Edward Burtynsky: Fossil futures

An overview of The Anthropocene Project for New Scientist, 10 October 2018

THE lasting geological impact of our species is clearly visible within the galleries of this potash mine in Russia’s Ural mountains. The Urals contain one of the largest deposits in the world of this salt, one of the most widely used fertilisers. Mining has left behind vast subterranean galleries, their walls machine-carved with enormous ammonite-like whorls.

The Canadian photographer and artist Edward Burtynsky took this photograph for The Anthropocene Project, a collaborative chronicle of geologically significant human activity such as extraction, urbanisation and deforestation. Works from the project are on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada, while this image and other photographs feature in Burtynsky’s exhibition The Human Signature, at London’s Flowers Gallery, to 24 November.

This September also saw the release of a documentary film, Anthropocene: The human epoch, and a book of colour photographs by Burtynsky, which includes new writing from author and poet Margaret Atwood.

Through publications, films and immersive media, Burtynksy and his Anthropocene Project collaborators – filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier – convey the unsettling visual reality of resource depletion and extinction: how our planet’s surface is being scarred, ground and shovelled into abstract, almost painterly forms.

The effects of mining, in particular, are irreversible. While animal burrows reach a few metres at most, humans carve out networks that can descend several kilometres, below the reach of erosion. They are likely to survive, at least in trace form, for millions or even billions of years.

There is an eerie poetry to this: burrows found in 500-million-year-old sediment tipped off geologists to the massive diversification of animal forms known as the Cambrian explosion. Will our own gargantuan earthworks commemorate more than just a mass extinction event?

Tomás Saraceno: Beneath an ocean of air

Visiting Tomás Saraceno’s Berlin studio for New Scientist, 13 October 2018

THE Argentine-born artist Tomás Saraceno maintains a studio in Berlin – if you can call a disused chemicals factory a studio. There is nothing small about this operation. Saraceno, who trained as an architect in Buenos Aires, now employs hundreds of people, with specialisms ranging from art history and architecture to biology and anthropology. If you’re serious about saving the world, you need this kind of cross-disciplinary team, I suppose.

Though Saraceno hasn’t exactly promised to save the world, he has been dropping some big hints. His utopian installations include Cloud Cities at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, in 2011 – a collection of geometric, inflated shapes. Even by the time of his Observatory/Air-Port-City show at London’s Hayward Gallery in 2008, these shapes contained autonomous residential units. A network of habitable cells floated in the air, combining and recombining like clouds.

A year later at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, gallery-goers got to explore these spaces via 16 interconnected modules made up of glass segments held in place by steel cables. And in June 2013, the K21 gallery in Düsseldorf invited visitors to wander more than 25 metres above the gallery’s piazza across a web dotted with inflated PVC spheres.

This is Saraceno’s answer to our global problems: he wants us to take to the air. That’s why he coined the term “Aerocene” for one of his projects. He wants people to think of climate change in terms of possibility, playfulness and, yes, escape. “We live beneath an ocean of air,” he once wrote, as he sketched his utopian vision of a city in the clouds. “But we’ve yet to find a way to inhabit it.”

Near his Berlin studio is a scruffy public park. Part of it is marked out for football. Behind one goal stands a graffitied stretch of the Berlin Wall. Today there’s another attraction: two men are running back and forth, trying to fill a black bag as big as a minivan with air. It is a fine, windless day; the air in the bag heats up quickly, and once it is sealed, the container rises into the sky. A bag no longer, it is clearly recognisable as one of Saraceno’s signature tetrahedral solar balloons.

These black balloons have been plying the skies since 2007. They are mascots of the artist’s multi-stranded effort to combine engineering, architecture and the natural sciences to create a new, democratic kind of environmental art, made of bubbles and aerial platforms and webs. An art that mitigates climate change, he says, and makes the sky habitable, by establishing a modular, transnational settlement in the skies through solar balloons that require no fuel at all. An art that ushers in utopia.

Could it be that this chap is just playing about with balloons? Trying to calculate Saraceno’s level of seriousness is half the fun. Over lunch, for instance, he tells me that he wants to return us “to a sort of Mayan sensitivity towards celestial mechanics”.

But some of his efforts are admirably practical. The balloon I’d just seen being demonstrated was an Aerocene Explorer: it comes in a backpack complete with instructions on how to create and fly lightweight sensors. Any data collected can be uploaded and shared with Aerocene’s online community, via a website where participants from all over the world are sharing their experiments and innovations.

Practicalities aside, much of Saraceno’s work is simply beautiful. For a show opening at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris on 17 October, the team is busy building playful orreries, mechanical models of the solar system that combine planetary orbits with the physics of soap bubbles and webs spun by his pet Cyrtophora citricola spiders.

These unbelievably delicate confections will be on show with some mirrored umbrellas that also double as solar cookers. When arranged in concentric circles, Saraceno imagines that in the manner of a solar thermal power plant, the umbrellas might even concentrate enough heat to inflate a large balloon. He hopes to try out the idea when Audemars Piguet – a Swiss watch manufacturer that has recent form in backing innovative science-inflected art – takes parts of his sprawling Aerocene endeavour to Miami this December for the Art Basel fair.

Meanwhile, there are myriad things to organise for Paris: workshops, concerts, public symposiums uniting scientific institutions, researchers, activists, local communities, musicians and philosophers. As he says: “People aren’t very interested in simple ideas. You have to give things a little bit of complication to get the audience to engage.”

balloons

He found this out the moment he started using solar balloons. The balloons, which work by simply zipping up some air in a heat-absorbing bag, have been around since the 1970s. His own projects have demonstrated their usefulness in meteorology, pollution monitoring, even passenger transport. In 2015, he flew in a tethered solar balloon over the dunes of White Sands in New Mexico, where the US launched its first rockets and where the world’s first tourist spaceport is located. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology got in on the act, and created technology so that you can use the Aerocene.org website to plan a meteorologically feasible journey, by balloon, from Point A to Point B, anywhere on Earth.

“Rats saved at the point of giving up fought for life 240 times longer when returned to danger”

Here’s the paradox. Saraceno’s work has always been playful, and part of the game, he explains, has been “trying to sell this work as some sort of global solution to something”. But while his visions of an airborne utopia remain as remote as ever, his Aerocene project has spawned a foundation that uses lightweight balloons for climate activism and pollution monitoring. And even the absurd spectacle of someone jetting from country to country to fly fuel-less balloons has become part of the art, as Saraceno’s studio begins to record his own carbon footprint.

Saraceno makes an important point about how we address climate change in our lives. The trick, he says, is not to let the perfect get in the way of the good. Escapism is fine. He has no time for the way so many artists and pundits are ringing humanity’s death knell. He has a special contempt for the lazy way the word Anthropocene crops up now in every climate conversation, as if, with the advent of this putative new era, our doom was sealed. “What a great way for a small number of people to disempower and demotivate us,” he says.

Given the seriousness of our environmental bind, isn’t escapism a bit irresponsible? Saraceno points me to a 1957 paper by psychobiologist Curt Richter. His gruesome experiments left rats to drown in water-filled containers from which they could not escape. But if he briefly rescued rats at the point they gave up swimming, and then returned them to the water, those rats continued to fight for life 240 times longer. Richter concluded that they had learned that there was hope. Faced with challenges on a planetary scale, we are scrambling for our lives, and can see no way out. “We need the energy those rats got when they saw some small hope,” says Saraceno.

I hadn’t expected our conversation to take this dark turn, but creating such small glimmers of hope is his business. If he is a joker, then he is one in the best sense of the word.

Should we take Saraceno’s work seriously? I was doubtful, but now I think, why look a gift horse in the mouth? He enthuses people. He gets us thinking. And he is right: a little hope goes a long way.

Unseen, Amsterdam: Blanket coverage

When Records Melt at Unseen Amsterdam, discussed in New Scientist, 20 September 2018

Visit the Rhône Glacier in southern Switzerland, and you are more than likely to wander past a small shop. It’s worth a visit: the owners have carved out an ice grotto, and charge tourists for the eerie and beautiful experience of exploring the inside of their glacier’s mass of blue ice.

Now, though, it’s melting. The grotto is such an important part of their livelihood, some years ago the owners invested 100,000 euros in a special thermal blanket. “It’s kept about 25 metres’ depth of ice from disappearing and has kept the grotto in business,” explains the photographer Simon Norfolk. But a few winters on the mountain have left the blanket in tatters.

“It’s the gesture that fascinates me,” says Norfolk. “There is something insane about trying to reverse the inevitable – a gesture as forlorn and doomed as the glacier itself.”

Norfolk and fellow photographer Klaus Thymann climbed up to the grotto just before dawn, armed with a light attached to a helium balloon that cast a sepulchral light over the scene. “I wanted to recreate the same light you get over a mortuary slab,” Norfolk says.

Emilia van Lynden, artistic director of Unseen Amsterdam, finds the effect as aesthetically chilling as it is beautiful. Of the whole series, called Shroud, she observes: “We’re seeing a glacier being wrapped and prepared for death.”

“There’s next to no photo-journalism here,” van Lynden explains. “None of the images here expect you to take them at face value. They expect you to pay attention and figure things out for yourself. These are works into which you need to invest a little bit of time and effort, to see what the artist is trying to tell you.”

On the face of it, then, the presence at Unseen of Project Pressure, Norfolk and Thymann’s campaigning environmental charity, seems odd. The whole point of the outfit, which has collaborated with the likes of NASA and the World Glacier Monitoring Service, is not just to get us to think about climate change, but to do something positive about it.

But art photography, Norfolk and Thymann believe, is a more effective communication tool than straightforward photo-journalism.

Their point is eloquently made by this 24 hour time-lapse video, created with a thermal imaging camera. By revealing the heat-properties of the scene, Norfolk and Thymann underline the different temperatures in the ice-body versus the surrounding landscape – a key indicator of climate change.

“I believe artists often make the best social and environmental investigators,” says van Lynden. “The trouble with ‘straight’ photography is it looks for stunning subjects and leaves you, well, stunned by them. Glaciers are magnificent in their natural form even as they’re melting away.”

The series exhibited in Project Pressure’s show When Records Melt take a different approach.

Among van Lynden’s favourite works are photographs by Christopher Parsons, who is better known for photographic portraits of explorers and sports personalities. Parsons won Project Pressure’s open call, and was invited on an expedition to the Himalayas. He collaborated with scientists studying alterations in the microbial life around retreating glaciers, and his photographs, while full of dread, are also accurate records of how changing weather patterns are altering the course of life in these fragile environments.

Lhotse at sundown, Nepal

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin also take an apparently left-field approach to glacier retreat that nonetheless packs a powerful emotional punch. “Their work is literally a huge photograph of a bone that was found within the Rhône glacier,” says van Lynden. “They’re looking at the glacier as a living archive that now is slowly unravelling. All this information, all this stored data, which has been locked in the ice for however many thousands of years, is being lost.”

She is in no doubt that Project Pressure’s message is clear. If you’re not convinced by one series of photographs, says van Lynden, “then you have six other projects that showcase, each in its individual manner, the irreparable damage we have done to our planet.”

Just how much does the world follow laws?

zebra

How the Zebra Got its Stripes and Other Darwinian Just So Stories by Léo Grasset
The Serengeti Rules: The quest to discover how life works and why it matters by Sean B. Carroll
Lysenko’s Ghost: Epigenetics and Russia by Loren Graham
The Great Derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh
reviewed for New Scientist, 15 October 2016

JUST how much does the world follow laws? The human mind, it seems, may not be the ideal toolkit with which to craft an answer. To understand the world at all, we have to predict likely events and so we have a lot invested in spotting rules, even when they are not really there.

Such demands have also shaped more specialised parts of culture. The history of the sciences is one of constant struggle between the accumulation of observations and their abstraction into natural laws. The temptation (especially for physicists) is to assume these laws are real: a bedrock underpinning the messy, observable world. Life scientists, on the other hand, can afford no such assumption. Their field is constantly on the move, a plaything of time and historical contingency. If there is a lawfulness to living things, few plants and animals seem to be aware of it.

Consider, for example, the charming “just so” stories in French biologist and YouTuber Léo Grasset’s book of short essays, How the Zebra Got its Stripes. Now and again Grasset finds order and coherence in the natural world. His cost-benefit analysis of how animal communities make decisions, contrasting “autocracy” and “democracy”, is a fine example of lawfulness in action.

But Grasset is also sharply aware of those points where the cause-and-effect logic of scientific description cannot show the whole picture. There are, for instance, four really good ways of explaining how the zebra got its stripes, and those stripes arose probably for all those reasons, along with a couple of dozen others whose mechanisms are lost to evolutionary history.

And Grasset has even more fun describing the occasions when, frankly, nature goes nuts. Take the female hyena, for example, which has to give birth through a “pseudo-penis”. As a result, 15 per cent of mothers die after their first labour and 60 per cent of cubs die at birth. If this were a “just so” story, it would be a decidedly off-colour one.

The tussle between observation and abstraction in biology has a fascinating, fraught and sometimes violent history. In Europe at the birth of the 20th century, biology was still a descriptive science. Life presented, German molecular biologist Gunther Stent observed, “a near infinitude of particulars which have to be sorted out case by case”. Purely descriptive approaches had exhausted their usefulness and new, experimental approaches were developed: genetics, cytology, protozoology, hydrobiology, endocrinology, experimental embryology – even animal psychology. And with the elucidation of underlying biological process came the illusion of control.

In 1917, even as Vladimir Lenin was preparing to seize power in Russia, the botanist Nikolai Vavilov was lecturing to his class at the Saratov Agricultural Institute, outlining the task before them as “the planned and rational utilisation of the plant resources of the terrestrial globe”.

Predicting that the young science of genetics would give the next generation the ability “to sculpt organic forms at will”, Vavilov asserted that “biological synthesis is becoming as much a reality as chemical”.

The consequences of this kind of boosterism are laid bare in Lysenko’s Ghost by the veteran historian of Soviet science Loren Graham. He reminds us what happened when the tentatively defined scientific “laws” of plant physiology were wielded as policy instruments by a desperate and resource-strapped government.

Within the Soviet Union, dogmatic views on agrobiology led to disastrous agricultural reforms, and no amount of modern, politically motivated revisionism (the especial target of Graham’s book) can make those efforts seem more rational, or their aftermath less catastrophic.

In modern times, thankfully, a naive belief in nature’s lawfulness, reflected in lazy and increasingly outmoded expressions such as “the balance of nature”, is giving way to a more nuanced, self-aware, even tragic view of the living world. The Serengeti Rules, Sean B. Carroll’s otherwise triumphant account of how physiology and ecology turned out to share some of the same mathematics, does not shy away from the fact that the “rules” he talks about are really just arguments from analogy.

“If there is a lawfulness to living things, few plants and animals seem to be aware of it”
Some notable conservation triumphs have led from the discovery that “just as there are molecular rules that regulate the numbers of different kinds of molecules and cells in the body, there are ecological rules that regulate the numbers and kinds of animals and plants in a given place”.

For example, in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, in 2000, there were fewer than 1000 elephants, hippos, wildebeest, waterbuck, zebras, eland, buffalo, hartebeest and sable antelopes combined. Today, with the reintroduction of key predators, there are almost 40,000 animals, including 535 elephants and 436 hippos. And several of the populations are increasing by more than 20 per cent a year.

But Carroll is understandably flummoxed when it comes to explaining how those rules might apply to us. “How can we possibly hope that 7 billion people, in more than 190 countries, rich and poor, with so many different political and religious beliefs, might begin to act in ways for the long-term good of everyone?” he asks. How indeed: humans’ capacity for cultural transmission renders every Serengeti rule moot, along with the Serengeti itself – and a “law of nature” that does not include its dominant species is not really a law at all.

Of course, it is not just the sciences that have laws: the humanities and the arts do too. In The Great Derangement, a book that began as four lectures presented at the University of Chicago last year, the novelist Amitav Ghosh considers the laws of his own practice. The vast majority of novels, he explains, are realistic. In other words, the novel arose to reflect the kind of regularised life that gave you time to read novels – a regularity achieved through the availability of reliable, cheap energy: first, coal and steam, and later, oil.

No wonder, then, that “in the literary imagination climate change was somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel”. Ghosh is keenly aware of and impressively well informed about climate change: in 1978, he was nearly killed in an unprecedentedly ferocious tornado that ripped through northern Delhi, leaving 30 dead and 700 injured. Yet he has never been able to work this story into his “realist” fiction. His hands are tied: he is trapped in “the grid of literary forms and conventions that came to shape the narrative imagination in precisely that period when the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the destiny of the Earth”.

The exciting and frightening thing about Ghosh’s argument is how he traces the novel’s narrow compass back to popular and influential scientific ideas – ideas that championed uniform and gradual processes over cataclysms and catastrophes.

One big complaint about science – that it kills wonder – is the same criticism Ghosh levels at the novel: that it bequeaths us “a world of few surprises, fewer adventures, and no miracles at all”. Lawfulness in biology is rather like realism in fiction: it is a convention so useful that we forget that it is a convention.

But, if anthropogenic climate change and the gathering sixth mass extinction event have taught us anything, it is that the world is wilder than the laws we are used to would predict. Indeed, if the world really were in a novel – or even in a book of popular science – no one would believe it.

A breath of fresh air

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The Planet Remade: How geoengineering could change the world by Oliver Morton
reviewed for New Scientist, 9 December 2015.

 

WHO’S afraid of big engineering? Apparently, there exists a global network of activists convinced that aircraft vapour trails are substances sprayed into the air as part of a government programme for – take your pick – mind control, sterilisation or climate management.

All those in this network, and many outside, fear Promethean science. And geoengineering – the idea that we should alter the climate to our advantage while there’s still food in the shops and our coastal cities are above sea level – is certainly Promethean.

It is, however, anything but the darling of the military-industrial complex. Its researchers are poorly funded enthusiasts, many of them close to retirement. They do not want to control the climate, and indeed could not, even if they tried. Instead, they want to offer a stopgap technology that will keep global temperatures stable while the gargantuan work of unpicking the carbon economy goes on.

The global consensus on climate change treats carbon as a contaminant. The hope is that enough political will can be mustered to get rid of excess atmospheric carbon, in much the way the world abandoned the chlorofluorocarbons responsible for damaging the ozone layer.

This is an approach that has been shown to work, but in The Planet Remade, Oliver Morton is here to show that it is hopeless: “Any plausible cuts in carbon dioxide emissions made today would have more or less no effect until the mid-century. By that time the costs of inaction might be horribly plain – but there will be no time machine with which to come back and set the necessary cuts in motion on the basis of that future knowledge.” Something as complex as the relationship of industrial civilisation to Earth “isn’t the sort of thing that is simply solved, once and for all, and it’s a snare to think that it is”.

Veiling the atmosphere with sulphur could stabilise global temperatures indefinitely for little cost, he believes. It would be another form of climate change and Earth would be a little drier. There might be losers as well as winners. But even the losers in Morton’s meticulously detailed and exhaustively referenced scenarios would fare better than if we heat Earth by more than 2 °C. The task would then be to replace the carbon economy.

Naysayers believe that if we were to stabilise global temperatures, we would somehow forget about the carbon problem. But given the fast-declining alkalinity of the oceans, this hardly seems likely.

Morton believes the climate-change debate is hobbled by a bleak view of humanity. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that we will not recognise runaway industrial growth as folly until it has done all the damage it can – and that full recognition of that folly is the only route to avoiding further destruction. “I can’t say that there is no wisdom in that stance,” writes Morton. “I can only say I do not share it. I refuse to accept a world in which nothing can be protected and only pain and loss instruct.”

Over nearly 400 pages, Morton constructs his argument with the intensity of an essayist. It is a dizzying, exhausting, exhilarating read. And let me nail my colours to the mast: he’s right.