22 December 2009


22 December 2009

The Czech Republic has just sent four of the eight last surviving Northern White Rhinos back to a preserve in Kenya in a desperate attempt to have them breed and stave off extinction. They have not bred in captivity.

Why do we care?

These animals are part of the beauty and diversity of life, the heritage that we have inherited and are responsible to maintain. Saving large animals means saving habitat, which happens to be the same natural system that cleans our air and water. Of course, at eight, and a split population, with the four in question showing a disinterest in reproducing, the animal is functionally extinct anyway. The Mexican Wolf was saved from seven, but there was a concerted effort to rebuild the population led by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Now we have almost 400.

The National Geographic article mentions two animals in the USA, living in captivity at the San Diego Zoo.

Like the cases of expropriation of antiquities by the developed world, the removal of animals to zoos is a form of theft, and they should be returned.

My head keeps returning to the question of why we should care about the disappearance of another funny looking animal from the planet. What difference does it make to the average soccer mom driving an SUV.

I guess none….

17 December 2009


17 December 2009

Perchlorate is a rocket fuel additive coursing through your veins, along with a myriad of other industrial chemicals that “bring good things to life.” Though unregulated, it has been determined to be toxic by modern science (always suspect in a corporatocracy.) When the EPA tried to regulate this known toxic In California, where groundwater contamination of this chemical is critical, they were branded unpatriotic by the holy trinity (military, industry, and church.)

Though it’s probably a human nature thing, this willingness to deny fact in favor of ideology and business has become an increasingly disturbing feature in our world. The geometrically magnified impact of population growth, technology, and manufacturing make the ostrich syndrome so dangerous, and yet denial grows. The “climate denial industry” is well known, but in fact industry lobbies against government regulation on most issues of increased cost, whether they be public health issues or not.

Since we are not going to change the minds of the adamant, and they by definition are more vocal than the considerate, and government will always operate on the golden rule, the only answer is for the considerate (those who listen to reason and make informed decisions about how they live their lives) to get vocal and adamant.

It’s time to grab the future.

And a big bravo to the New York Times for its water series. This is media as the fourth branch of government in the best sense.

14 December 2009


14 December 2009

Some things I don’t get: lottery tickets, for instance. Any look at the odds says there is no chance of getting that payoff, but people still buy the things. It says something about the irrationality of our species. Similarly confusing to me is the climate change gamble. I know so many intelligent people that adamantly refuse to believe that humans are having an impact on the climate, in the face of essentially irrefutable evidence. Of course we are all aware of the climate denial industry, but that does not explain it.

Is it perhaps our fear of change? Or fear of loss of indulgences? And similarly, the gamble here is so great; like the future of humankind. And the ante is really so small: moderate changes in our consumption patterns.

Copenhagen talks stalled today, and it would probably be better, as James Hansen argues, if they collapsed instead of producing some ineffective fluff.
And yes, no matter how it’s sliced, the developing world will get the short straw. But oddly, in the developed world we are slipping back from commitment. George Monbiot, in the Guardian, argues that fewer people believe in climate change than two years ago.

And of course, there are still some people out there that believe the world is flat.

10 December 2009


10 December 2009

Our objective was to document the good and the bad: recent victories for the biotic health of the Park, like the preservation of large parcels of land, and scars, like ATV damage and logging devastation. As an artist, my goal is always to make compelling images of issues that will motivate the viewer to question said issues, as well as her involvement. And why do we care about some ATV damage and logging scars?

Glad you asked.

The ball we live on is a big complex machine with many necessary moving parts that contribute to its doing what we need it to do for us to live on it. Large wild spaces: clean the air and water, produce oxygen, provide a home for the animals, which in turn perform a vital role in propagating that life system.

Unsustainable logging/ATV damage fragments the system, introduces invasive species - which usually crowd out the more fragile native species (already weakened by the loss of their habitat), and promotes erosion (loss of topsoil, water pollution, stream silting, lost fish habitat, no fish link in the food chain, etc).

So this stuff is important.

The wind, which had sped us along on the way up, now made our jobs difficult. With the hazy winter light, only certain angles work to produce good images, and as soon as Bob positioned the plane, the wind blew us away, and made getting back to that spot slow, and things happen very quickly in the air anyway.

Ultimately it was a very successful day. Cloudy light can ultimately produce some wonderful results if it lights the areas you want, leaving others darker, but it can do the opposite as well. Sometimes we wait for clouds to move and illuminate, other times we compromise, knowing we have deadlines imposed by fuel, weather and darkness.

Dropping John off in Saranac Lake, we comment on the large hangar that Citibank built so its CEO could park the company jet out of the elements when he came up to his retreat in the Adirondacks, and I reflect on the fact that it must belong to us since we bailed out Citi for just this sort of foolishness. And you can be sure that retired mogul is living large on our largesse. No need to mention his name.

07 December 2009


7 December 2009

The Adirondack Council has taken upon itself the Herculean task of trying to document the ATV damage to roadless areas in the Adirondacks Park. Surprisingly, after being in New York for so many years, only recently have I become familiar with this magical space. My first adventure was with the Northeast Wilderness Trust in an effort to save a large parcel of land from development on the Canadian border, ensuring connectivity between the Adirondacks and northern forests.

The Adirondacks is a mixture of public and private lands, set up as a park in 1892, after Verplanck Colvin proposed a bill to the legislature.

In the summer of 2008, at a friend’s suggestion, I flew with Lighthawk to shoot the old industrial scars in the park. This fall, I took a group of students into those same sites on the ground. I’m always game to take up sword against windmill, so with Bob Keller, Lighthawk’s indomitable environmental aviator, and John Davis from the Council, we lofted into the wild blue. On these projects, one is always throwing dice with the weather, and we had been trying to do this for a year, only to be clouded out at the last minute each time. This was no exception, and in a call the night before, Bob had expressed concern that an approaching weather front might trap us in the high peaks. Since I had to take a dawn train from NYC to Schenectady to meet him, mine was the longest trip of the day. But given the three previous aborted efforts, I prevailed that we should take the gamble, and we agreed that if his morning weather check sounded ominous, he could call me and I would just detrain and go back to NYC.

When we rendezvoused, the weather looked hazy-to-cloudy and the front was still in southern NJ, so we decided to move with dispatch, and bypass the paper mill nearby on which I had set my heart of adding to my collection.

It was a windy day, but in this case on our rear quarter, so we were quick getting up to Saranac Lake to get John, where we conferred on objectives and route, and groused about the weather. I’m just the idiot picture maker in the gang, and both of them knew the area, so this was their department. After a final bathroom pit-stop, we boarded, straightened out all gear, and took off. Bob, with whom I have flown many similar missions, and who keeps an immaculate plane, had recently burned a flat spot on his tire, which leads to slightly bumpy take-offs and landings, so I took great pleasure in teasing him about it through the day.

Adirondack high peaks (note the striated air pollution)

04 December 2009


4 December 2009

It’s so easy not to think about the ripple effects of our desires. Actually, it’s almost impossible to really know those effects. As an example, our unblemished bug-free fruit and vegetables come at a great cost. At the Union Carbide Bhopal Plant, methyl isocyanate, a deadly component of a variety of pesticides was manufactured, and on Dec 3, 1984, 40 tons leaked out into the surrounding community.

Twenty-five years later, we have forgotten the incident; the culpable company, after paying a fine to the Indian government has been swallowed by a larger conglomerate, and the world goes round. But the community residents have a staggering rate of birth defects, and can’t drink the water. The Indian government dismisses their claims, and we continue to demand our denatured fruit and vegetables.

But, the flap of the butterflies’ wings will eventually cause a storm on our shores.

03 December 2009

The Letter From Green Mountain - Part II

03 December 09

When they asked me to come teach for a week, I suggested that, apart from the classes and lectures, we should take a photographic field trip. Green Mountain College is adjacent to the Adirondacks, and not far from several sites I have documented from the air: Tahawus - an old lead mine, most of which is owned by OSI; Republic Steel - an abandoned mill; IP Paper Mill in Ticonderoga. LightHawk had flown me over these locations last year, which led to a great story in the Adirondack Explorer; still I have always wanted to see these sites from the ground. The weather did not look promising, so we postponed our trip from Saturday to Sunday, and, of course Saturday I came down with the flu. But, there was no way I was going to miss this trip, so I climbed in the van at 5 AM on Sunday, wheezing and whining along the way, which the students all took with magnanimous aplomb. Tahawus, our first site, is in the middle of the high peaks, and involved quite a bit of map study, GPS shaking, and wrong turns. We finally ended up at the actual mines, where a somewhat churlish fellow in old overalls with a can of spray paint in hand informed us that this was not part of the OSI parcel, and no trespassing was allowed. He did not even succomb to the southern accent, so we turned around and navigated to the OSI holdings, which included the old town. There are some really interesting dilapidated buildings, and the students were all over it, but the fever was taking over and I passed out in the van. After a few hours and a bit of meandering, we moved to what I think was an old forge, a large stone oven/chimney with some other graphically interesting decaying metal. I’m always fascinated by these relics and curious about the story behind them.

Sadly, though it was the middle of the day, a lone bat circled the cairn endlessly. The students had all moved on and a couple arrived, the female evincing unease at the despondent presence of the winged mammal. I just wanted to cry thinking there could be no more perfect symbol for a world out of balance and wobbling, like the bat’s erratic flight, toward disaster.

At this point, students with obligations had to motivate for a return to the school while the rest of us proceeded on to Republic Steel, our next destination. Located in Port Henry, this defunct mill fascinated me from the air with its Victorian factory and rusted conveyors climbing dirty white mountains of waste slag. Alas, my fever was rising, so my energy for scrabbling up the mountains, which had a texture like fine sand, was minimal. Ruins of industrial sites, and the progress of the organic world to resorb them intrigue me. Our orientation of profit over planet generates many of them, relics of fashion or depleted resources. Some are highly toxic, some picturesque, others just an eyesore. This one was spectacular, a memento of an industrial age in the USA that we have shipped offshore, thanks to globalization. No longer will the piles of slag sully our shores and contaminate our workers: there are other lands out of sight with resources to burn, workers to carcinate, water to pollute. The day was late, and the clouds that had momentarily parted for a respite had come down so they engulfed the tops of the slag heaps. Time to race back to the school before the cafeteria closed…

24 November 2009


24 November 2009

A recent report finds a direct link between climate change and African conflict; this on top of previous studies that show an inverse link between rainfall and war. We in the West look on this with nodding interest (if we pay attention at all), and go about our day. But as goes Africa, the rest of the world will soon follow. In spite of the euphemism “global warming,” climate change means unpredictability in the weather. Aside from the certainty of ocean rise (and the concomitant displacement of large populations, who will be hungry), changing weather patterns are a certainty. That means, aside from the hordes of starving people needing food, agricultural production will plummet as weather patterns shift, new pests move northward, and did we forget to mention: we run out of fertilizer.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Enjoy Discover Magazine's new slideshow, featuring Industrial Scars.

22 November 2009

Catalog Choice

22 November 2009

We all roll our eyes upon opening the mailbox to find it bulging with catalogs, only a portion of which we have any notion. I’ve long known of Catalog Choice, but as the grumpy non-shopper, I don’t get any catalogs to speak of. Somehow, though, they find even me, and yesterday I went on and did the magic. What an easy way to strike a blow for the planet, save forests, and stop the pollution caused by paper manufacture. Forests are habitats and carbon sinks, water and air cleaners.

If you have ever asked the question: “what can I do,” here is a good answer: www.catalogchoice.org

16 November 2009

The Letter from Green Mountain

16 November 2009

One of my favorite songs is “Every Grain Of Sand” by EmmyLou Harris. I had the good fortune to meet her, and she reminded me that it was originally a Bob Dylan song. To me, this song is about the importance of every small gesture in the big scheme of things: “The flap of a butterfly’s wings can cause a hurricane on the other side of the planet.”

My work is about getting people to evolve from being consumers to citizens, to question the impact of every dollar they spend, every bite they eat. At one time, I wanted to “win the hearts and minds” of people; now I just want behavioral change. If we all turn out the lights, it will be ok.

I’m doing a week of “artist in residence” at Green Mountain College in Vermont, doing individual critiques and presentations to the student body. This institution strives to “do the right thing” by the environment, the future, and the people here. The students and faculty come here because of the commitment and they obviously care about their “footprint.” Admittedly, they still leave some lights on when they leave the room, still eat ham and cheese, but by and large their wish is for a society of sustaianability. And I see the same thing in the USA, and the world at large: a concern with the current situation, and desire to be part of a change. Even people that until recently refused to acknowledge climate change grudgingly shrug. With that movement in the sentiment of the population, the only question becomes “tipping point.” What is the percentage of electricity buyers turning off the lights in protest of climate change that will be necessary to force the evolution to a more local, sustainable power? I'd wager that it’s not a big number.

Being part, if only for a week, of the intellectual dynamic of this place, and the currents I have seen in the larger USA leaves me with a real sense of hope.

12 November 2009

Music and Industrial Scars Save Mountains

13 November 2009

Monday night, NRDC, Gibson Guitars, EmmyLou Harris, and her manager Ken Levitan hosted an event to raise awareness in the country music community about mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR). The first step in the lengthy trail of devastation caused by the use of coal as a power source, is the practice of blowing the top off of the mountain, dumping the blasted earth into the adjacent valley, extracting the coal, planting grass seed, and repeat.

The goal of the event was to recruit more country musicians to the cause, as they reach a wide audience outside of the “environmentalist crowd.”

Industrial Scars images of MTR were a central part of the event, as were two custom-made guitars with my images of Coal River Mountain, the destruction of which has just begun.

This is the second event Ms. Harris has hosted on this issue, and the list of notable musicians is growing: Randy Travis, Ben Sollee, Big Kenny Alphin, Delbert McClinton, Dierks Bentley, Gloriana, James Otto, J.D. Souther, Matraca Berg, Jeff Hanna, Michelle Branch, Kid Rock, Patty Griffin, and Rodney Crowell were all there.

Bravo to them all, and if you are a fan, send them a note of applause for their work on this horrific issue.

Bobby Kennedy spoke eloquently (as always) about the link between our cultural heritage and the environment, a link that is particularly relevant in this case as the roots of country music are in the Appalachians.
Coal is the source of half of our electricity, and billed as a cheap energy source. But the reason it’s cheap when your electric bill comes is that you have already paid for it with your high taxes that subsidize it. Some of the 2005 coal subsidies (out of your pocket) include:
$1.612 billion in tax credits to invest in new coal power plants
$1.147 billion in tax breaks for coal power plants to install pollution control equipment
$1.8 billion of taxpayer money to help build a new fleet of coal power plants
$1.137 billion of taxpayer money to help make coal power a cost-competitive source of power generation (there’s a joke on us).
$90 million to research ways to sequester carbon dioxide emitted from coal power plants.
And this is just the beginning.

Is this the way you want your money to be spent, to subsidize global warming and mercury poisoning?

10 November 2009

Green Mountain College, VT

11 November 2009

Some people write with facility and grace, words flowing from their fingers seemingly without effort. Others, like myself, struggle, stare, chew the inside of the cheek, and generally suffer until something comes to life.

Green Mountain College in Vermont invited me to be artist-in-residence for a week, my destination after the Nashville NRDC/Gibson/Mountaintop Removal event (more on that in a later post). I've just arrived on a brisk November night, had a delicious vegetarian meal in Rutland, and was deposited on the campus. The thought of dialoging with students and describing what I do and why is exciting is weighing on me. The focus of my work is getting people to change behavior, realize the emminent danger, and participate in a new economy. GMC is a college that made the decision to "go green" in the nineties and has not looked back. So, here I will be "preaching to the converted" but we all still have so far to go, and will only get there by constantly refining and tweaking our methods. In spite of the energy audits that have been done here, I'm sitting in a library with lots of lights on, fighting the temptation to turn them off.

Is it possible to change our behavior before the situation gets drastic?

06 November 2009

The Uses of Sarcasm

6 November 2009

Sarcasm is the use of irony to mock or convey contempt.

Some would describe it as an inappropriate method in serious dialog. Our world today is a place that has been pushed to a precipice: continue with the economic and social systems that have evolved from feudal times until now, or creatively tweak our institutions and habits to ensure our wealth and comfort into the future. These changes would be significant, but not draconian. The marshalling issue of the day is climate change; a big problem, simple, but ubiquitous in its causes. Slowing the changes in progress will require immediate action from all of us, and the will to demand legislation accordingly.

Blue-Footed Booby on Galapagos Islands

But, we are still watching reality television. The disconnect is so significant as to be irrational, and thus logical discourse becomes impossible. Solutions to global warming can’t be discussed with someone who has been so misinformed as to deny its existence. When half of our elected representatives refuse to attend the Senate environment committee hearing on global warming, and refer to climate change as “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” disbelief is the only response. Sarcasm often follows.

05 November 2009


5 November 2009

"If we don't take urgent and ambitious action, the reality is that some small island developing states will not be around within a couple of decades - certainly not by the end of the century."

So says the UK Climate Secretary Ed Miliband.

I would retort: “Who needs them?”

Chances are we have extracted the resources we want from them, and therefore they are just hanging around, playing the guilt card on us, when really they should be glad we invited them to the party (even if it is just to exploit them). As a matter of fact, I propose we send a few gunboats to ensure that none of the whiners get off before their little rocks are submerged, as they will only come to our shores and stir up trouble. God knows we have enough of it with all of the bleeding hearts wanting universal health care and carbon caps.

When will they learn that might makes right. What’s theirs is ours.

04 November 2009


4 November 2009

Last night, Al Gore introduced his new book, “Our Choice” at the Museum of Natural History. His previous book, “An Inconvenient Truth,” arguably brought the issue of climate change into the mainstream. This tome offers a variety of solutions to the various problems, most of which are hard to dispute. None of this information is new, but what Mr. Gore brings to the table is a reasonableness and diplomacy that are often lacking in the debates on these issues. The main message of his book, that the climate problem is soluble, leads to the essential hurdle, the impasse in the halls of our government in acknowledging, let alone attending to this issue. And the citizenry, who seemingly realizes that there is a problem, possibly serious, continues happily on its way, looking in the daily drivel for hopeful news about action by the duly elected.

Not gonna happen. And we can’t wait for it.

The Republicans won’t even show up at the Senate climate change hearings (Huffington).

If we don’t attend to this problem, we will be harshly judged by our children (if they haven’t done so already). But the lark is that it’s really not so hard, in spite of the dire warnings about economic catastrophe, to set out on the road of sustainability.

03 November 2009

climate Climate CLIMATE

3 November 2009

Germany's Chancellor Merkel is speaking to both houses of the US congress today in an exhortation for the USA to move on climate change. Talk about rain on the ocean, she will be lucky to get a polite hearing. The US congress is so indebted to the hydro-carbon lobby that our chances for substance from that consensus club are negligent. We the people must demand representation. Turn off your lights in support of action on climate change
Morning Haze shrouds a coal-fired power plant outside Baton Rouge, LA

02 November 2009

Another Twinkie please!

The British Journal of Psychiatry released a report finding that a diet high in processed food leads to increased risk of depression. Me, I happen to like my high fructose, food colored diet. Who can deny that Twinkies are the pinnacle of western culinary achievement? If God had wanted us to eat those dirty buggy vegetables, he would have put them on the supermarket shelves in pretty plastic packaging.

Distressed Farmland

I must admit to amusement at this news, as it seems akin to a person’s horror at water damage after the fire deparment has finally controlled the fire that destroyed the house. Industrial agriculture is a curse on the planet, to our bodies, and to the future of our children.The fact that scientists have finally linked processed food to depression just shows the folly of science.

01 November 2009

Beauty and Oil Fires

I have a confession. I’m fascinated by oil fires. They have a mesmerizing beauty like nothing else. Werner Herzog did a great film called Lessons of Darkness about oil wells after the first Gulf War. Did we learn a lesson?

Flare at Plastics Plant

Today there are two big fires, one in Jaipur India, and the other in the Timor Sea, north of Australia. They hardly warrant a blip on our celebrity-obsessed media and consciousness, after all, Mark Sanford’s exploits in Argentina or Brad’s current status with Jen is much more interesting and relevant. And of course the plentiful TV programs about the nice little animals, although gently cautionary about imminent concerns, reassure us that all is well. Because if I can see the pretty polar bears, I know it will all be ok.

31 October 2009

Can we learn a new trick?

Halloween is a bit like our current dilemma: we can have the treat now, and the trick later, or vice-versa. We can continue on our path of mindless indulgence now and act bewildered when draconian repercussions and emergency measures are forced on us, or turn the trick now, get sensible about our consumption and enjoy the treats later (like clean air and water, and presenting a world of wildness and beauty to our grandchildren).
Trick or Treat.

30 October 2009

The Wolf Conservation Center is one of the largest players in the effort to save the Mexican Wolf from extinction. As one of the first animals on the endangered species list in 1976 with only 7 remaining individuals, this animal is both a testament to man’s ability to correct wrongs and save an imperiled creature, and an icon of bureaucratic stasis and right wing obstructionism.

From seven founders, we now have a population of about 350, most in captive facilities, and about 50 in the wild. This is a program that could work, but during the Bush years, even though it is a federal crime, fanatics that shot them went unpunished, and the administration of the program was allowed to founder.
Our mission today was to catch, check, medicate, and weigh 15 wolves. No easy feat to run down an animal that is so elusive. But the crack team of staff and volunteers managed the task efficiently. So now 15 wolves are convening up the hill and reminding each other why they don’t like people.
Bravo to the staff and volunteers of the WCC, and especially to our vet of the day, Renee Gossett.


30 October 2009

Big news his week that the US economy grows again, a gift of mixed blessings. The Dow is back up around 10,000 and the bankers that sold a bill of goods to mortgage borrowers who are now on the street and then gambled on derivatives with all the money are back with comfortable salaries only to repeat their folly next time around while the fleeced huddle against the winter cold (thank God for global warming). Meanwhile, as we all feel more comfortable with our disposable incomes and buy new smart electronics, lowland gorillas will resume their march to extinction as the coltan is extracted.

28 October 2009

Water and Coal

How wonderfully concurrent that today is such an environmentally important day for water and coal. Yesterday the destruction of Coal River Mountain via Moutaintop removal began.
Coal is a tremendously thirsty energy source in all the stages of its life from mining to disposal.

Leaves in stream polluted by Acid Mine Drainage

As soon as mining begins, acid mine drainage starts poisoning the nearby streams.
Then tremendous volumes of clean water are mixed with chemicals to wash the coal, which is then stored in giant impoundments which burst with alarming frequency to wash away the poor citizens unfortunate enough to live below.

Coal Slurry

Half of all the fresh water used in the USA is to cool power plants (half of which are coal). And today the EPA released a report acknowledging that coal ash is an unregulated extremely dangerous polluter of groundwater (and surface water as anyone in Kingston, TN will tell you).

Turn off the lights. “Just say no” to coal.


28 October 2009

Rain again. Wasn’t it just raining? Hasn’t it rained all summer?
And the snow. What happened to snow up to our waists? I remember when New York was shut down with deep snow every winter. Now all we get is freezing rain. You may not mind, but I want my snow back. Same thing in Germany: "yes, now that you mention it, I remember when it used to snow in Koeln." The winter snow is what we drink in the spring and summer, btw. What if we all did something about it today? And tomorrow.

26 October 2009

Destruction of Coal River Mountain

Coal River Mountain before blasting.©2008 J Henry Fair

The long dreaded destruction via Mountaintop Removal of Coal River Mountain has begun, all to line the pockets of big coal and feed our heedless demand for electricity. This in spite of a viable proposal to place windmills on the peak that would provide energy for generation with no carbon footprint. Coal is the biggest single cause of global warming as well as a slew of poisonous elements released into the environment. Worried about the mercury in your fish? Turn off the lights.
The Appalachian mountains in West Virginia are home to some of the most beautiful and biodiverse forests in the world. The destruction of these mountains, forests and streams is one of the most egregious examples of our short-sighted demand for energy: a folly that is being repeated ad nauseam around the planet.
Like children, we want what we want and ignore the consequences. So that we can drive our SUV’s and leave our lights and air conditioners on, we blithely sacrifice the systems that sustain us with clean air and water. An even greater lunacy is our ostrich approach to climate change, an issue that is a clear and present danger to us all. Coastal areas around the world will be under water soon, rain patterns will change wreaking havoc on agriculture; and hungry, desperate people will descend on the “haves” and demand their share. And we will have to kill them. This is your children’s world.

Pay no attention.
Get in your car and drive.
Don’t forget to leave the lights on.

16 October 2009


Miranda Cuckson, violin
J Henry Fair, video production

15 October 2009

POLAR ICE: Who Needs It?

15 October 2009

A study released today announced that polar ice will be gone in 10 years. My initial reaction to such traumatic news is so often sarcasm, that I resist with great effort. The ramifications (those we can understand) are so far-reaching as to leave me a bit breathless. Let's not even talk about the polar bears, as they are already functionally extinct. The estimates I have seen predict that sea levels will rise 250 feet when all the ice has melted; goodbye New York City, Boston, Charleston, and all those places dear to me. It's hard not to think selfishly about these things; after all, we are each the center of our own universe. And therein lies the problem. I know plenty of good people that still drive SUV's and have houses that burn megawatts of electricity. I think we discount the larger effects of our own actions. We think to ourselves: because I can afford it, I am entitled to it. And there are so many rationalizations: "everyone else does it," "it's just a hamburger," "science will provide an answer." Comfort and desire are so seductive, and our contributions to the problem seems so small. Though we might have heard that livestock produce more global warming gas than cars and trucks, why should we deny ourselves that steak? After all, the world will end when we die, right?


21 October 2009

AEP, the largest producer of electricity in the USA, with a heavy investment in coal, announced the inauguration of the first carbon sequestration installation on one of its coal burning plants in West Virginia. The first phases of the project have cost nearly $13 million, and the pilot project has not even begun to scratch the surface. The USA gets about 50% of its power from coal burning, the largest single source of climate change, as well as a host of very toxic pollutants.

The capture and sequestration of carbon in underground cavities (old mines and wells, primarily) has been touted as the band-aid that will allow continued use of this disastrous fuel. There is no “clean coal.” Let’s examine: a mine has many openings... is there any reason to think that carbon, a gas, will just stay willingly underground? Water seeps out of these mines regularly. If we permit this practice and fill all the holes we can find with carbon, and it starts to leak - which it will - that becomes a time bomb of incalculable consequences. The people that are telling us this will work are the same who stand to make billions from the continued use of this fuel. Are they the ones whose advice we should heed on this?

Read the story.

Coal mining operation in West Virginia
Coal conveyors transport coal between two static points, eliminating the need for human-operated transport. The yellow liquid is either ground water, contaminated with iron pyrite, or a spilled chemical.

02 October 2009


2 October 2009

In these days of uncertainty about the stock and real estate markets, what better “hedge” than the art world. But value is really about what someone will pay for a given commodity, and who can judge the motivations of the buyer? It seems that art “theft” has become an increasingly prevalent occupation, but what do you do with the goods after the heist? It's not like you can take them to the fence. And of course, value is all about perception, whether it’s a legal transaction or not, meaning that it’s set by the ignorant majority (the nouveau riche looking to match the couch). The name becomes the meter of value, and thus Lautrec is worth more than Lissitsky, and far better to invest a lot in a mediocre work of the brand name, than a little in an excellent piece by an unknown. Of course, we only know when the market bottomed in retrospect.

Read about the Pebble Beach Art Heist.

28 September 2009

Drinking Water

28 September 09

The recent article about drinking water in the NY Times was illuminating and troubling; an occulted legacy of the Bush administrations. We have been so lucky in this country with our seemingly bottomless water resource, which of course has led to squandering. And the Bush cabal set about dismantling regulations and oversight, a combination that has led to a precarious future. One of the examples cited was in West Virginia, where coal companies have been permitted to dispose of coal slurry (the highly toxic mixture of chemicals and water used to wash coal) in old mine shafts. Lo and behold, suddenly the neighbors are getting skin rashes when they shower and diseases if they drink the water. Of course one sympathizes with these people, but my immediate question is: how did they vote? Bush came in with the promise to do exactly what he did: dismantle regulation and get government off the back of business. Wake up. Another coal related water travesty in WV is the permitting of coal companies to dump the mountain-top that is removed in “mountain-top removal mining” into the valley adjacent, thus burying the stream there. In an era of increasing water scarcity, we are letting these mining operations bury pristine streams. Go figure.

Read the story.

01 September 2009


30 August 2009

What happened in Florence? Between 1450 and 1550, the world changed, and our way of seeing and representing the world would never be the same. In the Third Man, Graham Greene wrote, "You know what the fellow said - in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace - and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." Standing in front of Michaelangelo’s David is a lesson in humility, and not because he is so large… It’s the perfection that staggers, and the artistic license taken by the artist. Interestingly, though created by an Italian, the face is clearly Greek (reminds one of operas written in Italian by Germans). His head is too large, but it feels right; our man knew that it would be viewed with awe from below. The shoulders and torso I would kill for, the arms too. But the hands struck me the most - far too large for the rest of the body, but captivatingly perfect: these are the hands that slew the monster Goliath. His posture is relaxed with immeasurable grace and strength, but of course, he had just killed the beast that had terrorized the army, and he was just a boy. Of course the real grace and genius was that of the artist, the man who knew he was a god, the best in the world, able to create something so beautiful and perfect that 500 years later, we marvel, knowing that nothing will ever equal it. What drove this revolution in a town in the middle of Italy? How did Michaelangelo come to be?

20 August 2009

TIME Magazine

I have a piece in TIME Magazine, August 31 issue - out tomorrow, newsstands next week... check it out!

14 August 2009


I can’t imagine the burden of being known and pursued wherever one goes. A walk down the street becomes like stepping out of the tent in the Canadian far north. The “fans” like mosquitoes, immediately swarm, wanting any possible memento of their brush with celebrity; in lieu of blood they will take autographs, photos of themselves with the star, and of course the best would be some personal item like the lock of Galadriel's hair, so treasured by Gimli. It is a pleasure to meet someone at the top of their game that still remembers the humility of the regular folk. Of course, as the photographer trying to do a portrait, the immediate attention from the passersby made photographs impossible.

Anthony Hopkins related to me a story of growing up in Wales, going to see a famous singer, who spurned him and his father, to the great shame of the patriarch, and the effect it had on his relation to his fans. And I found him to be constantly gracious. The only time I was able to get a good photo, was a moment outside the Il Borro Vineyard when noone was around, and of course there is only one good frame: Anthony Hopknins, on the direction of the photographer, leaning on the Maserati (loaned in hopes of association with the celebrity.)

Of course, I can’t deny that having a portrait of the actor won’t hurt my portfolio... and the circle goes round.

03 August 2009


31 July 2009

I was talking to a farmer as he delivered his boutique organic vegetables to Angelika’s (my favorite restaurant), telling him about my tar sands trip to which he remarked that the tar sands completely blasted Hubberts peak, the concept we hoped would save the planet, out of the water. For those who don’t know it, the theory is one about the diminishing discovery, followed by production and thus scarcity of oil and the corresponding price increase and drop in consumption. Devout readers of this tome know that the tar sands extraction process is environmentally devastating on many levels, and on my recent trip I discovered that it’s profitable at about $50 a barrel (according to my source). And there is a lot of it up there under the Albertan Boreal Forest.


30 July 2009

From what I could tell at a distance, the dogs were friendly. Did that give me the liberty to traverse the junkyard completely, alone? As the total anti-materialist photographer (is that an oxymoron?), what could be more idyllic than a junkyard? But I had a flat tire and an appointment with a group of Cree first nation elders, and was in no mood to be exploring a junkyard looking for a Toyota with a particular size tire. To make the story shorter in the telling, John, the tire man, finally came to my rescue, and no Toyotas with 195-15 tires did he find either, at which point he suggested we go look through the large rows of tires that were standing at his work station, something I had opined upon arrival. The first one he found had rot around the edges (he really did know his stuff) but the second one had more tread than the tire I had cut. Yes it was my fault, the Toyota simply was not sturdy enough to jump the curb off the highway. The squeaky new factory prefab housing surrounded by grassless dirt (tar sands topsoil removed prior to strip mining the bitumen filled sand below?) was too appealing a picture. The signs with their promises of cheap schooling and easy commutes, prices the same paid in Toronto or Boston, painted a picture not dissimilar to the gold rush towns of California in the good old days. But halcyon days are back in Fort McMurray, 1600 miles north of Edmonton thanks to the tar sands. Unless you live downstream.

But let’s face it. As long as there is demand (that means us), these resources will be extracted, at whatever cost necessary. And do you really think the needs of a small minority group will be considered versus all that money to be made? I hope so.

30 July 2009


29 July 2009

Nothing in the world can be more detestable than a mosquito, and nothing is more annoying as having one buzz in your ear when you are trying to sleep. It’s late at night on the Peace Athabasca Delta, and we are at a fishing camp belonging to the family of our hosts, Joe and George Marcel of the Dene tribe. Outside, the air is thick with mosquitoes; so many in fact, that going out to the bathroom is an act of desperation and means being eaten alive, while inside, there are so many that the buzzing in the ears is unending. They bite through the clothes, they laugh at repellants, they drive one to distraction. Sleep is impossible, as I refuse to use deet repellants, the only thing that they even notice; but as I write, fatigue immediately clouds my mind. The dark hours are few, and soon light fills the cabin, so I contemplate grabbing the camera and going out to try to shoot some of the myriad birds whose songs filter in through the few screens but the thought fo facing the vampires is daunting, even with the body nets NRDC brought.

The Peace Athabasca Delta is one of the world’s most beautiful places, under siege from effluents of the tar sands operations, and deprived of water by a large hydro-electric dam. This part of my trip has been organized by NRDC to show journalists the contrast between this “Bio Gem” and the industrial nightmare upstream (rivers flow north here). Coincidentally, they were coming up at the same time as I, and they invited me to join them on this part of the journey. They also had a tour of one of the tar sands operations, but those companies don’t like photographers and would not allow me to join (can’t understand why.) That’s why Industrial Scars remains an “eye in the sky” project.

Joe and George, a taciturn pair, are guiding us through this spectacular place, an endless wetland teeming with flora and fauna. Most of the day is spent on a motorboat going along the Athabasca River, and getting off in various places: an old family graveyard, the place where the “winter road” runs into Lake Athabasca (this area is only accessible by ground in the winter when everything freezes.) This particular road runs over a lake for this stretch. We also hike along a trail that has been in use since time immemorial through the sand hills which are characteristic of the region. We see eagles, a moose grazing by the river, birds of every description, and, did you say mosquitoes? On the way out, we stopped and Joe fried some walleye that was so fresh and tasty, even I liked it. They navigate the maze of rivers and perform these tasks with a practiced facility that can only come from a lifetime of knowledge. They are besieged with strange cancers and dwindling clean water, all as a result of our thirst for oil.

27 July 2009


27 July 2009

Everywhere it smells like oil, a constant reminder of the force that drives this region. And the people, all polite and helpful, are defensive, because they need those jobs. How dare those environmentalists come and criticize? “What powered the car that got you here anyway?” In traveling the world, I see this over and over, fear-motivated support of environmental destruction by the populations dependent on the pillage for their jobs. My friend Larry Gibson, the David fighting the Goliath of Massey coal, holds an annual July 4th party (remember life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) at his place in WV. This year it was busted up by a gang of drunken, slovenly coal miners, threatening the women and children present. Land of the free, home of the brave. One almost feels sorry for them, because it is fear that drives this behavior. Of course, the coal companies with whom they cast their lot have repeatedly shown their willingness to enslave and abandon the workers: the stories of coal towns and indebtedness to the company stores are legendary. More recently, the mechanization of coal mining has obviated all of the jobs once provided by the mines, at a much greater environmental cost. There is a madness at work here: our heritage is being destroyed, and make no mistake, the environment is our legacy; it pervades our songs and lore. But we seem to be willing to sacrifice our children’s inheritance for trinkets and our indulgence.

Fort McMurray, the support town for the tar sands operations, has the gold-rush feel pervading everything: hotel rooms and real estate cost more than prime cosmopolitan areas, labor is scarce, so service suffers, fortunes are made (and lost) overnight, and everyone is rushing to get theirs. Meanwhile, the people downstream (the Athabasca River looks like chocolate milk) are suffering myriad cancers and birth defects, but can’t get anyone to pay attention.


25 July 2009

Like all industrial extraction processes, the culpable actors don’t want publicity. I'm driving along next to the Albian sands project, a joint venture of Shell and Chevron/Texaco, which happened to be one of the most interesting excavation projects from the air, and the “Access Interdit” signs abound, as if one could actually do damage to this ravaged landscape. Of course the only damage is to reputation: no one is more dangerous than the photographer. Meanwhile, as I drive, I listen to the local radio station, which is full of the news of a recent study commissioned by the Alberta provincial government (which is very supportive of tar sands development) asserting (for the benefit of dubious USA lawmakers (who are always on the side of the environment)) that oil from tar sands has only ten percent more global warming footprint than traditional crude. Driving through Fort MacKay, a First Nation community which, unlike many others, has embraced tar sand development, I’m impressed with the new roads and community center and school, all in a village of 450 people. Of course, given the rate of cancers and other mysterious diseases I’ve read about, one wonders who will be around to enjoy it all. Must jobs always come at the cost of environmental devastation? A resounding NO.

Meanwhile, I’m in northern Canada and the weather feels like Florida. Can we realize the problem before it’s too late?

22 July 2009


21 July 2009

The tasks somehow increase in monumentality, due to the exactitude required and the preparation, let alone the execution. Production takes more and more time, and is increasingly difficult: a clear vision of the road between concept and product would almost certainly discourage the attempt. Nonetheless I find myself rushing to Newark airport on the Pulaski Skyway (love this road) with the monumental Hudson power plant off to the right, and the series of rusted bridges over the River, with that feeling of anxiety - based on the fear of unpreparedness. It always leaves once I am in motion (and realize what I forgot, in this case the spare battery for the video camera.)

But inevitably when flying commercially, one joins the rank of “the problem,” which I spend so much energy avoiding: the carbon footprint, massive use of petrol, the tremendous waste… I devote my life to learning and documenting the hidden cost to our environment of that soda can; to then see them thrown in the rubbish as the airlines tend to do makes me crazy. And the food, or what passes for it, makes me cringe. Watching those overweight kids drink soda after soda and eat hamburgers that have such a staggering impact on the planet makes me want to grab those sodas and burgers from them and ask incredulously: “do you know what you’re doing?” But of course, that is the least effective method of persuasion, so I control myself with a beer (time for a life-cycle analysis of that, I guess.) And I hope that the images I make will educate these same people about their unwitting involvement in the desecration of our world.

But for the time being, I am part of the problem, emitting carbon and eating factory food and hoping for change.

20 July 2009


16 July 2009

Bloomberg Inc., the financial world giant has resolved to examine every aspect of its sourcing and operations with an eye to reducing the impact it makes on the planet. I don’t know the totality of the plan, but what I do know is they were specifying that purchased items should have no chrome due to the toxicity of that metal and processes involved in its manufacture. That level of specificity indicates real intent to me, and I applaud this initiative. There is a fascinating trend in businesses that realize good sustainability practices are good business practices due to reduced long-term costs. Who can argue with a concerted “turn off the lights” program that saves thousand of dollars a month?

As part of their eco awareness program, Bloomberg invites speakers from firms and environmental groups, and yes, even Soapbox Henry.

I decided to speak about “That Obscure Object of Desire,” title of course taken from the Buñuel film, meaning specifically that our desire for object, constantly cheaper than before, and frequently ridiculous items we don’t need, is desecrating the systems that sustain us. As an example, I referred to an object I had photographed years ago as part of a catalog job (the only thing I have not photographed is the Sears tool catalog). Nothing could exist that is more useless than this item, yet someone had seen fit to produce whatever minimum thousands had to be made in the surety that some devout soul would purchase them in the hope of solace. There was also a priceless angel with a light inside. I wanted to keep it.

Meanwhile, the Bloomberg presentation was packed. An estimated 500 people suffered my rants, froths, entreaties, promises, and anecdotes. As one might expect, they were intelligent, interested, and thankfully, pleased.

15 July 2009


That's right, folks, yours truly will be conducting a photographic symposium at the NYC Bloomberg L.P. headquarters tomorrow. This event will kick off Bloomberg's BGreen Speaker Series.

13 July 2009


13 July 2009

To the applause and self-congratulation of the obsequious, our elected representatives in the House passed a “climate change bill,” described by the apologist media as “a step in the right direction.” Aside from the fact that it is so minimalist as to hardly be worthy of the moniker “change,” the law is certain to be defeated in the Senate.

Meanwhile the world looks on agape as we bray and finger-point, then continue our flatulent ways. Meanwhile, the folks that really know the score are terrified and trying desperately to get our attention. This is not some fringe alarmist prattle, we are talking about the survival of our grandchildren. And the sad thing is that the fix is not a big deal. We can do this with a slight curb in our appetites. Willpower is the key. We citizens must demand action from our legislators and demonstrate a little resolve in our consumption. If we educate ourselves about the impact of our purchase decisions, and buy accordingly, we can change the world.

08 July 2009


8 July 2009

I come from the South, and am proud of my heritage. It is a wonderful place with a natural warmth and generosity unknown in the rest of the USA. No place or people have clean hands throughout history, and my home is no exception. My sense is that the issues that plague us are all interrelated, and I count myself fortunate that I can devote myself to fighting the injustices that concern me the most.

Much as I love the South, the environmental regulations there are some of the worst in the country, thus industry has used it as a haven of permissiveness and reduced costs. Time to wake up. Early in the year I began discussions with my friend Hume from SouthWings, a group of pilots that fly environmentalists and legislators to see issues first hand from the air, about doing a flight in South Carolina. We are both very concerned about the consequences of burning coal for electricity, and have done numerous flights together over Mountaintop Removal (MTR) areas. Our other objective was to provide images to the Coastal Conservation League of whatever they are currently fighting. These are both fantastic organizations that deserve your support.

Coal is bad from the beginning to the end: the MTR extraction process is destroying vast stretches of some of America’s final virgin forest and watershed areas, the combustion is one of the primary causes of global warming and releases more toxics and heavy metals into our environment than I have breath to mention, and lastly is the fly ash issue. If you don’t know about what happened at the TVA coal plant in Kingston, TN just after Christmas, you should: the largest industrial disaster in US history. When coal is burned, the exhaust coming up the smokestack is laden with tremendous amounts of the nastiest stuff known to man. The energy companies are required to scrub that effluent, the most common method being to spray a “slurry” of gypsum through it which captures much of the particulate matter. The resulting mixture is known as fly ash, and its disposal is essentially unregulated- generally power plats keep it in unlined “impoundments” close to the plant.

“Why is this important to me?” you might wonder. Glad you asked. Chances are pretty good that one of the 800 coal fired generators in the USA is close to your home; and chances are they have a big wad of fly ash slurry separated from the water supply by a poorly made earthen dam. (Coal generators are always built next to a water body to supply them with the fresh water they need for cooling). So, like the unfortunate residents who live downstream of the TVA power plant in Kingston, you are in danger of having that nastiness spill into the waterway near you and even if it does not cover your house with toxic waste, you will never eat the fish from, swim in, or enjoy that water body again. And let’s not even talk about the possibility of all those toxins contaminating your well, even if they don’t spill.

So back to the airplane. Hume was delayed leaving Asheville by a mechanical issue, and then had to fly the Nature Conservancy on a quick flight, so we were much later off the ground than I had hoped. Our first site is King Tract in Awendaw, a large undeveloped parcel that CCL is working to save. From there we went up to Lake Moultrie which has several Santee-Cooper coal fired power plants. The first had some really interesting fly ash, but the second was nothing short of amazing- a behemoth of belching, spewing global warming and toxic waste. The fly ash dump was spectacular: variegated tunnels of different liquids. I love it when the subject is simultaneously sinister and beautiful, and a toxic nightmare. Fly ash is a clear and present danger- one more essential reason not to burn coal.

From the Lake Moultrie area we navigate south to the North Charleston Industrial zone. Hume checks in with the tower, as this is getting near to the Charleston airport, and the controller is obviously stressed because of the traffic volume. It is against the law to fly around power plants, and pilots that are willing to do it must always be on the right side of the air traffic controllers. The Nucor Steel Plant is close to our position, and still out of the traffic zone, so we circle, photographing the piles of rusted steel and various minerals.

Suddenly I spot something on fire, ask Hume to circle, and it turns out to be a machine with a large bowl of molten metal dumping its contents into a pit. It dumps once, and only a bit comes out, then backs off, goes to an adjacent pit and trys again. Suddenly the entire contents come out like a volcanic eruption and cause a virtual explosion, the likes of which neither of us have ever seen. To the east is the Williams Coal Plant, and though I have shot it before, I want to again, but it is closer to the airport, and Hume tells me that the tower is starting to divert traffic around us, a situation that clearly unnerves him. Oh the disappointment. Also on that side of the river are the Mead Westvaco Paper Mill, North Charleston incinerator, and various other sites on my list. Can’t do it all in this life, I guess.

02 July 2009


02 July 2009

The EPA has just released a list of coal ash ponds in danger of bursting. This report has gone unpublished until now, as the sites are so toxic it was feared they would become a terrorist target. There are about 1,100 coal-fired power plants in the USA (you can be sure there is one near you). I’m not going to discuss the 50 tons of mercury they emit, or all of the uranium, global warming gases and the many other toxics. Today I am talking about the waste ash, of which an average plant produces 125,000 tons a year. And this is nasty stuff, including: arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium and uranium, all things you don’t want to drink. Oops, did I forget to mention that the ash is dumped in unlined ponds that leach into the groundwater? The EPA (that great protector of industry) does not regulate coal ash and is just reluctantly starting to sample groundwater around these ponds. What a surprise, many of them have contaminated the groundwater.

But wait, the story gets better: In an effort to dispose of the stuff, the Bush cabal came up with a “beneficial use” alternative to disposal. So, they are mixing this highly toxic, very nasty stuff in with sheetrock and concrete. What will they think of next? Just before Christmas 2008, one of these ponds at a TVA coal plant burst, causing the largest industrial disaster in US history, dumping 1.7 million cubic yards of this lovely stuff into the Emory River, burying the houses along the river, and doing who knows what other damage. "Don’t worry," they said, "it’s just mud" (the government is here to help you, God love 'em!)

We generate half of our electricity from coal. To get at it, we are destroying West Virginia. Burning it is the largest cause of global warming, not to mention that it is poisoning our waterways with mercury and whatever else. And when it’s done, the ash is poisoning our drinking water.

Turn off the lights.

TAR SANDS - press release

June 30, 2009


Described as a “Provocateur” by MSNBC’s Anne Thompson, photographer J Henry Fair never fails to inspire viewers with his horrifically beautiful imagery of environmental trauma. Whether his subject is the mountain-top removal mining practices of the coal industry, or the inhumane treatment of animals on factory farms, Fair’s message is clear: we are all complicit in the destruction of our planet, and to repair the damage we have done means cooperation en masse.

Fair recently collaborated with Columbia University’s Earth Institute and OSI to document the gas drilling practice known as “hydro-fracing,” which will severely affect the Catskills and have a major impact on the New York City water supply if allowed to continue. This project has received significant press attention and will subsequently be published as a book. Fair now sets his sights on our Northern neighbor: the Tar Sands of Alberta, Canada. The Tar or Oil Sands are a large deposit of bitumen, a tarry hydrocarbon, trapped in the earth, and has been called “The Most Destructive Project on Earth” by Environmental Defense.

In July, Fair will make his way up to Northern Alberta, so that he can capture this atrocity from his signature bird’s eye view. Working with key leaders in the Tar Sands cause, Fair’s photographs will become the centerpiece of a touring symposium which will endeavor to educate the public on this little known disaster. Set to debut this fall at Green Mountain College in Vermont, the tour will then continue on to a host of colleges, universities, and other organizations in the US and abroad.

For additional information or images, contact Katherine H. Womer Benjamin, 617.448.0007 or khwb.photog@gmail.com.

25 June 2009



On Tuesday, thirty people were arrested outside of Charleston, WV for protesting mountain-top removal mining. In the American media, such protestors are portrayed as fringe elements of society, vocificating against some arcane issue of little interest or importance. This is so far from reality, it is laughable. One of those arrested was James Hansen, the most knowledgeable man in the world on climate change issues. He is the NASA scientist who, in the 70s, predicted the climate situations that are occurring today, and his predictions for tomorrow are frightening. Dr. Hansen has lost faith in the will of our government to address the issue and has decided his only recourse is to truck his 89-year-old carcass out to be arrested and face the violence of the bumpkin miners who live in terror of losing the few jobs that big coal still provides. Not only are these “protestors” standing on the same philosophical and ideological grounds as those that founded our country, and not only are they the among the few that are looking out for the future of your children, but they are patriots in anther way. So much of what we are as a country and a people is defined by our natural heritage; one can hardly hum the bars of a patriotic song without it bringing to mind the shining seas or waves of grass or mountain home. But these for-profit industries are allowed to despoil that heritage, not to mention the resources our children will need for their survival. Can we pay attention? Most of us live near the coast; if we don’t change our behavior, our homes will be under water. And more alarming, all those folks who are crowded into coastal areas in third world countries will come swarming to us in the “developed world” looking to be fed.

We are sliding down into a crisis, and we are worried about the stock market? This stuff is real, which is why one of the most knowledgeable and intelligent scientists in the world is willing to get himself to WV and get in harm’s way to draw attention to this issue.

Mountain-top removal is the practice of blowing the top off of the mountain, dumping the blasted earth into the adjacent valley, taking the coal, and planting grass seed, and repeat.

It is the first step in the lengthy trail of devastation caused by the use of coal as a power source. Let’s turn off the lights and pray for Dr. Hansen.

This is an image of an MTR excavation in West Virginia, not far from the location of the protest.

22 June 2009


June 22, 2009

The Alberta Tar Sands defies comprehension on many levels, starting with the fact that most people don’t even know of their existence. It is possibly the largest oil reserve in the world, and the largest environmental disaster. The impact is systemic, affecting every facet of the environment: air, earth, and water, and causing everything from global warming to mutations. The issue is all the more egregious because the authorities are ignoring the law and allowing this travesty. As is so often the case, the public is unaware of the colossal damage done to provide the calories we crave.

The Tar or Oil Sands are found in an area in Alberta, Canada, in which there is a large volume of bitumen, a tarry hydrocarbon, trapped in the earth. Extraction involves the strip mining of vast regions that are both valuable Boreal Forest habitat and precious water resources, rendering them desolate, lifeless moonscapes for eternity. The material extracted must then be reduced to the usable hydrocarbons, a process that uses tremendous amounts of water, energy, and oceans of toxic chemicals. The largest dam in the world was constructed just to retain this toxic waste from but one of the tar sand refineries. These unlined “impoundments” leach toxins into the groundwater, and since they are really just dikes constructed of earth, this type of construction tends to fail with disturbing regularity, which would release the sea of toxic sludge they contain into the Athabasca River. Toxicity is so high in these lakes that the wildlife coming into contact with them immediately dies; the oil companies hire people to remove the dead ducks floating in the goo. Of course, just sitting there, the vast reservoirs of toxic sludge are releasing benzene, a known human carcinogen and active global warming agent. When asked, the companies involved proclaim their intentions to remediate this waste, which sounds as believable as saying they will mop up the ocean.

Refining the tar sands is done in several stages at numerous facilities in Canada and the USA, each refinery a major polluter in its own right. The first new processing facilities to be built in the USA in 30 years are being built for tar sand “synthetic crude.”

The communities near the Tar Sands operations are primarily first nations people with limited political voice and little means to fight the industrial giants operating in their lands. Cancer rates in these communities are far above the norm, with rare cancers occurring repeatedly. Doctors who try to sound the alarm are ignored or ridiculed.

08 June 2009


Wes, from the Catskill Mountainkeeper was along for the ride (and to hold up my window, which, in the Cessna 182, does not stay up with the air currents - and, let me tell you, it’s cold out there in May!) He has a great working knowledge of the area and was able to point down in to the woods and say, “that’s where the drilling permit sites will be located.” I have flown in a lot of planes, and Bob’s is the cleanest and best organized I have seen. I don’t even know how many GPS units he has. There is a funny story about the airsick environmentalist in Bob’s immaculate plane, but we won’t go there.

Some background: the northern end of the very large Marcellus Shale layer is in the Catskills, and is known to contain significant reserves of natural gas, which are located very far down and locked up in the structure of the shale. To get to this natural gas, a process has been developed involving the high pressure injection deep into the shale of tremendous volumes of water and many chemicals known to be very bad for humans; this process fractures the stone structure, releasing the gas, and leaving tremendous volumes of nasty slurry, some of it in the hole, some pumped out into pits, and inevitably, some in the aquifer through which this whole process takes place. The gas companies are coming in to this primarily agricultural area, where per capita income is not high, and offering large payments for leases to drill (farmers vie with teachers to see which can be more valuable to society and more underpaid.) It’s the modern Faustian bargain. These projects require so much effort against the prevailing public cynicism and doubt generated by ignorance and media misinformation- one can get discouraged. But better not to. Our effort here is to present the facts, all of them, in a logical line, so people can see the real, long-term consequences of this decision. Sure, it’s $100,000 easy money, but then there’s a drill rig next to your house and who knows what’s gonna happen to your well, and your neighbor’s well. Oh, did we mention that the Marcellus layer is radioactive, as is anything else brought to the surface?

After the “beauty shots,” the plan was to meet some people that had opted not to sign leases, sometimes in opposition to family members. In this era of the industrialization of food production, it was a real joy to see these farms that are still run by the same families that have done it for generations. Of course, one imagines the Norman Rockwell ideal, and it’s there, but these farmers are savvy, modern entrepreneurs, one family even had a photovoltaic solar array on top of the barn. Now that’s cool.
Imagine that you are the 5th generation steward of the family farm. Do you really want to sign a lease with some Norwegian gas company to build multiple drill rigs all over your land and run the risk of contaminating your neighbor’s well and your own? To paraphrase one of the farmers I met: “Every time I have some business with one of these companies, be it the phone company or whatnot, I turn around and they are trying to plant another pole in the middle of my field, or they are saying it’s my fault they didn’t bury their cable deep enough so my plow caught it.”



Einstein asked if God throws dice. Hawking responded that he not only throws dice, he throws where we can’t see them. Guessing the weather on one of these shoots is like playing dice with God. Arrangements must be made weeks in advance for the pilot, plane, various environmentalists, journalists, and me. And then there we are, three days before the shoot, comparing the different weather websites, hoping for the right prediction, and switching the days based on what they say. Of course, all of the weather reports are based on the same NOAA data, but somehow they all have a different story.

This was the second shoot for the Catskills Hydro-Fracing project, our plan being to first shoot the “dead zone” end of winter, when things look the worst, and then again in spring when everything is in bloom. Drilling has begun in Pennsylvania, but the process is still in the permit stage in New York, and we would be looking at both active sites and permitted sites. The first shoot had gone really well, thanks to the pilot’s (Bob Keller) astute weather observations. We were flying from the Sullivan County “International” Airport , looking up to see nothing but clouds. Bob said, “I think it will clear from the West, let’s go do the Pennsylvania sites first.” (Here, a plug for LightHawk: http://www.lighthawk.org/, the association of pilots who lend their time and aircrafts for environmental flights.) "Go West young man," he said, and we did, finding sunshine, and getting great shots of drilling sites in process.

When we returned to the Catskills, we brought the sun, and got beautiful stuff of the permit sites.

Today we were faced with a choice between two bad predictions: both the shoot day and the back-up day were iffy, but the first choice day was supposed to be clear in the morning, so we chose to stay with it. Does the fair reader need me to point out the obvious eventuality? So we got up there, and it was a cloudy, flat light; not the worst, but not great. Essentially impossible to get that amazing beauty shot of landscape if you don’t have any shadows, thus no topography.

This is a project with the Columbia University Urban Design Lab, so there is a wealth of data already, the stuff I would normally just make up ...kidding... but in all seriousness, the information usually takes much work to compile. Moreover, this wonderful cooperative effort of University, various environmental groups, and private artist is a perfect highlight of a flaw in our permit system. In the USA, for-profit entities are allowed to go ahead with a process without proper due-diligence, and the burden of proof is on us do-gooders to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the process is harmful to people and the environment.

01 June 2009


Industrial Scars and my Gray Krauss exhibit are featured in New York Magazine this week!! Check it out: http://nymag.com/arts/art/.

21 May 2009

NYC Exhibit Opening!

J Henry Fair's Industrial Scars will be on exhibit at Gray Krauss, 207 W 25th St, Suite 600, New York City
Reception: Thursday, May 28th 6:00 to 8:00 pm (Thereafter by appointment)
More Information: 212.674.6599 or khwb.photog@gmail.com

Academy of Arts and Letters


Among my vocations is that of portraitist.

Making a good portrait is a combination of setup, lighting, camera angle, but mostly the key is the interaction with the subject. Today my job is to shoot the 123 most esteemed artists and writers in the USA… all at once. The only time they are ever all together is at the annual awards event, and then only at the moment they are all on the stage for the awards. Not only are these artists and writers all onstage waiting for the show to go on, the audience has assembled in seats, waiting as well. So, I am sitting, waiting for all of the old artists (who are coming from lunch - with drinks!) to get in their seats. I see a few friends down on the stage, and run down to say hello.

We had to light this shoot from the balcony, 100 feet from the stage, to illuminate everyone evenly. Typically, the average photographer’s lights would light up the entire auditorium. Fortunately, years ago, I had disemboweled a tremendous old Fresnel movie light and custom fit a flash head inside. This allows the light to be focused and projected, and thus light the faces on the stage at that great distance, with enough light to shoot with great detail. This type of job is all about preparation, so we tested all the gear in the week before and trucked it up to the hall early this morning. Since we had everything tested beforehand (and blew up one of my power packs in the process), setup was fairly fast. Then it was just a matter of balancing the light and verifying the even illumination. Suddenly, I am beckoned from the stage. My moment is here.

How do you engage the nation’s preeminent intellectuals?

I told them to close their eyes, then to shift their weight, then do something different with their hands, then told Chuck Close not to cover his mouth with his hands. I announced that my goal was to get each of them with their eyes open in at least one of the shots.

All told, I probably took a total of ten shots, frighteningly few for a photographer. Inevitably, with so many subjects, there is no possibility that there will be a shot with all eyes open, so there will be post-production. But, more than once they were all laughing at me, and I am pleased that it shows in the images.

27 April 2009


My segment finally ran this morning. SO COOL! Watch the full segment: http://today.msnbc.msn.com (click watch the show).

Thanks to Anne Thompson, Durrell Dawson, and the rest of the crew @ Today for making it happen!

23 April 2009

J Henry Fair on the TODAY SHOW!! - Airdate change

April 23, 2009
Just a note to let everyone know that my Today Show segment has been moved again - this is like "Musical Chairs," or something. It is now scheduled for next Tuesday, April 28. Fingers crossed that it doesn't move again. Stay tuned....

21 April 2009


April 22, 2009

Another Earth Day comes and goes with what change? One could argue that the principal environmental good in the last five years comes from the decimation of our economy and resulting fall-off in consumption. Bush is the environmental president. But of course, in spite of the grain of truth there, this is the pessimist’s view. In fact the economic issue has forced environmental concerns from present-day consciousness, and that is not good. In my view, the two are inextricably linked, and any attempt to fix one without addressing the other will lead to failure. We are in this mess because of our desire to have it now and pay later, hoping the piper would never actually come to collect. Cheap money stimulated construction of houses that weren’t needed, on land that should have been left wild (structures are the leading producer of global warming gases). And, then there is our insatiable desire for things: ever more, ever cheaper. To have them, we have shipped our jobs and economic well-being offshore and left our children with a very uncertain future. A key component for producing those cheap toys is making them in a location with low wages and lax environmental laws; this is actually an insidious transfer of cost from the consumer to the taxpayer. Because even those carbons and toxics produced by our offshore contractors are our problems as much as if they had been produced here, only worse because we don’t know what and where they are.

So the recession has actually given us a moment to reflect, a break from our pell-mell race to environmental collapse. Ironically, it seems that the only “bootstrap” that will pull us out of the mess is resumed consumer spending. But, I believe there is a different way. If we invested in our own real growth, instead of more toys, we could turn this crisis into opportunity. We are on the cusp of so many things: technologies that can provide the energy we need without the impact of hydro-carbons; creative financing techniques that can put expensive infrastructure into the hands of the average consumer.

The time is now to imbue these nascent opportunities with prospects. If we taxed consumption and pollution and invested that money in sustainable industries and infrastructures to support them, we could lay the groundwork for our children’s future. It’s easy to listen to the experts and be discouraged. The facts are discouraging. As one who speaks from the “inside” of the environmental world, and spends his time looking at the worst that we are doing, I still have hope. Miracles do happen, but they only happen to those who enable them. If we drastically stop our dirty, selfish ways, and work toward a global solution, the answers will arise. It will probably be a variety of answers: technological solutions to specific issues, nature-based solutions to others, maybe even a little help from God.

I leave you with a reminder of why we are fighting this fight to save our planet: image of African cheetah mother and cub. It doesn't get more real or more beautiful than this!

17 April 2009

J Henry Fair on the TODAY SHOW!

On Earth Day 2009, NBC's Today Show will feature J Henry Fair and the Industrial Scars series. Don't miss it!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009 during the 8 AM hour (Eastern)
Check your local listings | http://today.msnbc.msn.com

24 March 2009


Departure day of the SAAB conference, and these early mornings remind one that this is not a vacation; in keeping with that schedule, the crew piles into the land cruisers for a trek to Lake Nakuru Nature Center for a short game drive. Nakuru is famous for its flamingos and pelicans, and less so, for the pollution from the local industries which overflows from the sewers, making its way into the Lake. It’s certainly not unique to Kenya that natural wonders are being corroded by our negligence and overpopulation demands on resources and infrastructure.

Getting ahead of myself here, it was such a pleasure to ride in a vehicle with a crew of environmental experts that could fill me in on facts about everything from fertilizer (they were very patient with my relentless interest in this topic) plant uptake and release of nitrogen, etc. Nakuru was magnificent, pelicans are so cool, flamingos so weird, and the guarantee of seeing rhinos very exciting. It is the dry season, and the dust (a mixture of a fine igneous ash, guano and pollution) kicked up by the circling cars is so irritating that it robs some of the pleasure of being in this magnificent place. We are planning to stay on in the lodge; as most of the SAAB crew is flying out of Nairobi, haste is suddenly in order, and our caravan rushes into the compound in a cloud of dust, hasty goodbyes are exchanged, and the group is off.

Our plan had been to do an afternoon game drive, but fatigue, heat, and desire for a bit of time off convince us to spend an afternoon of leisure. (And did I mention they had a decent internet connection?) So it’s pool time for those willing to brave the equatorial radiation, and reading in the shade for those of fair skin. Meals prove to be very good: lots of vegetable dishes with good variety- mediocre desserts, but who needs all that sugar, right? Interesting that in this lodge, the guides are not segregated as has been the case in other facilities, so we ask Dennis to join us. He is the second guide we have had from Nature Expeditions, http://natureexpeditions.com/, and as good as Chris- very sharp eyes, which is essential, and knows every animal we see. The SAAB tour was run by a different operation, and that guide, though likable, was definitely not as observant. It’s so easy to miss the animals if you don’t know the indicators.

Lake Nakura
Early morning game drive begins with a martial eagle, followed by some baboons with babies. Chimpanzees and gorillas interest me more, but it’s hard not to feel close with other hominids. Finally, we get to see white rhinos, so named because as grazers they have wide mouths, as opposed to the black rhino, a leaf browser, with a narrow mouth. In the distance, a pair of lions make their way across the plain, causing the inevitable caravan of safari vehicles, and we are not far behind. It’s a pair of brothers with a fresh warthog kill. The warthog ("Kenyan Express") has a short memory (or so the guides all tell us) and will often forget that it was just being stalked. So, it will reappear from the burrows it has appropriated from the mongoose, only to be grabbed by the waiting lion. Very exciting to see them so close, and we follow their tangent until they cross the road right in front of us.A poor jackal also trails them hopefully, but they ignore him completely, and he finally sits down in abject frustration. For me, the only thing better would be actually seeing the process of a kill- having studied wolves and the trickle-down effect of their dance with prey, seeing the process in this ecosystem would be fascinating. Without the top predators, the whole system falls apart, as was evidenced by the rejuvenation of Yellowstone with the return of el lobo. (Almost anyone who lives in suburbia in the USA wishes they had a few wolves around to control the deer population.) After the kings had disappeared to feast on a little pig, we returned to see the rhinos we were watching, magnificent, though not as exciting, especially since they kept their mouths to the ground. Hard to eat enough grass to sustain that much body mass.

After lunch we take a different route around the Lake, and see a colobus monkey in a tree; we then proceed toward the Lake, where a couple of rhinos are peacefully munching the grass. Despite my exhortations, they refuse to lift there heads, so we move over to the water's edge where innumerable flamingos and a few other species are congregating. Suddenly, we here a giant roar of 1000 birds ascending from the water’s surface, and the rhinos are running toward us (but not aggressively.) Apparently an inconsiderate safari car had driven too close to the birds and rhinos and startled them, but what a great opportunity to get shots of the rhinos in motion. They are so fascinatingly prehistoric.And speaking of fascinating, after milling around a bit, a group of about 8 flamingos form a line like a group of square dancers and start a ritual squawking, then repeatedly look left and right in unison, then all flash the colored patterns on their wings. Some of them proceeded to wave their endless necks and heads at each other, sometimes knocking heads. It was hilarious and bizarre, one of the strangest rituals I have ever seen. I was even able to capture some video, which will be uploaded in the near future. Stay tuned...

Departure from Nakuru.
Dennis and I decide to go out early to hopefully see the elusive leopard. To shoot wildlife, one needs endless patience (short supply of that here), the proper equipment (mine is OK, not ideal), and quick reaction to the sudden event and conditions. And there is no knowing what will cross your path. This morning we were not lucky- a few birds I had not seen was the extent of our experience. Dennis, hoping for the grand finale, was disappointed; but you have to go out and be happy just to be there. Otherwise, it’s another stress, of which we all have too much. The dust I could have done without.

After a quick breakfast (one more crepe please) we are off to Nairobi, roads not too bad. Tensie must meet with the director of our safari company, Nature Expeditions, as Rainforest Alliance certifies eco-tourism. Here I should insert my plug for them: knowledgeable, friendly, prompt, and of course I had plugged the individual guides in previous posts. If you go to Kenya for safari I would highly recommend them.

That night we ate supper with the director of the United Nations Environmental Program, Achim Steiner and his wife Liz; a real treat to talk with people that are leading the fight and thinking about the big picture. They mentioned the Nairobi trash dump as a place of interest and my ears perked. Supposedly 10,000 people live and scavenge there, and interesting experiments in sustainability are being performed, such as a shower that is heated by methane, produced from the excrement of the residents. Nothing like a garbage dump to get me excited. Of course the urban myth is that you walk in and don’t walk out, but my experience has taught me that the people who live in these places are shy and decent, and when treated with respect, respond in kind. The Steiners knew a Dutch woman running a community group that works in the facility, and gave me the number so could call the next morning.

I called Ms van Dijk at Sarakasi Trust, http://www.sarakasi.org/, which teaches performance arts to kids in the slums and provides a venue for presentation. She connected me with Maurice who teaches acrobatics in the Korogocho slum next to the Dandora Dump and agreed to go in with me, in spite of the horrible stories he had heard. The Nairobi River separates the dump from the slums, and a more polluted estuary you have never seen. Our first encounters were with people washing plastic bags in the River for resale.They forded the River like it was a pristine babbling brook, but I was determined not to wet my shoes in that sludge. So we walked along until we found a place we could hop from old tire to mound of unidentifiable plastic to other shore, and proceeded into Hades. Everywhere things were burning, the air filled with acrid smoke. Hideous giant Marabou Storks seemed to dwarf the humans next to them as they sifted through the garbage. An old lady used a piece of bent rebar to rake through the ashes of the never-ending fire to find any pieces of metal she could sell. Everything was shades of grey from the ashes to burnt pieces of metal to her coloration after so many years of being there. The smoke would suddenly envelope, obscuring everything, then clear to reveal people engaged in various foraging activities. But I never felt frightened or threatened. On return to New York I would discover that the Blacksmith Institute rates it as one of the most toxic places on Earth; it felt that way being there. What an intractable problem. I have been in similar places around the world- God knows why I would want to. Maybe my interest is because this is the bottom of the consumption chain, like the container of rubber duckies that fell into the sea and ended up in the bellies of the whales.

Return to New York via London meant two 8 hour flights; what a joy. Of course there is the time-zone issue, but more than that, there is a necessary readjustment of time/culture frame. In a way, life seems so much more real there: we are all panicked about the economic crisis, not that any of us really understand the credit default swaps that got us into this mess. And we keep throwing mountains of money at nebulous corporations which we know don’t deserve it, but we are afraid to let them fail, lest they take down our fragile boats in the wake. Meanwhile, in Kenya they are digging the dirt, growing the tea, protecting the animals for the tourists, and waiting for the influx of Obama fans who Kenyans hope will pay big money for a trip to the hometown of the father.