It is almost a tautology to say that nature photographers love nature. But in a world where nature is under assault from many directions -- population increases, destructive exploitation, over development, and pollution -- is simply loving nature enough? If we are to be faithful stewards of that which has been given to us, how do we insure that the natural world that we love is passed on intact to future generations?

We believe that the answer must encompass the concept of sustainability.

Most of us enjoy being outdoors and are genuinely concerned about the welfare of wildlife, habitat and the environment. Sure, there are a few who give lip service but for whom getting the image supercedes concern about nature. But, we hope, those are the rare exceptions rather than the rule. So, in stating that we care about nature, ecology and conservation, we believe we are not stating views that most nature photographers, and indeed most lovers of nature, would disagree with. Nevertheless, sometimes it is useful to make explicit what everyone thinks they know.

Perhaps the most important point to make is that even among those who are concerned for the future of wildlife and natural areas there is more than one view of nature, environment and conservation. Virtually all of us have regard for the environment and wildlife on the small scale. We would not deliberately harm an animal, we would not knowingly trample a rare plant in getting to an image, we would not litter a natural area, and so forth. But, there is a larger scale as well. While we value nature and would not harm it, there are plenty of people who do not share our concern -- whether because of greed or belief that nature is there to be exploited or just plain lack of recognition of the fact that there are consequences to inaction as well as actions of the wrong type.

There are, in fact, problems that exist at the large scale as well. And, we would contend, our concern with nature at the small scale is of little consequence unless it leads us to become concerned with the large scale as well. Throughout much of history, our predecessors could afford to ignore problems in the large because they simply did not exist in a world populated by only a few thousand or a few hundred thousand humans equipped with a technology unable to do damage on a planetary scale.

And yet, even there, humans have been suprisingly destructive of the environment from early times. For a good discussion of the impact of early peoples on their environment and particularly on the megafauna, we recommend Edward O. Wilson's The Future of Life. For a systemmatic discussion of how many early civilizations as well as modern ones managed to wreck their environment we recommend Jared Diamond's Collapse, How Civilizations chose to Fail or Succeed.)

The situation has not gotten better. Now, we live in a world where world population has long since passed six billion and seems destined to hit ten billion before it levels off (if then); where development encroaches on wilderness, slowly displacing and overrunning the aspects of nature that we love; where resources are consumed at an ever more prodigious rate as more and more countries around the world industrialize and begin to mimic the consumption patterns of the West; where pollution of the environment, the atmosphere and the oceans is an increasing problem on a worldwide scale; where predictions of resource depletion and shortages, such as peak oil and the inevitable decline of fossil fuels is finally starting to be taken seriously; and where th research into the possible role of human activities as a contributing cause to global warming is taken seriously by science as well as by an increasing number of people and governments.

These factors impact nature on a vast scale, and it is not difficult to suppose that good hearted and well intentioned concern that we not frighten a bird on a nest by shoving a camera in her face or drive an endangered species from its range by intruding on its space with our tripods and big lenses is not enough by far to address these overwhelmingly larger issues. To be sure, our actions at the small scale are important -- else how can we address larger issues in good faith. But, the point is that proper conduct at the small scale is not enough.

We believe, as do many environmentally conscious people of all walks of life, laymen as well as scientists, that the key issue facing us in our efforts to preserve nature can be summed up in one word: sustainability. If nature is to be preserved, indeed if humans are to continue to exist with anything approaching our current way of life, we must reach a level of resource use and consumption that can be sustained indefinitely.

Achiving this goals is, of course, not simple. Consumption, resource exploitation, pollution, environmental degradation, and a host of other problems are driven by many factors, both social and physical. Population plays a massive role, as does standard of living, moral and ethical beliefs, government laws and policies, corporate sense of responsibility to things beyond the next quarter's bottom line, and others. Even climate change can have a profound impact (as Jared Diamond's Collapse illustrates), some of which is out of our control and some of which we can have an ameliorating effect by our actions.

And then there is the fact that it is in the short term interest of most humans to exploit the environment and to push the burden of coping with the consequences off onto others. After all, exploiting the enviroment leads to short term gains at the personal scale: more wealth, more opportunities for personal enjoyment, less expense in cleaning up the mess left behind, etc. The late Garrett Hardin called this "The Tragedy of the Commons" in his outstanding 1968 essay of the same title. In Collapse, Jared Diamond points out that one of the most difficult to overcome aspects of the tragedy of the commons is that exploitation very often provides very strong benefits for a few people and yet the cost of dealing with the consequences is spread out over a much larger population so that the share of the overall cost borne by each member of the larger population is corresponding much smaller -- at times so small that most ignore it until it becomes too large to ignore and sometimes until it is too late to do anything about.

All of this inevitably leads to the question, what does one do if local and personal concern isn't enough. While we will readily admit that there is no easy answer or quick fix, we submit that our love of nature should motive our participation in public processes that have the possibility of change for the better. As a practical matter, this largely translates to grassroots activism: membership in organiztions that promote environmental consciousness or that take positive steps to preserve nature; contributions of time and financial resources to same; letters to the editor of newspapers and other media; and so forth.

Activism at this level may seem like a long and arduous course, with little chance of immediate success. Such a perception would not be inaccurate. One of the barriers we face is the simple fact that even motivated people are discouraged by the time scale and level of effort required for success in solving large and seemingly intractable problems. But, it can produce success. And, it is to a large degree the only course open to us, given the system our forebears created and that we have inherited. Finally, doing nothing simply guarantees that things will get worse, perhaps much worse. For those of us who have children, inaction is not an acceptable alternative.

© 2008 Michael W. Masters   Return to top