Saturday, June 30, 2007

Manufactured Landscapes

We went to see Manufactured Landscapes this afternoon - a powerful documentary about Edward Burtynksy's photography of industrial landscapes. His work in this area started off with photos of mines, landfills in the like in North America, but most of the work lately has been in China. It is a great illustration of what we all know, but often forget, and can rarely truly grasp: the scale of China's growth, which is being driven in large part by our consumerism.

The film does a great job of communicating one of the key characteristics of they system "global society within the biosphere": interdependence. The film does a nice job of showing this in a such a way that it is not obtuse.

It's often hard to think about China's development, following in our footsteps, and not get depressed. The issue is complex, as clearly this development is also benefiting hundreds of millions of people in certain ways. It is not easy to say "don't develop like we did" - especially when all of the corporations are licking their chops waiting for the Chinese market to mature to the point where they can consume like us. To help understand it all, I find the Threshold Hypothesis to be very useful. The jist of it is as follows:

“For every society there seems to be a period in which economic growth–conventionally understood and measured-brings about an improvement in the quality of life, but only up to a point-the threshold point-beyond which, if there is more economic growth, quality of life may begin to deteriorate.” (Max-Neef, Ecological Economics, 1995).

Clearly, China's going through that first period (though on an unprecedented scale) - and it's quite clear that we are in the second stage, although we are slow in realizing that and adapting accordingly. Still, more and more people are waking up to this reality, stepping back and asking themselves why a few times, with regard to our careers, plans, dreams, life in general. To paraphrase Janine Benyus, more and more we're creating eddies along side the massive river of unsustainable growth, reflecting and looking for ways to create a steady-state, circular, sustainable global economy.

An incredible recent example of this is the Tallberg Forum going on in Sweden right now - that link will bring you to great videos of each day's events - very inspiring. On the China front, an Chinese interviewee from day 2 gives some great hope with a simple statement picking up on JFK vibe: it's time to stop asking what the world can do for China and start asking what China can do for the world. Great question for all of us, especially here in the US, as we come into my favorite holiday of the year, meant to celebrate the principles upon which this great country was based, and from which we unfortunately often drift too far. Stay going.

The film's website:

Edward Burtynsky's photography: