As an avid connoisseur of bauxite sludge impoundments, I have studied with envy the photographs from the recent disaster in Hungary. Bauxite waste has a characteristic red color that is particularly photogenic, and I have traveled far and wide to find it. Environmental disasters range from the visible to the invisible, and of course photographers can only capture the former, so bauxite waste is a special friend.
As we blithely toss our aluminum cans into the waste basket, it might be well to consider a few things: aluminum is made by mining bauxite, and then smelting it down through a few steps, resulting in the shiny metal we take for granted. Aside from the usual habitat destruction involved in extraction processes, aluminum production threatens your children in several ways: the climate change footprint is enormous, starting with the gases released in the process itself. The Hall-Heroult Process is a tremendous user of electricity, which means that every can has a significant global warming impact, to the extent that recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to run a 100-watt bulb for 20 hours, a computer for 3 hours, or a TV for 2 hours. So tossing that can in the garbage contributes to all of those coal-fired electricity issues as well (climate change, mercury in the fish, mountain-top removal, etc). And there is more: numerous über-toxic sites in the USA, the collapse of the Iceland economy, Alzheimer's; that soda can affects you personally, though maybe not as directly as the people in Kolontar. Alas, I will not get to Hungary in time to photograph the beautiful red flood washing around and in the houses in those towns. For some reason, I am drawn to making a visual connection between the production processes and the impacts they have on our life support systems, and the miscellaneous peoples unfortunate enough to live near the production aspects.
How did we become so disconnected as to no longer implicitly understand the consequences of our actions? In part, it's hard-wired: we understand when we hurt someone personally - an empathy thing. But we lack the global empathy. We somehow can't feel the consequences of throwing away an aluminum can, great as they are.
Maybe we will only empathize when we can see or imagine the faces of the ones we hurt. It's hard to imagine the faces of our grandchildren.
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