The Meaning of Fragile

Peter Essick is, I think, one of the finest photographers working today and he brings a strong photojournalist sensibility to his environmental and nature photography done for National Geographic and other publications. His images are powerful and thoughtful. I asked him to do a guest blog related to his superb new book, Our Beautiful, Fragile World. I think his message is an important one for all of us, especially we who care deeply about nature and photography:

Essick_Glass Frog, Costa Rica700I titled my recent book of nature and environmental photographs, Our Beautiful, Fragile World. From the response I have gotten, I think most people understand the meaning of the title. However, I have had a few comments from people who have said they don’t believe that nature is fragile because nature was here before us (and presumably will be here after we go extinct). To them, that doesn’t sound like something that is fragile. Others have said that it is we human who are fragile, but nature is not. I think this comment might be influenced by the Biblical notion that God created a paradise but we are sinners.

There is a clear reason why I used the word “fragile” in the title of my book. The central theme of the book is the relationship that humans have developed with nature in making our civilizations over the last 10,000 years. This development of natural resources has intensified since the dawn of the industrial revolution 250 years ago and has gotten even more intense in the last 50 years of the oil era.

Essick_Log Yard700Scientists in the field of paleoclimatology have been able to use fossil records, ice cores, tree rings, and even pack rat middens to discover how the world looked before human civilization. In general, they have found that natural ecosystems are elastic to slow change, but become very fragile to sudden change. Sometimes, sudden change comes in the form of a natural volcanic eruption or a meteor strike and this can wipe out whole species. However, most of the time natural change is slow and predictable and species adapt and evolve.

Urban runofffHowever, the change brought on by humans clearing land for large-scale agriculture and industrialization is causing rapid changes. Over half of the forests that were living on Earth before human civilization have been cleared. Also, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen to levels way beyond the natural cycle because of the burning of fossil fuels for energy. This is causing a rapid warming of the Earth’s atmosphere. These changes to the vegetation and atmosphere are ones that normally happen in geological time, but are now happening in the span of a few human lifetimes. That is too fast of change for some species to adapt.

It is ironic that the place where scientists are seeing the most change is in hardy species that have evolved to live at the edge of existence. These are the ones that that live at the top of mountains, at the highest latitudes or at the most extreme temperatures. These species are vulnerable because they don’t have very much leeway before change can be lethal. Also, climate change has had a statistically greater change in these extreme ecosystems at high latitudes than at the equator because of the way a warming atmosphere functions around a globe like our Earth. However, when the change becomes greater and faster, all species will eventually be affected.

So for me the best way to describe how species are susceptible to sudden change is to say they are “fragile.” Even though we humans are causing most of this sudden change, the effects can also be felt by us as well. This fragile existence that we have created is the central notion of my book. At some point we need to look with clear eyes and a strong heart at this fragile world of our own making and realize we need to and can create a better, more stable world for generations to come.

Notore Fertilizer Plant, Port Harcourt, NigeriaInformation on photos from top:

  1. The Fleismann's Glass frog photographed at the Frog Pond in Monteverde, Costa Rica. A survey in 1980 noted 300 individual in a 120 meter stretch of the Rio Guacima. In a repeat survey from 1990-1994 there were at most 8 frogs. In 1988 40 percent of the frogs disappeared in the Monteverde region. Some blame climate change but others say it may be a fungus which attacks the skin of adult frogs which caused the problem and warming made things worse. 1988 was a dry El Nino year.
  2. Log yard in Pine Falls, Canada, outside of Winnipeg.
  3. Thunderstorm in a parking lot in Baltimore, MD. PAHs run off into the Chesapeake Bay when it rains on parking lots (PAH -- polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons).
  4. Notore Fertilizer Plant, Port Harcourt, Nigeria. The plant is the only fertilizer facility in sub-Saharan Africa. It uses natural gas from the Niger Delta. The flare is carbon dioxide.

About Rob Sheppard

I am proud of the work I have done as a photographer, author, naturalist and nature photographer, editor and videographer. I love the natural world, and that can be a native bee in my native plants garden as much as a visit to a national park. I am a husband of a beautiful and smart wife, a father to my outstanding son and daughter, and one who lived in Minnesota most of my life, but now loves the variety and very long growing season of Southern California. I have written and photographed a lot of books and magazine articles but what is most important to me about them is knowing that I have helped people become better photographers and gain a better connection to nature. I work to help people connect with photography and nature through speaking and as a workshop leader, too. All of this has gained me a Fellow award with the North American Nature Photography Association. Many people knew me as the long-time editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine and I am still connected with them as a contributing editor. A short list of some of the books I have done: Landscape Photography: From Snapshot to Great Shot, Magic of Digital Landscape Photography, The Magic of Digital Nature Photography, National Geographic Field Guide to Digital Photography, The Power of Black-and-White in Nature Photography and Reports from the Field (an iBook). My website is at www.robsheppardphoto.com; my blogs are at www.natureandphotography.com and www.mirrorlessnature.com.
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5 Responses to The Meaning of Fragile

  1. Great subject for a post. The same thing has bothered me off and on for awhile now. I believe most people can understand the subtleties involved here once they're explained. But of course, you'll have a lot of speaking of opinion. And it's worse when the divisions of right vs. left wing get worked into the mix. I'm more on the "not fragile" end of things. But I have to agree with almost everything you said. So to me that means it might be more of a semantic argument. From my education and work in the earth sciences I have the longer view on nature. I'm of the mind that humans are forcing a rapid shift and reshuffle of the atmo- and bio-spheres on this planet, but that it's happened before and will probably happen after we are gone.

    There is something I appreciate from my background that you seem to not be aware of. And that's the assumption that healthy change is slow ("geological") and human-caused change is too fast to be healthy. That is a human's perspective, with human judgments thrown in. We have abundant evidence for slow changes and very little for fast changes. But the evidence for fast natural change is there. The geological record is heavily biased against it for obvious reasons, thus it isn't much discussed. But no good geologist (or paleoclimatologist with a solid geological background) knows about the bias and would ever claim that rapid change (similar to what humans are causing) never occurred in the pre-human past.

    Also I think of species on the edge, while they appear hardy to us because we're just so darn soft, as being naturally vulnerable to change. But they are certainly a canary in the coal mine that we have been ignoring at our peril. The problem as I see it is that, while "nature is not fragile" is a true statement, it is used to ill ends. The earth can change drastically without life being extinguished. But that hardly means that humans would be able to handle such changes. We are numerous (which likely would save us) but far from hardy. What we don't appreciate is how incredibly stable the climate has been during our meteoric rise. We also don't appreciate precisely what dead oceans would mean for us. I think you said it best when you mentioned our relationship with nature. It is that that is fragile, not nature itself.

  2. Lana P. says:

    Peter Essick is a really talented photographer. I think, it's really important that there is a person who can capture our constantly changing nature (and the Mother Earth). I really cherish every issue of the National Geographic and the photographers' work.

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