20 October 2016. It was the end of the road all right. My journey north into the subarctic boreal forest was over upon reaching the confluence of the Clearwater and Athabasca rivers. The air at dawn was below freezing and misty, which became a brilliant fog as the rising sun revealed widespread alteration to the landscape. The evacuation must have been intense and chaotic.
I was on a division line of difference, near where a vast 588,000-hectare wildfire nicknamed ‘The Beast’ had begun six months earlier and became the most costly natural disaster in the history of Canada. The wildfre’s aftermath surrounded me, showing newly made gaps where houses and even entire suburbs had been, with blackened tree trunks standing as far as I could see, right out to the distant horizon. Habitats of pine, birch, aspen and spruce were broken – charred and scattered like bones in an open grave.
Renewal had started – the missing suburbs of the Fort McMurray neighbourhoods of Waterways, Abasand and Beacon Hill had been cleaned up and covered over to start afresh. Emerging whips of aspen and red dogwood were already a metre high, and mosses, shrubs and grasses were rising from the nutrient-rich ash. There was stillness here – shock from the trauma and recovery which evoked a sense of melancholy. I was yet to witness the horror.
March 2017, at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). The linguist Noam Chomsky – referring to Indian author Amitav Ghosh’s acclaimed 2016 book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable – states: ‘Our failure to address the most awesome challenge of human history, with the possible exception of nuclear weapons, is indeed a true derangement. These are the two existential challenges that overwhelm anything else, completely overshadow all other discussions.’
This project exhibits a journey into Alberta’s vast boreal forest. It begins quietly at the outskirts of Edmonton and ultimately shows the most extreme nature of unconscious human behaviour towards the richness of the earth’s landscape – a result of civilisation’s blind quest for energy from dangerous fossil fuels; an example of ongoing human plundering as if there are no consequences.
The settlement of Fort McMurray proliferated after 1970 with the arrival of industrial-scale surface mining. It is situated 42 kilometres south of the Syncrude oil refinery, the scourge of the earth in Alberta’s tar sand (or oil sand) operations, where non-conventional extraction of bitumen has created the world’s largest mine, by area, potentially covering 149,000 square kilometres, equivalent in size to Greece. Here, hazardous fossil fuels from the earth’s most extensive biome, the boreal forest, are exploited to supply worldwide energy demand – symptomatic of a human civilisation reliant on consumption and processing of fossil fuel for profit and growth. In 2015, government-run Environment Canada issued data showing that seven refineries within a 30-kilometre radius extracted bitumen from surface mining or deeper by the new steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD) technology, and released a total of 34 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere that year. Production in 2016 distributed 2.4 million barrels of oil daily via 30-inch pipelines. These channels are now being upgraded and include the planned Keystone XL pipeline.
Projections published in 2017 by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) state that by 2030, production will have increased to 3.67 million barrels per day for the tar sand region and 5.4 million barrels per day for western Canadian crude oil. For every barrel of oil that comes from surface mining, up to four barrels of fresh water become contaminated and then deposited in unsealed tailings ponds. The scale of engineering and mining has altered the landscape beyond comprehension and made Canada third in global oil supply.
The importance, scale and diversity of the boreal forest are equally impressive. Worldwide, it accounts for 33 per cent of the earth’s forested area. It is the world’s largest land biome – and a gigantic green lung that cleans our atmosphere.
Fire is a primary process for the boreal forest, which migrated north during the Wisconsin Glacial Episode and over the following 10,000-year period of relative climatic stability has used fire to cleanse and renew. Fire accounts for the diverse patchwork mosaic of trees and plant species here. In the current accelerating change in climate there is significant concern about the how quickly the forest can adapt and how fire will interact under anthropogenic conditions. From an earth science perspective, the boreal forest is now one of 18 subsystems within the earth system which sit on a tipping point. Its stability is at risk of collapsing, becoming out of control. Recent protracted drier, hotter summers are creating conditions that influence wildfre frequency and severity; and permafrost is melting. These are two significant factors that will tip over the boreal with substantial consequences for life, possibly somewhere else on the planet too. Both effects are a result of global CO2 emissions, generated by widespread use of fossil fuels across human networks.
Professor of wildland fre Mike Flannigan has termed this division between wildland and industry as an ‘ecological frontier’, whereby our 300,000-year-old human civilisation, the pinnacle of our technology and dangerous fossil fuel infrastructure are set firmly against an irritated 4.5 billion-year-old earth system.
The evidence that our climate is changing owing to human activity is overwhelming. Attitudes towards climate change vary widely, with a small minority of people denying this evidence. Much more are ambivalent about the issue. Research shows that views about climate change, our underlying values and our world views are all linked. Directly confronting people’s beliefs tends actually to reinforce them, but there are other, less direct ways to approach the issue. This project aims to present the cause and effect of global consumption – how the earth system is affected when unrealistic quantities of CO2 and GHGs (greenhouse gasses) are released into the atmosphere and overload the capability of subsystems such as the boreal to cleanse and recycle efficiently. It highlights the urgency to address homocentric attitudes so that world cities of the future function in harmony with their surroundings – in much the same way that a coral reef does with the life it supports.
I acknowledge that, framed within the context of global energy, Alberta’s fossil fuel resources and supply of crude oil are part of a complex global exchange mechanism that supplies infrastructure and products to the major and minor metropolitan areas of the globe. The crude is subsequently consumed, releasing further GHG, or processed into a multitude of manifestations including plastic, roads and paint. I received abundant welcomes and experienced open receptions throughout Canada, and this project is no judgement on the good people that I met along the way or those who live in Fort McMurray and seek a better life for themselves and their families.
The full project contains 160 colour photographs, 3000-word essay, journal entry, 20-page dossier, contaminated human hair samples and sound recordings.
Photographs were taken between 15 October and 15 November 2016; and between 14 and 28 February 2017.
Professor Mike Flannigan, professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta
Lynn Johnston, forest fire research specialist, Natural Resources Canada
Selina Ozanne, research assistant
Professor Will Steffen, earth system scientist and emeritus professor at the Australian National University
Professor Jan Zalasiewicz, stratigrapher and convenor of the Working Group on the Anthropocene
The Royal Photographic Society and The Photographic Angle Environmental Awareness Bursary