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:
I 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.
Scientists 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.
However, 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.
- 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.
- Log yard in Pine Falls, Canada, outside of Winnipeg.
- 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).
- 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.