The Beauty and Devastation of Mankind’s Impact on Earth

In his book Overview: A New Perspective of Earth, photographer Benjamin Grant uses satellite imagery to convey the enormity of mankind’s effects on the planet.

Moab Potash Evaporation Ponds in Moab, Utah, USA, from Overview by Benjamin Grant, published by Amphoto Books, a division of Penguin Random House (all images © 2016 by DigitalGlobe, Inc., courtesy Amphoto Books unless otherwise noted)

Every year, the Netherlands grows about 4.3 billion tulip bulbs. Arranged in bouquets of cut flowers, these perennials are beautiful; seen from the sky, when still blooming in droves in the tulip fields of Lisse, they are shocking. Vibrant and textured, these gardens resemble assorted ribbons in a fabric store, planted in neat, parallel bands divided by color. They are clearly well tended by human hands; each kept in place by machines.

Overview by Benjamin Grant, published by Amphoto Books, a division of Penguin Random House

A satellite image of a section of Lisse is included in Overview: A New Perspective of Earth, a massive photography book by Benjamin Grant filled with over 200 images of Earth’s surfaces that reveal the marks left by years of human activity and intervention. Recently published by Amphoto Books, the tome features a selection of pictures Grant has created and posted to his nearly three-year-old Instagram account @dailyoverview. Every image represents a number of satellite photographs that Grant stitched together, all sourced from DigitalGlobe’s library, which contains 15 years of high-quality pictures captured from space. (The project recalls the painstaking work of Edward Burtynsky, but more distant, and minus the helicopter rides.) The series’ title itself derives from a term coined by writer Frank White, “The Overview Effect” — the change of personal perceptions of the Earth that many astronauts experience after seeing the world, in all its dizzying glory, from afar. For Grant, compiling  and sharing select, birds-eye-view patches of the Earth — ones that speak of humans’ imprints on our collective home — is an attempt to have us see the planet differently and, like spacemen, be moved by these visions.

“We can better understand the intricacy of the things we have constructed, the sheer complexity of the systems we have developed, and the impact that we have had on the planet,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “We can see our world more completely. If we embrace and learn from this new perspective, I am optimistic that we will create a smarter and safer future for our one and only home.”

Tulip fields in Lisse, Netherlands, from Overview by Benjamin Grant

Overview is divided into eight sections, each dedicated to type of human mark. The rainbow image of tulips appears in a section on agriculture, which includes many mesmerizing views of our harvest systems — like an olive tree grove in Córdoba, Spain, that resembles a metal pegboard — but also ones difficult to look at — like a cattle feedlot in Summerfield, Texas, which stains the landscape red from eutrophication, the surface strangely bright like blossoming blood. Other sections showcase sites of resource extraction (diamond mines in Botswana; a uranium mine in Arlit, Niger, which seems to glow); areas where we’ve built energy projects (like Spain’s Gemasolar Thermosolar Plant); and infrastructure related to transportation, from airports to space centers to bustling ports.

Grant also shows us shelters and spaces for human residence and leisure. In a section on how we live, he presents cohesive neighborhoods and town clusters, from the labyrinthine community of Delray Beach in Florida to the elegant, curving layout of villas in Marabe Al Dhafra, Abu Dhabi, which is one of the world’s hottest regions. But he juxtaposes these with pictures of refugee camps as well as cemeteries, inviting us to consider pressing housing problems that will likely continue to challenge us in the decades to come. Other sections pinpoint sites of privileged pleasure, such as beach resorts, sports stadiums, and golf courses; and sites that celebrate human design, such as Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty,” Michael Heizer’s “City,” and ancient structures like Angkor Wat and the Great Pyramids of Giza. Every chapter begins with a quote (notably, only by men, including Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Plato, and Michael Pollan) intended to inspire us to think more closely about our relationships to the planet. But the crisp photographs, set in these particular categories and accompanied by explanatory blurbs by Grant, speak strongly of the myriad ways we are changing the Earth’s surface, from harmless grooming to the etching of permanent scars.

Overview‘s final two chapters are perhaps the most thought-provoking: one spotlights sites dedicated to human waste, including artificial trash islands like Thilafushi in the Maldives; the other, regions still reveling in their natural states, like Mount Taranaki in New Zealand or the Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina. The former represents some of the worst of our land transformations, home to the refuse generated by human activity; the latter, what is at stake for generations to come. Thumbing through Overview, we immediately understand the scope of our ability to not just build but also design, not only with aesthetics but sustainability, too, in mind. That sensibility, as Grant’s final chapter of open, umblemished land reminds, must include knowing when to not build at all. Closing with patterns of desert and hues of untouched waters, he invites us to think about what we would want these landscapes to look like if photographed ten, 50, or 100 years from now.

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Gribbiens Tailings Basin in Michigan, USA, from Overview by Benjamin Grant
Moored houseboats on Lake Oroville in California, USA, from Overview by Benjamin Grant
Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya, from Overview by Benjamin Grant
Villas of Marabe Al Dhafra in Abu Dhabi, UAE, from Overview by Benjamin Grant
Southern California Logistics Airport Graveyard in Victorville, California, from Overview by Benjamin Grant
The Gemasolar Thermosolar Plant in Seville, Spain, from Overview by Benjamin Grant
Olive tree groves in Cordoba, Spain, from Overview by Benjamin Grant
The Eixample District in Barcelona, Spain, from Overview by Benjamin Grant
Spread from Overview by Benjamin Grant (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Spread from Overview by Benjamin Grant (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Overview: A New Perspective of Earth is available through Penguin Random House.

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