Signs, Harbingers, and Causation

Toward the Unknown, Scotland by Jim Richardson

Toward the Unknown, Scotland by Jim Richardson

Creating a Path Towards Environmental Photography Ideas

By Dennis Dimick

Anyone just beginning in environmental photography may find it particularly vexing. It’s easy to see why. Many fields of photojournalism have well-worn paths showing you where to go, with signposts that clearly identify stories and valued subjects. Environmental photography does not. You are entering relatively uncharted territory. How to find your way?

You need to first figure out how to create a trail that leads to ideas for your projects. Imagine this as if you are learning to navigate landscapes without a compass or map, and all you have are visual guides like sun position, landforms, and stream basins.

As you get your bearings on the landscape of environmental photography, learn to look for signs that guide you towards ideas. Like navigating landscapes, creating a trail that leads to ideas that produce photographs is about finding your bearings, seeking and recognizing signs you come across, and learning to understand meaning in the signs you discover.

Signposts: Visible and Otherwise

Our expanding human enterprise and its accumulating effects are a central focus and narrative for Eyes on Earth. Our goal as we inspire new photographers is to create an awareness of signs that reveal the collision zone between humanity and earth’s physical and ecological systems. As you develop your ability to seek and recognize these signs of environmental change, you become empowered to find ideas that can lead to photography.

Consider some of the billboard cause-and-effect systems at work in the environment. We collectively rely on and affect earth’s big “biogeochemical” cycles – carbon, oxygen, phosphorus, water, and nitrogen – that govern how the world works. Combined with energy from the sun, these cycles regulate earth’s geology and biology, and its physical and living dimensions: the weather, climate, and all living things. This includes plants, animals, people and their habitats – where and how we all live – and the complex and diverse variety of ecosystems like forests, oceans, deserts, grasslands and more.

Taken together, these cycles and scenes make up earth’s ongoing drama.

Taken together, these cycles and scenes make up earth’s ongoing drama. How everything and everyone acts and interacts can present signs and insights towards knowledge and ideas. Persistence and curiosity will reward you with a perpetual learning journey about the world and its workings, where one idea connects to the next. You become your own compass, charting a journey of knowledge about our world, how and why it is changing, and ways to photograph it.

Looking for Causation

Making sense of environmental change requires understanding of why change happens, the causes of change. It’s critical to discern between signs or evidence of change and its underlying cause, which is not always simple or something we can always see.

Climate change becomes the primary cause-and-effect issue for environmental photographers, as its effects increasingly cascade across the planet, affecting weather, ice caps, sea levels, agriculture, and ecosystems. While issues like overfishing, deforestation, and pollution are incredibly important, it’s vital to first understand climate change and its causes as climate change affects nearly every other environmental issue and story now.

As we attempt to understand environmental change and why it happens, advice comes from Wes Jackson of The Land Institute in Kansas. He has often said “draw the circle of consideration large enough to include causation.” Causation is the reason or force creating change. Pictures of environmental effects are relatively easy. Pictures of causation are difficult – but immensely more valuable.

Draw the circle of consideration large enough to include causation.
— Wes Jackson


As for climate change, at first glance the cause is neither visible nor obvious. Understanding its mechanics is vital for photographers pursuing ideas about environmental change, so let me reinforce:  Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) – an invisible gas that serves as earth’s thermostat – has reached 410 parts per million. This is one-third higher than the 280 ppm at the start of the industrial revolution when we started burning coal to power steam engines and factories. Called a greenhouse gas because it traps radiant solar energy close to the earth, CO2 warms the earth as more CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere. Yet, CO2 levels themselves are not the root cause of climate change. Rising CO2 levels create the effects of climate change.

But what causes CO2 levels to rise? This question is critical for photography because CO2 itself is difficult to photograph, but you can see causes for its rise if you look.

CO2 levels rise primarily because people burn fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas, which power modern society. We drill, dig up, and burn these fuels to generate electricity, turn wheels, move ships, power airplanes, and make crop fertilizers. Pictures of any of those activities are, in effect, pictures of reasons the climate is changing. So, when you think about possible photographs, you can photograph the digging up or drilling of the fossil fuels, the use of the fossil fuels, or the results of the changes that these uses cause.

These fuels contain fossilized carbon remnants of plants and animals. When we drill, dig up, and burn fossil fuels, we release back into the atmosphere as CO2 the carbon remnants of living things buried hundreds of millions of years ago. Incredibly, we still power today’s world with fossil fuels that were created by sunshine from a time before dinosaurs roamed the earth.

So, fossil fuel use must be the cause of climate change, right? No, but we are getting closer to our goal. If you want to reveal the primary cause of rising atmospheric CO2, and climate change, we must step back and focus on an even bigger global drama.

The Great Acceleration

The world economy has grown dramatically since the early 1950s, after the end of World War II. It’s a period of global prosperity called the Great Acceleration. World population has tripled since 1950 from 2.5 billion people to nearly 7.5 billion people in 2017. Energy use – primarily fossil fuel coal, oil, and natural gas – has spiked. Manufacturing powered by fossil fuel supports a growing global consumer society: expanding suburbia, huge houses with big televisions in every room, and two or more cars in every garage.

All these consumer goods, the natural resources needed to make them, and the ships, trains, and planes that move these goods would not exist without fossil fuels. Coal remains the primary energy source for generating electricity. We fly and drive on jet airplanes and in cars powered by oil. We rely on natural gas for heating and to make nitrogen fertilizer that grows the ample bounty of crops we all take for granted. The world is awash in goods and services created with fossil fuels. Our fossil-fuel powered modern world is why the atmosphere is filling up with CO2 pollution and the climate is warming.

By following a trail of signs, we have found the cause of climate change: It’s all of us, and our expanding appetites. Start tuning your eye to see these uses all around you. Then start tuning your photographic esthetic so your pictures speak to these larger causes.

Further Reading:

The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the 20th Century Since 1945

Anthropocene Review: The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration

Skeptical Science: The history of emissions and the Great Acceleration

The Environmental Literacy Council: Biogeochemical Cycles: Carbon Cycle, Nitrogen Cycle, Water Cycle, Phosphorus Cycle

Short Review of The Great Acceleration on Our Resources Page

Dennis Dimick

Dennis Dimick served as executive environment editor at National Geographic magazine and was a picture editor at the National Geographic Society for more than 35 years until his retirement in December 2015. He guided a variety of major magazine projects including a special issue on global freshwater in April 2010, a 2011 series on global population, and the 2014 Future of Food series on global food security. Dimick co-organized the Aspen Environment Forum from 2008-2012, and continues to regularly present slide show lectures on global environmental issues. For 19 years he has been a faculty member of the Missouri Photo Workshop, and in 2013 received the Sprague Memorial Award from the National Press Photographers Association for outstanding service to photojournalism. He currently serves as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists. He grew up on an Oregon farm, and Dimick holds degrees in agriculture and agricultural journalism from Oregon State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.