“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.
About the Author (Author Profile)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.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Photography And The Environment | Guy Tal Photography Web Journal | February 2, 2011
- Monday Blog Blog: Creative Landscape Photography By Guy Tal » Landscape Photography Blogger | February 8, 2011