John Thackara | Essays

Regarding The Pain Of The Planet: A Reader

Cotton production, India. Courtesy of Uwe H. Marti
Cotton production, India. PHOTO: Uwe H. Marti

Do you simply love iPhones, wind turbines, cloud computing, and electric cars? Good, because the following may be of interest.

Last week at ZDHK in Zurich I saw some well-made and sometimes shocking visualizations of resource flows in the globalized economy. These flows, we were told, have grown 1,500 times in just fifty years – but their often horrific environmental and social costs tend to remain out of sight and out of mind.

A discussion ensued: Why is it that, even when we are exposed to shocking stories and images, nothing seems to change in the system as a whole? What are we as designers to do if we create a powerful piece of communication – and it has no impact?

These are not new questions. Susan Sontag's classic text Regarding the Pain Of Others raised similar issues, for photography, two decades ago.

All writers learn, however, that questions only get answered when they are ready to be answered. They have to ripen, like fruit. In that horticultural spirit, there follows below a selection of readings that we have found insightful whilst waiting for the world to be interested in the question. [This writer's old-before-their-time texts on the subject are here.]

Your suggestions of other texts or resources to enhance this Reader will gladly be added.

Some Organizations Who Investigate the Stories

Global Witness
"In 2008, exports of oil and minerals from Africa were worth roughly $393 billion – over ten times the value of exported farm products ($38 billion) and nearly nine times the value of international aid ($44 billion). More often than not, the main benefits of resource extraction go to political, military and business elites in producer countries, and oil, mining, timber and other companies overseas. The continued scramble for valuable mineral and other resources poses ever-present and increasing risks of corruption, instability and conflict".

Witness uses video to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations. These empower people to transform personal stories of abuse into powerful tools for justice, promoting public engagement and policy change. Witness has embraced the peer-to-peer movement by creating the Hub, a YouTube channel for human rights activists who can quickly post and disseminate videos of human rights abuses. This online advocacy network works in tandem with long-term on-ground networks. Coordinating online and on-ground advocacy strategies is key to the training provided.

The Advocacy Project
The Advocacy Project helps marginalized communities to tell their story through blogs, video, podcasts, photos and the written word. This puts a face on disempowerment and provides partners with content for their campaigns and websites.

Ethical Metalsmiths
Susan Kingsley and Christina Miller began working together because of their dismay on learning how precious metals were sourced. Each had researched the social and environmental harm caused by gold mining and they shared a deep concern about the field of jewelry and metalsmithing. Virtually no one in their field was aware of environmental impacts of the materials upon which they depend. As metalsmiths themselves, they decided to take action.

Earthworks protects communities and the environment from the impacts of irresponsible mineral and energy development while seeking sustainable solutions. Earthworks exposes the health, environmental, economic, social and cultural impacts of mining and energy extraction through work informed by sound science.

If You Love iPhones, Wind Turbines, Cloud Computing and Electric Cars...Read on

Coltan, the "Blood Mineral" of Congo
A mineral that's used to make mobile phones is helping to finance the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to Global Witness it's time to investigate the trafficking of coltan, a mineral which they say is extracted in the east of the country through exploitation, and which partly finances the rebels, along with the equally deplorable gold and cassiterite (tin oxide) trades. After Liberia's "blood diamond", here's the blood mineral of Congo.

Pandering to the Loggers
WWF’s flagship scheme to promote sustainable timber – the Global Forest and Trade Network (GFTN) – is allowing companies to reap the benefits of association with WWF and its iconic panda brand, while they continue to destroy forests and trade in illegally sourced timber. A new briefing by Global Witness reveals that while GFTN is intended to reduce and eliminate such practices over the first five years of membership, systemic failures blight the scheme’s ability to deliver for forests.

War on Women in Congo
Eve Ensler is the playwright of "The Vagina Monologues" and founder of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls. V-Day has funded over 10,000 community-based anti-violence programs and launched safe houses in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Kenya, South Dakota, Egypt and Iraq. This commentary was adapted from remarks Ensler made Wednesday to the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on African Affairs.

Mineral Conflict in Congo
We wear gold jewelry, eat out of tin-lined cans and babble into our cell phones. How many dead or violated bodies did it take to bring these things to us from the heart of Africa? Most of us do not care to know. On television, we see people in Central Africa killing each other and patronizingly assume that it is all due to some backwards tribal animosity; however, we often fail to question Western demand for resources in Central Africa that may support instability and violence.

How European Ships Dumped Nuclear Waste into Somalia’s Ocean
In 1991, the government of Somalia – in the Horn of Africa – collapsed. As soon as the government was gone, mysterious European ships started appearing off the coast of Somalia, dumping vast barrels into the ocean. The coastal population began to sicken. At first they suffered strange rashes, nausea and malformed babies. Then, after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died.

Guns, Money and Cellphones
The demand for cell phones and computer chips is helping fuel a bloody civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cobalt has myriad applications in things like high temperature magnets, rechargeable batteries in hybrid cars, high strength steels, carbides, catalysts for petroleum refining and gas-to-liquid technology, catalysts for automotive exhaust systems and, of course, super alloys. It is this latter category that requires the vast majority of Cobalt. The next time you are on a plane taxiing down the runway, stop for a moment and think that the turbine blades in a typical jet engine require up to 130 pounds of Cobalt.

Important Context Stories

True Costs of Wind Energy
A toxic lake that poisons Chinese farmers, their children and their land is what's left behind after making the magnets for Britain's latest wind turbines.

Monster Footprint of Digital Technology
The energy consumption of electronic devices is skyrocketing. The electricity consumption of computers, cell phones, flat screen TV's, iPods and other gadgets will double by 2022 and triple by 2030. And that's just the start. The embodied energy of the memory chip alone already exceeds the energy consumption of a laptop during its life expectancy of 3 years.

The Need for Green Librarianship
Digital libraries offer unparalleled access to information in comparison to older analog information systems. Yet, without a cheap, abundant electricity supply, digital access to information would not exist. This article explores the hidden implications of ecological overshoot for digital libraries in the form of climate change, failing electricity grids, power outages, shortages in hydrocarbon energy sources, resource wars and the specter of financial collapse. The author calls for the development of "green" librarianship in preparation for future energy shortages.

Alice Friedmann, Peak Oil and the Preservation of Knowledge
Within decades, we’re likely to lose many of the books printed on acidic paper between 1850 and most of the 20th century. Knowledge stored on computer is no more secure; computers will be the first to go when supply chains fail as global trade diminishes.

Clive Matthew-Wilson, Electric Cars a Major Environmental Threat
Despite their "green" image, electric cars are often less efficient and more polluting than the petrol cars they replace. The car industry is selling a false image of efficient, environmentally-friendly electric cars powered by "green" energy. In reality, electric cars often aren’t very efficient and aren’t very green.

Juha Huuskonen, Consumer Electrronics and Mining in Congo
Policy makers at the national and international level seem to care more about the reputation of foreign companies interested in buying Congolese minerals than in the well-being of the people living and working in and around the mines. It is high time to tackle problems such as the use of physical violence, the establishment of predatory taxation systems, and the creation of illicit trade monopolies by military actors. Policy makers need to do something about other mining related issues such as land rights, forced labour and sexual violence against women, that had only received scant attention.

Earrh Calling: Environmental Impacts of the Mobile Phone
The vast mobile phone sector impacts the environment through extracting the raw materials that are used in phones and network equipment, manufacturing phone components, running the networks, managing phones and network equipment at end-of-life. Processes with lower, though still significant, environmental impacts include behaviours enabled by phones, rolling out network infrastructure; constructing and managing offices, retail stores and call centres; and servicing mobile customers.

E-Waste FAQs
Of 53 million tons of electronic waste generated worldwide in 2009 only about 13% of it was recycled. 14 to 20 million PCs are thrown out every year in the U.S. alone. Over 99 million TV sets, each containing four to eight pounds of lead, cadmium, beryllium and other toxic metals, were stockpiled or stored in the U.S. in 2007, and 27 million TVs were disposed of in 2007 either by trashing or recycling them.

Doors of Perception 3 on the Theme "Info-Eco"
Back in 1995 we learned that although hundreds of organizations churn out a flood of reports, graphs, studies, punditry and lists, our collective behaviour does not seem to change at all. What would it take, we asked then (and keep asking) to monitor and measure our planet’s true condition – its vital signs – in real time, and in such a way as to change the way we inhabit the planet?

Two Artist Projects

Supply Lines (Ursula Bierman)
This visual research project explores human interactions with natural resources such as water, oil and silver, and the spatial and social relations ensuing from them.

Monument of Sugar
Documentary footage explores, in long slow takes, hidden production landscapes of global trade, like crop fields, sugar refineries, flow-bands, harbors and the different sites where thebartists performed their drifting studio practice.

Why is it that Shocking Stories and Images Fail to Change Things?

Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain Of Others
Do visualizations, however powerful and evocative, actually change anything? And if not, why not? Susan Sontag writes: “Compassion is an unstable emotion...it needs to be translated into action, or it withers. [...] People don’t become inured to what they are shown — if that’s the right way to describe what happens — because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling.”

Rick Poynor, "Should We Look At Corrosive Images?"
Rick quotes John Berger: “The picture exists to prick our consciences and provoke action, but if no action related to its origin in a specific political situation occurs, then the picture is depoliticized. It becomes 'evidence of the general human condition,' says Berger, accusing everybody — including the demoralized viewer — and nobody."

Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text
“The traumatic photograph (fires, shipwrecks, catastrophes, violent deaths, all captured from 'life as lived') is the photograph about which there is nothing to say; the shock photograph is by structure insignificant: no value, no knowledge, at the limit no verbal categorization can have a hold on the process instituting signification...Why? Doubtless becausein relation to society overall its function is to integrate man, to reassure him”.

John Sullivan, "States of Shock & Unknowing: On Documenting the Wake of Katrina"
These writers also quote Sontag: “Perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering … are those who could do something to alleviate it or those who could learn from it. The rest of us are voyeurs ... Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated".

Liz Miller, Martin Allor, "Strategies for Representing the Pain of Others: The Video Advocacy Institute"
Liz Miller & Martin Allor at Concordia University ask: “How can human rights activists best reach audiences in a multichannel universe that is increasingly inundated with images of war, tragedy and suffering? How to avoid having your campaign lost in the sea of nonstop reality media? The Witness model of advocacy promotes 'narrowcasting,' the idea that it is not always how many people see a video but who sees it and what they do with it."

Harry Heft, "The Participatory Character of Landscape"
Heft recalls that in 1908, the American philosopher John Dewey described mainstream perceptual theorists of his day as being in the grip of a "Kodak fixation." Dewey was expressing deep reservations about the adoption of a photographic attitude toward the nature of seeing, and more generally, knowing. He was critical of approaches to perceiving that operate as if the individual confronts the world as a spectator, in effect, standing passively and detached from what is experienced – much in the way that photographers stand apart from their subject.

Comments [4]

Thank you for this list! Another great text to add: Moral Ground; Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, edited by Dean Moore & Nelson. The editors also note that we do not act in the face of all of the facts, and they contend that the moral implications of climate change need to be better understood. A compilation of diverse views from over 80 visionaries ranging from E.O. Wilson, Alan Weisman, Paul Hawken, bell hooks, John Paul II and the Dalai Lama.
Louise St. Pierre

Good suggestion, Louise, thanks. The question arises: what's the best way to start conversations about ethics and morality without making people feel they are being preached at....
John Thackara

I would also suggest Ellen LaConte's _Life Rules_ as an excellent thought piece for rearranging our thinking toward paying attention to how Life really works.

As a source for a paradigm shift Allan Savory may be the 180 degree reverse of the majority of climate change solutions available. I have done much of what he suggests and it works, particularly as it relates to rebuilding soil fertility quickly. His work and attitude fits very neatly into Ellen's...they compliment each other.

For an overall admonition about how we live in general I don't think there is anyone better suited to combine morality, ethics and practical applications than Wendell Berry. His 1977 book _The Unsettling of America_ is still relevant today, maybe even more so than when it was first published. All of his work is excellent and I particulary like this most recent one..._What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth_. Berry's whole attitude is one I try to mimic, not always successfully, when I get into the discussions you suggest.

What an absolutely illuminating and necessary post. I've been thinking about the legacy of landscape painting--up to contemporary corollaries like last year's Altered Landscape exhibition--constantly troubled by how we continually fail to implicate human pain in the planet's pain (and vice versa). What a curriculum. Thank you.

Jobs | June 24