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Edward Burtnysky on the climate crisis: “We should cry fire… but we are rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”


Photographer Edward Burtynsky says people should “sound the alarm now” because of the urgency of the climate crisis. Instead, he says, “it always feels like we’re rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

The 69-year-old Canadian artist has reinvented landscape photography, spending the last 40 years documenting man’s domination of the planet.

It explores human impact across the world – in all its beauty and sadness.

But does he see a conflict in creating beautiful images documenting such devastating impact on the ground?

He told Sky News: “My work is revealing, not accusatory.

“Every living species takes something from nature to survive, and we, as a large predator, take a lot from nature to survive.

“All these things I’m showing would be perfectly fine if there were a billion people on the planet. The fact that there are eight billion is a problem. It’s just too much of a good thing.”

His large-scale panoramas celebrate and challenge human ingenuity, inspiring his audiences to look beyond their backyards.

They also serve as a crucial reminder of what could be at stake if urgent changes are not made to the way we use the planet’s resources.

Photo: Edward Burtynsky/Flower Gallery
Coastal Mountains, British Columbia, Canada. Photo: Edward Burtynsky/Flower Gallery

Born in Ukraine, Burtynsky’s parents moved Canada after the Second World War. His father, who gave him his first camera when he was a child, died when he was only 15 years old.

Precipices and helicopters

The need to earn enough money to enable him to study photography led him to find work in big industry, working in the automobile and mining industries from his youth.

“I moved way up north and worked in big mines. And I got to see these worlds first hand. And I think it’s that kind of opening my eyes to this other world that made me “gave the idea that most people haven’t really seen these worlds.”

After standing near dangerous quarries and mines to take his photos (he admitted: “my mother didn’t approve, it was quite dangerous”), he now uses helicopters to take his aerial images.

Photo: Edward Burtynsky/Flower Gallery
Kooragang of Coal Terminal, Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia. Photo: Edward Burtynsky/Flower Gallery

Over four decades, his photographs have taken him to several countries on every continent (except Antarctica), with his works in the collections of more than 60 museums around the world.

Disappearing rivers of ice

His recent trip to photograph the coastal mountains of British Columbia, Canada, for his latest exhibition – New Works – was a stark reminder of a rapidly changing world.

From a bird’s eye view, he could see that the glaciers – which date back 150,000 years – had retreated dramatically compared to 20 years ago due to warming from human activity.

Not only a visible measure of man’s impact on the environment, the disappearance of ice rivers will impact the ecosystems that depend on their meltwater.

Burtynsky’s new collection also explores soil erosion Türkiyeand the impact of coal mining in Australia.

Photo: Edward Burtynsky/Flower Gallery
Salt Lakes, Northeast of Lake Tuz, Türkiye. Photo: Edward Burtynsky/Flower Gallery

He admits that it is sometimes frustrating trying to relay the urgency of the climate emergency message.

“Our heritage is troubled”

“We’re in a special moment and things are changing quickly. I’m trying to invoke a sense of urgency… This is actually scientifically mapped and we’re pretty good at predicting what to expect.”

His environmental message – which is his life’s passion – is deeply rooted.

“I have two daughters and I want them to have the chance to have a family too. So if you know, the legacy we leave behind is troubled.

But his ecological vigor is also rooted in his personal knowledge of big industry. It argues that our use of the world’s most valuable resources is not something that can simply stop, but rather requires careful planning, with incentives for alternative energy, to help us transition to more sustainable methods .

Photo: Edward Burtynsky/Flower Gallery
Erosion control, Yesilhisar, Central Anatolia, Türkiye. Photo: Edward Burtynsky/Flower Gallery

So what does he think of the growing army of climate activists who are drawing attention to the cause by doing ever more extreme things to make headlines – especially when it involves gallery protests of art?

“I understand the frustration”

“I understand why culture and the arts in particular can be a target, and someone trying to get attention through artistic celebrity. And that’s what happens, they take a famous painting and there throw paint… Or stick…

“I think it might be better to protest in front of the companies causing the problem, to get directly to the source of the problem. But I understand the frustration.”

Photo: Edward Burtynsky/Flower Gallery
Nallıhan erosion, Ankara province, Türkiye. Photo: Edward Burtynsky/Flower Gallery

As for renewed scrutiny of the funding source of some of our major arts institutions, including galleries and museums that accept money from big oil companies, he says it’s a tricky path to navigate.

‘Be careful what you wish for’

“In a way, this line is dangerous because you can suddenly discover that the culture is no longer viable.

“I also think that the oil companies need to make a transition and that they can do a lot to make a difference.

“We still need oil until the transition happens, (and we should) be careful what we wish for, because if all of a sudden oil stopped tomorrow, I would call that anarchy .

“We would have no more food in the cities. Transportation would not work, everything would come to a screeching halt. So we are unfortunately still tied to this energy source for the foreseeable future.”

Photo: Edward Burtynsky/Flower Gallery
Ravensworth coal tailings, Ravensworth mine, Hunter Valley, New South Wales, Australia. Photo: Edward Burtynsky/Flower Gallery

Part of that future, he believes, lies in the essential role art can play in raising environmental awareness.

‘We still have time’

“Artists have a role and creativity has a huge role in the future because we have to reinvent our world. We have to find a world that is not built on this consumer culture where the more things I have, the more I am happy.

“I think everyone finds that this is a somewhat superficial value system that may have been sold to us by very influential advertising campaigns.”

So should viewers of his work feel optimistic or pessimistic when leaving the gallery?

“I hope people can come away saying there’s still time to do something.

“I think pessimism tends to lead to cynicism that nothing is going to work, so (people think) ‘Why should I care? I’m going to carry on with business as usual.’ And I don’t think let it be the right attitude.”

Photo: Edward Burtynsky/Flower Gallery
Coastal Mountains, Monarch Ice Sheet, British Columbia, Canada. Photo: Edward Burtynsky/Flower Gallery

But alongside this optimism, Burtynsky demonstrates lucidity about the challenges facing the world.

Atmospheric rivers, water bombs and thermal domes

“Storms are coming – we’re hearing all kinds of new terminology: ‘atmospheric rivers’; ‘water bombs’ – these are massive amounts of water hitting a city at once; ‘heat domes’. All these new terms to try to describe what is coming.

“The fire seasons have already started early, Texas is having one of its worst fire seasons ever, and this is a month and a half, two months early.”

Photo: Edward Burtynsky/Flower Gallery
Coastal Mountains, glacier retreat, British Columbia, Canada. Photo: Edward Burtynsky/Flower Gallery

He concludes: “It’s a question of how quickly we are able to cease and abandon the worst activity that we are doing, which I would say right now is the loading of CO2 into the atmosphere and is our problem the most immediate.

“We have a lot of problems, and I think if people want to act, they need to act. The time for words is long past.”

Edward Burtynsky New Works is on display at Flowers Gallery until April 6.

A retrospective of his work, Extraction/Abstraction, is presented at the Saatchi gallery until May 6.

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Watch the full interview on The Climate Show with Tom Heap, Saturday and Sunday at 3:30pm and 7:30pm on Sky News.


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