1972 UNESCO World Heritage Convention

Human environment is something inextricably bound to society. The resources on Earth are finite and yet we seem to be driven by a need for creating and building, something which has put prominent marks of change on our surroundings. Some human creations have been iconized and lists of ‘Wonders of the World’ have been produced ever since Antiquity. As the population of our planet is multiplying faster than ever, many of these wonders are endangered. Room is needed for other human enterprises than keeping old heritage sites alive. Presently human activities have put such stamps on Earth as it seems to change the very core of the planet and researchers have even suggested the need to name a new geological period, the Anthropocene, to meet with prevalent discourses.

In 1972 UNESCO launched the World Heritage Convention. It aimed to link the concepts of nature conservation and the preservation of cultural properties in a single document and also to recognize the way in which people interact with nature, and the fundamental need to preserve the balance between the two. As natural environment is in itself a cultural activity, resulted by active management by humans for millennia, the tangible result of the convention was the creation of a World Heritage List. During the passing years many important cultural sites have been listed and today the list includes 1007 properties, distributed amongst 31 trans-boundary, 2 delisted, 46 endangered, 779 cultural, 197 natural and 31 mixed properties. 161 states are participating.

The need to protect our cultural environments to keep them available for future generations is greater than we might think. Placing things on a list doesn’t necessarily mean that they are well-tended or even safe. Unforeseeable destruction can be caused by rapidly changing global climate or by humankind itself. Many of the sites in danger are placed in violent places of the world and intentional destruction of cultural sites with the aim of erasing the history of a country and undermining the peaceful coexistence of diverse communities is unfortunately something where history is perpetually repeated.

A couple of sites have been deleted from the list as the places have been altered in ways disturbing their original traits. This is something of an anomaly as many sites on the list have been heavily exploited by their hosting countries to create economical growth due to income from tourism or simply by using the sites for political ways and means. When surrounding a site with tourist paraphernalia they are actually changed, but in subtler ways than when constructing for an example a bridge through a natural landscape, as happened in one place now deleted from the list.

In theory any action to care for natural environment is also to consider its cultural value and here the World Heritage Convention is trying to manage our reserves on a global scale. Whether this noble aspiration can ensure heritage sites for the future generations is a complicated question as the pressure on human space, natural resources and social incongruities grows.

Photograph showing the Grand-Place in Brussels, put on the World Heritage List in 1998, here captured by Magdalena Midtgaard in 2012.

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The Windmill

Wind and water are traditional prime movers, strong natural forces able to change nature without any human interference. During the era of Holocene, human civilization developed and thrived. Cultivating the land humans started to change it and explore the natural forces, domesticating them for their own purposes. The windmill technology shows how human ingenuity ever since Antiquity has been able to acquire almost perpetual energy from a natural source.

A Dutch style windmill on an open field can be seen for miles. Its four large sail clad wings proudly capture the wind, producing energy to create mechanical force, facilitating hard work tasks. In medieval agrarian societies and up to the early 19th century, the windmill was a sign of prosperity. When industrialization arrived the traditional windmill was made almost obsolete, and thermal energy from burning fossil fuel took precedence as prime mover. During both world wars there was a shortage of fuel and wind technology was once more explored, only to be discarded when fuel was again plenty. The great oil crisis created a renaissance in the early 1970’s and the technology has steadily evolved since then.

The old-fashioned picturesque windmill cannot solve the need for a constant flow of energy and modern engineering has refined the relatively simple technology to something more effective making the most of exploiting the environmental forces. This evolution allows for large parks of giant turbines transforming the kinetics of wind to humanity’s ever increasing need for electricity.

It also evokes an almost unsolvable dilemma, exposing an issue of the Anthropocene as described by Zalasiewic; this period has broken down the Cartesian dualism between nature and society, resulting in a deep intertwining of the fates of nature and humankind. Nature might appear captured and tamed but the environmental impact is not yet fully understood. When concerning wind turbines placed on open fields or out in the ocean, the basic knowledge of impact is almost absent today.

Another poignant issue is the way humans react when things lose their human scale turning to high-tech. The traditional windmill was a real threat for Don Quijote, but today we see it in the light of nostalgia. The large vistas of wind turbines, planted in the Anthropocene landscape like a new breed of giant one legged birds constantly rotating their wings, evokes conflicting emotions though. Are they visually polluting our landscapes and disturbing nature’s ecosystems, or can they be seen as a vision of sublime technical invention helping humankind to sustainable energy?

In the on-going search for reliable supplies of energy many are reluctant to problematize a source that doesn’t produce waste and is considered environmental friendly. Others query the technology, afraid that the long-term effects on the surrounding landscape and those who live there are not thoroughly examined. When considering that things are getting out of hand, humanity tends to follow Don Quijote, feeling a need to confront any giant intruders. Whether true or imagined doesn’t matter, our quest is to react and call in question to fully investigate the impact of future technologies on global society.

Photographs: Magdalena Midtgaard
Merging and manipulation courtesy of Martin Midtgaard.

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