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Fifty Shades of Contemporary War

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The photographic record of the ruins of contemporary war are everywhere to be seen. Buildings once cast as monuments to modernization destroyed in the blink of an eye, homes completely devastated as if hit by a tornado, dead bodies strewn amongst the debris of what was once thought to be civilization, and much, much more. We have written about it previously under the sign of “rubble world” (here in 2008 and here in 2012).” And truth to tell, even now in 2015 it doesn’t seem like it is getting much better.

The photograph above is from Debaltseve in the Ukraine. According to the caption “an elderly woman collects water from a puddle” and then goes on to detail the “particularly intense” fighting that is going on in and around the city. Of course the fighting is not immediately present in the photograph, but what we see might be more demoralizing for that very fact as what we are witnessing is not the death of individuals (which is tragic enough and in its own right) or the demolition of buildings (which can and in all likelihood will be rebuilt by whatever regime takes over), but the utter destruction of civil society. The surrounding buildings mark a modern society, as does the road on which the woman stands; but for all of that she apparently has no water running in her home and so she is reduced to scooping what she can from the ice melting on the street. The garbage strewn around her makes it clear that this is not without its risks, but the will to survive is strong and one cannot live without water; so she does what she can. And when winter gives way to spring and summer and the ice is gone, who knows what she will do.

War’s horrors and tragedy comes in many shades, but as this photograph testifies its effects ripple throughout a society at the most fundamental levels, their most devastating effects implicated by the day-to-day demands on subsistence that stand as a constant challenge to the human spirit and make it hard to imagine the reconstruction of a vibrant and colorful society. The color cast of the scene in this photograph is grey and dreary, and it seems to offer little hope for the future—indeed, multiple shades of grey give little respite, but then this isn’t a movie in a fictional world.  That said, what the photograph may well be showing us is the future—or at least one possible future—that could well test the limits of human resilience.

Photo Credit: Sergey Polezhaka/Reuters

 

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“… My Kingdom for a Drink of Water”

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Yes, I know, the quotation from Shakespeare’s Richard III concerns horses and not water, but then there was a time when horses were scarcer than water and at least arguably more important to survival.  Those days are gone. And we didn’t need the most recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to make the point or to underscore its importance.  Such reports have been made over and again in recent years indicating that water shortages are accelerating throughout the world as patterns of industrial and agricultural usage are increasingly polluting both ground water and the water table, and consumption is outstripping renewable sources at progressively alarming rates. Nor is the problem one that is only taking place in underdeveloped regions or nations, as those living in California or West Texas can immediately and readily attest.

The photograph above is not from California or West Texas, but shows those living on the southern bank of the Yangon River in Myanmar using paint cans to collect drinking water during the annual dry season in which water shortages have led to the drying up of the reservoirs, forcing local elders to create rationing systems.  And yet, while it is not California or West Texas it is not all that difficult to imagine how it could be in the altogether near future—or perhaps one of the other 34 states that the GAO anticipates will face water shortages in the near term.  To get the point one needs to avoid focusing on the bare feet and rusted out paint cans that have been repurposed as water containers, let alone the brown skin, all of which underscore something other than a first world experience, and concentrate instead on how the photograph directs attention to the way(s) in which the need for water dominates everyday life in an otherwise visually indistinct location.  There was a time when we would look at photographs of exotic locations and imagine that “their present is our past”; what we see here, however, is the way in which water is the great leveler that perhaps predicts that their present is our future.

The photograph did not receive much attention in the national media.  I found it in a “pictures of the day” slide show at the Seattle Times nestled between images of a moving sculpture at a music festival in California and men warming themselves at a fire near the barricades at a Ukrainian security office proximate to the Russian border.  As one more sluice of life incidentally contrasting the hardships of life “there” to the fun and festivities of life “here,” it would be altogether easy to miss, or merely to glance past without paying too much attention to it. Indeed, there was a time, not so long ago, when photographs of this sort would show up in places like National Geographic where readers would be encouraged to view the “present” of indigenous people in such exotic locations as “our past,” the assumption being that one day they too can experience the progress that modernity promises; here, however, it would seem that their present is cast as “our future.”  Or more to the point, it is a future that is already present without our clear recognition of it.

What makes the photograph all the more poignant is not just the way in which it serves as a kind of foreboding prophecy, but more, as it functions as something of an allegory for how to imagine the very problem of water shortage itself.  Note how the scene underscores the necessity of performing a careful balancing act, both socially and environmentally, to make the system of water recovery work. More to the point, note in particular not just how feet and hands strain so as to maintain equipoise on the balancing beam, but also how both participants need to coordinate with the other so as to avoid disrupting the overall ecology in which each operates. Whether or not we can actually adjust our contemporary patterns of resource usage and consumption so as to effect a sustainable world is open to question. But it will take effort and strain, and surely the appeal to “balance” that makes this system appear to work is more than worth the effort; indeed, it seems altogether necessary.

The bigger point, of course, is that solutions to such problems are right before us if we are willing to see them.  And photographs such as this, however subtle or otherwise hidden within the visual landscape, can serve as a powerful optic to help us do just that.  Look.  See. Engage.

Credit:  Gemunu Amarasinghe/AP

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The Winters of Our Discontent

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I wish I could claim sole authorship of the title for this commentary, but in fact it is an adaptation of a recent article in Scientific American (which adapted it from the title of John Steinbeck’s last novel who in turn borrowed it from Shakespeare’s malevolent characterization of Richard III).  But for all of that it is no less a compelling characterization of our current state of climactic affairs as we find ourselves confronting the acceleration of what has become known as “slow violence.”

Slow violence refers to environmental disasters that occur so gradually that we barely see them, but which reap long-term, catastrophic outcomes.  Recent global warming trends top the list and what makes such phenomena all the more problematic is how they can often appear to be incredibly, breath takingly beautiful, approaching what we might even call the sublime—representations that in some measure transcend reality, transporting us to a place that defies the very capacity for representation itself.  The photograph above is perhaps such an image where sky and water bifurcate the horizon of here and there as variations in lightness and darkness mark the temporal distance between now and then (or perhaps past and future).  The orange and magenta tones of the sky cast a calming shadow upon the sea which masks the mysteries of who knows what within its otherwise murky depths.   And overall the image invites both our approach and avoidance as if a heavenly and sanctified location.  It is hard to not look it and to be in awe.  Only the protuberances that emerge from the bottom of the frame call attention to the fact that this is a photograph and not a scene that fully transcends human occupation.

What we are actually looking at is “haboob,” a white shelf cloud of dirt that has been stirred up by a ferocious dust storm in the Indian Ocean off of the coast of Western Australia.  This dust storm, one of many that has caused brush fires over nearly one million acres is the result of uncharacteristically hot temperatures peaking at more than 119 degrees Fahrenheit in some parts of Australia.  The result of those brush fires invites consideration of sublimity’s counterpart, the grotesque, as a second photograph from New South Wales pictures the carcasses of sheep incapable of breaking free of a fence that contained them while a wildfire consumed the earth on which they stood.

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The bodies are not human, and so the tragedy is not as pronounced as it might be—not that we should scant the lives of sheep or other living beings—but it is not hard to imagine that they could be human bodies.  The image is hard to look at, but that would seem to be the point, as it works as a powerful, visual counterpoint to the awe-inspiring beauty that all too often and all too easily diverts our attention and placates (gratifyingly so) our acceptance of slow violence in the first place.

This is the third winter in a row that we have faced extreme weather patterns throughout the world.  These are the winters of our discontent. How much longer will they go on before we respond responsibly as global citizens is the real question we need to be asking.

Photo Credit: Brett Martin/Reuters/fishwrecked.com; Greg Wood/AFP/Getty Images

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The Invisibility of Slow Violence

With global demand on oil at an all time high and with the current volatility in the Middle East it is not hard to understand why oil is understood as the natural resource most likely to lead to increasingly pronounced international instabilities, including war and terrorist activities, in the coming years. And yet there is an equal if not more serious global scarcity facing us: a shortage of fresh water. The problem seems to exist primarily outside of the U.S., as indicated in the photograph of a cow carcas from Mexico which is suffering its worst drought in 70 years, though the Drought Mitigation Center reports that 12% of the U.S. experienced “exceptional drought conditions” in the summer of 2011 and more than 40% of all states faced abnormal dryness or drought.

Photographs of carcasses are something of a visual trope for drought conditions, and images like the one above are numerous.  Collectively, they function as a spectacle that directs attention to the sense that drought is the major problem that faces us with respect to water shortages, and given the effects of recent global warming patterns it is not an altogether unreasonable concern.  But equally problematic—and maybe more so—is the more invisible, and thus less spectacular, “slow violence” produced by usage patterns that place stress upon both ecosystems and socio-economic relations.  It is notable, for example, that the average U.S. citizen is responsible for the consumption of 2,000 gallons of water a day, twice the amount of most citizens in other parts of the world, and that a pound of beef—a staple of U.S. diets—requires close to 1,800 gallons of water, while a pound of chicken requires approximately 460 gallons of water to produce and a pound of soy beans requires only 216 gallons of water.  The effects of such dietary choices on both the ecosystem and worldwide social economies are notable, but of course they defy easy visual representation let alone the spectacle of dead carcasses and dried up and cracked river beds.

Of equal concern are the pollution effects produced by neoliberal economies.  Hydraulic fracking is a process used to extract natural gas from reservoir rock formations and shale.  It is an effective method for tapping deep natural gas reserves, but it comes at the cost of injecting millions of gallons of chemical-laced water under high pressure into the earth. Notwithstanding the pressure that this places on demand, there is the question of polluting the aquifer and in particular of contaminating private wells and reservoirs with high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen.  The issue is currently being contested by the natural gas industry and the EPA but clearly part of the problem is how does one know the problem when one sees it?

Perhaps the answer is to just look!  Take for example the photograph above of a woman in western Pennsylvania who fears that her water has been contaminated by a nearby natural gas drilling operation.  State officials report that tests show the water to be safe, and the local gas company which had been delivering drinking water to local households has indicated that they will no longer be making such deliveries.  And perhaps they are right, though judging from what we can see coming out of the tap I’d be inclined to invite them over one afternoon for a tall cool drink of tap water to discuss it.  The resulting photo op might not prove to be spectacular in the manner of a dead carcass, but it might nevertheless make the point.

Photo Credit:  Stringer/Reuters; Keith Srakocic/AP

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