Before and after
There are few things as instantly arresting as the before-and-after photograph pair. Two photos side by side become an essay in images: the beginning and end are before you, and the story lies in between. Usually one can easily fill in the story: a person has aged or had a makeover, a place has been revitalised or destroyed and rebuilt, a forest is now a shopping mall, a snowfield is now a desert…
In the last year or two a handful of shows and publications (like this one) have juxtaposed images of Himalayan glaciers from the 1950s and earlier with photos taken since 2000. The story to be filled in is, of course, the one about man-made climate change. Photographs are a good way to constructively frighten people.
So that’s how I approached Earth Then and Now: Potent Visual Evidence of Our Changing World (Hachette, 2010), a book full of before-and-after shots compiled by Fred Pearce but with a foreword by none other than James Lovelock. Lovelock is the scientist and “futurologist” who gave us the influential Gaia hypothesis in the 1960s. He named it after the Greek goddess of the Earth. Crudely put, Lovelock visualised the Earth as a self-regulating organism. What happened in one part was sure to affect the whole.
I was expecting to see, in this picture book, forests turned to suburbs, hills to open-cast mines, lakes to dustbowls. Those things are here, but there’s more besides, and this book does not allow you to fill the before-after gap with righteous outrage and contrition.
How, for example, does one assimilate a picture pair of (a) Leningrad in 1942 during the German siege, showing a woman towing a wrapped-up corpse along a frozen Nevsky Prospekt while passersby pay no attention, and (b) the same street now in St Petersburg, drearily clogged with cars and festooned with wires and advertising? Nor does the text offer relief. The operative part reads: “The Germans have long gone, but so, too, has Communism.”
Lovelock, in his foreword, says: “Natural selection picks from among the progeny those fittest to survive and that is why we are here, the latest result of Gaia’s great experiment on the effect of intelligence on survival.” Then he compares our global warming with what happened on Earth when photosynthesisers first evolved and began to release oxygen into the atmosphere. “As these algae flourished and spread,” he writes, “there must have been a massive death toll and loss of biodiversity.” But Earth adapted to oxygen, and benefited. Humans are like those algae, Lovelock says, “a life form that is very dangerous yet with near infinite promise; we are Gaia’s gamble for a more secure old age.”
It’s difficult to have so much trust while surrounded by evidence of short-term thinking. A heartstopping satellite photo pair shows a part of Saudi Arabia, first dry and empty, then dotted with immense circular fields of green, fed by water pumped from ancient underground aquifers older than the desert. Wonderful for now — but soon the water will be gone. There’s a pair of Dusseldorf in the 1990s, on the banks of a full blue Rhine, and in 2003 during a heatwave, when there is no Rhine, only a cracked wasteland. (See this page for an example not from the book.) There’s a pair of Britain in summer 2009 (green) and in January 2010, totally blanketed with snow. Extreme weather events are becoming more common.
Of course one thinks of home: imagine the North-east denuded and cultivated. It would be as bad as Bangladesh. Think of Delhi without the Yamuna — not a drop! Or Punjab with aquifers drained dry. Or Hyderabad beset by days-long duststorms. India, sadly, hardly features in this book.
But there are also photos of salutary change: in Seoul, what was a six-lane highway in 2003 is now back to being a river. The government offered in exchange a better bus service. In Boston, the $22 billion Big Dig shifted a highway underground, making space for parks, etc. Much too expensive, but a fine result. Bilbao in Spain: from industrial hellhole to knowledge industry hub. Towns flattened by war in Europe, now resurgent and still pleasingly small-scale.
And so on. The conclusion? While the natural parts of the Earth are being ruined, some of our cities are becoming better than ever: greener, cleaner, more mixed and flexible. Good for the lucky city dwellers — for now.