1984

“He who controls the past, controls the future. He who controls the present, controls the past.”

From 1984, by George Orwell

It has been a week of climate related news. The annual report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated that we must act now, or the future of our planet, and our very existence, will suffer devastating effects towards the end of this century. This was a gloomy way to start the week, and it didn’t get much brighter. Obviously governments, campaigners, activists and environmentalists around the globe reacted to the report. Mostly in a proactive and passionate way, encouraging us all to be more engaged with this global issue for the sake of our future and the future of generations to come. But one man (whose name I need not mention) continued to play his part providing incoherent, ignorant, rambling contradictions to the science behind the causes and effects of climate change. When so many people across the globe have acknowledged that our planet is heading for multiple catastrophic disasters due to the effects of rising CO2 levels, caused directly by human actions, this begs the question as to why one man chooses to stand alone.

What’s worrying is that he isn’t alone. His belief, being a skeptic towards global warming, is unfortunately one perspective held by many. A large number of these people, who choose to mistrust the findings of scientists and researchers from around the world, often hold positions of authority and influence. What we are left with is a world embroiled in the age-old battle of fact versus opinion, of evidence versus belief, and the modern battle of environmentalism versus capitalism.

With both sides locking horns, the argument seems stagnant. Academic or scientific reports are fighting eccentric, untrustworthy politicians, which in turn produces episodes of “fake news” counteracted by satirical piss-takes. Conversation seems non-existent. When somebody speaks, nobody listens. When nobody listens what develops, is a world of constant noise.

I certainly don’t have the answers to these problems. But, like many, I do have questions. Could the solution to understanding the future of this planet lie within reading and trusting predictions of the present, from writers and scientists of the past? If we could highlight these changes visually, using historical photographs combined with text, would the issue be made more accessible to a majority population, rather than those of scientific or political interest to the subject? Yes, you could argue that photography isn’t a representation of facts, and that repurposing a photograph to use as evidence is a manipulation of truth, a form of propaganda even, for the benefit of climate science. But with so much clear, visual data at our finger tips, surely we should be trying every method possible in order to grasp the enormity and immediacy of this issue. Current extreme weather conditions are a direct result of human actions from the past. In short, according to the latest IPCC report, the consequences of our current actions will only become visible by the end of this century. Hence the need to act now, before it is too late. As Andreas Malm describes it:

“We cannot be in the heat of the moment, only in the heat of this ongoing past. Insofar as extreme weather has shaped basal warming, it is the legacy of what people have done - indeed, the air is heavy with time” - (Malm, 2016)

Scan #002 - Fisons UK (Approx 1963)

This week’s image was found in a flea-market, amongst stacks of other crumpled photographs. Fisons, a horticultural chemicals company, was one of the first companies to develop chemical fertilisers in the UK, to gain high crop yields, to feed a growing population. A gradual build-up of wealth meant it soon became a constituent of the FTSE 100 Index. It was sold to Rhône-Poulenc (a French chemical and pharmaceutical company) in 1995. In 1997, Rhône-Poulenc, was to blame for one of the worst environmental accidents in Sweden's history. Rhône-Poulenc supplied Rhoca-Gil for the building of the Hallandsas tunnel. The chemical leaked into the artesian water, causing great damage to cattle, surrounding nature and workers at the construction site. Rhône-Poulenc was criticised for not pointing out the risks of using the sealant, which contained acrylamide and is considered to be carcinogenic.

Introduction

In keeping with my other bodies of work, which each form part of a long-term study of the Anthropocene, Milliseconds to Midnight will look at societal changes brought about by advancements in technology, engineering, energy, and a growing devotion to fossil fuels and their by-products. Using found historical photographs, collected through flea-markets, online auction sites and personal collections, I will be repurposing the images from their original context (family portraits, holiday snaps, etc) and instead using them as evidential material to highlight small changes in the way we lived, that eventually led us to where we are now, with our current, global climate crisis.

This blog will become a visual timeline for the next 6 months or so. A place to generate ideas, and to share my findings of extraordinary photographs. It is by no means a collection of finished work, but much more of a research timeline.

Let’s begin.

Firstly, the answer to the question, “Why call the project Milliseconds To Midnight?”

I recently discovered this incredible fact:

“If you compressed the whole of Earth’s unimaginably long history into a single day, the first humans that look like us would appear at less than four seconds to midnight.” - (The Human Planet - How We Created The Anthropocene, Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, Pelican Books, 2018)

Our current geological period, named as the Anthropocene by Paul J. Crutzen in 2000, has not yet been given a definitive starting moment. Many believe it began around the time of the industrial revolution (late 18th century), a period of time that we have identified as showing the first signs of raised CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Taking this into account, it becomes almost inconceivable for me to understand how human actions have had such disastrous consequences on our natural environment, in a very short period of time. But I must accept this fact. Human actions now effect the climate more than any other natural process on Earth. Placing the Anthropocene into the 24-hour historical timeline, this period of geological and environmental change occurs at just milliseconds to midnight. (I’m no mathematician, so if someone can work this out more accurately then please do get in touch).

The title also resonates with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday clock, which currently sits at 2 minutes to midnight. The clock is a symbolic clock face, that represents the countdown to potential global catastrophe, either nuclear or climate related.

For the purpose of this blog I’m going to kick things off with the image above. It shows a steam train hurtling down the track. I’ve chosen this image as the first because in terms of the history of the Anthropocene, the development of the steam train is a defining moment. It signifies incredible growth throughout the UK, eventually spreading into Europe and beyond, opening up opportunities for industrial expansion, and new routes of exploration for people. As the UK rail network grew, so did the demand for coal, of which the UK soon became the world’s largest exporter. Although this picture was undoubtedly taken in the 20th century, here lies a moment, innocently captured by an unknown person (can we call them a photographer?), that displays the raw power of fossil fuels and British engineering, with its underlying, climate-damaging, side-effects.

  Scan #001, 2018

Scan #001, 2018