We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
But when we are gone
Will it still burn on, and on, and on, and on
— Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”
A couple of months ago, I went to see the premiere of the film, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch. It’s a visual exploration of the impact of industrial civilization on the earth. The movie opened on a scene of thousands of elephant tusks, recovered from African poachers, being gathered in huge piles. It looked like some kind of avant-garde art installation … or maybe an altar.
What followed was a series of vignettes, with very little exposition, of different places around the world that are home to massive industrial projects or their waste. One of the first was Norilsk, Russia, the world’s northernmost city and one of only three cities in the continuous permafrost zone of the Arctic circle. Norilsk is a company town, a heavy metal smelting company town, to be specific. Norilsk is the most polluted city in Russia. The topsoil has accumulated so much heavy metal from the industrial fallout, that the company can now mine it, essentially profiting from its own pollution. The film showed the residents, families with children, celebrating “Company Day,” also known as “Metallurgy Day.”
The film also showed an open lead mine in Germany occupied by incredibly large mobile strip miners, the largest land vehicles ever built—over 700 feet long and 300 feet tall—capable of digging a hole the size of a football field 100 feet deep in one day. A couple of the other images that stuck with me were the huge neon colored ponds of toxic lithium in Chile and a massive dump in Kenya, crawling with human and avian scavengers.
The point of the film seemed to be to impress the audience with the sheer scale of the human industrial project. I think it succeeded, because I walked away thinking, “There’s no way we can stop this.”
In the penultimate scene, a Hong Kong artist was shown creating beautiful and intricate works of art out of ivory. Some of these works, he said, are valued in the millions. He explained that, since the banning of trade in elephant ivory, he was now using mammoth tusks. Apparently, mammoth tusks are now being discovered in the Siberian Arctic, as the permafrost is melting due to our burning of fossil fuels and the resultant heating of the planet.
The film ended where it began, with the piles of elephant tusks. But now they were on fire. The Kenyan government was burning the ivory to prevent anyone from profiting from the poaching. The burning looked like nothing so much as a religious sacrifice. …