COURTESY HOWARD GREENBERG GALLERY AND BRYCE WOLKOWITZ GALLERY, NEW YORK/ROBERT KOCH GALLERY, SAN FRANCISCO
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This photograph in Edward Burtynsky's project on the Anthropocene—which he describes as “the complex and indelible human signature on the Earth”—shows drill marks in a potash mine in Berezniki, Russia.
COURTESY HOWARD GREENBERG GALLERY AND BRYCE WOLKOWITZ GALLERY, NEW YORK/ROBERT KOCH GALLERY, SAN FRANCISCO

Hidden landscapes reveal how humans have reshaped the planet

For every “great creation,” humans have wrought “a greater act of destruction,” says this photographer.

This story is part of the pessimistic argument for the future of the planet in our special issue on Earth Day. Read the optimistic argument and the rest of our stories here.

I captured this image in the potash mines below Berezniki, a Russian town in central Siberia. Most people don’t have the visual or verbal vocabulary to really understand what’s happening beneath the ground in that remote place. And until I visited it myself and felt the pressure of more than a thousand feet of solid earth and rock and life above me, neither did I.

This is a landscape that was never meant for human eyes. The light of the sun will never reach it. And yet the materials extracted here—destined to fertilize immense farms in the United States and elsewhere—are an essential ingredient in the production of food that sustains the world’s booming population.

To arrive at this place—a 6,000-mile network of tunnels in utter uninhabitable darkness—my crew and I descended in an elevator large enough for some 40 miners and their equipment. It was foggy; the damp air would soon chill us to the bone. At the bottom of the shaft, we boarded trucks, the only illumination coming from the vehicles’ headlights and our headlamps. Although I’d worked in a gold mine before I became a photographer, this experience was unsettling. The tunnels would split and split again and then split yet again. I began marking our path with an X. If our lights burned out, we would be lost and no one would hear our calls. Voices fade away quickly underground.

And yet it was beautiful down there amid the brightly colored layers of an ancient seabed—the orange striations of the potash, the undulating lines created by the intense pressure of the earth above. The nautilus-shell impressions, however, were made by a machine. The miners call it a combine; it excavates tunnels with spinning discs on two arms. When the combine reverses course, it carves these medallions into the rock.

Those impressions, and the tunnels themselves, are markers of the Anthropocene, a possible new geologic age defined by human activity. Scientists call such alteration to Earth’s rock and sediment “anthroturbation.” Long after our cities have been overgrown by forests, these tunnels will remain as clues to our existence, much as the cave paintings of Lascaux tell us of people who lived 20,000 years ago.

I’ve spent the past 40 years photographing the ways in which humans have altered natural landscapes, mostly through large-scale systems such as transportation, industry, and agriculture (see more of these photographs). I look for massive examples of what I call “human taking”— the removal from the Earth of the materials used to make our stuff. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t deeply concerned about this world of consumption that my daughters are inheriting.

Few people see where the resources that make their life possible come from. Most of us see skyscrapers but don’t see the silica mines that created the glass. We see concrete but not the sandpits where it’s made. We see farmland but not the forests that used to grow there—or the potash mines that provide the fertilizer that nourishes the crops. We don’t see the yin to the yang—that for every one of our great creations, there is a greater act of destruction somewhere in nature.

Edward Burtynsky’s most recent work is the multimedia Anthropocene Project. His previous story for the magazine was about California’s water crisis.
This story appears in the April 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.