Posted by: Jack | July 7, 2008

Manufactured Landscapes

Last weekend I finally managed to get a chance to see the documentary ‘Manufactured Landscapes.’ This film was released last year to critical acclaim, and follows the photographer Edward Burtynsky on a journey to China to chronicle the massive industrialisation and urbanisation process taking place there.

Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer who has spent years taking images of the destruction that industry wreaks around the world. He did a big series on mines and quarries, showing the sites where we extract the minerals and natural wealth our industries need, tearing away the land that is in the way. He has also moved on now to documenting factories and power plants.

Burtynsky image of a mine

We all know that these places exist. On some level we understand that the huge consumer universe we know inhabit, with its mountains of products, many designed to be thrown away back into the Earth almost immediately, has to be created somehow, but we’re disconnected from it. What Burtynsky’s work tries to do is show us the hidden part of our current reality that we don’t see, especially nowadays in the western world.

There has been an unprecedented and monumental shift of the world’s manufacturing activity to low wage developing countries, and overwhelmingly China. Much of the work that goes into producing all of this stuff is literally out of sight, out of mind for western consumers, largely forced into other forms of work in the service industries and “McJobs.”

Workers' morning roll call at factory in the film

The images that Burtynsky takes are stunning. They focus on the immense scale of industry, taking a step back and literally showing you a massive landscape devastated as far as the eye can see. The filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, who followed him to make ‘Manufactured Landscapes,’ manages to convey a sense of the breadth of some of his images in a cinematic form as well.

The opening of the film is a 10 minute tracking shot moving along a factory floor of a huge plant in China employing 23, 000 people. The camera moves past assembly line after assembly line for what seems like forever, and then finally we see Burtynsky’s photograph of the factory from a high view point, stretching into the blurry distance.

One thing I would have liked to see more of in the film is a focus on the workers, the human beings involved in these mega projects Burtynsky depicts. What there is is fascinating. After the opening shot, we get to see clocking off time as thousands leave the factory for the day. As they slowly file out the camera pans back across the floor until we see one worker asleep at his post.

There also many shots of workers’ hands as they perform the same repetitive tasks over and over again, making circuit breakers or testing the spray for irons. Some of the brief interviews with the workers are really eye opening, revealing the years they have worked in the same place.

When the filmmakers ask a man who for nine years has been working on probably the biggest engineering project in the world’s history, the Three Gorges Dam, if the work is hard and if he is proud of being part of such an immense undertaking, he replies, “Of course the work is hard, look at this place. I’m just working for my boss here the same as everyone else.”

The three gorges dam

In the film Burtynsky talks about his thoughts of trying to be more political in his work, to try and argue that what he shows is something deeply wrong. However, his decision has been simply to depict what he sees when he goes to these places, to try and prevent his being shut out by people who think he has an agenda. The images speak for themselves, and the viewer has to make of them what they will.

In one scene bosses are trying to stop him gaining access to a big open cast coal mine, worried that showing what goes on there will negatively affect their company. Burtynsky’s translator argues that in his hands the place will be made to look beautiful, and shows the bosses some of his previous work. Many reviewers have interpreted this as a ploy to get in, but I think it was sincerely meant.

These images do have a real beauty. In another time or another place there would have been no ambiguity about that. We forget how much of our understanding of how industry looks and what it does is today coloured by our understanding of the environmental crisis. In the 20th century many of these images would have been seen as heroic, and we only need to look at some Soviet propaganda or even Trotsky’s writings about technology to see how much that same view permeated the socialist movement.

Chinese coal mine

Of course the ultimate reason this was celebrated by socialists was because it created the working class and brought people together in social production. And that is precisely why I’d like to have heard more from the ordinary folk working in these places. Burtynsky’s photographs in my view are a really important body of work, and the role they can play in waking consumers up to the realities of what their life is built on.

But really we as ordinary consumers in the west have very little power to do anything about the horrors we know on some level are unfolding in China and elsewhere. And certainly the bosses, whether they’re at the level of the team managers harassing their small teams at the start of the film or the big guys trying to stop Burtynsky getting into the coalmine, can’t and won’t stop what’s happening either. The rapid capitalist development of China is capitalism’s last insane throw of the dice, and it’s now proceeded beyond the power of bosses to stop it.

The people who might just be able to have some kind of impact are the workers in the sites that we see in the film. The Chinese people organise tens of thousands of strikes, protests and petitions against their working conditions, privatisation, unemployment and the loss of their homes, lands or benefits.

The Chinese authorities themselves admit that in 2004 there were 74, 000 “demonstrations, mass incidents or strikes”, up 10, 000 from a decade before. The Chinese government has abandoned any attempts to build socialism in China, and in the process have removed the “iron rice bowl” of rights Chinese workers and peasants formerly enjoyed-free accommodation, health care, education etc. provided by the state.

They have privatised huge industries, meaning literally millions of workers have lost their jobs. Those that are still in work are forced to cope on very low wages with the huge costs of losing the government support they formerly enjoyed.

It’s clear that despite the massive repression faced by workers in China that there is huge anger lurking below the surface, and that the experience of the revolution and the Mao years, however many flaws there may have been in that process as an attempt to build socialism, serve as important experience for the class in China in combating the capitalist dictatorship that now rules them. This article in Monthly Review (along with a lot of other MR stuff, as I never tire of saying it’s simply the best source out there for socialists) is a really good starting point for learning more.

The scale of what Burtynsky is documenting in China really is without precedent, and in many ways is a clear example of the dynamic of capitalism’s destruction of the Earth around the world. There is no way that this can sustained ecologically, which is what makes me sceptical of the idea that China will ever be able to dominate the planet in the way the US has done since World War 2. That era is over, we now live in a time of climate change, diminishing raw materials and resource wars.

Tire pile

At one stage Burtynsky visits a town dedicated to recycling of “E-Waste”. This term refers to the vast quantities of electronic components from computers, mobile phones etc. that is built to become obsolete virtually immediately, so as to maximise the manufacturers’ profits. When we throw this stuff away much of it gets shipped back to China, where there is a huge industry of people stripping the components down to recover the valuable elements and raw materials involved in them.

Not only does this illustrate the waste of capitalism, but it also makes clear to us how rare these important materials that go into our electronic devices are getting, that it’s valuable and necessary to recover them from old components. The filmmakers tell us that you can smell the stink of the town from 10 kilometres away, so dangerous and dirty is the work. The water table has become polluted, and the people have to drink bottled water that is shipped in.

E Waste

As a good essay I read recently on imperialism in the current world writes:

“In addition, as is now widely recognised, China’s rise is revolutionising the entire world economy.

China accounts for a substantial and growing proportion of the globe’s material production. Since 1996, she has been the world’s largest producer of steel, a basic material for industry. Oded Shenkar claims that the Chinese already produce ’70 percent of the world’s toys, 60 percent of its bicycles, half its shoes, and one-third of its luggage’, as well as ‘half of the world’s microwave ovens, one-third of its television sets and air conditioners, a quarter of its washers, and one-fifth of its refrigerators’.

Another author writes that ‘China has more than 160 cities with a population of 1 million or more. You can go to towns on the east coast of China today that you have never heard of and discover that this one town manufactures most of the eyeglass frames in the world, while the town next door manufactures most of the portable cigarette lighters in the world, and the one next to that is doing most of the computer screens for Dell, and another is specializing in mobile phones.

Kenichi Ohmae, the Japanese business consultant, estimates in his book The United States of China that in the Zhu Jiang Delta area alone, north of Hong Kong, there are fifty thousand Chinese electronics components suppliers. . .

Today, there are about 30,000 textile exporters in China. Foreign-invested and private Chinese enterprises now account for roughly four-fifths of textile exports. China’s one-stop-shopping approach, in which integrated factories with ready availability of raw materials handle spinning, weaving, dyeing, cutting, and sewing operations, is hard to beat. Plus, these factories have the additional benefit of access to efficient transport networks.

Moreover, warns Shenkar, Chinese manufacturing is rapidly moving up the value chain, so that China is ‘fast becoming a player in capital-intensive products, such as motor vehicles, as well as in technology-intensive lines, some of which, like flat-screen TV, have conceivable strategic implications. Clyde Prestowitz notes that ‘China has more semiconductor plants under construction or about to go into operation than America has’.

But it is perhaps the employment statistics that provide the most stunning measure of Chinese industrial capacity. A recent report estimated China’s manufacturing workforce in 2002 at 109 million, compared with 53 million for all of the G7 countries put together.”

E Waste recycling products and tools

In the film Burtynsky says that at the time of the revolution the urban rural balance of China was 10% urban and 90% rural peasants. The current Chinese authorities aim to reverse this and have the vast majority inhabiting manufacturing megacities on the coast. This can’t possibly continue indefinitely.

Nowhere in the world is it more clear that working class power is needed to combat the damage capitalism and bourgeois power is doing to the possibility of the survival of civilisation.

Another image of the three gorges dam

A final environmental and human horror story that is worth a post in itself is when the film visits the Three Gorges dam. This is the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, being built to feed the insatiable need of allt his industry for power. It’s been under construction for years, and will not be fully completed until 2011. It will eventually generate 22, 500 megawatts of power, and the steel alone being used in the project is enough to build 63 Eiffel towers.

The dam is a project on an unimaginable scale. The weight of water it will contain is enough to make a minute adjustment to the Earth’s axial tilt. More pertinently, the weight of water may well increase the risks of earthquakes in the area. Another mega hydro electric project has been implicated as a factor in the earthquake that hit Sichuan province earlier this year. The dam has also been a major contributory factor in the suspected extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin.

The area that is being flooded by the dam’s reservoir contains 13 cities, that Burtynsky visits in the film. Almost 1 and a half million people are being forced to move from their homes by its construction, and authorities aim to have another 4 million moved by 2020.

The problem authorities face however is that the doomed cities can’t be left intact before the flood. If they were then they would be a danger to the shipping travelling above them. So the current inhabitants of these cities are no employed to demolish their homes brick by brick, along with everything in the neighbourhoods where they and their families grew up. The film documents this heart rending story well.

A doomed city before the dam floods.

Of course, it’s easy to criticise people in the west who look on this and say it’s wrong. We should all be wary of making out that China is some kind of special threat, a unique evil incomparable to our own human and ecological crimes. Who am I to deny the Chinese people the fruits of industrialisation?

But the point for me is that all this work is not taking place for the benefit of the Chinese people. During the Maoist era there was at least the idea that industrial development was to be for the benefit of the people. Now there’s no pretence of that. The documentary at one point contrasts the conditions of the Chinese workers with a property speculator and her palatial home, a woman who is doing very well out of the gentrification of China’s cities as the ordinary folk are no longer able to afford the rent they once didn’t have to pay.

As Deng Xiaoping famously said, encapsulating the philosophy of leaders of one of the world’s most formidable capitalist operations, the modern Chinese Communist Party, “To get rich is glorious.”

The development taking place in China is for the benefit of people like her. And for their western partners, the same big corporate conglomerates that dominate our lives and our politics. If the human race, and the working class of China and the west are to have any hope of surviving the destruction being wrought by the unprecedented scale of industrial development taking place in the developing world, then the Chinese workers must re-discover revolutionary spirit and get more organised in their fightback against their bosses.

But that’s my reaction to Burtynsky’s work. I think he’s just happy for us to have a reaction. His work aims to show us what’s hidden, the face of a reality that is hidden from us by advertising and consumer fantasies. Behind consumerism lies the natural environment which it has despoiled, and the workers toiling to keep it going.

In the closing scenes of the documentary we see Canadians puzzling over the images on display in a gallery. They look perplexed and perturbed. They don’t quite know what to do, confronted with something that they always knew in their subconscious. My only hope is that some of them are moved to start taking action, in whatever small piecemeal ways, about the human and environmental train wrecks caused by senile capitalism.



  1. 3rd image from the top with the yellow painted factory and safety jacket people is amazing. It looks like a toy town. Not real or possible.

    Anyway give me a phone or a text dude.
    I lost your number and your bro’s. and your house phone.


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