on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

Joe Blogs

Thoughts from Joe Cornish - Environment

Skip to Comments
Joe Cornish

Joe Cornish

Professional landscape photographer. His personal website is www.joecornishphotographer.com/

A few years ago I was in Edinburgh when the G8 summit was held there. A widespread good-humoured protest rally marched through the city. One group that caught my eye was the one in skeleton costumes carrying banners that said “Save the planet – join the Mass Suicide Movement!”. I couldn't help smiling and thinking that this was unlikely to be a successful political campaign… even though you could see that from an ecosystem perspective, they had a point. However it seems we're here to stay and so Humankind has to learn, collectively, to become part of the solution.

02fAntarctica_Gentoo Penguins, Whale Vertebrae, Cuverville Island-small


This is a premium article and requires a paid subscription to access. Please take a look at the subscribe page for more information on prices.
  • Andy Smale

    A very thought-provoking article and, as both a photographer and someone involved in tackling climate change in both a professional and personal role, one I very much agree with – thank you Joe.

    I believe photographers can and should play a part in highlighting how nature is inextricably linked with our well-being, however I may also add that at the same time we also have a responsibility not to become part of the problem.

    Many of us (and I include myself) have travelled countless miles on photographic missions, sometimes on flights to wonderful but distant locations such as New Zealand or America. Travel is cheaper than ever, and as it becomes increasingly normalised in our society to travel abroad frequently there is a danger that we forget about the environmental impact. For example a trip to New Zealand can double our personal carbon emissions for that year – a footprint which is already many times that which is sustainable.

    Since becoming involved in environmental issues, I am now far more conscious of the impact of travel, and make more of an effort to keep my photography local, travel to locations by public transport, or combine it with trips elsewhere which have to be made anyway, for example on business.

    Photography is a fantastic way to highlight the beauty of the natural world which is now in great danger – let’s try not to make things worse in the process!


    • Hello Andy,
      You won’t be surprised that I agree with your points, especially re travel. From around 2001 until 2011 I deliberately restricted my plane travel, believing that I had no right to use more fossil fuel resources for personally enjoyable, but what I perceived as ultimately pointless photography. (There were a few occasions when I relaxed my rules for family reasons).
      I ‘lifted’ that restriction three years ago as I believed that I needed to experience wilderness again, and also was ambivalent about whether the actions of one single individual really counted, AND I also try to learn everything I can about the wonderful corners of the world to which I am visiting in order to understand our planet better and to be an advocate for its protection. But I do appreciate and understand your argument.
      Quite a bit of my remote travel is now by ship expedition, not so bad (carbon impact-wise) as a plane, but then again, almost all transport activities still seem to involve fossil fuel-use. The technology is not moving fast enough, but at least it is moving in the right direction with more fuel-efficient planes, cars and trains, and possibly widespread electric cars in the near future. Your comments about travel and wherever possible using public transport are all very well taken.
      Trying to do the right thing (using as little energy as possible at home, as well as water and all natural resources) is a noble aspiration, but I honestly believe that the impact of a relatively small number of photographers travelling, bad as it is, pales into insignificance compared with the fact that it seems the majority of people still don’t really know – or care – that their activities could take place in a more environmentally-sensitive way. Attempting to be part of cultural change, of an expanded vision, awareness of and appreciation for nature and its life cycles is therefore – I believe – just as important as trying to keep as much of a cap as possible on our own carbon footprint, and doing everything possible to mitigate it.

      • Robin Sinton

        Joe and Andy

        Whilst I agree totally with the sentiments about keeping our photography “green”. There are a lot of “urban myths” about carbon footprints.

        Global shipping at the last count produces about 4 times as much emissions as global aviation and although there are draft rules in progress, there is at the moment, no agreed regulation to improve on emissions from sea transport.

        Electric cars are a non starter. Where does the electric come from? Power stations (and on that subject, wind power is inefficient, expensive and to produce the power that we need would entail producing about 500 new turbines a week – with design lives of only about 20-25 years). If we all change over to electric cars the base load required would spiral out of proportion with no foreseeable answer to the problem. Many years ago Professor Ian Fells at Newcastle University said that if we are serious about reducing carbon emissions, we will have to learn to like nuclear power. However that now seems to be politically unacceptable.

        Finally, and this is a point that doesn’t seem to be considered (possibly for obvious reasons). Where does about 9% of the total global carbon emissions come from? From us, by the very act of breathing in oxygen and breathing out CO2. What will we do about that?

        I can’t suggest any answers but the planet has been looking after itself for 4.5 billion years and will continue to do so. It will be our problem to learn to adapt if we wish to survive. Ansel Adams went out with his donkey to carry his equipment. Is that the future, or will that emit too much methane?

        Answers on a postcard?

        • Robin,
          I imagine that there are endless possible examples of why the desire to care and think positively about the future is futile. Indeed I anticipated plenty of ‘flak’ from this article and although so far it’s been polite flak I can imagine there may be less merciful commentary on the horizon!
          I don’t know the answer either, for what answer is there for future of humanity? All I am doing is expressing my personal feelings about it, which is that ultimately cultural change will be needed, and that will be led by sentiment (rather than by hard facts and figures which often turns folks off).
          I am acutely aware of the risk of hypocrisy, which Andy’s post hints at, and the proposition that nuclear power is probably our best medium term solution for electricity generation, as you state. But whatever, I still believe its worth caring; and hoping; and doing what we can, however small. Relying so heavily on the incredibly convenient quick fix of fossil fuels has got us into a fair bit of bother; surely the search for alternatives is sensible and indeed essential? And for what its worth, a mule or donkey sounds like a good idea! But I do anticipate ‘range anxiety’… ;-)

          • Robin Sinton

            Sadly, anything that is worth saying will always attract some flak. I think that at the end of the day the real answer is, we don’t seem to have a clue as to what to do. When fossil fuels run out possibly we’ll have to think of something.
            Yes, I think that the donkey is looking like a good idea. It’s better than talking to yourself and I’d probably get more sense out of it.

          • David Higgs

            I have 3 donkeys
            they are mostly useless

            • Robin Sinton

              More hay and carrots is the answer. Possibly an apple as well. Give the donkey a point and shoot. You might be amazed at what it produces.

          • Hi Joe,

            I don’t think that Robin was being particularly negative, he was just pointing out that the situation is much more complex than the usual ‘sound bite’ approach (I’m not accusing you of this, Joe). For instance, far more energy is used in the production of a car than in its lifetime of use. Yet we are often urged to use more energy efficient and less polluting cars. This leads to people changing their cars every few years. The overall energy and pollution debt of this act is greater than sticking with an older vehicle.

            The current generation of wind turbines present similar problems, with the first ten years of operation being needed to repay the ‘carbon debt’ of manufacture and installation and, as Robin pointed out, they are a pretty inefficient producer of electricity. Nuclear power has been wrongly vilified as an environmental threat by people who have little understanding of the physics or statistics (every year, far more people are killed in coal mines and from the burning of coal in power stations than have ever been killed by nuclear power). We urgently need to invest in the new generation of reactor designs which create clean energy that produce only low-level waste, with short half lives, and present no chance of a Chernobyl style meltdown. Incidentally, apart from the fact that the operators were messing around with the controls, the reactor design at Chernobyll bore no resemblance to any of the military derived designs used in the West. A similar accident with our current designs would not be possible. It’s also worth noting that the environmental damage has been nowhere near as great as had been anticipated, nor have there been the large increase in cancers predicted at the time. The biosphere is tolerant of radiation – up to a point. You will expose yourself to more radiation going to Cornwall for a week than you would working in a nuclear power station for a year. The association between the Arms Race and nuclear power has also caused the industry problems. Most reactors built in the US and UK were derived from military designs and weren’t ideal for civilian power generation, for all sorts of reasons beyond their ability to make plutonium.

            New technologies and applications of older technologies are constantly emerging – such as the idea for solar roadways – and I am hugely hopeful that science can provide the answers to the problems we face with climate change and an over reliance on fossil fuels. The question is whether the political will is there to implement the necessary changes.

            Currently, politicians across a broad range pay lip service to concerns about global warming. They’re more worried about jobs and keeping big business sweet than they are about really trying to do something to cut our use of fossil fuels – and, by the way, these aren’t the only resources of the Earth that we are overusing. Green taxes are set at a level that brings governments useful income but not so high that they inhibit commercial exploitation of resources. In fact it may be that this is currently a case of inelastic demand. In other words, no amount of taxation in the West will reduce consumption by a significant amount. This principle can be seen at work with smoking. Cigarettes in the West cost a huge amount today, because of the tax burden imposed by governments. But this doesn’t stop people smoking. Studies have shown that any reduction in smoking is due to social pressures more than taxation. The question is, how do we effect such a social change with regard to the environment without the advocates appearing to be vegan, hair-shirt-wearing goody-two-shoes who want to ruin everybody else’s fun?

            Put simply,it has become useful for governments to cynically exploit their citizens anxieties about global warming to raise money. There’s nothing new about this. Members of successive American governments used the ‘threat’ of communism to appropriate huge amounts of tax to build the military-industrial complex. Creating a boogieman is often a good way for politicians to turn our attention away from their inadequacies. So, implementing ‘green taxes’ raises their stature as guardians of the planet. They are a long, long way from being this.

            In fact, as Robin pointed out, the planet doesn’t really need our help. Change has been a constant in the history of Earth and if the temperature rises significantly humans will be amongst those affected the most by rising sea levels. If this causes us to self-destruct (which I doubt) then the biosphere will carry on just fine without us and, sad though it may be, those creatures we drove to extinction will be replaced by new ones seeking to fill the environmental niches they left behind. 99% of all the animals that have ever existed on the planet have disappeared without our ‘help’. That’s not the same as saying we shouldn’t do anything to reduce the damage we’re doing! But there seems to be a widespread belief that current extinctions are solely caused by humans which is completely wrong.

            Really, climate change and environmental damage should be a massive issue of self-interest. Instead, as Joe points out, many of us turn to inner worlds or try and ignore the natural world. I do believe that the majority still have a huge affinity with the natural world and would like to make things better. So, I too am hopeful. My kids pay much more attention to the environment than I did – it wasn’t even a word I knew until I studied biology at secondary school. They will be the generation who can effect a change. The biggest barrier is consumerism, and the political framework that has been erected to support this. Only when the average Joe (or Jo) is truly concerned enough to alter his (or her) everyday decisions will change take place.

  • Thanks Joe – I enjoyed your article very much, and the final paragraph starting ‘In the developed world….’ in particular. Beautifully written. The phrase ‘sense of awe and wonder’ struck a chord with me. I have 3 young children and they are indeed in awe of some things that nature provides – be it a spider weaving its web, or the view from a hill. I am acutely conscious of the pressures, via advertising or peers, in favour of pointless materialism, and as a parent will do all that I can to make sure that my children experience nature – the risks and physical effort that comes with that experience – the rewards from it – and ultimately, I hope, a respect for it. What concerns me most is the growing use of the internet and electronic devices; the combination of these has the ability to provide an ‘experience’ of almost anything with minimal effort. Whilst on the one hand this is an amazing learning opportunity, on the other, the e-experience is totally different, and I hope that it doesn’t reduce the interaction that we, as a whole, have with nature.

    Regards, Michael

    • Your thoughts resonate strongly for me Michael, with regard to devices and the internet, which (like money) is both a blessing and a curse. The benefits are clear to see… here we are discussing the issue using the internet… so I guess it is a matter of getting the balance right with the amount of time we allocate for it, and the value we attach to e-experience.
      I am hopeful. My children (now 22 and 20) have grown up through the first phase of universal access to the internet and smartphones, and all I can say is that they are much smarter, fitter and stronger than their parents at the same age (so the physical sloth that might be expected by the couch-life of internet use is by no means inevitable).They are also more confident and hopeful. It is mostly their inspiration that prompted me to write the article. Your children will, I am sure, find the right balance with your guidance.

  • andrewgenner

    Well said, Joe. Very thought provoking article. Ultimately this issue boils down, I think, to taking responsibility. We can each take responsibility for our own use of fossil fuels and other limited resources, and in the final analysis, society at large is just the amalgamation of all individuals. Unfortunately, I am much more pessimistic about large scale solutions – whether driven by a national government or an international organization such as the G8 (does that still exist?) or the G20. However, you are absolutely right that we must maintain hope; without hope, what is there? Maybe, in time, enough people will care that governments will have to take notice and change their tune.

  • Saty Bhat

    Quite a well thought of article that possibly sums up the collective inner mind of many nature photographers. Sometimes it just takes a lot of contemplative field-work to be able to distill such isolated feelings of awe as well as foreboding into something inspirational.
    I’m just wondering whether there can be a way in which a select such articles can be freely shared, say via facebook. This doesn’t have to be for every article mind you, just ones like this which are inspirational but at the same time altruistic in the true sense of the word. Might bode well for some marketing as well perhaps.

    • Thank-you Saty and Andrew. I am sure Tim will have noted your suggestion. As far as I am concerned I would be happy for the article to get a wider viewing, especially if I get the chance to correct one or two stylistic errors!

On Landscape is part of Landscape Media Limited , a company registered in England and Wales . Registered Number: 07120795. Registered Office: 1, Clarke Hall Farm, Aberford Road, WF1 4AL