Philip Gourevitch: Memory is a disease

The New Yorker staff writer discusses the dangers of narrative simplification and the role of literary reportage

Topics: Journalism, The New Yorker, Boston Review, Philip Gourevitch, Rwanda, Literary Reportage,

Philip Gourevitch: Memory is a diseasePhilip Gourevitch (Credit: AP/Stephen Chernin)
This article originally appeared on Boston Review.     

Boston Review On July 25, Philip Gourevitch gave the keynote address to the Human Rights Lecture Series at Stanford University. A long-time staff writer for The New Yorker, Gourevitch has written about the Iraq War and Abu Ghraib, the 2004 U.S. presidential campaign, French politics, and conflicts in Africa and the Middle East. His account of the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was included in the Guardian’s list of the 100 greatest nonfiction books. In 2009, Gourevitch started reporting again from Rwanda.

We met over drinks before his lecture to discuss the challenges of writing about the history that we are in the midst of making, the burdens of memory and the appeal of forgetting, the dangers of narrative simplification, the limits of humanitarianism, and the messiness of politics.

Cécile Alduy: In your writing, you always find a balance between bringing in the long history to understand the way things develop over time and the very detailed hour-to-hour reporting on how it happened. How is your job different from that of an historian?

Philip Gourevitch: Above all, I suppose, to be a good historian you don’t necessarily have to be a good storyteller. You can be a good historian by virtue of making a contribution to the field without making a direct contribution to literature or public understanding. What historians, or anthropologists, or political scientists are interested in can overlap considerably with my interests, but the methodology, discipline, and long-term purpose are really different. I mean, I’m first and last a writer. If I weren’t writing about Rwanda right now, I’d be writing about something else entirely; and if I weren’t writing reportage, I would be writing fiction or plays. That’s not true of most historians who are going to write about Rwanda. They’re going to be coming at it as Rwandanologists. They’re going to be Africanists. They’re going to be Genocide Studies people. They’re going to be legal scholars or professors of postcolonial studies. And their frame of reference will be largely prescribed by that academic discipline—which is, I guess, as it should be.



Another big difference is that as a writer-reporter I’m not so concerned with making explicit reference to the existing literature, the way academic writers are. I’m much more interested in what I see and what I hear directly; I work in a documentary vein. For instance in recent conversations about current affairs with senior government officials in Rwanda I started to notice that a number of them, completely unprompted, began making references to late-nineteenth century events in Rwanda. That’s the time when Rwanda, which had been a proudly isolated country, was colonized, and lost its self-determination as a state. So I started mentioning this to the people I was interviewing, “You know, it’s funny that you are all bringing up that same period.” And they all expressed complete surprise. “Really, who else?” Then I would maybe mention someone, and they’d all say, “Really? He was talking about this?” So, I thought, that’s interesting, there’s this common reference that each person thinks is his own, and which each uses to make different points. And then I thought, well, is this history they are talking about reliable? Are these stories they’re telling me correct?

CA: But even if they are not, it still matters that they share the same story.

PG: Exactly, even though they’re not even telling it quite the same way. But still, if I were simply to present these people talking about the deep past at face value, an historian would almost immediately say, “Gourevitch was taken in by these guys and their spin on history.” But to me what’s interesting—and the way I’ll present it—is that this is how they are invoking and recounting their inheritance, which may or may not be historically accurate. And by the way, in pre-colonial Rwanda, there was a really sophisticated oral tradition, but there was no alphabet, there was no writing—so while people make rather significant claims about what they think the history is, historical certainty is more than usually hard to come by. The whole nature of an oral tradition is that it’s fungible and that it’s adaptable. And I think that informs some of the ways that politics now work there, the way that Rwandans today tell their stories about themselves.

When Rwandans today speak of the post-colonial past, they’re also referring back to a time that in their minds is before the world messed them up, which is probably falsely idealized. It’s an identity story as much as an accurate history. It becomes history because people who are now making history refer to it as a guide. The way history is evoked and invoked becomes part of current history. That interests me, but I don’t feel, therefore, that I have to referee all these accounts the way a historian might feel obliged to do. I don’t go into my work with a set of parameters or a theory that I’m testing against the evidence. All I want is to hear what my subjects have to tell me.

CA: I was really struck by the importance of orality in your books, and how you use dialogue to report. I wondered how in a place with such a strong oral tradition as Rwanda, history is what the present tells itself about the past in order to continue to live in the now and to project itself into the future. As a literary scholar I don’t necessarily think that history is this intrinsically right or wrong way of looking at things. In an oral tradition, it might be even more apparent that history is all those little myths that you recombine to carry yourself forward as a collective. I sense that throughout the material that you write about, you’re interested in showing that fluctuating relationship of a people with its own story and that we’re not going to have a neat little package at the end—

PG: Yes. But I do think that mixed in with what you call myths there’s such a thing as the truth. There are solid truths and demonstrable falsehoods in there. We may not always be able to get to know them, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. And the history that interests me most is the history we’re in the midst of—and that means it’s hotly contested history. In Rwanda, where there has been so much killing, it’s also very raw, very open. Questions of crime and punishment hover over so many of the stories there, which means that the people involved are also thinking about their relationship to accountability, what they want from the telling. There’s a lot of accusation and defense—and whether trials and judgments are anticipated, or feared, or in progress, or have been concluded, is always something you have to factor in.

Many of the great political crimes of recent history were committed in the name of memory.

But what really interests me ultimately is not to record the past, so much as how people live with the past and get on with it. There’s a kind of fetishization of memory in our culture. Some of it comes from the experience and the memorial culture of the Holocaust—the injunction to remember. And it also comes from the strange collision of Freud and human rights thinking—the belief that anything that is not exposed and addressed and dealt with is festering and going to come back to destroy you. This is obviously not true. Memory is not such a cure-all. On the contrary, many of the great political crimes of recent history were committed in large part in the name of memory. The difference between memory and grudge is not always clean. Memories can hold you back, they can be a terrible burden, even an illness. Yes, memory—hallowed memory—can be a kind of disease. That’s one of the reasons that in every culture we have memorial structures and memorial days, whether for personal grief or for collective historical traumas. Because you need to get on with life the rest of the time and not feel the past too badly. I’m not talking about letting memory go. The thing is to contain memory, and then, on those days, or in those places, you can turn on the tap and really touch and feel it. The idea is not oblivion or even denial of memory. It’s about not poisoning ourselves with memory.

So one of the things I’m interested in is how a measure of forgetting can also be helpful—societally or politically—in getting from a state of violent destruction to one of habitable coexistence. I’m not talking about reconciliation, whatever exactly that is. I mean a condition where you’ve reckoned with the demons adequately to hold them enough at bay that you can have security and act for the future instead of simply reacting to the past. I think it’s not totally different from personal grief. I’m interested in looking at how those balancing acts work. And how they work in a place where they’re happening on every level—privately, inside each soul, and inside each home, and very locally, between a neighbor who may have killed your family or whose family you may have killed, and on a bigger public level, where you have official policies to set the balance. Those policies may be somewhat crude. That’s the nature of government policies, because they have to be broad enough to accommodate nearly everyone. They have to push a lot of people through a collective experience that moves the country along even if a lot of the people remain somewhat stuck. It’s not a gentle business, getting over bloody murder. It’s rough, and it requires force, which can be pretty ugly to behold, even if you believe the aim and the end are good.

CA: The French historian Ernest Renan gave a speech in 1882 called What Is a Nation? He wrote it at a moment when the French Third Republic was trying to rally everyone to the relatively new and still contested republican régime by teaching a collective narrative about the French people. Renan explains that a nation is built on remembering and forgetting. He lists examples of what the French had to forget to coalesce into a nation: the bloody civil wars between Protestants and Catholics during the Sixteenth Century, the massacres against the Cathars in Southern France in the Thirteenth Century, etc. Memory is essential in nation-building because we need to gather in spirit around events that sealed us as a collective and have since been memorialized: these remind us of the history we have in common. But oblivion too is essential, otherwise we are stuck in a “Your ancestors killed my ancestors” mode. That process of remembering and forgetting seems to be what needs to be taking place now in post-genocide Rwanda.

PG: Well, to me it’s often more political. The creation of a nation isn’t just a question of memory management. That’s the fancy part, in a way. Or, it’s a fancy way of describing the rougher underlying process, which is the forceful organization of people out of disorganized and scrapping groups. Making a habitable society means bringing into an order of some kind people who would like to be competing in much more violent ways. And it’s not elegant, it’s not pretty, which is something that we—speaking of forgetting—it’s something we forget immediately after we’ve done it. As soon as things are organized, whole countries and so-called civilizations, whole cultures and peoples, will very quickly act as if that’s just who they are. You get Europeans talking about how baffling it is that Africans are prone to violent conflict, as if Europeans haven’t been going at it just as horribly throughout the whole Christian era. A whole lot of them were avidly committing genocide a generation ago, on a much bigger scale than Rwandans did, and in a place that was supposedly better defended against it—that had lots of fancy texts, and institutions and lots of culture as safeguards against beastliness. No. None of that’s a sure safeguard at all.

Poking around in post-genocide Rwanda, I’ve often been reminded of what De Gaulle did in France after World War II. It’s not an exact analogy, I know. But still—what De Gaulle did was not to create history, but to create a legend of history that was a big enough container for everybody to inhabit well enough. When he said, “We’re a nation of resistors,” it wasn’t that everybody thought, “Oh yeah, that’s right, precisely.” But the idea was big enough and it was vague enough—it was generous enough—and it was structured mythologically enough that it worked as a creation story to reconceive anew a country that had been on the brink of civil war and to bring it back together and put it to work.

Genocide is not a complicated issue. What is complicated is dealing with the mess it makes.

Well there’s something of that in post-genocide Rwanda, where the big, simple, all-encompassing foundational idea—for all of its obvious unsubtleties and problems—is: “We’re all Rwandans now.” They make the point that these identities, Tutsi and Hutu, were invented. And that’s true: they are largely artificial constructs. But you could also say: so what? Because history has made those identities real—bloodshed has made them real. So, the policy now is: we’re going to make them artificial again. And there are all kinds of reasons why that would serve the people in power, all kinds of reasons for others to be skeptical and wary—but, nonetheless, this big arguable idea becomes habitable. More people can live inside it and accommodate their differences to it, if it’s handled reasonably well, than otherwise.

I think that people live many story lines at once, and that we make choices within them, without always being aware how our decisions will be balanced or thrown off balance by the big ideas and the big forces that organize our time and place. We’re none of us free of larger powers, but no larger power is free of us either. And, to me, in many places that I’ve looked at (Abu Ghraib as much as Rwanda) what’s interesting is that accordion relationship between ordinary lives and state power. That’s where historical experience happens—at that intersection of private and public dramas. That’s the crossroads where I like to report and to write.

CA: Your books strike me as being alive with the complexity of human stories rather than proposing a theoretical view or a system of a given situation. During the writing process, how much do you ponder the potential pitfalls of narrative as a form? I’m thinking of the fact that stories have a way to please our desire for meaning, for order, for a beginning, a middle, and an end. It gives some shape and structure to things that might not have any.

PG: You’re right that I don’t go about my business according to a doctrine or a theory. And I’m always happy to break form with my own past practice. But it seems to me there is a method that runs through all of my work. The method is call and response: stories calling up questions that call up more stories that call up more questions. Every element within the stories works that way, responding to what’s come before by producing new questions. Yes, there is order to this, there is form—it’s not chaos—it’s how we think something through, how we experience the world. But I don’t think of myself as looking for answers, so much as for better questions, and for understandings.

CA: But is it a conscious choice of yours to do it this way? Maybe to avoid the danger of an overarching narrative?

PG: I’m not sure what the danger is.

CA: Well, the danger might be to tidy up everything into one single narrative that excludes other stories that cannot fit in, or, more simply, shapes into a satisfying order things that did not have any.

PG: That would just be bad writing. There’s no such thing as a story all by itself. Stories don’t exist in solitude—they exist in relation to other stories. In my work, there’s never one single narrative that ties everything up tidily—not because I’m trying to avoid some theoretical literary danger, but because that’s not how the world is, so I cannot describe it that way.

I mean, most good writing has an openness to it. Good storytelling is not a closed system. It may draw boundaries around the story in various places. All writing is editing, so every thing you write or don’t involves decisions, conscious or unconscious. But there’s no need at all for that process to be didactic or polemical in the way that you’re describing. I don’t accept the idea that by focusing on some things, everything you don’t write is something you’ve excluded and denied. It would require a pretty arrogant view of oneself and one’s powers to think that by writing a story, you’re writing an absolute account that will have some tremendous influence. People sometimes criticize writers for their influence—I mean, most writers write in obscurity with the hope that somebody will actually read them.

So I don’t recognize the concept of narrative as inherently dangerous. Compared to what? Compared to the essay? Compared to the absence of narrative? To formlessness? Are you talking about the risk of aestheticizing?

CA: There is that. I was more thinking of giving readers a false sense of comfort from the fact that they might assume that they have it all figured out once they have read the piece, that they now have the meaning of that story. Obviously, this is not how you write your stories, but I am wondering if you take into consideration as you write the risk of this kind of responses from readers.

PG: You never know how readers will respond. I mean, unless you’re writing pure polemic or propaganda, you just can’t think about that usefully. So I don’t think of how to make my readers respond to my storytelling, but rather how to make my storytelling convey my response to the reality it describes. Reality is complicated, and if you look at it closely, it can be terrifying. I reject the journalistic notion that to tell complicated foreign stories—whether it’s foreign in the overseas sense, or just unfamiliar—you have to make them simple. Simplification is distortion, and you can very quickly go too far. People are not stupid. You’re talking about some enormity and you make it simple? That doesn’t make any sense.

CA: Don’t you feel though that this is what we’re hearing in the media all the time?

PG: Yes, sure—even speaking of the media is a meaningless simplification. But, look, the appeal of simplification is obvious—and, of course, some truths are kind of simple. I don’t think you need to complicate everything.

One of the things that interest me about Rwanda is that genocide is not a complicated issue. What is complicated is dealing with the mess it makes. It wounds everything and everybody it comes into contact with—and for a long, long time to come. There isn’t much of an argument about what’s right and wrong about genocide: it’s all wrong. So the much harder thing is that there isn’t a perfectly satisfactory way to find a viable balance afterwards. You cannot punish everybody absolutely; you cannot let everybody go absolutely. So you find various middle grounds. Is it better to let bygones be bygones in the name of constructing a habitable future? Or does letting bygones be bygones mean that you’re imposing all kinds of structural burdens on the future that will eventually make it uninhabitable? How do you balance accountability and stability? Even the most fundamental problem of building a state out of competing forces is staggeringly hard. Take the integration of the Army. You have to take foes, mortal enemies, and they’re saying “Never mind what you did before, you serve this cause now, and we’ll build a national army.” Well, it’s hard to stomach sometimes. But the alternative is far worse.

We tell ourselves a lot of stories that give us false comfort. And I think that false comfort is dangerous.

CA: Is it not what’s happening in the aftermath of the various Arab Springs?

PG: As you say, they’re various, and it’s way too soon even to see where they’re going— or even to speak of aftermath in many cases. But yes, that’s what has to happen when you reconfigure the order of things. Politics is messy that way. Politics is only sometimes about moral principles. Politics is about holding people together, and it is opportunistic. Because politics is about winning. Politics is about gaining the power to say, “We won. You lost. You work with us now.” Politics is about interest. And narrative has to take all that into account.

CA: In the interview you did on the Paul Holdengraber Show you told the story of Jonah—you called it the story of the reluctant prophet—and you talked about the burden of telling a story that no one wants to hear. I was reading your articles for The New Yorker, and I started wondering: “How many enemies does this writer make each time?” There’s a way in which you’re not speaking what the righteous thinker would want to think. For instance, on Syria, the primal call is to say “We need to do something.” And there’s some truth to that reaction, of course. But this is not what you want to bring to the conversation.

PG: I’m no Jonah. No God has told me to warn a civilization that it is damned. But yes, I’m troubled that we tell ourselves a lot of stories that give us false comfort. And I think that false comfort is dangerous. It endangers us if we tell ourselves that we have created systems of protection that we trust more than we should. So, that does seem to be a consistent theme, which is that there are these consolations that we offer ourselves, that we are against genocide, that we say “Never again,” that we must do something, otherwise we are complicit. Yeah, well, we are complicit. And one of the reasons I wrote about Abu Ghraib was because it pissed me off that those crimes we saw in the infamous photos had been done in our name, and we were all acting as if the soldiers who appeared in those photos and took them were just bad apples—that they were not us, not of our kind, did not implicate us—when this was actually government policy that we all accepted, to some extent. We all lived with it; we didn’t all take to the streets about it.

CA: And it’s a piece in a bigger system.

PG: That’s part of it, there’s a big structure of which those appalling actions were a small part. But you were asking me about how we treat a lot of confusing dilemmas as settled questions, and we treat a lot of things as if we know what’s right for everybody. We say, “It’s a universal, we’ve got principles, we are on the side of justice, just take it from us.” Meanwhile, of course, our own house isn’t really in order. Now, a human rights person would say, “We never said it was; it’s a permanent campaign . . .” And so on. But we do act as if our house is sufficiently in order to know what justice is and how to get it—and to tell others that we represent it. I would prefer a bit more humility. But power isn’t humble, and power gets pretty cynical pretty quickly—even in the service of its high ideals.

Now Syria’s in a terrible situation. It’s appalling what we’re seeing. That’s not in dispute. But you hear people scolding the Obama administration for not rushing into the middle of it. Washington’s just playing for time, they say. Well, yeah, they’re playing for time. Playing for time means, there are no good options right now, and hoping that as things shift, options will appear that can be worked with more successfully. You can’t just ignore the Russians. You can’t ignore the fact that Iran is Assad’s ally. You can’t ignore the fact that it’s a very volatile neighborhood. You can’t ignore that the armed opposition is a very mixed bag. You can’t ignore the fact that nobody can tell you—and this is really important—nobody can tell you what should come after Assad. We know we’re against him, but who exactly are we for? If you can’t say that, and you want to go use lots and lots of force in a very violent place, that’s not so good.

That’s a big problem with the interventionist impulse. We have people who say, let’s get rid of this head of state, and that head of state. I’m not just talking about military action. You have lawyers and professors celebrating the International Criminal Court’s indictment of President Bashir in Sudan. It’s an easy call that Bashir’s an awful guy. There’s no defending Bashir’s record. But if you’re calling for a coup d’état, do you have an idea of what you want to happen? That indictment is a standing order for the decapitation of a regime. And if that were to happen, are you going to say, it’s not our problem what comes after that? I find that crazy. And reckless. And it’s usually done by people who are not accountable. It’s usually what you get from activists, intellectuals, lawyers, people who are not popularly elected. Some of them are on the ground. Some of them are brave people, and they put their necks out for their cause. But calling for a coup d’état in a very dangerous place and refusing to answer for the consequences because you say you’re simply concerned with justice—well that’s a hell of a cause.

I guess there’s a certain cautionary quality in some of the things that I write. During the Cold War, there were different ways of thinking about these things, the big bipolar confrontation defined all the little wars around the world. Then the Wall came down and you had all these wars anyway, with no Cold War to define them. And so we were left to scratch our heads in the early ’90s. How are we supposed to respond? The strategic stakes aren’t clear. The misery that the fighting causes makes an appeal to conscience, but we have no ideological framework for it. The West won the Cold War, but it’s not a unipolar world. The Chinese are there, the Security Council is not of one mind, and America doesn’t really always know what it wants. And into that confusion and void, there was one remaining universal ideology that emerged to fill the vacuum, and that’s humanitarianism and human rights.

They were already there—the humanitarian and human rights movements—on a smaller scale, of course, and now they say: we’ve got a lens through which you can look at all these conflicts and react to them. There are abusers and there are victims. And we can prosecute the abusers and we can come to the aid of the victims. It’s very appealing. But it also amounts to saying, we’re going to react entirely to the symptoms of political problems, and almost deny their political reality because we don’t want to deal with the political reality. So, yes, I’m wary of the kind of optimistic, “We’ve got the solution, what’s the problem?” approach to the world. And I’m wary too of the idea that this set of solutions really addresses the problem adequately: it doesn’t. It’s a new conventional wisdom that has its own severe limitations.

CA: You’ve also been reporting on specific conflicts where it’s really not clear who’s the victim and who’s the abuser—everybody might be both—and when you take a longer period of time to look at things this kind of role assignments starts to become even more questionable—

PA: That’s where political judgment comes in. Because if you say, everybody’s guilty, then first of all, why should I pay any attention? They’re all equally bad. Years ago, I met a French guy in Zaire who said, “These people are all the same, they’re all power-mad, they’re all equally bad and to hell with all of them.” You heard that a lot. But then I said, Well why are you here, then, why do you care, what are you for? And this Frenchman said, “Moi, je suis anti-pouvoir” [I am against power]. And to me that defined, in a very deep way, a lot of what’s wrong with the mentality now. How do you think that you can ever solve a problem without some kind of pouvoir? To be anti-power sounds nice, I guess, if your main interest is in pretending that you’re blameless. But you can’t offer any real solutions if that’s your position. And a lot of the internationalist agenda now is to chisel away at sovereignty. Yes, power is problematic, but you can’t get anything done without it, and states are problematic, but in the end, you have to work with states.

CA: One might have morality on one’s side and all the best intentions, but it doesn’t solve the practical problem of making people work together and function as a collective.

PG: That’s where all these big theories fall apart against the difficult reality of muddling through. Which doesn’t mean that one doesn’t work towards improving things. One does all the time. But you also have to make judgments. Here’s a genocide, or here’s a system that destroys a country, that provides nothing for its people, that’s predatory, abusive, kleptocratic, racist? Well, we’d all rather see a utopian popular democracy with equal rights and justice for all. But what if instead, at least for the moment, what you’ve got is an authoritarian system that is also rough, uses a fair amount of violence, but largely uses its heavy-handed power towards building something. You might not like all of what it builds, but it is building something, instead of destroying everything. The system of total death and destruction and this other non-democratic regime can both be condemned as falling short on most human rights measures. But are they the same? Are all abusers equal because you measure them only by their abuse? Is it the same if America tortures somebody but you have a lot of the army, as well as a lot of the electorate, that’s upset about torture, as opposed to a country where it’s the only system and there’s no self-correction? And then we get into questions of, should we punish everybody? What was more important at the end of the Bush years: that we figured out how to prosecute all the former top people, or that there was an immediate repudiation of those policies as much as possible? It seems to me that if I were Obama—which, you know, I’m so glad I’m not—if I were in his sort of position, I would think, do I want to spend the next four years fighting like crazy the battles of the last few years, or do I want to say, we want to put our energy into doing things differently? I only wish he’d done things even more differently—but that was always my fear, during the Bush years, that when you tear down checks on power, it’s very unlikely that anybody who gets that power will reinstall those checks.

CA: There’s a lot of ways to engage with these issues. Why storytelling?

PG: It’s how I respond to the world. I respond by observing and describing. For me, books and storytelling have always been the way that the world is best shaped into meanings.

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