Nature Gone Wild?
by Dorothea Born
Climate change is a global process that has been gradually identified through scientific investigation. However, it is through catastrophic images that it is most often visualised. Dorothea Born asks what are the consequences of representing global warming in this way.
Under this heading, Friends of the Earth UK put different images on their website, displaying climate change impacts. Scrolling down, we see Saddleworth Moor burning, flooded streets in York, burnt fields and a toppled seawall. While the pictures are specific to the UK, the images’ overall theme is widely used in visual representations of climate change, especially when the intention is to show the effects of global warming.
Type ‘climate change’ into a Google picture search and images of fires, droughts, flooding and storms will pop up. Some may show stretches of forest going up in flames or parched soil and seared crops, others display flooded cities or the aftermath of devastating storms. And most media articles, NGO websites, information videos or campaign leaflets will include similar pictures of some kind of catastrophic event when talking about climate change. Among other common visual themes, such as the iconic polar bear adrift on an ice shelf or the famous hockey stick graph (of mean global temperature), images showing natural catastrophes have become canonical for its visualisation. They are part of an iconography that has been built up to represent this issue ever since it became a ‘hot topic’.
Such images display specific conceptions of Nature and the natural world. They show it as uncontrollable, dangerous or even malicious; a Nature opposed to humans and ready to ‘strike back’ for the cruelties inflicted on it by humanity. But what are the implications of relying on such imagery in communicating climate change? These images of ‘Nature gone wild’ do specific work by creating emotional reactions, leading to a particular understanding of the climate and putting forward specific conceptions of Nature. But what emotions do they evoke? Do these images accurately reflect the situation and what are the consequences of the way we think about Nature?
Images that trigger strong emotional responses in viewers may produce unintended consequences in communicating climate change. Perceiving images is much more immediate than reading texts. Images of natural disasters may arouse emotions of shock, fear, dismay or even despair. Therefore, catastrophic images are very effective in attracting attention and alerting viewers. These images may raise awareness of climate change and foster an understanding of its importance and urgency. But catastrophic images primarily work by evoking negative emotions. These also often leave viewers feeling helpless and overwhelmed, which in a further emotional response may lead to personal detachment. So while they are effective in creating awareness, catastrophic images can also have a demotivating effect and not necessarily foster individual engagement to counter climate change.
A second difficulty with pictures is that they do not promote a conceptual understanding of climate change that does justice to the issue’s complexities, which result from the large spatial and temporal scales inherent to the issue. While weather events happen at a specific place and time, climatic changes occur over timeframes that easily span a human lifetime. This poses a challenge not easily met by any visual depiction of the issue: how to represent future consequences of climate change that ideally and hopefully will be prevented? It is true that extreme weather events have increased over recent years and will become even more likely in the future due to the warming of the atmosphere. Yet, scientifically speaking, it is not easy to link a single event to the already increased average global temperature. It might require for example, complex meteorological models and a lot of past weather data. Visually connecting the complex issue of climate change to a single and local event of a wildfire, drought or storm risks the criticism that the two are not necessarily connected. Furthermore, it does not do justice to the issue’s large-scale significance and consequences. Local weather patterns are globally connected and interdependent, as are the human activities that cause or mitigate climate change. Visualising climate change through catastrophic images fosters an understanding that downscales the issue to local events while not touching on the issue’s global and temporal complexities.
Thirdly, these images of ‘Nature gone wild’ rely on and reproduce very specific conceptions of Nature which create particular political effects. Nature is in itself a highly political category, often used to justify differing and mutually exclusive world-views. To understand the conceptions of Nature evoked through climate change visuals I briefly want to dig into this history and what climate change adds to it.
Every living thing stands in a relation to its environment and changes it to a certain degree. If it had not been for cyanobacteria more than two billion years ago considerably changing the atmosphere’s chemical composition by drastically increasing the amount of oxygen, life on this planet would look quite different today. Similarly, humans have always altered their natural surroundings. But since the onset of the Industrial Revolution we have been able to control and dominate Nature more effectively. The consequences of this have become visible through the widespread destruction of natural landscapes.
For those who rejected the changes the emerging capitalist system brought with it Nature offered an easily available projection surface, it became the ‘other’, which could be seen as the opposite to the ‘man-made’ environment. Encounters with landscapes and the awe-inspiring events of Nature were idealised as a way of achieving sublime individual experience and these were expressed in paintings, poetry and music. Yet, at the time, this idealised nature was already vanishing. Notwithstanding this, at the end of the 19th century, when the first environmental activists started to appear, depictions of ‘wild Nature’ in paintings and photography were used to support their cause. Every history of Nature is thus a history of human-Nature relationships. The idea of Nature and its representations have always been part of the argument about what that relationship should be.
Anthropogenic climate change however, is an entirely new order of consequence to humanity’s relationship with Nature. As humanity is changing the composition of the whole atmosphere, the idea of untouched places has become obsolete. Air is everywhere and every living thing is touched by increasing carbon dioxide concentrations. Climate change thus challenges our modern conception of a dualistic divide between Nature and Culture as the two become more obviously entangled. While human activities reshape Nature like never before, we also face new challenges: how to deal with melting glaciers and rising sea levels? Which crops and trees to grow in a warmer climate? How to cope with extreme weather events that happen more often and with greater severity?
Conceptions of Nature and climate change are entrenched in the visuals we use to represent them. As climate change alters our relationship with Nature, it is all the more important to look at what these conceptions are and at the consequences for understanding and counteracting climate change. Ironically, such images often re-evoke a dualistic idea of Nature and Culture, which stands in contrast to the messy and complex reality of human-climate relationships.
For example, the polar bear is often shown, iconically, as a representative of Nature; it is easily anthropomorphised, a subject of identification that arouses pity and the need for protection, yet also presents Nature as removed from human society. By contrast, in images of catastrophic events, Nature does not seem very human. In pictures of fires devouring forests Nature seems wild and indomitable. Burnt crops and cracked-up soils foster the idea of a cruel and pitiless Nature. Images of flooded streets and fields evoke a Nature threatening to humans and cultural achievements. And showing storms or the devastation after they have passed reminds us that Nature is an uncontrollable force.
Within such images of catastrophic weather events, Nature becomes the ‘other’ to humans, a hostile and opposing force to humanity. These images evoke emotions of fear because they remind us of our vulnerability. Nature can be merciless. This conception complements the idea of a Nature, untouched by culture, as sublime. Once spoilt by the blights of civilisation, Nature will strike back. Both these ideas of Nature – as unspoilt and repelling civilisaton – are two sides of the same coin, reinforcing a dichotomous relationship between Nature and Culture. Alluding to the uncontrollability of Nature they also implicitly suggest that it should and could be controlled. The images therefore do not do justice to the complex interrelationships between humans and Nature. Indeed, the issue of climate change itself transcends the Nature-Culture divide, being anthropogenic in origin yet pertaining to natural phenomena.
To tackle climate change it will be necessary to foster new conceptions of Nature. We should come up with visuals and representations that do justice to the interconnectedness of Nature and Culture. We need to start seeing Nature in humans and the human in Nature. Showing humanity and Nature as inherently connected and interwoven may foster an understanding of the structural causes of climate change. Only identifying these causes will help us truly address the changing climate.