“Humans now change the Earth’s systems more than all natural forces combined.”
According to a group of earth scientists called the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), a new geological age is upon us. Some believe it began in the industrial revolution, while others argue it started with the first nuclear tests.
Using the AWG’s research as their springboard, photographer Edward Burtynsky, director Jennifer Baichwal and cinematographer Nicholas de Pencier created Anthropocene: The Human Epoch. It is the third instalment of Baichwal and Burtynsky’s ecological docu-series – preceded by Manufactured Landscapes (2006) and Watermark (2013).
The creative trio serve a grotesque and beautiful visual feast of humanity’s devastating alterations to Earth’s surface and the life it supports. In high definition, Anthropocene illuminates an insatiable hunger for resources and the demonstrative environmental impact of its gluttony.
Lithium brine pools lay flat in vivid greens atop the earthy Chilean desert. Cool white marble is chiseled in massive chunks from ancient Italian quarries, while warm coral potash is pulverized as it’s pulled from the Ural Mountains. Deep browns emerge from beneath bulldozed German hamlets in a search for coal.
Perhaps most fascinating, however, are the humans immersed in these epic shifts. Occasional interjections from environmental activists or industrial employees may not offer any tangible scientific perspective, but they do offer a window into how our species copes within the destructive systems it has built.
From an isolated, hyper-polluted Siberian mining town to the staggering and unsustainable boom of Africa’s largest megacity, Anthropocene finds people being human – coming together, sharing their passion, their art, their faith.
Though the footage is exceptionally striking, the film sheds little light on the root cause of these destabilizing environmental practices or the true extent of their ecological consequences. The scant script, written by Baichwal and read by Swedish actor Alicia Vikander, lacks practical context and academic support.
Anthropocene presents as a human-centric Planet Earth pastiche that would benefit from more of the BBC series’ critical narrative and comprehensive thematic insight. What it has succeeded in, however, is in bringing attention to the epic scale of humanity’s ingenuity – for better and worse – and leaving a trail of stubs for the curious.
In conjunction with the film’s release, the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto ran complementary interactive exhibitions of the trio’s work from Sept. 28 through Jan. 5. The AGO also produced a seven-part podcast exploring the concept of the Anthropocene in greater depth which can be found on their website (ago.ca).
Published in Volume 73, Number 13 of The Uniter (January 10, 2019)