Allie Rougeot on Edward Burtynsky’s In The Wake of Progress
My first step into environmental activism was at the age of 10, when I began reading about the Earth’s loss of biodiversity and realizing that the frequency at which species were going extinct was increasing. For my young self, it seemed inconceivable that humans were not only capable of, but also knowingly accelerating, the elimination of the beautiful animals and wilderness I admired. I had not as yet been introduced to Edward Burtynsky’s work, which is perhaps one reason why I underestimated humanity’s growing impact upon our planet.
After that it did not take long for me to truly understand the scale at which humanity operates, but it still took me a few years to accept it and decide I needed to find ways to use this immense power we have for good, instead of anxiously watching as more and more pressing issues were being discovered.
When faced with the reality of what humans have done to landscapes, ecosystems, species, and to each other, it seems normal to freeze in horror and feel helpless. I would not be surprised if many people came away from experiencing In The Wake of Progress thinking, “I am so small compared to this gigantic world. My actions can only be insignificant and inconsequential.” This initial reaction, though understandable, must however not be mistaken for humility. While we are indeed small relative to the world, Edward’s work makes us aware that our actions do have consequences that reach beyond our daily lives, beyond what we can see or touch.
During this beginning decade of my environmental advocacy, I have seen many people hide behind the scale and momentum of the complex political systems within which they operate, avoiding accountability and responsibility. However, now is time we radically shift our thinking and see those same systems not so much as limitations, but as powerful tools of transformation. Scale and momentum, when used well, can empower people to initiate a profound transformation to how the world does its business.
This is perhaps the implicit premise on which the school strike for climate movement was based; when those millions of students worldwide at their school desks realised their complacency was used to reinforce the status quo, they chose instead to harness the power of their voices, their bodies, and their determination and energy collectively, to create a movement that even the Covid-19 pandemic was unable to silence.
With these things in mind, I urge you find ways that you can assert yourself and initiate action at whatever institution you are a part of, or group to which you belong. You have the power to overcome inertia, activate yourself and inspire those around you. You have the choice of either remaining overwhelmed and frozen, or acting and mobilizing those around you to join to become an undeniable force.
The immensity of what we as humans have created can be used to turn this ship around. If In the Wake of Progress allows us a moment’s reflection to contemplate the scale at which humanity harms the world today, then we must also use that understanding to imagine the scale at which humanity can also heal itself and the Earth for future generations.