OVERBURDEN: That is the industry jargon for the mountaintop that lies over the coal--hence all that needs to be removed in mountaintop removal mining as here at Kayford Mountain in West Virginia. Image: © J. Henry Fair
More In This Article
Mountaintops leveled. Tar sands scraped and boiled. Water taps aflame. These are just a few of the ways that mankind's quest for fossil fuels manifests itself, beyond the obvious utility of being able to power a home or business or drive a car.
Industrialized civilization relies on coal, oil and natural gas—the stored sunlight collectively known as fossil fuels—for more than 80 percent of the energy that enables everything from driving to reading on a computer screen. For all its many benefits, that energy can also have hidden costs—invisible CO2 forming a thickening blanket in the atmosphere and causing climate change, asthma in inner cities, to name a few—along with the more visible impacts.
Photographer J. Henry Fair has documented the landscapes left behind by the industrial processes that feed the world's fossil-fuel addiction—as well as many of the necessities and luxuries of modern life that energy makes possible, from plastics to paper towels. His work is currently on display at The Cooper Union in New York City, presented by the Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design and the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture.
Of course, alternative energy sources—the wind, sun, hot rocks and nuclear—are hardly impact-free. Giant wind turbines clutter the once-pristine sight lines of ridgetops; vast solar farms soak up rays in the desert, blotting out the landscape and impacting habitat; and deep uranium mines dot northern Canada with environmental effects matching any other resource-extraction enterprise, like tar sands. Which is why being more energy efficient—recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to light a 100-watt lightbulb for nearly a day—is so crucial.
View a Slide Show of the Environmental Damage Wreaked by Fossil-Fuel Extraction and Heavy Industry.