Orbital View: The Beauty in an Ugly Process

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

E.g., this satellite view of a mining operation:

The caption from Benjamin Grant:

Bucket-wheel excavators run on tracks at the Tagebau Hambach open-pit mine in Niederzier and Elsdorf, Germany. These massive machines (up to 315 feet tall and 730 feet long) continuously scoop materials from the surface in order to extract lignite. Lignite, often referred to as “brown coal”, is a soft combustible sedimentary rock that is formed from naturally compressed peat and is used as a fuel for steam-electric power generation.

But several commenters were upset over the mining photo, especially this one:

I just got very angry when I saw the comment “beautiful.” The Earth is so important! We as humans can not survive without it, yet we do things like this that are destroying it and will get to the point where the planet can no longer support us. I just feel that it should never be promoted.

Grant responds:

The points you make there are absolutely correct and very in line with the mission of Daily Overview. I appreciate you taking this view. However, because someone views this image or any on the account as aesthetically beautiful is by no means wrong. By looking at these “ugly” things in a “beautiful” way, perhaps we can start more important conversations like this.

The conversation continued from several other commenters:

Are you aware of the rare precious metals mined at massive cost to produce a smartphone? If you are upset about the Earth being destroyed, switch off your phone and give it away. Spend less time on Instagram and do something positive instead of criticizing someone else’s contribution.

Another suggests:

Instead of unfollowing, why don’t you donate to or volunteer for a cause you can stand behind? Raising awareness does nothing if no one is willing to act.

Or instead of donating, you could buy a print from the Daily Overview’s store. (One commenter announced he bought the German mining one, and I asked for and received this one of a reservoir as a Christmas gift.) Awareness of the human impact on the Earth is actually central to Grant’s mission statement:

Each Overview starts with a thought experiment. We consider the places where man has left his mark on the planet and then conduct the necessary research to identify locations (and the corresponding geo-coordinates) to convey that idea.

The mesmerizing flatness seen from this vantage point, the surprising comfort of systematic organization on a massive scale, or the vibrant colors that we capture will hopefully turn your head. However, once we have that attention, we hope you will go beyond the aesthetics, contemplate just exactly what it is that you’re seeing, and consider what that means for our planet.

One more commenter adds:

Favelas in my country, Brazil, are horrible, but it does not mean they aren’t sometimes good sources for photography.

Update from a reader, Tim Cottrell, via hello@:

I don’t work in the coal (or any mining) industry, but it steams my broccoli to see the knee-jerk reaction to a picture of mining. Certainly the activity does produce a lot of environmental ruination. Done responsibly, it can also result in a lot of environmental transformation. I just googled “rehabbed mines in Germany” and it took me a few seconds or so to find this story of “environmental and recreational areas where tourism has blossomed.”

Every economic activity is transformative, by its very nature. Eco-tourism can be very harmful to pristine ecological zones. Agriculture is notoriously harmful, but look how many pictures of farms (of all types) taken from space we enjoy. By posting those ignorant reactions to the mining, you help propagate ill-informed objections to jobs and social benefits that a legitimate economic activity would bring.

Another reader:

Ground-level pictures of those lignite operations are astonishing, too. Here is one of those bucket-wheel excavators trekking across the German countryside to a new mine site. Naturally, there are videos:

(See all Orbital Views here)