Everyday Climate Change | Rendezvous With James Whitlow Delano & Maya Kóvskaya

As part of PondyPHOTO 2016, PhotoConcierge brought renowned photographer James Whitlow Delano all the way from Tokyo to conduct a weeklong, interactive, documentary storytelling workshop around the theme of ‘water’. In the charming French Quarter of Puducherry, India, ecological political theorist, art critic and curator Maya Kóvskaya, who also spoke at PondyPhoto, met with James to talk about climate change and the rise of what scientists are calling the Anthropocene, or the Age of Man, in which the human being has become the dominant geological force shaping our planet. As we sipped our fresh juices, we talked about the heat wave and its relationship to the processes of climate change going on across the world. We tried to analyse causes, and decipher effects, so that we might learn better how to fight the systemic causes of this ecological catastrophe. As the afternoon unfolded, Team PhotoConcierge listened to the discussion unfolding between Kóvskaya and Delano. Below is the transcript of their discussion. PhotoConcierge is pleased to be able to share this provocative conversation with readers and photography enthusiasts across the globe.

Maya Kóvskaya (MK): Please tell us about the pivotal experience that transformed you from someone who casually observed nature as one of many subjects worth photographing, and began to understand your role in shaping our shared conceptions of nature through visual images.

James Whitlow Delano (JWD): I have been deeply sensitive to environmental issues since childhood, taking every chance I had to turn away from the city to natural spaces but with the camera, the watershed moments happened in the early 1990’s when I began document the cultures of East and Southeast Asia.  The region had entered into an epoch of environmental deterioration, as a consequence of rapid development, like the world had never known.  I felt like the scale of this problem was not being represented in global media anywhere near the magnitude I was witnessing when I was working in places like China and in the rainforests of Malaysia. I wanted to play the role of the canary in the coal mine.

The last family living in this oasis because of human-induced climate change. The Tengger Gobi desert used to have 800 artesian, freshwater lakes until Han families flooded this ethnic-Mongol region, leading to overgrazing and deforestation in the Helan Mountains that feed the artesian lakes. Now there are only 200 lakes left and they are drying up too. For eight generations Mage-erle’s* (left) family has lived in this mudbrick house within a grassland that has been ringed in by a sea of sand. She and her son, Jinbao (right), are the last family living in this shrinking island of steppe grassland. Alashan Banner, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China. (*Mongols often use only one name.) A recentThomson Reuters article said that only a tiny fraction of funding to fight climate change is going to pay for small-scale clean energy like off-grid solar and wind energy for the poorest families like this one. You can see a small solar panel behind the two of them and biogas. Given the solar potential here, more can be done for them. 1 billion globally still do not have access to electricity and 3 billion people still cook with "smoky fuels" like wood, kerosene and dung.

The last family living in this oasis because of human-induced climate change. The Tengger Gobi desert used to have 800 artesian, freshwater lakes until Han families flooded this ethnic-Mongol region, leading to overgrazing and deforestation in the Helan Mountains that feed the artesian lakes. Now there are only 200 lakes left and they are drying up too. For eight generations Mage-erle’s* (left) family has lived in this mudbrick house within a grassland that has been ringed in by a sea of sand. She and her son, Jinbao (right), are the last family living in this shrinking island of steppe grassland. Alashan Banner, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China. (*Mongols often use only one name.)
A recentThomson Reuters article said that only a tiny fraction of funding to fight climate change is going to pay for small-scale clean energy like off-grid solar and wind energy for the poorest families like this one. You can see a small solar panel behind the two of them and biogas. Given the solar potential here, more can be done for them. 1 billion globally still do not have access to electricity and 3 billion people still cook with “smoky fuels” like wood, kerosene and dung.

MK: How has that role evolved over time? What events and experiences were critical in catalysing you towards a focus on ecological catastrophe and drove you to begin to explore and reveal the complex interconnections amongst global geo-political and economic forces in relation to the tenuous state of the planet?

JWD: At first I was frustrated because I felt that the way I was documenting environmental issues was not reaching beyond the adventure travel world and I was essentially preaching to the choir.  So, I began to ask myself how I could connect people with environmental issues who would not ordinarily think about their role in this global system.  So, I began exploring what is called the “Consumption Ecosystem” and the direct effect that consumers can have on people on the other side of the planet because of the consumer choices. Someone in Tokyo, New York, Paris or Delhi is implicit in deprivation of a health life and opportunity of less fortunate people on the other side of the consumption chain.

Sand, not water, carried by the wind from the Tengger Gobi Desert fills irrigation channels near Yingshuiqiao, Ningxia, China. Efforts to plough these former-steppe grasslands during Mao's early years on the fringes of the Gobi Desert, to feed China's billion-plus population, unleashed the sandy soil that the grass held down. Now projects to "tame the yellow dragon", like this one, have been largely ineffective in stemming the tide of advancing mountains of sand, small enough to filter through doors and windows and yet capable of building up and burying everything in their path.

Sand, not water, carried by the wind from the Tengger Gobi Desert fills irrigation channels near Yingshuiqiao, Ningxia, China. Efforts to plough these former-steppe grasslands during Mao’s early years on the fringes of the Gobi Desert, to feed China’s billion-plus population, unleashed the sandy soil that the grass held down. Now projects to “tame the yellow dragon”, like this one, have been largely ineffective in stemming the tide of advancing mountains of sand, small enough to filter through doors and windows and yet capable of building up and burying everything in their path.

MK: Do you believe that what we are doing, as a species to the planet is something we might productively call ecocide? Explain your stance and the implications.

JWD:  Yes, I do.  What I think we, as a species or at least a significant number of us, are doing is considering the planet as something that is solely for the benefit of our own species alone.  What many people, beyond those of us who have long been aware of the environment, are now learning is that a healthy environment for all species, means a healthy environment for us.   A degraded environment that hurts other species, hurts us as well.  So, even for the most cynical, meaning those who have no connection or compassion for all the species who share our planet, at least they can see that we are poisoning ourselves when we degrade the environment.

I personally find people who feel no compassion for the miracle of life on the planet in all its diversity as baffling but we have to find a way to implicate them in the need to clean up water, air, etc.

Lone Kichwa man descends from one of the glaciers running down from the summit of Cotopaxi Volcano [5,897 m (19,347 ft)] at about 5,000 meters elevation, considered by some to be the world's highest active volcano. Ecuador. As important as the volcano’s raw power, its glaciers are one of the primary sources feeding the vast river system of the Amazon Basin. These glaciers standing on the equator, are some of the most vulnerable on the planet. Scientists say that Cotopaxi has lost 40% of its glacier cover since 1976 due to climate change. Cotopaxi’s glaciers give birth the Rio Napo and Rio Pastaza, which in turn feed the mighty Amazon River.Cotopaxi is believed to mean "Neck of the Moon" and has been considered a sacred mountain since before Inca times.

Lone Kichwa man descends from one of the glaciers running down from the summit of Cotopaxi Volcano [5,897 m (19,347 ft)] at about 5,000 meters elevation, considered by some to be the world’s highest active volcano. Ecuador. As important as the volcano’s raw power, its glaciers are one of the primary sources feeding the vast river system of the Amazon Basin. These glaciers standing on the equator, are some of the most vulnerable on the planet. Scientists say that Cotopaxi has lost 40% of its glacier cover since 1976 due to climate change. Cotopaxi’s glaciers give birth the Rio Napo and Rio Pastaza, which in turn feed the mighty Amazon River.Cotopaxi is believed to mean “Neck of the Moon” and has been considered a sacred mountain since before Inca times.

 MK: What do you think it will take to catalyse a paradigm shift in our thinking? By this I mean in particular, what will it take to make us as individuals (formed into societies that engage in economic activities, consume and produce waste, wiping out vast tracts of the earth’s ecosystems in the process) change how we understand our place in the natural world, such that we begin to understand that the health of our planet—with all its web of ecosystems and myriad species that co-exist here on this earth–is integrally and critically important to our own well-being?

JWD:  One thing that I have been impressed with over the years in Japan is their passion for efficiency and miniaturising technology.They take pride in efficient machines that don’t take up space, make almost no noise.  In the United States, the most popular, best-selling automobiles are big, loud attack dog trucks and cars.  In Japan the number one selling car is the Prius.  Why?  It is quiet and efficient.  They get off on that.

If people around the world could take a similar tack and take pride in low environmental-impact technologies.  Hey, the Japanese got Americans in smaller cars, at least when gas prices rose.  Maybe a similar trend could start with environmental technology?

Batek Negrito women rest beside a muddy logging road in the heart of the Batek Negrito homeland that had been surveyed and marked for logging in the last, very narrow strip of old growth rainforest that still existed sandwiched between Taman Negara National Park and massive oil palm plantations. All the landhere less than a generation ago, had also been old growth rainforest and the homeland of the Batek. Near Kuala Koh, Kelantan, Malaysia. Now this parcel of rainforest has also been clear cut and terraced in preparation for a new oil palm plantation converting the most diverse ecosystem on the planet, a carbon sink absorbing greehouse gases, into a monoculture cash crop wasteland devoid of the wildlife upon which the Batek depend for sustenance.

Batek Negrito women rest beside a muddy logging road in the heart of the Batek Negrito homeland that had been surveyed and marked for logging in the last, very narrow strip of old growth rainforest that still existed sandwiched between Taman Negara National Park and massive oil palm plantations. All the landhere less than a generation ago, had also been old growth rainforest and the homeland of the Batek. Near Kuala Koh, Kelantan, Malaysia. Now this parcel of rainforest has also been clear cut and terraced in preparation for a new oil palm plantation converting the most diverse ecosystem on the planet, a carbon sink absorbing greehouse gases, into a monoculture cash crop wasteland devoid of the wildlife upon which the Batek depend for sustenance.

MK: Is this new term “Anthropocene” useful to your work in terms of framing the importance of your findings in the context of the enormity of consequences to the planet as a whole on a geological time-scale, as well as to people living today and generations immediately following.

JWD:  Without a doubt.  Wilderness has become an anomaly in our time.  One need only read about places in Southeast Asia within our generation to read of places that were rural or even more remote that have been looped in and become easily accessible to humans.  Logging in Malaysia’s state of Sarawak on Borneo is clearly visible from Google Earth.  Rare is a place anywhere on the planet that does not have the significant signature of human activity.

Paris, London, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, Florence, Milan, and on and on, were towns or even villages, when you look at the size of their old city cores compared with the sprawl of today.   That is the irrefutable Anthropocene signature there for all to see.

I am not advocating for a step back to some golden time that never existed.  I am advocating for investing more government and corporate research funds into improvement in the health of the planet  or less polluting ways to manufacture things we need, than for more efficient ways to slaughter our own kind or develop more things we want but don’t need.

"Afectados" (Affected Ones): Oil derrick towers above students, with their pet toucan, in front of their elementary school, where they must endure the noise, noxious fumes and the dust raise by heavy trucks associated with the petroleum business. Near Dayuma along Via Auca. Ecuadorian Amazonas. Of course, on a global scale, burning of and exploring for petroleum releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere leading to climate change. On a local level, cutting roads into the rainforest attracts internal "colonizers" from the Andes altiplano and the Pacific Coast, who come to clear the land for their ranches on indigenous peoples’ land, a violation of their indigenous land rights. Land clearance makes the Amazon Basin, the planet’s lungs, hotter and drier. Despite assurances by oil companies to the contrary, the well-being of indigenous peoples, and colonizers, have been threatened by contamination of the watershed with crude oil.Via Auca is a road that extends south from the city of Coca into the traditional territory of the Huaorani. The Huaorani were referred to as the "Aucas" or "savages" by their indigenous neighbors, the Kichwa. The Via Auca extends south from Coca, originally an isolated military outpost and airstrip in the mid-1960's, opened up territory where the "uncontacted Aucas" lived and explore for the petroleum found under their feet.

“Afectados” (Affected Ones): Oil derrick towers above students, with their pet toucan, in front of their elementary school, where they must endure the noise, noxious fumes and the dust raise by heavy trucks associated with the petroleum business. Near Dayuma along Via Auca. Ecuadorian Amazonas.
Of course, on a global scale, burning of and exploring for petroleum releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere leading to climate change. On a local level, cutting roads into the rainforest attracts internal “colonizers” from the Andes altiplano and the Pacific Coast, who come to clear the land for their ranches on indigenous peoples’ land, a violation of their indigenous land rights. Land clearance makes the Amazon Basin, the planet’s lungs, hotter and drier. Despite assurances by oil companies to the contrary, the well-being of indigenous peoples, and colonizers, have been threatened by contamination of the watershed with crude oil.Via Auca is a road that extends south from the city of Coca into the traditional territory of the Huaorani. The Huaorani were referred to as the “Aucas” or “savages” by their indigenous neighbors, the Kichwa. The Via Auca extends south from Coca, originally an isolated military outpost and airstrip in the mid-1960’s, opened up territory where the “uncontacted Aucas” lived and explore for the petroleum found under their feet.

MK: Can you discuss how photography, especially disseminated through social media, can offer us new tools for confronting the havoc we’ve wrought on the planet and addressing the damage we have done so that we might begin the hard work of fixing the mess that our species (admittedly some subsets more than others) has made? What is the power of the photographic image? How can social media exponentially compound that power into a transformative force?

JWD:  Social media allows the visual artist to share their work and philosophy outside our little cloistered worlds of intelligentsia or self-referential collections of like-minded people.  For me the holy grail is to be found in sharing ideas with ordinary people so busy putting food on the table that they rarely consider such things.  There is no condescension in this statement.  We all have different priorities by these mainstream consumers are where the changes in habits are going to be needed to be made to affect real, meaningful change.

Over a dozen or more petroleum pipelines pass directly in front of a house on the Via Auca, where oil exploration not only continues on indigenous land, it has expanded into Yasuni National Park. South of Coca, Ecuador. Petroleum exploration affects the climate here and globally in several ways. Of course, on a global scale, burning of and exploring for petroleum releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere leading to climate change. On a local level, cutting roads into the rainforest attracts internal "colonizers" from the Andes altiplano and the Pacific Coast, who come to clear the land for their ranches on indigenous peoples’ land, a violation of their indigenous land rights. Land clearance makes the Amazon Basin, the planet’s lungs, hotter and drier. Despite assurances by oil companies to the contrary, the well-being of indigenous peoples, and colonizers, have been threatened by contamination of the watershed with crude oil.Via Auca is a road that extends south from the city of Coca into the traditional territory of the Huaorani. The Huaorani were referred to as the "Aucas" or "savages" by their indigenous neighbors, the Kichwa. The Via Auca extends south from Coca, originally an isolated military outpost and airstrip in the mid-1960's, opened up territory where the "uncontacted Aucas" lived and explore for the petroleum found under their feet.

Over a dozen or more petroleum pipelines pass directly in front of a house on the Via Auca, where oil exploration not only continues on indigenous land, it has expanded into Yasuni National Park. South of Coca, Ecuador. Petroleum exploration affects the climate here and globally in several ways. Of course, on a global scale, burning of and exploring for petroleum releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere leading to climate change. On a local level, cutting roads into the rainforest attracts internal “colonizers” from the Andes altiplano and the Pacific Coast, who come to clear the land for their ranches on indigenous peoples’ land, a violation of their indigenous land rights. Land clearance makes the Amazon Basin, the planet’s lungs, hotter and drier. Despite assurances by oil companies to the contrary, the well-being of indigenous peoples, and colonizers, have been threatened by contamination of the watershed with crude oil.Via Auca is a road that extends south from the city of Coca into the traditional territory of the Huaorani. The Huaorani were referred to as the “Aucas” or “savages” by their indigenous neighbors, the Kichwa. The Via Auca extends south from Coca, originally an isolated military outpost and airstrip in the mid-1960’s, opened up territory where the “uncontacted Aucas” lived and explore for the petroleum found under their feet.

MK: What take-away message do you hope that everyone who sees your work will come away with?

JWD:  There is a crisis but there is hope.  I mentioned living a significant part of my childhood in the New York City area. When I move to the area as a child in the 60’s, there were rivers near oil refineries with so much petroleum poisoning the waters that the rivers sometimes were known to catch fire.  The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) enlisted clean efforts and tougher environmental regulation and the wetland birds began to return.  In my suburban town, when I moved there in the 60’s had squirrels and rabbits.  Then the possum and raccoons returned.  Then deer and fox.   Now not far from New York City bear have returned.  Deer have infiltrated the city and so have coyote, I am told.  I have seen raccoon in Brooklyn!   Things can get better but it takes will, time and hard work.  This progress is, without a doubt, worth it and the New York City area is a better place to live now than it has been in a century for people and wildlife.  That is what I am talking about: not pie in the sky platitudes but real, palpable positive change.

Jean Danet, Bagyeli Pygmy hunter, drinks whisky from a plastic packet on a logging road to the old growth Congo Basin rainforest near the boundary of the US$567 million Kribi deepwater seaport under construction the China Harbour Engineering Company. Danet is unaware of the full scale of the development plan, which calls for a new planned city of 80,000 people to be built where he is now standing. Cameroon near the border of Equatorial Guinea. The absence of forest cover will increase the heat, dry and harden the ground making it more prone to flood. Wild game, on which his cash-poor community depend, have already retreated deeper into the forest away from the coast.

Jean Danet, Bagyeli Pygmy hunter, drinks whisky from a plastic packet on a logging road to the old growth Congo Basin rainforest near the boundary of the US$567 million Kribi deepwater seaport under construction the China Harbour Engineering Company. Danet is unaware of the full scale of the development plan, which calls for a new planned city of 80,000 people to be built where he is now standing. Cameroon near the border of Equatorial Guinea. The absence of forest cover will increase the heat, dry and harden the ground making it more prone to flood. Wild game, on which his cash-poor community depend, have already retreated deeper into the forest away from the coast.

Ecological political theorist, art critic and curator Maya Kóvskaya (PhD UC Berkeley, 2009) is trained in political theory, comparative politics, and linguistic and cultural anthropology. She has twenty years of experience in China, and a decade of engagement with contemporary art world of the Indian subcontinent, dividing her time between Beijing and New Delhi since 2009. Winner of the 2010 Yishu Award for Critical Art Writing, and a finalist in 2012 and 2014 for the Andy Warhol Foundation fellowship, and 1995 and 1996Distinguished Teaching Awards at UC Berkeley, as well as other fellowships and honors, as an independent scholar, Maya has authored, co-authored, edited, translated, and contributed to numerous books and articles on contemporary art as it intersects with the political, cultural, and ecological. Maya has worked curatorially on over 30 Asian contemporary art exhibitions and public art interventions, and lectured widely on art in South and East Asia. In China, she conducted extensive work on the ecological public art movement of the 1990s in Chengdu. In 2010, she was the inaugural Critic-in-Residence for the KHOJ Public Art Ecology Program, which is now in its sixth year. In 2011, she conceptualized and taught Writing Ecologies, a critical art writing seminar for the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art, in conjunction with the Yamuna-Elbe Public Art program (2011). As part of the HKW and Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, she was a fellow, commentator and speaker at the Anthropocene Campus I and II in Berlin (2014, and 2016). Most recently, she has lectured at the Pondy Photo public art festival (2016) in Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, on the Anthropocene, climate change, water, public art and photography, and is presenting a paper on Art Interventions and Speculative Storytelling as Ways to “Stay with the Trouble,” (as Donna Haraway puts it) at the Yinchuan Biennale (2016). Recent research includes a chapter on The Garden as a Site of Nature-Culture Entanglement: Invasive Species and the Politics of Membership in a Multispecies Polity. Maya is a founding member of the research and curatorial collective Anthropo(s)cenes and their Discontents and the {f}Lexicon of the Anthropocene Multilingual Working Group, as well as the South Asian curatorial collective PracForum, and Art Editor for positions: asia critique (Duke University Press) (2011 – present). She is working on a book on political ecology, art and the Anthropocene in India, and another on Indian contemporary photography, performativity and power. She blogs on art, ecological political theory and philosophy of science at Mutual Entanglements: Diffractive Notes on Art and the Anthropocene.

Trucks piled high with coal wait to unload this highly polluting fossile fuel at a huge electric power plant, just south of Xingtai, rated the city with the most contaminated air in China. Xingtai, Hebei Province, China. The central government ordered the closure of 8,000 factories, mostly coal-powered like this electric power plant, last year in Hebei in an effort to clean the air and decrease output of greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change, in this province that traces a ring around Beijing. 7 of the 10 cities with the worst air pollution in China, according to a Greenpeace report last year, are in Hebei. Xingtai is rated the worst in China.

Trucks piled high with coal wait to unload this highly polluting fossile fuel at a huge electric power plant, just south of Xingtai, rated the city with the most contaminated air in China. Xingtai, Hebei Province, China. The central government ordered the closure of 8,000 factories, mostly coal-powered like this electric power plant, last year in Hebei in an effort to clean the air and decrease output of greenhouse gases, which contribute to climate change, in this province that traces a ring around Beijing. 7 of the 10 cities with the worst air pollution in China, according to a Greenpeace report last year, are in Hebei. Xingtai is rated the worst in China.

James Whitlow Delano, photographer, communicator, storyteller, and founder of EverydayClimateChange Instagram feed, has lived in Asia for over two decades.  His work has been awarded internationally: the Alfred Eisenstadt Award (from Columbia University and Life Magazine), Leica’s Oskar Barnack, Picture of the Year International, NPPA Best of Photojournalism, PDN and others for work from China, Japan, Afghanistan and Burma (Myanmar), etc..  His first monograph book, Empire: Impressions from China and work from Japan Mangaland and Selling Spring: Sex Workers Story have shown at several Leica Galleries in Europe. Empire was the first ever one-person show of photography at La Triennale di Milano Museum of Art.  The Mercy Project / Inochi his charity photo book for hospice received the PX3 Gold Award and the Award of Excellence from Communication Arts.  His work has appeared in magazines and photo festivals on five continents from Visa Pour L’Image, Rencontres D’Arles; to Noorderlicht, including their “Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar” project.  His latest monograph book, Black Tsunami: Japan 2011 (FotoEvidence), documenting the Japan tsunami and nuclear crisis, was released in 2013.  Delano is a grantee for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and received the 2014 Festival PhotoReporter in Saint-Brieuc, France grant for work documenting the destruction of equatorial rainforests and human rights violations of indigenous inhabitants living there.  In 2015, Delano founded of EverydayClimateChange Instagram feed, where photographers from 6 continents document global climate change.

 

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