Art on the edge of the abyss
“WE ARE NO LONGER IN A STATE OF GROWTH; WE ARE IN A STATE OF EXCESS. WE ARE LIVING IN A SOCIETY OF EXCRESCENCE.” —JEAN BAUDRILLARD
Photos by David Maisel & Michael Light
Some scientists say we’ve entered the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in which Homo sapiens is the most dominant force on Earth. No more convincing—or unnerving—example of our recently acquired global influence exists than climate change, by which we are recklessly modifying every feature of the planet’s surface. Melting glaciers and warming seas; prolonged droughts, floods of unprecedented scale, and ferocious super storms; diseased forests and dying reefs, mass extinction, entire regions rendered hostile to all but weeds and cockroaches; along with tens of millions of our fellow human beings, often indigenous people, forced from their homelands and turned into refugees: If this be our moment in evolution, know it by the turmoil we cause and destruction we sow.
Climate change is one of many outcomes of our ability to remove coal, oil, and gas from the ground and place them in service of human ambition—converting ancient carbon into instant energy. We’ve similarly laid claim to other raw materials, including timber; gold and silver; base metals like iron, lead, copper, aluminum; sand, salt, shale, silica, clay, and gravel; uranium; rare earths (used in electronic devices like smart phones); dwindling reserves of precious fresh water. And the pace is accelerating, the damage expanding. Now that China, India, and Indonesia have joined the rest of the world in adopting urban industrialization as the highest expression of civilization, and the global human population draws closer to ten billion, we as a species are going to greater and greater lengths, both technologically and geographically, to meet our always-increasing demand for natural resources. As much as anything else, the Anthropocene is the age of extractive industry, whose worldwide signature is the sacrifice zone—an official government term first used to designate areas permanently devastated by nuclear attack but which now applies equally to ravaged landscapes and poisoned waterways.