The global award in photography and sustainability

Edward Burtynsky

“When we destroy nature, we diminish ourselves. We impoverish our children… I don’t want my children to grow up in a world where… we’ve lost touch with the seasons and the tides and the things that connect us to the 10,000 generations of human beings that were here before there were laptops.”

Robert F. Kennedy Jr (speech, Sierra Club Summit, San Francisco, September 20th, 2005)

These thoughts closely echo my own sentiments about the kind of world we leave for future generations. It is my belief that using a variety of communications, a widespread effort to inform the global population, its corporations and governments, is critical to inspiring responsible dialogue regarding the effect an industrial global economy has on our planet.

Through creative production I have found a means by which I can add my voice in support of a viable civilisation. I feel an urgency to help make people aware that what we give to the future are the choices we make today.

Only one per cent of China’s water supply is potable. In fact, over fifty per cent of all rivers in that country are polluted to such an extent that it is considered dangerous to put one’s hand in them. That toxic water finds it way to our oceans, the food of which we all share. For each barrel of oil recovered from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada, three barrels of contaminated water – required to separate that oil from sand – are pumped into tailing ponds that closely border fresh water rivers.

Eighty-five per cent of all manufactured goods are sent across oceans in gigantic container ships that consume fuel oil at a terrifying rate. There are countless examples illustrating the sheer volume of environmental degradation and resource consumption that supports our modern lifestyle.

I no longer see my world as delineated by countries, with borders or language but as 6.5 billion humans living off a single finite planet. Just as the eventual depletion of global oil reserves will have a profound effect on world economies, compromises we make in the pursuit of economic growth to an even more essential resource – our drinking water – will have a fundamental impact on our very sustenance. The basic need for fresh water, like air and sunlight, is not a lifestyle choice it’s a matter of survival.

Nature transformed through industry is the predominant theme in my work. The images are meant as metaphors for the dilemma of our modern existence as I search for a visual dialogue between attraction and repulsion, seduction and fear. We are drawn by the desire for a  comfortable life, but the world is suffering for our success. Our dependence on nature to provide materials for our consumption, and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.

Edward Burtynsky