- Simon Turnbull
Planet Earth: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here?
“So long and thanks for all the fish”
I’m a huge fan of Douglas Adam’s irreverent humour in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. Finding humour in the face of impending disaster is a uniquely human trait. This quote is the last message given by the dolphins to humanity as they leave Earth shortly before it’s demolished by aliens to make way for an intergalactic highway by-pass. Terrific stuff. It pops into my mind now and again when I see the news of the latest oil slick disaster or think about climate change generally, wondering whether the dolphins will jump ship as we self-implode. We have an apparent overwhelming need to keep burning fossil fuels, making plastics and losing habitats despite the considerable dangers to humanity. Which led me into writing this environmental article on how I feel about the state of the planet, where I find hope and what we, as a photographic community, can do to make it better.
It’s staggering to think that in the a mere blink of an eye we, the human race, have had such a dramatic effect on our environment. Since the Industrial Age we have pumped into the delicate atmosphere carbon through, amongst other things, the burning of fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide soaks up infrared energy, it vibrates and re-remits much of that energy back to Earth, warming the planet. The more carbon, the warmer we get. For 10,000 years the temperature of Earth has remained pretty constant - there’s been a nice equilibrium between carbon inputs and outputs. In the last 250 years those temperatures have risen dramatically as the carbon sources have gone through the roof as we burn fossil fuels and the natural carbon outflows (such as forests or peatlands) have been destroyed.
We have really managed to make a big mess of it. The human race has made wonderful leaps in creativity and invention. But equally we have found ourselves living in conflict with our planet and its ecosystems to the detriment of all other life on Earth. Such a contrast; the ability to simultaneously create and destroy.
I don’t like to write a negative article but of course when it comes to climate change it’s hard to keep things light and jokey. The grim scientific warnings and predictions make it all too easy to simply turn the mind to something happier. There was a nice period of time when I hadn’t heard of climate change. Ignorance is bliss! I’ve always loved Nature. I’d spend endless rainy days when growing up in the Lakes Distract drawing pictures of snow leopards and elephants. In those days phrases such as greenhouse gases and net zero weren’t widely known. Growing up in the Lakes also gave me a wonderful appreciation for the great outdoors. My family got a collie when I was ten and I spent many years walking with her on the Lake District fells. I loved learning about how the fells were formed through the ice ages. My mum would teach me about the wild flowers as we walked through the local woods. All very idyllic.
Then I vividly remember the awful images from the Exxon Valdez oil slick in 1989. I was appalled. It seems perfectly obvious that oil, such a terrible substance that the earth has found ingenious ways to store far away from life, should not be drilled out of the ground.
In later years some mad scientists tried to convince us that there was a problem but enough counter arguments were put up (often paid for by the oil and gas industry) to lead to reasonable doubt. A little like the tobacco companies trying to convince everyone that smoking really wasn’t that bad for the health. We’re now in an age when the science can’t be disputed and we’re seeing in real time the sad effects global warming is having. Drought, famine, extreme weather events, flooding, loss of the ice caps…the list goes on. The End. Game Over?
I find it hard to think about the environment without losing hope. A kind of bottom of the belly hopelessness borne from having absolutely no control over events. I think it’s safe to say we’ve moved on from the denial phase (unless you’re Mr Trump) and can now fully appreciate the implications of climate change and our loss of biodiversity. We are witnessing real time the impact the warming of our planet is having.
I look to our esteemed leaders to drive change, to make things right given the impending crisis. 250 years ago perhaps we didn’t understand the implications of burning fossil fuels but we do now. There really is no excuse anymore and short term politics needs to move to environmentally focussed long term policy and commitments. But things don’t change overnight and unless there’s an imminent threat then the actions will always take longer. This is re-engineering hundreds of years of ingrained learning and often flies in the face of consumerism. In short, big business is not going to help the process and will put up a huge fight to resist change. Moving away from the easy comfort blanket is always going to be hard, especially when big business is desperate to keep us hooked because, for them, it’s all about profit.
But there is hope. We have brilliant people campaigning to make things better. We have some leaders who seem to be genuine in their commitment to fight climate change. We have brilliant minds inventing new ways to reduce carbon emissions. I read recently about the use of sea weed as a supplement for cows that reduces their burping (their main methane output) by 90%. Or that scientists have found and refined naturally occurring bacteria that actually eats plastic. So I do take some comfort in that.
Clearly there’s little I can do on my own to change the world. But that doesn’t mean I can’t try to do my own tiny bit to help. It would be extremely easy to think it’s somebody else’s problem because that neatly means I don’t need to make any changes. I’m not Sir David Attenborough. I’m not Greta. So what’s the point?
The point for me is this: I do what I can because I love nature and I want my children to live in a sustainable way on a rich and diverse planet. I want to have as little detrimental footprint upon Earth as I can. And perhaps in a small corner of my universe I can make things a little better. Instead of thinking about all the gloom and doom, I’m trying to focus on what I can do better. True, it will have no global impact but at least I’ll feel I’m doing my bit. And imagine if everyone did their bit? That’s when real change starts to happen.
In photography terms, I think there’s much that can be done. It’s clearly big business and we’re constantly bombarded with marketing for bigger, shinier and better cameras; sharper and faster lenses. This won’t change but as consumers we can demand more. Many of the camera companies have woefully unambitious net zero targets or largely rely on carbon-offsetting without reducing their emissions at all. But if their customers demand more they might think about changing. An aspect of ICM I really love is that it moves away from an obsession with equipment to something more artistic and natural. The sharpest lens isn’t relevant when all the pictures are a bit blurry.
I think camera companies can do far more. There’s clever green marketing used by some but this is often driven at gaining more sales rather than through a genuine care for the environment. An “ambition to be net zero by 2050” is laughable - that’s not ambitious at all. No camera is environmentally friendly. But I hope more will take up the call for ‘1% for the Planet’ - where 1% of their profits go to good environmental causes. As consumers we can research the most environmentally friendly manufacturers and ask more about their green credentials, their Net Zero actions (rather than ambitions) before buying. How often have we considered the planet when choosing a lens filter? Yet some companies plant trees with a portion of their profits and ensure they’re using the most sustainable products. We can also use second hand gear rather than buying new. We’ve become obsessed with buying more and more stuff. We really don’t need it all and certainly don’t always need it new.
And all the lenses built up gathering dust in the cupboard - these can be sold. Perhaps the income from that can be donated to an environmental charity. I get so much enjoyment from the environment it’s a nice way to give something back.
In terms of where we shoot I’m a big fan of intimate landscape photography or ICM because this can be done locally. Finding beauty in our nearby woods is a wonderful thing and reduces the amount of travel. I also know of professional photographers who do lots to help educate about the environment and give back by planting trees or donating to environmental charities - let’s support them.
It really boils down to considering the environment in each aspect of our daily lives. Is this action good or bad for the planet? If bad, can it be done better. I’m no saint and certainly cringe at some of my past trips but I like to think I know better now and will do better going forward and wish everyone luck in doing the same. Perhaps then the dolphins won’t be forced to jump ship.
A note about the accompanying photos:
These photos were taking one fine morning on the coast of England. The early sun danced on the waves and with a little longer shutter speed, panning with the wave as it flowed in, some magical effects occurred. The ocean appeared on fire and I wondered if it was trying to tell me something.
Move away from seeking images at the far flung honey-spot locations.
Travel as sustainably as possible.
Use less plastic. If you must use it, recycle.
Buy second hand.
Sell old gear, donate profits back to the environment.
Buy from sustainable companies, ideally who give back to the environment such as those signed up to 1% For the Planet.
Educate - use photography to tell an environmental story and influence those around you.
All the best,