Macro Environmentalism

| February 2, 2011

“In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society.” –Henry David Thoreau

I spent the last few days pondering the thoughtful reactions to my previous post on Photography and the Environment. Something in me wanted to sit down with each of the respondents to further debate the finer points of our respective arguments and to see if we could find common ground. Truly, the asynchronous nature of this medium can be challenging at times. Given the limitations of time and space, I decided instead to offer a collective response to the points made.

Before I do so, there are a couple of points I’d like to present to help set the stage:

First, some of the responses erroneously assumed I was promoting an anti-environmental message. Those who know me will testify that nothing could be farther from the truth. Yet, the fact that I care deeply about the health of our ecosystems does not readily imply that I support the methods and actions of what is often referred to as the “environmental movement.” In fact, while I share some of its goals, I often find the rhetoric incompatible with actually achieving them. Read into it what you will, but my views on the environment seem to arouse disagreement from both sides of the issue; suggesting, perhaps, that things are not as simple as being “for” or “against”.

Second, I consider myself a dialectic. I’m interested in finding the truth through a constructive exchange and am not necessarily looking to “win” the argument. These exchanges help me formulate my own thoughts.


Photographing natural subjects, by itself, does not make one an environmentalist any more than photographing people in third-world countries makes one a humanitarian. In both cases, images must be accompanied by action and meaningful results to qualify.

While several of you brought up stories of millions of dollars raised and thousands of acres preserved through the work of photographers (among others,) it is worth also keeping in mind the numbers we are attempting to offset. The cost of the BP oil spill alone is estimated at forty billion dollars. The US alone loses around 3 million acres of natural habitat every single year. As we celebrate our local victories, let us not lose sight of the fact that, at the macro level, the environmental movement is failing.

I propose that it is time for a new kind of environmentalism; one that focuses on net effect rather than anecdotes. If we truly believe there is a sustainable equilibrium that will allow us to persist as a species on this Earth for any significant period of time, then let’s make that our ultimate goal and focus our attention on the systematic deep-rooted issues that stand in its way, no matter how politically sensitive, rather than allowing ourselves the false comfort of thinking we’re doing all that we can by such minor things as photographing the effects of climate change, driving a hybrid car, or recycling a soda can. While it is true that the positive changes add up, so do the negative ones. The changes environmentalists wish for will not come about until the net effect of all that we do is reduced to sustainable levels. For those who suggest this is a “glass half empty” argument, I suggest an objective view of the numbers. We are a long, long, way from the half mark.

While it may be true that we are successful in creating more environmentalists; it is equally true that there is progressively less “environment” for them to advocate. It is also true that the latter occurs at a much higher pace than the former.

You may ask, then, why I consider myself a proponent of environmental values. I asked myself the very same question. In the short term, the answer is easy: I support environmentally sound policies because the quality of my life (and indeed having a life at all) depends on the quality of the air I breathe, the water I drink, the food I eat, and the experiences available to me. But what about the future? We can’t reasonably expect to defeat the very forces of evolution and natural selection that made our own existence possible. We can’t sincerely believe that our “protected” lands will remain so when all other resources dry up or that they can persist in their “natural state” when everything around them changes. Quite simply, the world doesn’t work that way. The environment in the larger sense will change whether we like it or not. At best we can influence the rate of change. Why try, then? The answer came to me in the words of Aldo Leopold:

“We shall never achieve harmony with land, any more than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations, the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.”

Just because you know you will someday die does not mean you should give up on living. Though we may not understand why, we recognize the importance of discovery, beauty, and love. While we may not survive another million years as a species, as individuals we can find infinite reward in just a single second of profound awe. For myself, wildness is among those things that make my own seconds most profound and why I knowingly continue to tilt at windmills.

Some of you suggested that the difference between an environmental/conservation photographer and someone merely making images of natural subjects is what they INTEND to do with their work. I disagree. The difference is in what they DO do with their work. Intentions alone don’t make a difference and even the best of them may not meet the test of reality.

Before calling me naive, do the simple exercise of placing real aggregate numbers on both sides of the scale and tell me honestly that environmental goals are even remotely close to prevailing at the global scale. To me, the naivete is in shutting out the bigger picture and inflating the value of small victories while knowing the war is being lost. This does not mean that such achievements are without value. To me they hold tremendous value. They inspire, they elevate the spirit, they stir the soul. For those reasons alone, they should persist. Like health and freedom, they are essential to making a life worth living. Still, like health and freedom, they are also ultimately not sustainable and will not save you in the long run.

I have the utmost respect for those who indeed have been able to make a difference with their images. Speaking for myself, though, I don’t want to use my camera as a weapon or as a tool for political activism. To do so would defeat the very reason I practice photography and I would surely lose all interest in it as a result. I choose to promote my goals in other ways.

Among my most precious possessions is a small piece of flint. At one time, the minerals making it were part of an ancient star much larger than our sun. It since ceased to exist, blown to dust in a spectacular explosion. These same minerals later found their way into our nascent solar system and became part of a small planet that was the beginning of our Earth. Life did not exist here at that time. It could not. Over four billion years these minerals were part of an environment that changed profoundly through ages of raging volcanoes and toxic atmospheres, through early life sprouted in a miasmal soup where we ourselves could never have survived. About sixty million years ago, these minerals finally bonded together to form the rock they are today. The Earth was dominated by dinosaurs then, who had no notion of environmentalism and yet persisted for over two hundred million years. Sixty thousand years ago, a human found this piece of flint and made it into a tool. This was not a human like us. It was a member of a different species: a neanderthal, living a lifestyle more in harmony with its environment than our own. It, too, became extinct about thirty thousand years ago. Change is constant and inevitable. Not one of us can begin to guess how our world will change even in our own lifetimes.

Holding this piece of flint in my hand and playing its stories in my mind is an exercise in perspective. Its lessons are clear. What we do today we do for ourselves, for the quality of our own lives, for the emotions and revelations that enrich our own souls and experiences. Our achievements may last for a few more generations but ultimately we have no ground for such arrogant claims as saving the planet, the environment, or even our own species. This does not diminish the value of striving to make a positive difference, though. All I ask is that we have the humility to be honest about why we do what we do and what it truly amounts to.

Neanderthal Tool

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (20)

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  1. Paul Beiser says:

    Another exceptionally well-written piece, Guy and near and dear to similar thoughts I have had. I believe Yvon Chouinard (founder)of Patagonia espouses a similar view (if you havent read his book ‘Let My People Go Surfing’, I think you would enjoy it immensely).

    In 5 billion years, give or take a few :-), the Sun will have dwarfed. In another billion years, the universe will have expanded into virtual nothingness. It’s the journey that we are a very small part of. Fun stuff :-)

  2. Randy Ramsley says:

    Guy, I have thought deeply along this line, and I have come to a conclusion. Perhaps it is not important what happens in the macro view. Perhaps this life experience is about more than physical manifestations. Gandhi said, “It is not important what you do, it is important that you do it.” I think he was hinting at the result one might obtain when one is totally engaged in ones actions. When photographing the photograper is immersed in the process, and the mind is clear. When farming one is immersed in the farming. When doing what is right, one is immersed in what is right. It perhaps does not matter that there are any external results.

  3. pj finn says:

    Great post Guy. It seems to me that the so-called environmental movement is too often fragmented, and even out of touch with the bigger picture.

    For the most part, though not always, various groups are fighting with particular special interests to protect and preserve isolated areas. Occasional victories are won, and though these aren’t insignificant, when the natural web that holds life as we know it together is being unraveled all around them these isolated islands won’t be enough to hold it all together.

    Until we develop the wisdom to realize that the social/economic system that we labor under, that demands constant growth even at the expense of natural processes can’t continue much longer, that we need to fit into our world the same as all living things must do, our environmental accomplishments will amount to little more than putting band-aids on a cancer patient. All of our sign carrying, or photography, or whatever will mean little without major systematic changes right from the ground up. But I agree — we do need to strive and not give up and throw our hands in the air in defeat.

  4. Very well written, Guy, and deeply considered. You are absolutely right, from a scientific standpoint we are essentially on the Titanic, but it is not the Earth that will die, it is merely our civilization. The Earth will live on, until the Sun explodes, or a large random object in space smashes our small green globe to bits. I agree with the previous comment. Our “making a difference” or “saving the planet” or whatever we call it, is an exercise in practicing good karma. We do what we can, even though it is nowhere near enough, because we feel better that we are doing something. Searching for better solutions and ways to do more not only helps us stay optimistic, but will allow us a clear conscience in the afterlife as we all sip margarita’s with St. Peter, play a little harp around the campfire and know that we did all we could, even though everybody went extinct anyway. I am not being sarcastic or flip. We have talked before about it being morally OK for the majority of Earth’s population to decide through denial to commit mass suicide. That is their karma. I will rant and rave and try to convince them otherwise because from my perspective it is the right thing to do, but I realize they have to choose for them, and many of the choices are already past the point of no return. It seems rather morbid and depressing if you see life as finite, but if you see death as a beginning or as just part of the cycle of life, then it is all OK. This view takes much of the angst out of the equation, which may allow us to free our heads to possibly come up with a strategy that will avert or change the inevitable.

  5. Roberta says:

    Like most of your posts they find a way into brain and even when I try to move on, there they sit for me to come back to again and again. It seems that everything you said can be expressed in your image. That tiny piece of flint in your hand speaks so loudly. “We are but temporary guardians of this place. Hold it gently like a precious treasure.”

  6. Daniel says:

    A huge topic that’s for certain. One that I struggle to try and summarize my feelings on.

    Everything else aside, all one needs to do, is go look at a world population clock for a few minutes to understand the magnitude of the issues we face.

    The natural world seeks balance. That balance is non-negotiable. It can be bent for a time, but ultimately balance is restored. That restoration process does not take sides or declare victors.

    This is a natural process that we see all the time. I suspect that our ego with respect to our species prevents us from seeing our place in that natural system.

    Can we as a species play a role in self-balancing? History doesn’t give a lot of hope, but without hope, we are left with hedonism.

    What role does photography play in this? I think photography can certainly play a role in changing popular opinion. The real question is even if we succeed in changing popular opinion. What are we(humans) prepared to do?

  7. Carl D says:

    Guy wrote:
    “While it may be true that we are successful in creating more environmentalists; it is equally true that there is progressively less “environment” for them to advocate. It is also true that the latter occurs at a much higher pace than the former.”?

    Hey Guy

    I don’t have time to add much right now .. but this quote reminds me of a comment I read once, about scientists researching the endangered mountain gorillas of central Africa. At one point there were lots of gorillas, and nobody “studied” them at all. Now, the gorilla population is dwindling, and we have more researchers than there are gorillas.



  8. Guy,

    A well written response to the previous article and the comments it garnered. All of brings to mind two things.

    One from the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, who said “if the end of times comes upon you and you are plating a tree, finish planting the tree”. The important thing is that we are doing something productive and beneficial to future generations, whatever form they might be.

    Second is from Rumi who said “Let what you love be what you do”. I love nature, the land, trees, the sea, the animals, the sky, — Earth, and I want to BE in it and when I can’t I look at photos of it and take photos of it to remind myself of what I love when I am apart from it. If my photos can, as consequence of my taking them help in preserving what I love then I will not hesitate to use them to that end.

    Thanks again for provoking us to think.

  9. Guy Tal says:

    Thank you very much, everyone!

    Though I did not touch on it directly, it seems you picked up on the underlying spiritual theme. I spend a lot of time pondering such things as reason and meaning which are not readily explained by science. At some point you just have to believe that if something feels right, it feels right for a reason.

    I remember a conversation with a physicist specializing in String Theory a while back. In his presentation he kept repeating the phrase “a theory of everything”. I asked him for the equations showing how strings form consciousness. He smiled…


  10. John Wall says:

    Guy, I feel like you want to have it both ways. You want to show you’re a hard-nosed realist by saying environmentalists are soft in that area, yet you commend them for the work they do. You say “the environmental movement is failing,” and later quote Aldo Leopold about the importance of striving. Why do the enviro-bashing thing in the first place? Why half-step and call yourself a “proponent of environmental values”? Come on, Guy — you’re an environmentalist. Admit it! :)

    Not only are there forces that don’t give a rat’s buttocks about clean air and water, wildlife and wildland conservation, etc., those same forces try to paint “environmentalists” with tar and feathers, marginalize them, make the word dirty while making themselves seem like the reasonable side, even as they remove the mountainside.

    You write, “Our achievements may last for a few more generations but ultimately we have no ground for such arrogant claims as saving the planet, the environment, or even our own species.” Frankly, that appears to be thinking deeply about shallow slogans. What about achievements that people actually do make — small as they may be — to stem humanity’s genius for turning nature into money?

  11. Guy Tal says:

    John, it’s a great question and the answer may be a bit protracted but I’ll try anyway.
    The Merriam Webster dictionary defines environmentalism as “advocacy of the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment (…)”. By that definition, yes, I am an environmentalist.
    Still, I don’t think it is as simple as that. There are many shades of gray between the two extremes. Is the liberal urbanite driving a Prius and advocating the construction of a 100-acre golf course any more or less an environmentalist than the conservative rural farmer trying to eek a living from a 50-acre farm?
    I live in a small rural community. I know many of these hard working people who consider “environmentalist” a dirty word associated with white collar do-gooders who never planted a radish trying to run them off their land in the name of environmentalism.
    I can tell you that these people love and respect their natural surroundings as much as anyone and know it better than most. On a case by case basis they may cause more or less impact compared with others but I’m not prepared to lump the small town farmer working to feed their family with the corporations clear-cutting rainforests to graze a million heads of cattle so that other corporations can sell a hamburger for a buck.
    Similarly, I’m not willing to lump myself with those who advocate for conservation without truly considering the effectiveness and consequences of the policies they are promoting.
    In the end, neither side will win so, despite the polarized political rhetoric, I believe there is room for compromise.

  12. Mark Bailey says:

    Guy- Congrats on an excellent and provocative post. It’s a remarkable subject (thus we remark!).

    Cows on the Plateau are my pet peeve. You’ll have to tell me sometime over Castle Rock coffee how all the small timers’ rural cows reek less havoc than corporate cows do on a sweet little mountain meadow stream. No matter their owners and no matter how hard anybody wants to work at it, these “hooved locusts” no longer make any kind of sense in the high arid West. There are much better places to produce beef, say Nebraska — economists call it “competitive advantage” — but I digress. Art can help persuade the greater voting populace, particularly those maligned Prius drivers, that there is change worth making. So, photo on!

  13. Mark Bailey says:

    Oh, and by the way Guy, I had a long a chat about consciousness with a married couple, both particle physicists, on a train from Stockholm to Oslo this summer. I got that same smile!

  14. Call me a “Do-gooder.” Cows suck. What about the Buffalo? Guy wouldn’t have to rant about meat not being sustainable if we brought back the Buffalo.

    Guy just likes to rant about something, because he knows something is not quite right and he’s right and we think he’s right but we can’t put our finger on it exactly either, or maybe we did.

    We cannot change the planet without changing our consciousness.

  15. John Wall says:

    “Similarly, I’m not willing to lump myself with those who advocate for conservation without truly considering the effectiveness and consequences of the policies they are promoting.”

    Guy, I’m sure there are smarmy twits driving their Prius’s who spout off in complete ignorance. I’m just as sure there are ignorant clods driving F150s who do likewise. Then again, I’m sure there are serious and thoughtful environmental advocates who go to work every day to try to get cleaner water, cleaner air, keep species from being blinked out, and so on. Just as there are conscientious farmers who work every day to provide us all with nutritious food.

    If you devote a considerable part of your life to being in places dominated by the hand of nature, and you make photographs to show to other people who might never get there, never see what you saw even if they did get there, never realize how sublime something was that they even laid their eyes on, then you are taking a side. Not necessarily the side of one group of people or another. But you are taking nature’s side in a deep way. And that’s part of what environmentalists do. ;)

    Anyway, I wouldn’t be yakking on like this if I didn’t feel you were putting down environmentalism, and wrongly so. It just got my hackles up.

  16. Greg Boyer says:

    Guy thank you again for your thought provoking and insightful article. Dialectic. I love that word and more so the meaning.

    Sharing what we do and love, capturing beautiful moments in Nature, may not inspire uprisings on a mass scale. What it does is give those that cannot experience the time or place personally a sense of connection and wonderment. This little spark does cause an awareness that compels some people to be better citizens of this beautiful planet. Some in small ways, like being a responsible recycler to those that ride the waves trying to save the whales.

    I would like to think that what I do makes a difference on a grand scale, but that is just my human ego puffing itself up. I long ago realized that life is individual, an individual thread that is intricately woven into the cosmos. I am just a “butterfly in Peking”. But the more of us that flutter………..

  17. Ed says:

    Hey All,

    In my opinion Jane Austen said it best…

    “I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle.”

    It is the degree to which you can overcome this most basic of life’s conundrums that will determine the quality of your life, the lives of those around you and the lives of generations yet to come that have no voice. Leopold recognized this conundrum and promoted the idea that one strive to make a difference.

    Guy wrote “Some of you suggested that the difference between an environmental/conservation photographer and someone merely making images of natural subjects is what they INTEND to do with their work. I disagree. The difference is in what they DO do with their work. Intentions alone don’t make a difference and even the best of them may not meet the test of reality.”

    Followed by…

    “I have the utmost respect for those who indeed have been able to make a difference with their images. Speaking for myself, though, I don’t want to use my camera as a weapon or as a tool for political activism. To do so would defeat the very reason I practice photography and I would surely lose all interest in it as a result. I choose to promote my goals in other ways.”

    A choice made – leaving open the question – If you have the understanding, the ability and the means do you have any obligation perhaps even a duty to strive? It is a question every photographer should ask themselves – “What purpose does my photography serve?”

    I guess I do not understand why the idea of going out the front door of one’s home always with a overall goal (in this case not as specific as purpose) in mind “negates” the self satisfaction or clouds in any way the self expression that photography can bring. To me I find I most quickly lose interest in those things which serve no purpose other than self satisfaction. I guess I’m just not selfish even narcissistic enough.

    My all-time favorite photographer had an answer for all this. Some you may have heard of Dorothea Lange who wrote…

    “I would like to see photographers become responsible and photography realize its potential.”

    She also wrote…

    “As photographers, we turn our attention to the familiarities of which we are a part. So turning, we in our work can speak more than of our subject – we can speak with them; we can more than speak about our subjects – we can speak for them. They, given tongue, will be able to speak with and for us. And in this language will be proposed to the lens that with which, in the end, photography must be concerned – time, and place, and the works of man.”

    and she made it personal for her when she wrote…

    “I am trying here to say something about the despised, the defeated, the alienated. About death and disaster, about the wounded, the crippled, the helpless, the rootless, the dislocated. About finality. About the last ditch.”

    She also spoke to what Guy alluded to about intentions versus doing when she wrote…

    “The good photograph is not the object, the consequences of the photograph are the objects…”

    The final point presented by Guy about the piece of flint I see somewhat differently. Too many would argue that those who lived in the distant past had no way to forsee what the world would become just as we cannot see what will become illustrates the futility of doing anything and perhaps excuses us from responsibility of striving. This is the ultimate “cop out” that anyone with children easily recognizes.


  18. An extraordinarily well-written piece, Guy… and the comments are the most thoughtful I’ve seen on any blog.

    The doing and the trying all matter- no image, no matter how powerful, brings about change or advocacy without activism, however subtle. The all-powerful tobacco industry was brought to its knees in our lifetimes by a few committed and passionate activists. Photo journalists make sure that the world sees the Egypt uprising, the Gulf disaster, mountaintop removal, the demise of glaciers – even though it still snows! It’s impossible to calculate the value of imagery for social and environmental activism; but nearly half of U.S. elected officials would love to see industry self-regulated, our environment, therefore the quality of our lives determined by big business. Consider the landscape and political climate when Yellowstone was designated a National Park and flash forward to today – different barons and the the need for images – and the story they tell, has never been more important.