It's worthwhile to try to visualize the anthropocene, and photography is a good way to do it.
Here for instance is my own image of the anthropocene stratum being formed in a gorge in New Mexico:
A parking lot at the top of the cliff apparently had collapsed some years ago, and the cars are sinking into the earth forming an iron deposit of an idiosyncratic sort. What we dig out of the earth eventually goes back into the earth. It has nowhere else to go. So if humanity fades from the scene, the modern era will be explicitly represented geologically by the earth swallowing our detritus again. (Click on the image for more detail.)
Much of our quandary needs to be expressed in abstract ways. People are so easily impressed by big numbers that aren't that big.
("Every year, Alaska loses some 75,000,000 tons of ice" I read recently. Why, that's enough to raise sea level by 5 microns!)
UPDATE: For what it's worth the real number should be 75,000,000,000 per 20 years. 25 mm/century in other words if my math holds. It's not an important number in any case, but bigger than I made out. The Himalayan ice may be a bit more important, but the real sea level story remains thermal expansion and the big ice sheets. I think the Facebook claim I saw was twice garbled.
Similarly, pictures of environmental awfulness need to be accompanied by some though into how widespread they are.
There's a series of pictures that's gotten some play in Facebook circles here. Some just represent large problems, while others demonstrate them. This for instance is an unequivocal horror:
while this could represent a huge problem or not; we have to provide context ourselves:
(My aesthetic sensibilities prevent me from reposting the horrifying #15.)
But what are we to make of these two images, of Mexico City and Los Angeles?
Well, there sure are a lot of us, yep. But given that, is this sort concentration of humanity a problem? Maybe it's a solution! If we live closer together, we can share resources more effectively.
It's widely known that whatever else there is to being a Manhattanite, it comes with a much lower environmental footprint than anywhere else in America, with places like Boston and Chicago forming the second tier. Granted this sort of bird's eye view is sort of scary, but given that there are billions of us, isn't this the right way for us to live?
But then there was one image in the set, intended after all to be as
mortifying as possible, to shake the viewer into some sort of
radicalism, one image to which my response was unequivocally favorable.
Maybe I'm odd about this. It's this one, captioned "The
area around Almeria in Spain is littered with greenhouses as far as the
eye can see – simply for a richly filled dinner table."
Assuming that really is what we are seeing here, so how is that a problem? Imagine how much more land and resources this agriculture would take done out in the open.
I'm not convinced by this idea that plowed-field agriculture is in any way "natural", that an agrarian landscape is particularly sustainable or delightful. (The endless cornfields of bizarrely flat Illinois are a particular horror, actually, as I look at it. I have nightmares about them.)
So regarding "greenhouses as far as the
eye can see – simply for a richly filled dinner table"?
Yeah! More please!
I think it's not an easy question whether, in the end, agriculture has not done more environmental damage than heavy industry. Certainly it's not heavy industry that depleted the soil or displaced most of the world's biodiversity with monocultures. If we can pack ourselves into small spaces, so much the better. I think the same holds for our crops.
What's more, the more we rely on traditional agricultural methods, the more we are at risk from climate change. Indoor solar-powered agriculture recycles water, saves land and thereby preserves habitat, stops soil erosion, and increases resilience to the climate shocks that are coming.
I just don't buy into the back-to-the-land plan. It's way too late for that. Are greenhouses really so terrible?