Industrialized Landscapes

By Bernhard Debatin

The past 200 years have been a period of exponentially increasing interventions  into our natural environment. Monocultural farming, urbanization, and blacktop streets are the most visible aspect of it. Sprawling production sites is another one, often closely related to urbanization. Large areas for waste disposal are yet another related aspect. And, of course, landscapes of extraction: open pit mines, mountaintop removal mining sites, sludge ponds, waste tailings, and overburden disposal sites, to name the most obvious ones.

Fracking, too, is changing landscapes into industrialized extraction sites. Jonah Field in Western Wyoming is a good example for this new type of industrialized landscape.

Jonah field in Wyoming

The images of developed fracking sites have one thing in common–repetition. The more, the better, until the oil or gas field is evenly covered with wells. Just as in the industrial production of goods, where automatized repetition brought about the possibility for mass-production, extraction of resources becomes particularly efficient when it is repeated according to the needs of the extractive industries.

Google Earth satellite image of the Pinedale Anticline natural gas field on public lands near Pinedale, Wyoming.

The industrialized landscapes created by the fracking industry are an extension of and must be understood as part of what environmental photographer Edward Burtinsky calls manufactured landscapes

Manufactured Landscapes is also the title of a magnificent and frightening movie, directed by Jennifer Baichwal (2006), documenting the work of photographer and artist Edward Burtynsky. With impressive images that go deep into viewers’ brains, it shows where all the stuff is coming from, the stuff that we find in our warehouses, department stores, supermarkets, and computer stores. Though not covered in the movie, it is easy to see that and how fracking is adding another chapter to the story of manufactured landscapes.

Chinese Factory (Picture by Edward Burtynsky)

Starting with a seemingly endless Chinese factory, all in an unsettling Ikea yellow, the film juxtaposes the weird beauty of resource extraction places to the hectic bustle of production as China is becoming the world’s biggest manufacturer. The most depressing images are not even the whips who tell the workers that they are not fast enough, but the hypnotic repetitive motions of the women workers. One is continuously wrapping wires around identical parts and cutting them quickly, only to complete the same senseless course of movements again with the next part. Another worker is testing thousands of nozzles with a small water hose, over and over again; yet another one is mounting circuit breakers, piece by piece, 400 of them per day. That is 50 per hour, or about 4 of them in 5 minutes.

However, the products quickly turn into waste, which is yet another resource for the ever hungry production of new commodities. Scrap metal, plastic parts, and electronic waste come to China from the countries that first imported the products and now send them back as useless debris. The waste must be sorted and separated, often under terribly toxic conditions. The waste is brought to China via ship, just as much as the new products are being distributed over the world through ships. The shipyard industry that has long disappeared from the Western World is thriving in China and part of the large manufacturing machine that this country has become.

Shipwreck in Bangladesh (Picture by Edward Burtynsky)

But the ships, too, turn into debris at some point. The most lasting images in the movie are those of stranded ships at the coast of Bangladesh. They are valuable resources that get quickly dismantled and turned into scrap metal, waiting to be turned into new commodities. These images give an eery premonition of Hieronymus Bosch’s apocalyptic paintings, seen through the lens of the Breugel Brothers (specifically the Tower of Babel). If you ever had the pleasure of reading Edmund Burke’s or Imanuel Kant’s thoughts on the sublime (“das Erhabene”), you will quickly make the connection [for an explanation of the sublime, please see my comment below at the end].

Manufactured Landscapes is the story of an unheard of transformation, caused by the human race and the unrestrained forces of globalized capitalism. Using the grammar of images established by classic movies Koyaanisqatsi  (Godfrey Reggio, 1982) and The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time (Alexander Kluge, 1985), the film shows that the landscapes of modern civilization are intentional landscapes, the result of purposeful destruction.

These landscapes are a direct consequence of the unleashed instrumental reason, as exemplified with the endless sprawl of Shanghai and the gigantic Three Gorges dam project, which led to the relocation of more than one million people and the purposeful, carefully executed demolition of thirteen cities and many villages.

The Three Gorges Dam Project (Picture by Edward Burtynsky)

The movie includes beautiful and disturbing still photography by Edward Burtynsky, underscoring the sophisticated and painstaking pictorial language of this extraordinary movie.

Manufactured Landscapes should be watched by anybody interested in the changes in our environment due to the industrialization of landscapes. It can be watched online at!


4 responses to “Industrialized Landscapes

  1. Karla Sanders

    Great article! The reference to Bosch’s painting and Tower of Babel is definitely a fitting connection. Reminds me of themes of societal decay also represented in Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire, series of five paintings. Also, the Center for Land Use Interpretation,, has a vast database of photography and film documenting land use practices in the U.S., “in understanding the nature and extent of human interaction with the earth’s surface, and in finding new meanings in the intentional and incidental forms that we individually and collectively create.” Some interesting cases of storytelling through the landscape.

    • Thanks — I also bought the book “manufactured Landscapes” with Burtynsky’s amazing environmental photography. Can show it to you when we meet next time!

  2. Here’s an explanation of the SUBLIME (from my article “Planewreck with Spectator: The Semiotics of Terror,” published in: B.S. Greenberg (ed.) Communication and Terrorism, Cresskill: Hampton Press, 2002, p. 163-174, the excerpt is from pp. 166f.)
    In his essay on the origin of the ideas of the sublime and the beautiful, Burke (1901/1756 57, p. 36) proclaims:

    “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

    He points out that “terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime“ (p. 52). Burke finally asserts that “the sublime is built on terror,” which seems to be contrary to delight and pleasure (p. 112). However, in order to become “a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquility tinged with terror,” pain and terror have to be “modified as not to be actually noxious, if the pain is not carried to violence, and the terror is not conversant about the present destruction of a person…” (p.114). Burke does not further explain how this modification is to be understood, because he is more interested in showing that even “non dangerous” objects can cause feelings similar to terror if they are grand enough. According to Burke, it is physiological strain exerted by impressive objects on the organs of perception that ultimately causes the feeling of terror and subsequently the idea of the sublime.
    Immanuel Kant, however, criticizes the idea of a direct connection between terror and the sublime. Like Burke, he states “We call that sublime which is absolutely great” (Kant, 1960/1790, p. 86), and continues “if nature is to be judged by us as dynamically sublime, it must be represented as exciting fear” (p. 99). But then he emphasizes that “it is impossible to find satisfaction in a terror that is seriously felt” (p. 100). Instead, he states that the sight of a terrifying object or event

    “… is the more attractive, the more fearful it is, provided only that we are in security; and we willingly call these objects sublime, because they raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height and discover in us a faculty of resistance of a quite different kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature.” (p. 100 f.)

    There seems to be an intriguing dialectic between the degree of terror and the degree of security that enables us to withstand and even enjoy the terrifying object.
    Kant differs from Burke in his emphasis on the unharmed observer, which is a motif that can be found in aesthetics since Lucretius’ “De Rerum Natura,” as has been eloquently reconstructed by Blumenberg (1990). In his renowned book “Shipwreck with Spectator,” Blumenberg argues that aesthetic pleasure is derived from the consciousness of a secure, detached perspective that allows the spectator to observe the troubled ocean and the shipwreck from a safe distance.

  3. I hope wind turbines are mentioned in this context. They actually wreck more horizons than drilling rigs.

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