It’s our earth – with or without us
Would you like to be able to scan the carbon footprint of each product at the supermarket in an instant? A major exhibition in Brussels, looking at our impact on the planet, lets you do just that. The message is clear: Earth can survive without us, but we have no future without the Earth. So it is in our collective interest to ensure that our only home remains hospitable to human – and other forms of – life.
There was a time, millions of years ago, when humanity did not exist. In the distant future, perhaps millions of years from now, this could again be the case. However, given our unprecedented power to influence the planet, humans could potentially become the first creatures to precipitate their own extinction – in addition to all the other creatures we are killing off. We are not just a threat to the planet and the continued survival of life: we are actually a hazard to ourselves.
So what would the planet be like without us? This is one of the questions explored by artists at the ‘It’s Our Earth’ exhibition at the Tour & Taxis exhibition centre in Brussels(BE). Yannick Monget, a French science fiction writer and environmental campaigner who contributed to the exhibition, has created images of two famous landmarks being reclaimed by nature: the Capitol in Washington almost completely consumed by a thick, lush forest, and the Atomium in Brussels shivering through a new ice age.
To underline how fleeting our impact could prove to be, the exhibition highlights some eye-opening facts: without humanity, the New York subway would be under water within two days, the Panama Canal would disappear completely within two years, and even our most magnificent cities would be consumed by vegetation within a number of centuries. Only our most durable waste, such as plastic, will last for hundreds of thousands of years.
“The exhibition has been designed to provoke thought and challenge indifference to awareness and empowerment,” explains one of the exhibition’s curators, Nicolas St-Cyr. “We try to appeal to people on both the emotional and intellectual level by presenting them with artwork and scientific fact.”
From emissions to omissions
Climate change is a major theme dealt with by the exhibition. In one installation, visitors can ‘shop’ at a CO2 supermarket which is equipped with scanners that can tell them the carbon footprint of different day-to-day products. “We hope that every supermarket will, one day, provide its customers with such information,” says St-Cyr.
The exhibition also provides insight into our energy-intensive lifestyles. In the exhibition’s ‘living room’, visitors can learn just how much energy we use and emissions we produce. In the West, buildings are responsible for 46% of our energy consumption and 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. Since 1900, worldwide energy consumption has grown by an unimaginable factor of 18, while the population has grown fivefold. This is truly unsustainable, and ways have to be found to check this runaway consumption.
A poignant symbol of our over-consumption and waste is provided by American artist Thomas Bacher’s dazzling representation – in fluorescent paint lit up using ultraviolet rays – of Time Square in New York, a blinding beacon of electric waste.
The exhibition also strives to bring a wider environmental perspective to the global warming debate. “With all the attention climate change is receiving, we are in danger of losing sight of the broader picture,” stresses St-Cyr. “So we treat climate change in the broader context of sustainable development.”
Water, which is intimately intertwined with climate change, is an important issue tackled by the exhibition. In the Laundry Room, the visitor is introduced to the paradox that, despite the apparent abundance of water, we actually live, for human purposes, on a pretty dry planet: only 0.3% of the Earth’s water supply is accessible and usable. In addition, that water is unequally distributed and consumed. Stacks of buckets represent water consumption in different parts of the world: with the USA’s pile towering above the rest at 400 litres per person per day, and sub-Saharan Africa at the bottom on just 20 litres.
The exhibition also highlights how, fuelled by our disposable culture and consumerism, we are running out not only of fossil fuels, but also of pretty much every resource. One piece of art by the German-French artist Gloria Friedmann features a distressed deer howling in agony above a large heap of newspapers, mourning its lost habitat. Elsewhere a chart outlines how many years of consumption, at current trends, the reserves of different minerals, metals and other basic materials will last us.
A world of difference
In addition to highlighting the problems, an entire section of the exhibition is dedicated to the search for solutions. Several categories are explored: mobility, food, consumption, housing, production, education, public responsibility and technology. For mobility, one proposal is to reduce traffic in our cities by 65%.
Among the proposals for consumption is to transform our disposable culture by encouraging people to buy more durable products, make more things themselves, keep products longer, and to pass on unwanted products to others. Housing solutions considered include the use of green building and renovation practices, living in smaller houses in urban areas, and making cities more environmentally friendly.
To lighten the mood, a dose of humour is injected into this area. One amusing installation has an entire spoof campaign advertising the perfect mode of transport for the man and woman about town: their feet. Using the brand name ‘Foot’, the adverts plug the environmental, health and economic benefits of walking.
“If we don’t radically reduce our footprint on the planet in the next few decades, future generations will have to deal with the catastrophic effects on humanity and many other living species,” cautions St-Cyr.
The exhibition lasts until the end of April 2009. To find out more, see: www.expo-terra.be/en/