The Physical Reality of Environmental Destruction

The other day I watched a powerful presentation by noted photographer Garth Lenz. Speaking at a TED event in Canada he outlined the appalling environmental destruction that is being unleashed by the tar sands industry.

I’ve been following the news coverage on Canada’s tar sands for some time now, given the huge implications of non-conventional fossil fuels for escalating greenhouse gas emissions and the ever worsening climate crisis. I’m also editing a forthcoming special issue of the journal Organization on climate change and future imaginings, which includes an excellent study of the discourses employed by companies in the Athabasca tar sands industry written by Jane Lê.

However, what I hadn’t appreciated was the systemic nature and sheer scale of the environmental degradation that tar sands exploitation involves. Text and the written word only gets you so far in comprehending this loss. Rather it’s the visual imagery that really brings this home – huge swathes of open-cut mines and enormous lakes of poisoned water are juxtaposed against the awesome beauty of what this landscape used to look like. As a masterful photographer, Garth’s emotional presentation highlights that we are now fundamentally wrecking core parts of our ecosystem at a rate that is mind-boggling.

This emerging realisation is also captured by others who have documented how we are so casually destroying the ecosystem that sustains us. Much closer to home, Sharyn Munro’s heartfelt description of how open cut coal mines are tearing the heart out of the upper Hunter Valley in New South Wales beautifully captures not only the environmental vandalism of the current ‘resources boom’ but also the aesthetic, cultural and spiritual desecration we are unthinkingly embracing.

Hunter Valley coal mine (Image:
Hunter Valley coal mine (Image:

The situation appears much the same in Queensland, where coal and gas developments are being dramatically increased under a conservative, pro-development state government. The key priority is the exploitation of fossil fuel resources as quickly, and at as great a scale, as possible. Here, the bizarre discourse of ‘green-tape’ has been invented as a pejorative phrase to demonise even the weakest form of environmental regulation. Indeed, one of the world’s greatest environmental wonders, the Great Barrier Reef is seen as necessarily expendable in the rush for more mines and dollars.

These are chilling times when the value of the green and civic worlds are unthinkingly sacrificed in favour of short-term economic growth. We will look back in 10 or 20 years and wonder what were we thinking?


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