Hard rain is a-gonna fall again

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In late July of 1969 most of the planet was looking to the heavens and praying. As the world watched the grainy images broadcast from the lunar module of the Apollo 11 Moon landings 250,000 miles away, on the edge of the vast Sahara desert photographer Mark Edwards was lost.

Wandering in one of the harshest landscapes on the planet, he was found by a Tuareg nomad. It was an encounter that would shape his future, and lead to the creation of one of the most successful photographic exhibitions ever created.

The nomad had a tape of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, and as the music played its warnings of a world “where the people are many and their hands are all empty”, Mark was struck with a simple idea to illustrate each line of the song. More than three decades later, in May 2006, Hard Rain was launched at the Eden Project. Shown at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in 2007, it has become a phenomenon, seen by more than 15 million people on every continent, including a display at the United Nations HQ in New York.

Now Mark has returned to the Capital, and the Botanics, to show that while the problems are still growing, there are solutions. Hard Rain: Whole Earth? is a vast exterior display in the Fossil Courtyard. Its warnings of a looming environmental disaster are made all the more powerful amidst the devastation of the recent storms which battered the garden.

With this exhibition however, Mark is aiming to encourage debate and provoke businesses and politicians to take notice of the need for sustainable development.

“The idea of Hard Rain was to highlight the scale and the devastation that was being caused by global pollution, and the effects of global warming,” he says. “Now, with Whole Earth?, we are hoping to show that there are solutions to those problems, and to encourage governments to start taking this issue far more seriously.

“It is impossible to predict what the effects of global warming will be, but the general view is that we are approaching a very serious tipping point. The problem is we might not know how serious it is until it is too late.”

The fact that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the song’s creation is testament to the vision of its writer. In June, world leaders will meet in Brazil for the Rio Earth Summit, to discuss the threat of climate change and the measures they will take to combat it.

Its references to “sad forests” and “dead oceans” fired Mark’s imagination, but the song is wholly appropriate as an illustration to the threat of climate change because of its own roots.

Dylan wrote A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The threat of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union may have been more stark, more immediate and thus more “real” to the generation that lived through it, but as his graphic images of the devastating consequences of what Edwards describes as “our headlong collision with nature” vividly show is that the consequences of this threat are every bit as terrifying.

And for Mark, Scotland is the perfect venue for his exhibition. The Scottish Government has set out bold aims of generating all the country’s electricity through renewable sources by 2020, and the display includes a section dedicated to highlighting sustainable projects around the country.

“Scotland and Scandinavia are offering a very encouraging vision to the rest of the world, and what the Scottish Government is doing in embracing the kind of technology we need – wave energy, solar power, wind power – is a great example of how seriously this needs to be taken,” he says.

“As the exhibition shows, there are problems but there are also solutions – if we are willing to embrace them.

The problems facing the planet may stretch back to the well before the days of the first man on the Moon, but, argues Mark, if we want to ensure the survival of, in the words of Apollo 8’s Jim Lovell “this grand oasis in the vastness of space”, then we need to act now.

• A lecture evening to accompany the exhibition, Hard Rain: Whole Earth? “What’ll You Do Now?’’, is being held at the Botanics lecture theatre on Tuesday between 7pm to 9pm Tickets cost £2