13 November 2014


You arrive at New York's Penn Station fifteen minutes ahead of the train's scheduled departure, uncharacteristic of you, but your morning meeting in DC is important, and out of nervousness, you left the apartment a little early. While you stand on the platform, you shake your head thinking of the old days in which you would be biting your fingernails in the taxi crawling through traffic to the airport, and suffer the indignities of the security line for a flight, the door to door time being four hours. You never cease to marvel at the sleek white bullet trains as this one pulls into the station, or at the ease of the 2 hours door to door that your journey will take today.

High speed train in Hamburg Station

Though this may seem like a fantasy, it is the reality today in Europe. Germany, especially, has made tremendous investments in its high-speed rail system, and is reaping the rewards. The world marvels at the German miracle, but it is no miracle, it is the result of smart investment. The Deutsche Bahn connects Europe, creates a very efficient place for people to work and live, and, not coincidentally, binds the continent together. Germany is also making major investments in renewable energy, investments that will pay off many times in the future, as have the investments in high-speed trains.

Evening storm clouds over wind mills in Baltic Sea

In America while our politicians debate the reality of climate change, scientists, unless they are under the pay of climate deniers, unanimously stress the urgency for action to reduce carbon release. Investments are never easy when they are made, but they pay off. As the world changes, the conditions will favor new industries, and the old interests will resist that change. It has always been so: carriage makers undoubtedly fought the dominance of the automobile. The world will change, and carbon energy will be obsolete. Those that have invested in alternatives will come out ahead, those economies that have been dominated and directed by obsolete industries will stumble.

Humans are not good at reacting to threats that they cannot see. When there are opposing information sources, one saying to worry, change will happen, the other saying not to worry, one wants to believe the voice of inertia. But the time has come to act, and get that fast train to DC.

05 November 2014

Images from the Bakken

I can always count on myself to do the wrong thing.
Often I act even knowing that it is the wrong thing, but usually it's just a reflex.

As a visual artist in the digital age, one struggles with the questions of reproduction, rights, usage, and of course money.
Reflexively one wants to limit access to images, and thus make every use more dear, yes? Isn't that the basic model of supply and demand? And we have all watched the media giants struggle with that question, losing their shirts more often than not.

Then there are the respective policies of the web giants with whom we entrust our oeuvre, all of whom claim unlimited usage of our property.
All these factors have caused me to limit the exposure of pictures on the internet.

But there are stories to tell, and social media provides a great platform for so doing.
And, these stories won't be told if the pictures stay interred on hard drives.

Letting go and resignation are often inevitable aspects of contemporary life, a two-step that we seem to do automatically in this world. Because who can question every issue, read every notification, check the ingredients of every product?

One story that burns to be told over and over is the source of the petroleum we use so heedlessly. As we have exhausted the easy access resources, we must now exploit the remote, and they are generally located in more challenging topographies and at greater distance from help.

One of the fruitful new exploits in the USA is the Bakken Shale Formation in the bread basket of North Dakota, from which we are extracting a goodly amount of oil using unimaginable volumes of fresh water, while, like a junkie that prefers the drug to even food, we allow grain to rot for want of transport to market. The trains are all busy carrying the oil to refineries.
Meanwhile the farms that once fed the nation are left with piles of radioactive drilling waste and contaminated water.

One wonders how to tell this complex story with a visual narrative, whether to create a story board and illustrate the process step by step, or perhaps lay out my method and timetable, thus my slice, and then show the pictures as they were taken.

Given the arbitrary schedule of social media viewers, we have opted for a more random presentation, and will post these pictures more or less as they were shot, hoping that anyone who is interested will go back, look at the totality, and formulate their own impression of the process.

24 September 2014

The Real Reward

Among my working artist friends runs a common joke about the hardships of a career that forces one to sleep late, while away most of the morning drinking coffee and complaining about galleries, then spend a few hours attending to the mundane business of life, only to reconvene over some libations and resume the discussions. But in actual fact, the life of the artist is a burden: one works long hours for minimal remuneration in pursuit of some nebulous vision. Most of the time is spent alone, testing that definition of insanity which says the sane would not repeatedly try the same thing and expect a different result. And there is the humiliation of constantly needing to sell yourself. The only reason to be an artist is if you can't do something else.
Some few are lucky enough to get their reward monetarily, but for most the recompense comes from seeing others enjoy the fruits of the artist's frustrations.
An artist works with a chosen medium to express his or her vision, a process that usually involves a struggle between imperfect materials and over-exacting specification. And that is when the variables are within reach and controllable to some degree. To arrange an exhibit in a remote location, collaborating with an unfamiliar team, using unknown materials, can be an arduous process. In this situation, one can only pray to be lucky enough that the new team comprises exacting professionals, and the standardization of processes in the modern world will lead to an unexpected good result.
Such was the case with a recent exhibit in Bolzano Italy, and it was a great pleasure to finally travel there, meet the team, and see the result.
But the greatest reward was to see visitors, especially children, enjoying, and really contemplating the work. One of the most interesting aspects of the visual arts, perhaps more than any other form, is the Rorschach Effect: each visitor will take away something different. These pictures are about pollution, and straddle a line between abstract and literal, and even with captions that identify the subject, every viewer brings different preconceptions and opinions that will shape his or her impression. Thus children are the most interesting audience for me, and it was a great reward to see so many and that they were so captivated by the work.
The other great reward was meeting the team that produced and assembled the exhibit at the Museum S├╝dtirol. So many thanks to Massimo and Vito for the great work.

Please check out my current exhibit: Abstraction of Consumption: A Dream of Plenty

11 July 2014

North Dakota Landscape

I'm sitting on a rise in North Dakota (it's pretty flat out here) and admiring the rolling farmland that has supplied our country with grain for so long. After the beauty of the landscape, so different from where I was raised, in the Deep South, what strikes me first is the constancy of the wind. In the three days I have been here, it is always there. From my perch, I would expect windmills as far as the eye could see. After all, who could argue with free electricity? Instead, I'm surrounded by drill rigs, each a tremendous industrial zone on its own "pad" cut out of the farmland. The traffic on this small dirt farming road is constant, most of it being tanker trucks hauling fresh water to the sites and contaminated water away, the process of "hydro-fracking" being such a thirsty one.

Discussions with local people orient mostly around the jobs the industry has brought to the community, and everyone wants prosperity for themselves and their neighbors. Then they might wistfully speak about how the town has changed from a place where no one ever locked their doors to a Wild West boom town with crime and infrastructure overload. There is a tremendous influx of people who have come here for work, from the oil field workers to the waitresses. At a point in history when our country has actively exported so many of its manufacturing jobs overseas, and gutted the middle class, leaving your family to come to ND for a well paying job seems like a good opportunity.

And we are told this is the way it must be. "Progress has its costs." But it's only this way because the people that are making the real money from these extraction industries are preventing any change. The senators who give impassioned speeches about climate change being a hoax, and decrying the conspiracy of the scientists who would impose world government on us are not stupid. They are venal.

Our economy will change. Will it happen at our behest, and evolve into an economy of sustainability, or will it happen in reaction to multiple catastrophic weather events that destroy coastal infrastructure and completely disrupt agriculture, and rising sea levels which force us away from the coasts?

Like all economic booms based on extractive industries, this one will end. The irony is that this could be a boom based on implementing a new paradigm, and that boom would not end. Windmills need constant maintenance, but they don't need water, and they don't cause climate change.

18 June 2014

Red Tide

As summer is finally upon us, I can't help but think about an issue I encountered in a big way while shooting along the Jersey Shore last fall.

Red tide is a (usually) toxic to humans and animals algal bloom caused by a combination of warm water, sunlight, and nutrient overloading (from fertilizer and sewerage). It can cause rashes and other manifestations in people coming in contact with it, the most severe being death for those who eat infected seafood.
Since bivalves and crustaceans continuously strain water, they accumulate large amounts of the algae, which, being toxic, is a real problem for shellfish consumption, both those who consume it, and the economy that provides it.

Red tide is also catastrophic to marine fauna because, when it dies, the bacteria that consume it absorb all the oxygen in the water, thus suffocating the other marine organisms. There have been red tides throughout history, the difference being that now we know the causes and how to decrease the occurrences.

So it was with some astonishment that, while doing a photo flight to look at Post-Sandy construction on the Jersey Shore, I saw a giant red tide in New York Harbor.
Given the health and environmental hazards, I would assume that such a thing would have been newsworthy. Did I miss something, or is it just not "news"?

Algal blooms are one more sign of a natural system in distress, and those come so many and so often these days that such a seemingly insignificant one is hardly noticeable. In fact, we seem intent, as a society, on ignoring them. Facebook posts about nice breakfasts, cute animals, or smiling children garner tremendous response, while those warning about clear and present danger, either to our life support systems or the transparency of our government attract the attention of only the like-minded concerned audience. And certainly many of these issues are complex, seemingly intractable, and come with the erroneous impression that the individual can do nothing about them.

The runoff from excess fertilization causes a surfeit of nutrients in the water, which is the starting factor in the chain of events leading to an algal bloom. The New York Harbor bloom actually posed a serious local hazard to anyone consuming shellfish. But New York Harbor is the least of the problem. The Great Lakes are dying and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico covered nearly 7,000 sq miles in 2011, and grows larger every year.

Reducing that nutrient loading is a vital but complex issue involving regulation and education. Farmers and homeowners must decrease their fertilizer use, an outcome that will only evolve with a mixture of persuasion and coercion. Success in that goal will require that all the stakeholders realize their contribution to the problem and their gain from the solution.

24 February 2014

The True Costs of Coal, with Interest

It seems the day hardly passes without some new industrial disaster popping on to the headlines and disappearing just as quickly, all the while the media derides the environmentalists' anxiety. Often these accidents involve toxins leaking into water supplies, and those who pay attention heave a sigh that it happened in some poor place of little importance. The current disaster is a coal ash spill into the Dan River in North Carolina from the coal ash waste impoundments at a retired power plant owned by Duke Energy, the largest energy producer in the nation. The USA produces about forty percent of its electricity from coal, burning about a billion tons of the mineral per year. Aside from being the largest single cause of climate change, the largest source of uranium, mercury and a host of other toxins released into the environment, coal combustion produces about 100 billion tons of ash waste per year, a toxic mess that comprises the largest waste stream in the country. Ironically, as regulations have forced cleaner emissions into the air, the ash has become even more toxic, as the toxins are mixed in with the solid wastes. There are about 600 ash waste dumps that we know of in the country, and many unknown.
High hazard coal ash waste storage ponds.
Ashville, NC

When the Clean Air and Water Acts were written, certain categories of waste were exempted from regulation, largely because the volumes involved were so great that proper treatment would have been prohibitively expensive. Thus, as a gift to the industries concerned, these "true costs" were effectively shifted to the public, specifically to future generations that would be handed these time bombs and forced to live with the consequences and pay to clean them up. One of those time bombs exploded 10 days ago when a rotting drainage pipe collapsed, releasing tremendous volumes of this minimally regulated toxic waste into a river in North Carolina, which happens to be the drinking water source for people downstream.
Power plants use tremendous amounts of fresh water for steam to spin turbines and for cooling; consequently, they are often built on rivers. Of the coal fired power plants in the USA, the median year of construction is 1966, and of the North Carolina plants for which data is available, the average produces 1,618,795 tons of ash a year. You can do the math, but that adds up to a lot of toxic sludge, and since it is even less regulated than your household garbage, utilities have just built tremendous unlined impoundments next to the power plants (and next to the river) and ignored the problem.
Houses under high hazard coal ash storage ponds
Belmont, NC

These lakes of sludge tend to collapse with distressing regularity, and five years ago, near Knoxville, TN, a major one burst, essentially filling the Emory River with 1.1 billion gallons of coal combustion waste, causing a cleanup bill of $1.1 billion dollars (who do you think will pay it?)
Coal combustion waste from power plant
Terrell, NC

The Kingston disaster focused national attention on the issue, prompting a nationwide evaluation, highlighting the fact that North Carolina is one of the states with the largest number of hazardous coal ash impoundments (31). So this is a known issue. Last year, environmental groups started three separate Clean Water Act lawsuits against Duke Energy to force them to clean up these ticking time bombs, but at the last second, the state stepped in and interceded on behalf of Duke, saving them a fortune in fines, and much embarrassment, and excused them from actually cleaning up the problem. Did we forget to mention that the NC governor, Pat McCrory, worked for Duke Energy for 30 years and also received over a million dollars in "campaign contributions" from Duke Energy? We expect this kind of corruption in the third world, and, one assumes, in North Carolina.
Coal combustion waste from power plant
Walnut Cove, NC

Of course we all know that mercury, lead, uranium, and arsenic, all of which are concentrated in coal ash, are things we don't want to drink, but there is another, possibly even more insidious toxin therein that poisons our drinking water. Hexavalent chromium, which is very soluble in water, first came to public attention thanks to the efforts of Erin Brockovich, and in the last years it has been found in 31 of 35 municipal water supplies sampled in the country. It's one of those elements which proves more toxic with each new study. California has recently lowered its recommended safe limit to 0.02 parts per billion, while the current national limit of 100 ppb has been shown to cause cancer in 1.4 of 1000 people. Note that even before the spill, the Dan River Power Plant was known to be contaminating the groundwater with hexavalent chromium.
Dan River power plant with ash containment ponds
Eden, NC

With the help of Southwings and NRDC, we documented many of the high hazard coal ash sites in the state in 2010.

Meanwhile the EPA, which has been trying to regulate coal ash for years, has been stymied in its efforts by the friends of coal in government. Perhaps this is an ideal time for citizens to pick up the telephone and express their feelings to their elected representatives about keeping coal ash out of our water.
Dan River power plant with ash containment ponds
Eden, NC