resource that is needed for electric cars and cellphone batteries.
  • The screenshot on the right is of an excavator at the Hambach mine in Germany (see it on a map here). The excavators there are the largest in the world. To me they had a bit of a steampunk vibe, like something out of Mortal Engines. This open-pit coal mine keeps growing to the point that it has swallowed up multiple villages. The movie had some poignant shots of a church building being torn down to get at the coal underneath. It's worth noting here that Germany's continued reliance on coal is at least partly due to its rejection of nuclear power.
  • Carrara in Italy has been a source of marble since Roman times (Michaelangelo used it as well) and the quarries there are still in use today (see the area on a map here).
  • As an illustration of urbanization, the movie showed a church building in the megacity of Lagos, Nigeria, that was reportedly built to hold one million people. A song titled "Igwe" (which I think means "Majesty") was being sung in that scene.
  • One part that I thought was cool was an underground (in an old WW2 air raid shelter) farm in London. All of the inputs were provided in a controlled manner, from grow lights to water and fertilizer.
  • According to the movie, nitrogen and phosphorus levels in soil have doubled over the past century (due to the use of chemical fertilizers) and "humans annually move more sediment than all the rivers of the world combined."
  • Because I'm an engineer, I noticed that people working at almost all of the sites featured in Anthropocene were equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE). The exceptions (a lumber yard in Nigeria where some of the labourers were children and an enormous landfill in Kenya with people picking through the trash) were probably the hardest parts to watch.
  • The movie focuses on landscapes where human activity has made a significant mark. Before wrapping up this review, I want to point out that that is not the case everywhere. For example, the mining footprint in the oilsands in Alberta is around 950 square km but if you go a bit further north you'll reach Wood Buffalo National Park which has an area over 44,000 square km. This is part of the reason I included map links for a few of the sites described above: "zooming out" can add some context.

Reading my descriptions is one thing and seeing the visuals for yourself is another. Anthropocene is certainly worth seeing.

For my next post, I'm planning to review a couple of books that have some overlap with the themes of this movie.